How many film or television adaptations of “A Christmas Carol” are there? I wondered if I had counted this the last time I reviewed one of these adaptations, so I checked, and apparently there are in excess of forty versions (at least according to Wikipedia.) Maybe it is the story’s redemption arc that makes it so popular – deep down we think if Scrooge can be redeemed then surely there is hope for all of us. This version is a musical, starring Albert Finney as Scrooge, and many faces that will be familiar to fans of British film and television from the era – the wonderful Sir Alec Guiness as Marley, Dame Edith Evans as I think my favourite Ghost of Christmas Past, Kenneth More as the Ghost of Christmas Present, and more.
Finney’s rendition of Scrooge is probably not my favourite (that goes to a toss-up between Alistair Sim and Sir Patrick Stewart), but that is not to say he is not very good in the role. He was only thirty-four when he played this role, so heavy make-up was used to make him appear old. The flash back scenes in the ‘ghost of Christmas past’ segment are when he appears as he would have done at that time. He plays Scrooge in a way I found interesting because it is somehow more loathsome than many others. The character is quite despicable, of course, but I mean physically so – he seems dirty in an indefinable way, his face twisted, his body contorted, as if the character’s internal anger and hate have been made manifest in his body. I have not seen that other actors have done this, and I found it an interesting take on the subject.
Not everybody will be familiar with Dame Edith Evans, but she played Aunt Betsy in a version of “David Copperfield” filmed the same year as this. I also have seen her in “The Slipper and the Rose” (a musical version of Cinderella) filmed in 1976, in which she was hysterically funny. So it was a delight to see her in this film, and she made a superb Ghost of Christmas Present. Shortly after her appearance, Scrooge informs her that she doesn’t look much like a ghost, to which she replies a short and plummy “Thank you.” She’s great fun in this and I found her so spot on for the role.
Sir Alec Guiness, of course, is far more well known, and even those who don’t know the vast body of his work will be familiar with his portrayal of Obi-Wan Kenobi in “Star Wars”. (A hint – if that’s all you know him from, look for some of his films, because that role is a minor one for his vast talent. I would personally recommend “A Bridge on the River Kwai”, for which he won an Academy Award, and “The Lavender Hill Mob” because it’s hilarious. That’s just a starter, though). Marley’s ghost is a relatively small role, but Guiness makes the most of it, giving the audience an idea that the character was quite enjoying scaring the hell out of his former partner. In fact, this film adds a scene that is not in the original story, in which Marley welcomes Scrooge to Hell, and giggles when he sees the size of the chain Scrooge will be weighed down with. It might be departure from the source material, but it’s a great scene.
If you are familiar with Kenneth More from his film work (“A Night to Remember”, “The 39 steps”) you might be surprised to learn he did a great deal of television work (the most well-known character he played on television being Father Brown of the “Father Brown Mysteries”). He also appeared in “The Slipper and the Rose” with Dame Edith Evans. (Actually that ‘s another good movie to look out for, you can really play ‘spot the star’ with that one.) He was as good a comedic actor as a dramatic one, playing in serious war films like “Reach for the Sky” and hilarious comedies like “Doctor in the House”. His ‘ghost of Christmas Present’ is not my favourite (that one goes to Edward Woodward) but he is still great. An interesting anecdote about this production is that More was quite a small man and the ghost was supposed to be a giant, so apparently he did the entire thing on stilts. I’m impressed. He has a great song, ‘I like life’, where he tries to teach Scrooge not to be such a grump, and while he’s not a great singer he does well enough.
This version is a musical, so let’s talk about the songs. Finney stomps about early on singing ‘I hate people’ with a big scowl on his face, and he is a great deal of fun. Some of the group numbers are also great, especially in the way that two of the songs are sung twice, and for very different reasons. Some young boys sing about Father Christmas as they follow Scrooge about, mocking him for his rude and miserly behaviour on Christmas Eve. But later the same song is reprised after Scrooge changes his ways, and everyone is able to sing it with sincerity. My personal favourite, involving a lot of dancing as well as singing, is the song ‘Thank you very much’. The Ghost of Christmas Future has taken Scrooge to his own house where he sees a large crowd gathering. One of the people who owe him money is speaking about how touched they all are about his generosity, and from an accident of looking in the wrong direction at the wrong time, Scrooge does not realise that they are thanking him for being dead. There’s a big dance number with the man doing most of the singing dancing on Scrooge’s coffin, black humour with some great crowd choreography and group dancing. Later in the film Scrooge spots the same man, and tells him not to worry about the debt because he’s erasing it. He then goes on to erase everyone’s debts and tears up his debt book. They are all rather astonished by this, but eventually ‘Thank you very much’ is reprised, with even more dancing and certainly much more sincerity. I have already touched on Moore’s cheery ‘I like life, life likes me’, and there is a sad and beautiful song about happiness sung by both Finney and Suzanne Neve playing his lost love, Isabel. It’s not as familiar as many musicals but maybe it ought to be – the songs as well as the rest of the production achieve a balance between dark and light that is necessary to the ‘Christmas Carol’ story.
It’s a faithful adaptation, expertly performed and directed (by Ronald Neame, who also directed “The Poseidon Adventure” and “The Odessa File”, certainly a departure from those.) It is choc full of familiar faces in familiar roles, shining a bright light on the old story. It’s more than worth adding to your list of Christmas movies.