Scrooge (1970)

One of my family’s most treasured Christmas traditions is to watch Ronald Neame’s unique musical interpretation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, named after the story’s main character, Ebenezer Scrooge.  Scrooge is, without question in my mind, the finest adaptation of this famous story ever committed to film.  Some of the more faithful adaptations (like the one starring Patrick Stewart in 1999) reek of Hallmark made-for-TV movies.   Others sacrifice the important emotion for the sake of Christmas commercialism, in what may be the most hypocritical move in the history of the industry.  But Scrooge…Scrooge is the perfect adaptation, integrating enough of its own originality into the purity of Dicken’s novella.

So far, I have written three Christmas reviews this season (Miracle on 34th Street, Holiday Inn, and White Christmas).  I selected these films because they fit, somewhat, in my recent efforts to highlight the “Great American Screenplays” of the 1930s and 1940s.  (White Christmas, made in the ’50s, still applied because it is, as I argued in its review, a companion piece to Holiday Inn).  I plan on writing a review about one more Christmas movie from that era.  But first, I absolutely must digress and write a review about a Christmas movie from the 1970s.  That movie is Scrooge.

There is no rhyme or reason for my doing this.  I am merely bound by my love for this film to not delay it until next year, when I will likely write reviews for such movies as Planes, Trains, and Automobiles and A Christmas Story.  Perhaps it is because it is such a valued tradition in my family to watch it every year.  Perhaps it is because my wife and I just finished reading A Christmas Carol together last week.  Perhaps it is because the incomparable Albert Finney has not received the dues that he deserves in this blog and I feel an urge to do him his proper justice.

In any case, an essay on Scrooge is what we have.

What makes Scrooge such an important musical is that is a purely movie-musical.  Like Singin’ in the Rain, it is a musical that was written with film—not stage—in mind, and is, therefore, exempt from the difficult elements of translation between the mediums.  Because of this, the story fits perfectly within the frame; there is no need to bump and squeeze and manipulate the stage to fill up the entirety of the screen without going beyond its confines.  The movement of the objects in screen is fluid and natural and even the song-and-dance numbers feel native to the screen.  I submit that it is because of this fluency in the medium that Scrooge is the only live-action version of A Christmas Carol to receive an Academy Award nomination.  And it didn’t just receive one.  It got four.

It actually deserved five.  The elusive fifth nomination for which Scrooge was snubbed was for that of Best Actor in a Leading Role.  Albert Finney was only 34 when he made the movie and played not only the old and miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, but also the young and vibrant Scrooge of the flashback sequences.  His absorption in the role is one of the finest in character acting, particularly in the history of British films.  While he was not ignored by the Golden Globes (he won for Best Actor in a Leading Role for a comedy or musical), the Academy snubbed him in favor of Ryan O’Neal for his turn as Oliver Barrett IV in Love Story.  Looking back on these two films, this exclusion borders on atrocity.

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As for the four Academy Awards for which it was nominated, it didn’t win any.  That’s okay though.  It was a tough go that year with Patton dominating the ceremony and other period pieces like Cromwell sweeping in and plucking up the historical adaptation vote.  It was certainly a year for generals and war: alongside Patton and Cromwell, movies like Tora! Tora! Tora! and MASH were the year’s Oscar favorites.  Scrooge stood on the outside of the military clique looking in, offering its heartwarming and uplifting charm for people to enjoy.

Of all the adaptations of A Christmas Carol that I have seen, only one has ever led me to shed a tear, and it has brought me to tears every year for the last 20 some-odd years.  It is an adaptation that embraces the music that gives it life, an adaptation that loves the songs and the dances.  It doesn’t skirt away from them.  It is a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk if ever there was one.

There is superb art direction.  This is born, I think, of the fact that it is a musical made for the movies.  Just like on the stage, the set is made to fit the music and the subsequent movements of its performers.  To fit that set on a screen and allow the necessary depth to succeed required real talent on the side of its designers.  That is why Terence Marsh, Bob Cartwright, Pamela Cornell were nominated for an Academy Award for Art Direction.

There are beautiful costumes.  From the drab outfits of Mr. Scrooge to the illustrious bombasity of the robes that garnish the Ghost of Christmas Present all the way to the chains that bind the fallen ghouls and the dresses that adorn beautiful Isabel, the talent of Margaret Furse (who had won an Oscar the year previous for Anne of the Thousand Days), was on its finest display in Scrooge.  That is why she was nominated for an Academy Award for Costume Design.

Together, the art direction and costumes make this picture an absolutely beautiful one to look at.  It is surprisingly colorful for a movie that takes place mostly at night in the drab streets of London.  It is so full of radiance that its visuals perfectly match its jovial music.

The music is where the movie really shines.  While some contemporary critics panned the score, it has survived into the 21st century very well.  Perhaps Leslie Bricusse, the musical genius behind the film, was working a little beyond his time.  Really, he was starting a new movement in the realm of scoring film.  His work leading up to Scrooge included the scores of Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Doctor Doolittle.  He even did some work with another Dickens adaptation, The Pickwick Papers, in a play called Pickwick.  He would go on to score movies like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and would collaborate with Henry Mancini and John Williams in Victor Victoria and Hook, respectively.  Surely one of the forgotten greats, Bricusse deserves more recognition today as one of film’s great composers.  It is no surprise, then, that Bricusse was nominated for Best Original Score.

In particular, Bricusse differentiated himself from other composers because of his ability as a lyricist.  Where his compositions may have lacked in places, they made up for it with their great catchiness and lyrical aptitude.  Just a few of his signature songs include “The Candy Man”, “What Kind of a Fool Am I?” (both of which scored Sammy Davis, Jr. some major hits), “Feeling Good”, “Goldfinger”, “Talk to the Animals”, “When You’re Alone”, and “You Only Live Twice.”

In Scrooge, his songs really shone.  In particular, “Thank You Very Much” earned an Academy Award nomination.  While that song is fun and fantastic, I find some other songs from the movie even more enjoyable.  The comedic songs like “I Like Life”, “I Hate People” (do you see a theme in those two?), and “Father Christmas” stand alongside “Thank You Very Much”, but even more powerful are the darker songs.  Songs like “You…You”—sung by Scrooge as he watches his younger self lose the love of his life—and “See the Phantoms”—sung by Jacob Marley to Scrooge as they fly through the London night, are incredibly haunting, and play out more like recitations than vocal solos.

But of all these songs, there is not a one (including “Thank You Very Much”) that is as good as what might be the shortest and most simple song in the entire movie…

…this song is sung by Tiny Tim Cratchit as he and his little sister and their father, Bob, return home after a night of caroling.  Standing up on a little chair with his sweet and poor family surrounding him, Tiny Tim leans against his crutch and sings,

On the beautiful day that I dream about

In a place I would like to be

Is a beautiful place where the sun comes out

And it shines in the sky for me

On this beautiful winter’s morning

If my wish could come true somehow

Then the beautiful day that I dream about

Would be here and now.

On this beautiful winter’s morning

If my wish could come true somehow

Then the beautiful day that I dream about

Would be here and now.

There is no more saddening and powerful a moment in the film than when that song reprises itself, ever briefly, as Scrooge watches a future scene wherein Bob Cratchit, the clerk for whom Scrooge would never raise wages, crouches near the graveside of Tiny Tim at Christmastime.

In Tiny Tim lies Scrooge’s salvation.  The songs and the script of this adaptation make that point very clear.  It is not enough that, at movie’s end, he decides that he likes Christmas.  It is not enough, even, that he decides that he “likes life.”  It is not enough that he decides to spend more time with his family, or to stop being such a miser, or even to donate large amounts of money to a charity helping people that he never has or never will meet.  These are all good, but they are not enough to save him from the ponderous chain that he bears.  It is only enough when Scrooge dies a little himself inside when he thinks of Tiny Tim’s plight.  It is only enough when Scrooge makes it his life mission to save a little boy who very possibly could never be saved.  It is only enough when Scrooge gives more than just his money or his time to someone in need.  It is only enough when he gives everything he has, even his whole self, to an innocent and helpless child.

I don’t think that it is any coincidence that the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows Scrooge a Christmas where he and Tiny Tim die, practically at the same time.  Their fates are eternally entwined.  Not until Scrooge is willing to sacrifice that fallen man within him and lay his own good fortune on the altar can he truly save the boy who has touched his heart.  That is why this is a Christmas story: because it points its readers, its listeners, and its viewers to the ultimate sacrifice of the Christ that we celebrate at Christmas time.  Scrooge must learn to be more Christlike.

There is a line in the book where Bob Cratchit relates a small anecdote from his and Tiny Tim’s visit to the local church on Christmas Eve.  “He told me,” Bob relates, “coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see.”

I believe that Tiny Tim helped Scrooge to remember him who made the lame walk and the blind see.  And because of this, Scrooge was able to live up to the charge given him earlier in the book by Jacob Marley’s Ghost: 

Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode!  Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!”

In Scrooge, the musical, we see how Scrooge starts to see the light of that star, and it points him to Tiny Tim.  We see that, as he embraces life, he gives it to that little crippled boy who is the ultimate symbol of innocence.  Then, the words of Tim’s small melody make all the more sense.  “The Beautiful Day” that he dreams about is not only his.  It is Scrooge’s too.

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4 thoughts on “Scrooge (1970)

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