A few weeks ago, in writing about my favorite Thanksgiving Day/holiday programming I left a glaring omission due to space and wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I continued neglecting it. “The Stingiest Man in Town”, was always another Turkey Day staple, an animated adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” with one of the 20th century’s favorite curmudgeons, Walter Matthau as the voice and likeness of Ebenezer Scrooge. It also features the most demented looking version of one of the story’s iconic and most fascinating images: the “Marley Knocker”, not to mention a lot of other stuff like devils, phantoms, and other such yuletide pleasantries perfect for Christmas...
Stingiest’s first incarnation was a live television event in 1956 starring Basil Rathbone, and through the decades it’s become a rite of passage for distinguished actors to put their spin on Dickens’ covetous old miser-much like King Lear, the true greats never cease working until “Scrooge” is crossed off their bucket list. Albert Finney, Patrick Stewart, and many more have done it—sometimes on stage, many times on cable television—to varying levels of success. And I’ve seen practically all of them, at least once.
See, I omitted “Stingiest” last time because it opened up a Pandora’s box of recollecting the countless versions of the tale I’ve witnessed through the years, and my thoughts and memories of each—it all adds up to seeing quite a few (Marley) knockers. Once every other significant holiday movie, special, or cartoon has been checked off my list for the season (and I do check it twice), I’ll dive into each and every version of “A Christmas Carol” I can possibly find—movies, television, live theatre, radio drama, readers theatre, you name it. At this time of year, I never get enough of Charles Dickens’ “little ghost story” and each version brings something new to the material, but maybe it’s best to just start with…well, the best.
Far from the first time Dickens’ story was captured on film (that happened as early as 1901), the 1951 version known interchangeably as both “A Christmas Carol” and simply “Scrooge” is widely regarded as the definitive version and portrayal of the character. Despite a long successful stage and film career, Alastair Sim is now remembered almost entirely for starring in this (sometimes) title role.
From a script credited to Noel Langley, the primary screenwriter of The Wizard of Oz, this version distinctly fleshes out Scrooge’s past much more than other film versions or even the original novel did. In fact, nearly half the film is devoted to enhancing Scrooge’s backstory so much that it’s become canon as far as I’m concerned—more of his youth, his business dealings, and we even see the death of Marley.
It also features one of the more famous “film flubs” ever captured on celluloid, that being the face of a crew member reflected in a mirror late in the film. As a kid, I was so proud to catch this, and when the film was colorized during that bizarre 1980’s phase, so too was the face in the mirror!
One year during our customary annual Sim/Scrooge viewing, I sipped egg nog for the first time (not spiked, just regular Prairie Farms). Earlier that day on a visit to John Bee’s for groceries, the carton jumped out at me—its greens, reds and big red bow looked more like Christmas than just about anything else I’d ever seen. I was seduced, and had to have it. My evening with my favorite Christmas film was then greatly enhanced even though I didn’t really like the taste, but drinking it somehow made watching Scrooge better (and in return, watching Scrooge somehow made it taste better).
The movie was played to death on network and basic cable in the 80s and 90’s, and I also vaguely recall earlier in my life airings with opening promos touting “brought to you by The Book Emporium” (long extinct). My preferred viewing was always before bed on Christmas Eve, courtesy of WGN before the live Midnight Mass from Holy Name Cathedral. They stopped playing Scrooge several years ago and a big empty spot has been left in every Christmas since. I could always count on seeing it sometime during the season so I never bothered owning an official copy until I picked one up back in 2006 at Bob Gordon’s ACME comic shop.
While making that purchase, I also found on the ACME racks an animated version I had never seen, and it’s one dollar price tag left me with almost nothing to lose. What I stumbled upon, it turned out, was a mini-masterpiece animated in the style of the original 19th-century carved illustrations in a unique and terrifying way; I can’t say I’ve ever seen animation feel “scary” until this.
Alastair Sim and Michael Hordern even returned to voice Scrooge and a most terrifying Jacob Marley respectively. While “Stingiest” may have had the creepiest knocker, this version has the creepiest Marley. Good luck sleeping after seeing this guy:
It’s no wonder that it won the Academy Award for Best Animated short of 1971, the only film adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” to ever claim an Oscar. If you can find this marvel (and you can now on YouTube) spare 30 minutes to watch it.
After many years I got the sense that time began nudging Alastair Sim out of favor for George C Scott’s spin from 1984 which I first saw at my grandparent’s house. It too saw a frequent broadcast schedule at one time and is bleak to the point of depression-inducing. It’s also strikingly realistic, utilizing very few special effects and shot primarily using daylight. Everyone in it looks sickly (including the ghosts) and some call this the definitive version. Whether you agree with that or not, it’s at least the best of the contemporary (ie color) adaptations.
I think a big reason why this story resonates with me is that my first time ever onstage was a production of “Christmas Carol” at Scottish Rite Cathedral (which I’ve mentioned in a past post)—I sold chestnuts in the final scene and to this day the family and I like to joke about how I made my stage debut as “Nut Boy”.
Perhaps this theatre element is what drew me to “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol”, framed by the notion that nearsighted Magoo has somehow ended up in a Broadway musical of A Christmas Carol. It was the very first animated holiday special predating even Rudolph and the Grinch. And can anyone explain to me why this version placed Christmas Present before Past?! It’s bothered me for decades.
Interestingly, The Flintstones poached the same “story-within a play-within a holiday special” concept as Magoo with “The Flintstones Christmas Carol” featuring Fred as Scrooge but trading Broadway for Bedrock’s community theatre and including the customary rock puns and rough around the edges aesthetic. Fred gets a big ego after being cast as the lead in an amateur production and pretty much loses his damn mind over it, shucking responsibilities at home to focus on his new life as an actor. I’ve actually seen that exact scenario play out in real life on several occasions, except Fred gets his priorities straight by the end.
I recall vividly a Christmas Carol cast party in 1992 at the El Hajj building, tucked away on Galena Road where I was introduced to the ultra rare “Rich Little’s Christmas Carol” starring master impressionist Rich Little putting his spin on the tale, namely the novelty of playing every character, but as one of his standard impressions.
For example, Scrooge was played by Little as WC Fields, Fezziwig was Little as Groucho Marx, Mrs. Cratchit was Little as Jean Stapleton as Edith Bunker, and so on. At eleven years old I didn’t get who most of the people he was impersonating were, but I saw the room full of adults laughing at all the jokes and references that flew directly over my head, and it inspired me to seek out more knowledge about who all of these older “before my time” players were, and I was much richer for it.
To date it’s the only time I ever saw this version, as the only copy in circulation locally at the time came from Corner Store Video which closed back in 1998…yet somehow it resonated with me so much that I can still recall bits of dialogue and even sing snippets of the songs. Thanks to YouTube and such outlets, it’s now easier to find, but still certainly not widespread, and remains a rarity with the chains of obscurity hanging ‘round its “Richard Nixon as Marley” neck.
“Mickey’s Christmas Carol” was probably the first version of the story I was ever exposed to in any form, at an age so young I thought Charles Dickens named Scrooge after a Disney duck. “Carol” marked the final performance of Clarence Nash, the original voice of Donald Duck for 50 years (naturally, in the role of Scrooge’s nephew), and the debut of Wayne Allwine and Alan Young as the longtime voices of Mickey and Scrooge, respectively.
Much like the changing of the voices, it was a changing time for the Disney company, still finding its “post-Walt” footing, and this subdued, low-key offering is one of the better efforts from this era. The core characters play all the leads (including a most”goofy” Marley), but it also utilizes a lot of “forgotten” characters in prominent roles-Willie the Giant, and Mr. Toad and friends of the “Wild ride” fame.
With a motion capture performance and voice clearly indebted to Alastair Sim, Jim Carrey “played” Scrooge in 2009’s release from Disney—faithful and intriguingly dark overall, but some of its sequences are silly and I’m glad Robert Zemeckis finally figured out how creepy and hollow motion capture “actors” were and went back to directing real ones.
While on the subject of Disney-owned IPs, I would be remiss if I left “The Muppets Christmas Carol” off this retrospect. Even as a kid, I didn’t love all the liberties taken with the story (two Marley knockers), but it gets a free pass because it’s the Muppets, Michael Caine is a perfect Scrooge, and the score by Paul Williams includes what might be my favorite Christmas song ever—“It Feels Like Christmas” sung by The Ghost of Christmas Present, who tends to be my favorite character in most adaptations despite my clear fixation with Marley.
Edging their way along this crowded path as well are many adaptations contemporizing or playing with the story’s formula. I first saw "Scrooged" at a church youth group Christmas party of all places, and I thought I was so clever the way I could pick out this version’s incarnation of each character (hey, I was young). There’s also something very...1980’s about the entire film that I can’t quite articulate.
Or consider “Blackadders Christmas Carol” which takes Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder character, and through visiting his Christmas past, present and future, actually changes him from a kind, generous man into an evil one!
Stranded at home during last year’s polar vortex we were exposed to several abominations that vaguely resembled the story thanks to Lifetime, Hallmark Channel and other such cable stations that we ironically no longer have in our house. A thing starring Carrie Fisher and a “Queer Eye” guy called “It’s Christmas, Carol!” was the chief offender—say that title out loud, giggle about it (as we still do) and then if you find it on your television this holiday season, change the channel as quickly as possible.
Scrooge’s rehabilitation has been dramatized to death over the years, and while this humble list is nowhere near complete, it captures the most meaningful versions to me and trigger memories of people and places that are gone-my own little Christmas Past if you will.
We all carry baggage or wear chains, and sometimes they weigh their heaviest at this time of year, but Scrooge learns the best way to overcome that is by doing good for others, not just at Christmastime, but always. By far, it’s one of the greatest philosophies I’ve ever extracted from a work of fiction. No Christmas could ever be complete without this story in some form, and writing about it would never be complete without including one last “Marley Knocker” shot…
This is actress Marley Shelton, and well…god bless us everyone.
May you keep Christmas well, if any man alive possesses the knowledge. And may it be full of razzleberry dressing.