By Nick Maylor
As I’ve stated before, I believe that Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in Prose: Being a Ghost Story of Christmas is the single greatest story ever told. Though there have been many great adaptations, I believe that this 1970 musical version starring Albert Finney is the best adaptation yet made. Finney was only 35 when he portrayed Ebenezer Scrooge both as a young and old man and his work is riveting. The songs are magnificent. The cast is sublime, and the payoff at the end still fills me with goosebumps each and every year. The music by Leslie Bricusse is a massive part of the soundtrack to my childhood Christmases. The production design is gorgeous and the film itself is a pure and faithful telling of this great story.
This year I revisited the lovely The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) and John recently took a look back at the classic 1951 version starring Alastair Sim and continuing in that tradition, here I will discuss my personal favourite.
Albert Finney was the first actor on the screen to portray Scrooge both as a young man and as the elderly miser, everyone loves to despise. We get a sense of London town’s distaste for the man along with Scrooge’s misanthropy with the film’s opening number “I Hate People”. Scrooge walks about the streets of London espousing his personal philosophy of wanting nothing to do with the rest of the human race. He is cold and ruthless in his meanness. It is important for any adaptation of Dickens’ classic tale that at the onset, we absolutely despise Ebenezer Scrooge. This is what makes the story’s ending so powerful, that a man as lost as Scrooge can be redeemed.
Upon returning to his dusty mansion, Scrooge is haunted by a vision upon his door knocker, the face of his long-dead partner Jacob Marley (Alec Guinness). In his quarters, he is again haunted by visions and noises that he dismisses as “humbug”. Finally, the ghost of Jacob Marley enters Scrooge’s bedroom, adorned in long, heavy chains and money boxes weighing the spectre down. Marley warns Scrooge that he has but one chance and hop of avoiding Marley’s fate; to change his miserly ways and embrace the true spirit of Christmas. Marley warns Scrooge that he will be visited by three ghosts who will hopefully motivate the elderly miser to see the error of his ways. Marley departs, telling Scrooge that he is forbidden from lingering in one place for an extended period of time, doomed to wander through the world in everlasting repentance.
Scrooge is visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past (Edith Evans) in the image of a finely dressed woman. The spirit takes Scrooge back in time to his childhood boarding school. She shows him a meeting between the young Ebenezer and his younger sister, who would go on to have a son, Scrooge’s (now) only living relative.
Scrooge is then transported to his time as an apprentice for a Mr. Fezziwig (Lawrence Naismith). As a strapping young man, Scrooge was happy and fell in love with Fezziwig’s daughter Isabel (Suzanne Neve). They became engaged and over the years, Scrooge’s pursuit of financial wealth had hardened his heart. The Ghost of Christmas Past shows Scrooge the moment that Isabel decided to leave him, calling off their engagement. The elder Scrooge watches on, helpless to change the moment he lost his love. He bitterly watches his younger self making the biggest mistake of his life; allowing her to leave without trying to reconcile. Heartbroken and full of regret, Scrooge implores the spirit to show him no more.
Scrooge is transported back to his bedroom where is again alone in the night. As the bell tolls on his clock, he notices a blinding light coming from the next room, as he enters, he is greeted by a gigantic figure adorned in a robe, sitting atop a massive banquet feast. This is the Ghost of Christmas Present (Kenneth More). This ghost is an analog for Father Christmas, the British version of Santa Claus and many modern attributes of Santa come from Dickens’ story. The jolly giant takes Scrooge on a journey about London during the forthcoming Christmas Day. He shows Scrooge his nephew’s (Harry Hedwin) Christmas party (which Scrooge declined to attend) and the merriment present there. He also shows Scrooge a game played by the guests where Scrooge himself becomes the butt of a joke. Scrooge is then transported to the home of his employee Bob Cratchit (David Collings) where Scrooge sees Bob’s son Tiny Tim (Richard Beaumont), a sickly child whose life hangs in the balance. Scrooge, uncharacteristically concerned for Tim’s wellbeing asks the ghost if the child will live. Throwing Scrooge’s own words back at him, the spirit says that if Tim is going to die he “had better do it and decrease the surplus population.” Scrooge is ashamed of his rhetoric that he used on two men asking for charitable donations earlier in the evening. The spirit takes Scrooge back to his living quarters to await the final ghost.
The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come has always been portrayed as a ghastly, towering figure of death/the grim reaper. The spectre appears before Scrooge, beckoning him to follow with a pointing, skeletal finger. Scrooge is shown a street celebration where Tom Jenkins (Anton Rodgers), a hot soup vendor who is in debt to Scrooge, is shining the plaque on the door to Scrooge’s counting-house. Jenkins delivers a speech to the jubilant crowd expressing their gratitude towards Ebenezer Scrooge for the wonderful act of kindness he has bestowed upon them. Scrooge speaks to the thankful crowd not realizing he is invisible to them. Jenkins leads the crowd through the streets of London singing “Thank You Very Much” with Scrooge following in the celebration. Scrooge is oblivious to the fact that not only is the crowd celebrating Ebenezer’s death but that they are carrying his casket with them through the streets.
Scrooge is taken to a cemetery where he becomes frightened and apprehensive. The Ghost points to a gravestone that bears Scrooge’s name. Scrooge desperately pleads with the spirit that he is spared as he has seen the error of his ways. Turning to face the ghost, Scrooge sees the spirit’s ghastly, skeletal face and falls into the grave that bears his name. Scrooge plummets down an endless hole in the ground, waking up in hell. There he is visited by Jacob Marley who is there to act as his chaperone as Scrooge is welcomed to his new living quarters. Scrooge is taken to an exact replica of his counting-house that (unlike the rest of hell) is freezing cold. As he begs Marley for mercy, Scrooge is greeted by an assembly line of devils who proceed to wrap a giant chain around Ebenezer. This is the chain he forged in life with his sins. The massive chain weighs Scrooge down as he screams and pleads for mercy, during the height of the chaos, Scrooge awakens at home wrapped up in his bedsheets.
Thankful to be alive, Scrooge vows to change and rebuild his life in service to his fellow men. As he sings “Begin Again” he frolicked about his mansion, intoxicated by his joy and gratitude towards Marley and the spirits. Scrooge approaches a small boy asking him what day it is. The child informs Ebenezer that it is Christmas morning. Ebenezer is elated to hear it. He tells the boy to go to the butcher shop two streets over to purchase the prize Turkey hanging in the window, promising the boy half a crown for his speedy return with the bird.
Scrooge dresses himself and walks out into the waiting world, eager to celebrate Christmas. He forgives all the debts he is owed, purchases virtually all of the merchandise from a local toy shop and roams about London giving away gifts to children and celebrating in song (a reprisal medley of all the film’s songs). He is approached by his nephew who sees him in the street, apologizes for the past Christmases he neglected to share with them and asks if he is still welcome to join them for dinner, for which he is given a positive affirmation.
Scrooge finds a Santa suit in a store window and emerges dressed as Father Christmas, leading a singing crowd through the streets. He arrives at the home of Bob Cratchit where he presents the prize Turkey, a barrage of presents and reveals himself to be a changed man. He tells Bob Cratchit that he will double his salary and dedicate himself to finding the right doctors to get Tiny Tim well again. Scrooge ventures back to his home after spreading joy throughout all of London. There, he addresses the door knocker where he had earlier seen Marley’s face. He tells it that while he does not know if the visions he had in the night were real or not, he is a changed man none the less. He espouses thankfulness that between him and Marley, they finally made a Merry Christmas. Scrooge then departs into his house to prepare for the forthcoming Christmas dinner with his family.
The massive sets at Shepperton Studios recreated Victorian London and are incredibly impressive. The songs are masterful and Finney’s performance won him a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a musical or comedy. As I stated before, the music in this film became the soundtrack to my childhood Christmases and I happily rewatch it every Christmas. The genius of Dickens’ story is alive and well even in modern times and the moral to this story, loving thy neighbour is one that should be remembered all year round.
Nick is an actor/writer/comedian/musician from Hamilton, ON Canada. Having been a film nut since the early days of his life, Nick has had an obsession with cinema and popular entertainment. Nick has written for thecinemaholic.com and is the current Foote & Friends “expert” on all things geek/superhero/comic-book related. Nick is the host/producer of the official Foote & Friends On Film podcast. Nick met John when studying acting at the Toronto Film School, for which John H. Foote was director and Film History professor. The two have been arguing ever since.
Follow Nick on Twitter @NickMaylor