- Brett Willis
I believe that every person has a movie that they love tautologically. By that I mean, they love it because they love it. And the more times they watch it, the more they love it. As in, random lines give more joy and each new revelation—a nice bit of scenery, somebody tripping in the background, tiny costume details that the director didn’t think anyone would notice—constantly spring up, like some Mandelbrot of expanding joy. For me, that movie is 1970’s Scrooge, featuring Albert Finney as the eponymous Ebenezer.
I realize that this one is a particularly hard sell, because everyone seems to have their preferred version of A Christmas Carol, whether it be rendered by Muppets, Bill Murray, stage actors, or one of the other thousand ways Charles Dickens’ 1848 story has been brought life. But I will make the case here that from a sheer re-watchability standpoint, there is no rendering better than director Ronald Neame’s attempt to add song and dance to the radicalizing of one incorrigible old miser.
To be transparent, this is a movie that I grew up watching every Christmas. It became my family’s movie of choice by semi-chance: my Mom saw it on a date way back when and it stuck with her. At first, I didn’t really like the movie. It was moderately scary. It had jarring sounds, with bells jangling in Scrooge’s cobwebbed mansion or the intense hiss of Scrooge burning his finger on the brimstone of hades. But, as I grew older, so too did the movie grow on me. So maybe my love for it is more of a Stockholm love—I like it because I’ve watched it, rather than vice versa.
But I don’t think that’s true. I now watch the movie very voluntarily. Each Christmas, I fairly demand that we watch it, even. And I’m now going to try to convince you, dear reader, that it’s worth watching this Holiday Season.
And for those who have somehow managed to avoid understanding the plot of A Christmas Carol, it goes like this: Scrooge is an old skinflint who hates people. He is visited by three haints that remind him: he was once nice, living can be fun, and he'd better shape up or he's going to hell. So he shapes up, gives his employees more money, and everyone is happy.
First on the list of remarkable aspects of this film is, of course, Scrooge himself. At the time the movie was filmed, Albert Finney was my current age: 35. Albert does not look like a 35-year-old Scrooge. He looks like a 60-year-old man playing an 80-year-old man. He looks almost as bad as the Neanderthal Scrooge I've managed to scribble in the header image. I know there was make-up involved, but seriously, I thought Albert Finny had died in like 1982. The dude looked that old. When I saw him in Skyfall, it was like some ghost of Christmas past. (I'm sorry)
There’s also Finney's acting. Most Scrooges I've watched have been dour, relatively under-acted fellows—Michael Caine (my cocaine) comes to mind. Finney’s Scrooge is so intensely bipolar as to almost feel alien. His lizard man Scrooge scuttles around the set, hunchbacked and leering. Emotionally, he flies from grumbling violently to shrieking in terror to sobbing to bursting with mirth from moment to moment. He also does this wild thing where he uses extreme glottal constriction in like every syllable; so when he says "Marley" it sounds more like “Merlerrrr!”
Speaking of Jacob Marley, he’s another absolute highlight of this film. Sir freakin’ Alec Guinness plays Marley. Yes, the same Sir Alec Guinness of Bridge Over the River Kwai, Doctor Zhivago, and oh by the way, Star Wars fame. There is an intentionally humorous aspect to Guinness’ performance—to wit, Marley pulls in a chair to sit on (using some ghostly power that seems conspicuously like The Force) and then sits down on the air beside it. It’s a funny sight gag. But, for my money, my favorite part of this version of Marley is that he comes off as unintentionally gay.
He does a little “bye bye, Scrooge” hand wave after their first meeting. He performs this jazz-fingered operatic howling when Scrooge calls him a bit of undigested food: “a blob of mustard, a bit o’ cheese, an old potato. Yes, an old potato, that’s what you are!” In short, Marley minces around the stage, giving off a spectacularly coy vibe.
Speaking of homosexual undertones, once Scrooge falls into his own grave and wakes up in hell, he is greeted by bears (read “Satan’s minons”) who are shirtless, greased up, and carrying a big old set of bondage gear (read “chains”). These are not your mee-maw’s demons. Of course, you could read this connection between homosexuality and hell negatively—i.e. Ronald Neame thought it was against The L*rd’s will. Or, you could interpret it in what I think is a more likely reading: Neame wanted to make the afterlife scary and instead just made it fabulous.
Now, let’s talk about the music. If you didn’t think that the story of an old miser who lives in a haunted mansion and wants poor people to “decrease the surplus population” could be fodder for toe-tappin’ tunes, you’d be dead wrong. “Father Christmas” comes nearly right out of the gate with street urchins caterwauling at Scrooge through the chemically-snowed streets of London. This song also features a line delivered by, I’m sorry, one of the less photogenic youths in England. I’m almost certain that he was the producer’s son or something. His single line, and almost single moment onscreen—yelling, “’e’s a bandit!”—is the best goddamn thing that anyone was ever unable to cut from a film, for continuity’s sake. Like, this guy pops out of nowhere because it appears that the editor intentionally cut him out of every single other shot. Kudos to this brave young soul for securing his time in the limelight.
Continuing the trend of slammin’ jams, is “Thank You Very Much.” During the vision of Christmas future, one Tom Jenkins, the hot broth man, just throws down. Literally dancing on Scrooge’s casket, Tom Jenkins, and all of Scrooge’s debtors, go on a parade through town to thank Scrooge for dying. “That’s the nicest thing that anyone's ever done for me,” they exclaim. And you don’t have to just trust me that this song is excellent, it was also nominated for Best Original Song in the Academy Awards.
There are two glaring exceptions to the musical superiority of this film. “Happiness” sung by Susan Neve, is just a punishing snore. It’s followed only in boredom by “You… You” sung by Erbernerzer Screrge himself. The only reason why I don’t include Tiny Tim’s “Beautiful Day” on this list is that it helps to build up the pathos of Tiny Tim’s untimely demise. Of course, we need these staid songs to balance out the movies overarching jauntiness—but they are rough.
And, to be clear, it is my family’s tradition that we fast-forward through the subpar songs. This is a point I want to underscore. I and my family do not “love” this entire movie. But the parts that we do love, we love so intensely as to completely overshadow the dips. As in James Joyce’s Ulysses, there are parts that can be viewed as “quicksand,” where the less-determined folks get stymied and quit (I think those are chapters 3 and 12?). But if you soldier on and either fast forward, or submit your ears to these slower songs of Scrooge, you will be greatly rewarded elsewhere.
And rewards there are aplenty. So many, that rather than try to really explain them all, I’ll just list the highlights in a lightning round.
The sumptuous scenery of the bare-chested Ghost of Christmas Present and his boppin’ tune, “I Like Life”
Scrooge, drunk on the milk of human kindness, yelling at his nephew’s party guests.
The actor who plays Fezziwig nearly going into cardiac arrest during his dance number of “December the 25th.”
When Scrooge tells the ghost of Christmas past that she doesn’t look like a ghost and she says “Thank you.”
The efficacy of the special effect in which Marley’s face (“Scroo-hoo-hoo-hooge”) appears over a lion doorknocker.
This one isn't exclusive to Scrooge, but the names for English money are just so good. Like, how many denominations are there? “’Allo guv’na, oi’ve only got two bob and a quid to me name: fancy a tuppence and a crown for that three-farthing goose?”
The epic lyricism of Scrooge’s first, and boldly named, song “I Hate People.”
Tom Jenkins, the hot broth man—both his singing and the existence of a hot broth man in and of itself.
The actually endearing character of Scrooge’s nephew, who still believes in his uncle when everyone else has written him off.
And there you have it. All of the reasons in my brain for why the movie Scrooge is truly the superior version of Charles Dickens’ Christmas masterpiece.
IN SHORT: Experience the festive spectacle that is Albert Finney crab-walking through musical numbers in which he shouts at ghosts and orphans.