Here's what inevitably happens. I share a movie with a friend or a loved one. Something I think they'll really like but probably have not seen. They love it, and I tell them "That was one of my Dad's favorite movies."

So here are some of those movies, my memories and thoughts, and what made them my Dad's favorites.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

SCROOGE (1970)

In the 1960’s, my Dad jury rigged a construction of cables and alligator clips and plugs that allowed us to record audio from our television and from our console radio/record player onto our portable (by 1960’s standards) reel-to-reel tape recorder. In the early 1970’s, I spent several days just before Christmas in the hospital. I took the reel-to-reel with me, and to keep in the holiday mood, listened to the soundtrack of the movie ‘"Scrooge.”

There have been more film adaptations of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” than can be counted, beginning with short silent versions near the turn of the last century and continuing to today. But it was the musical version, “Scrooge,” starring Albert Finney in the title role, that was my Dad’s favorite, and is mine.

In 1970, turning the Dickens classic into a musical would not have been an obvious move without the monstrous success of another Dickens musical adaptation, “Oliver!,” just two years earlier.

Thirty-four year old Albert Finney may be the youngest actor to ever portray Ebenezer Scrooge in a feature film. Richard Harris, who was initially offered the role, and having some musical experience in “Camelot” three years before, would have been 40. Rex Harrison, briefly cast before conflicts with another commitment took him out of the running, would have been 62.

Here, Finney is straddling his intermittent and somewhat schizophrenic shift from leading man to character actor. Finney, the young studly hooligan of “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning” and “Tom Jones,” is utterly convincing and almost unrecognizable as the gnarled, grimacing elder Scrooge. And in a part often portrayed by a younger alternate actor, he is virile and attractive as the younger version of Scrooge seen in flashbacks instigated by the Ghost of Christmas Past. Finney’s ability to persuasively portray both ages lends the story a continuity of emotion and makes the transition from youthful optimistic lover to bitter cantankerous misanthrope all the more heartbreaking and believable.

Through the 1970’s and 80’s, Finney would continue to essay similar, make-up laden character roles in “Murder on the Orient Express” and “The Dresser,” while continuing to play leading love interests and even action heroes in films such as “Gumshoe,” “The Wolfen,” and “Looker.” But “Scrooge” was his only chance to play both in one film.

There is a lot of impressive talent in evidence here. The supporting cast is a once-in-a-lifetime collection of British luminaries, including Dame Edith Evans, Kenneth More, Laurence Naismith, and Alec Guinness as Marley’s Ghost.

Finney and the cast are put through his paces by veteran British director Ronald Neame, whose career of over 80 screen credits stretched back at least as far as Alfred Hitchcock’s and the British film industry’s first talking picture, “Blackmail.” Neame’s eclectic career as a director included “The Horse's Mouth,” “Tunes of Glory, “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” and “The Poseidon Adventure.”

He collaborates here with the man he considered to be “the greatest cameraman in the world,” renowned Director of Photography Oswald Morris, who had photographed “Oliver!,” and who worked with Neame in one capacity or another on 15 ventures.

The impressive visual effects, including flying sequences, are by British special effects legend Wally Veevers (“Things to Come,” “Night of the Demon,” “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb ,” “2001: A Space Odyssey” “Excalibur”), eight years before he helped the world believe that a man could fly in “Superman.”

Even the whimsical credit sequence by iconoclastic cartoonist and illustrator Ronald Searle is notable (see images here ). Searle was solicited no doubt in part due to his illustrated version of "A Christmas Carol" published in 1961 (see images here).

But the real creative force behind “Scrooge” is undoubtedly Leslie Bricusse, who adapted the Charles Dickens story, composed the score and wrote the lyrics.

The script is tight, funny and moving, using Scrooge’s back story to lend pathos and verisimilitude to a character too often charactured. The actors deliver uniformly first class performances. The visuals, design, and costumes are striking, taking full advantage of the period setting. But it is the joyous, emotive, catchy songs and the lively choreography that accompanies them that truly distinguishes this version and that stayed with my Dad, in particular the raucous “Thank You Very Much,” a jubilant celebration of Scrooge’s passing by those who owe him money …

… and the festive “December the 25th,” which deserved to become a Christmas standard.

Even cleverer is the way several of the songs are reprised during and after Scrooge’s conversion. Scrooge’s anthem “I Hate People” becomes “I Like Life.” “Father Christmas,” sung with sarcastic bite by the street urchins that pester Scrooge as he slogs through the dirty streets of London, becomes an upbeat appreciation of Scrooge as he dons a Father Christmas costume to deliver gifts on Christmas morning. And “Thank You Very Much” is repeated in sincere gratitude for the man Scrooge has become.

Ronald Neame related this story to the British Film Institute: We were going to have Richard Harris. He was going to play the lead. And he had to go and make a film in Israel, I think. Something went wrong with it and he had to take it over, and he had to direct it. So we couldn't get him. The company who were financing the film said, well, if you can't get him, there are only two or three other names that are acceptable to us. One of those names was Finney - who turned it down. He said, I don't want to make a film just now. So we thought, Rex, Rex Harrison. Rex could sort of play Scrooge. So we gave the script to Rex and he liked it very much and we cast him. But there was a problem. Because he was at the end of a play which he was working on in London. He had three weeks more to play. We had to start in two weeks, because of weather conditions, summer and winter scenes. So this three weeks was really a nuisance, but we had to face it. And then we decided we would pay the theatre off. We'd pay for the three weeks, and we'd get Rex earlier. And then one day, we had a phone call from Alby Finney, who said, on the phone, I have just read your screenplay, in my office, because my partner is playing a small part, and (he said) you know, I would love to play it. And we said, Oh, Alby, oh goodness me! We've cast Rex Harrison. And he said, Oh well, it's my fault, but I would have loved it. And we did a terrible thing. Slightly ashamed to tell you. We told Rex that we hadn't got the money to pay off the theatre, but we had to start shooting the following Monday. Rex didn't mind very much. And Alby played the part. I've always been slightly ashamed of that. I don't know why I should tell you tonight, but you're all very fair!

You can see more clips from “Scrooge” at the Turner Classic Movies web site.
And you can buy Scrooge at

1 comment:

  1. What a pity they've never offered this amazing score on a CD. Here it is about to be 2014 and some greedy someone is holding on to those rights with an Ebenezer like grip. It's a shame that this can't be shared on CD with the world!


© 2009 Edward Bowen