I’m Dreaming of a Celluloid Christmas, Part 1, by John Ostrander
Having learned nothing from my last list of favorite films other than how to start a few fights, I’ve decided to go at it again, this time with a list of my favorite Christmas films. T’is the season to really annoy people, after all.
A few words as I begin. This is my list of favorite films. I’m not saying they are the best. Well, some of them are. They just may not be your favorites. Omission of a certain film doesn’t mean I don’t know it or don’t like it. It’s just not on my list. Anyone attempting to see more into the list will be drowned in eggnog and buried with a stake of mistletoe through the heart. Hostile? Sure. T’is the season.
Here we go.
A Christmas Carol – I’m something of A Christmas Carol-aholic. It’s an inspired combination – Dickens creates a ghost story not for Halloween but for Christmas. Brilliant!
I read the story as a boy, the scene around the Cratchit family table was read at my house every Christmas Eve when I was growing up, and it was the last play I performed (where I played such vital roles as Mr. Round, Fred’s friend #3, Dancing Man, and Ensemble) before giving up my sputtering acting career. So I have very definite ideas of what the movie version should be. I own three different versions on DVD – all of which I will have seen before Christmas Day this year.
The one I knew first was the 1938 version starring Reginald Owen as Scrooge and the inestimable Leo G. Carrol as Marley. It’s a decent version and probably enjoys its spot on my list by virtue of being the first one ever saw. Odd little trivia note: Gene Lockhart plays Bob Cratchit in the movie (rather effectively) and his wife Kathleen plays Mrs. Crachit. In addition, their daughter June plays Cratchit daughter Belinda. June Lockhart would later be known to baby boomers as Timmy’s mother on Lassie. I’m not sure what relationship that gives her to the dog. She would also be Maureen Robinson on the Lost in Space TV series.
The animated Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol. What makes it strange is that I was never I particularly big fan of the character of Mister Magoo, whose myopia is usually the source of all the jokes in his cartoons. Yet, he makes a fine Scrooge in this quick adaptation that captures the basics while streamlining the plot. The voices include the inestimable Paul Frees (the voice of Boris Badenov among a gazillion others) in a number of parts, the delightfully plumy Jack Cassidy making an affecting Bob Cratchit, as well as the voices of Royal Dano, Morey Amsterdam, and – of course – Jim Backus as Magoo playing Scrooge.
The concept is that Magoo is an actor playing Scrooge on Broadway. It allows for a mercifully small amount of Magoo myopic schtick but lets the old codger play the part straight. Bob Merrill and Julie Styne (later of Funny Girl) wrote a number of great songs for the show. One that they wrote for this show but were too late to have it animated was a little number called “People.” Yes, that “People”. The song wound up in Funny Girl and became a cornerstone for Barbra Streisland’s career. (Thanks you, imdb.)
The last – and, IMO, best – of the Carols on my list is, of course, the 1951 version starring Alastair Sim. It’s also known as Scrooge over in the U.K. but the Brits drive on the wrong side of the road, too, so what do they know? It had the feel of a movie made in the Thirties to me, partially because it was in black and white and partially because of the sometime florid acting styles of some of the supporting actors. Michael Hordern’s Marley comes to mind. He not only chews some of the scenery but swallows it whole. Tiny Tim is none too tiny and a bit too old and so sickening sweet I’d like to see him drop-kicked into the Thames. Interesting side note – young Jacob Marley is played by Patrick Macnee, who we will later know much better as John Steed in The Avengers TV series.
It is Sim who makes the movie work, arguably the best Scrooge on film to date, despite the fact that physically he’s not really right for the role. We generally picture Scrooge as lean and mean – Sim is anything but. Yet he captures Scrooge’s persona perfectly and his transformation into a new man after the visitation of the three Christmas Ghosts is perfect – he makes joy utterly believable and infectious.
There are a host of other versions – George C. Scott did one that I recall being very good but that I have not seen in years. Bill Murray did an updated version called Scrooged and it might have worked if the ending didn’t just plain suck. They simply turned the camera on Murray and let him wing it. Didn’t work for me but it has some redeeming features. Carol Kane is brilliant as the Ghost of Christmas Present and Bobcat Goldthwait is terrific fun as the Bob Cratchit stand-in. Especially when he has a gun.
Albert Finney plays Scrooge in the movie musical Scrooge which I never really cared for despite the presence of Dame Edith Evans as the Ghost of Christmas Past and Kenneth More as the Ghost of Christmas Present, both of whom perform wonderfully. Alec Guiness, Ol’ Obi-Wan Kenobi himself, plays Marley’s Ghost but it wasn’t a performance that spoke to me. Leslie Bricusse did the songs, only one of which – “Thank You Very Much”, sung by the crowd on Scrooge’s coffin – comes to mind, unlike Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol where I still remember the songs well and fondly.
The thing is – I don’t think they’ve yet made the best version of A Christmas Carol. It keeps getting focused on all the treacle-y elements, the overly sweet and sentimental. Yes, that’s in the book but the other major element, the social commentary, is usually missing. The underlying social conditions that Dickens spoke about are still with us. I also think the ghost parts should be genuinely scary. The perception is that A Christmas Carol should be a family film and we don’t want to scare the little tykes too much. Humbug, I say. Send ‘em home crying if you have to. Do the material justice; do it right. Peter Jackson, get this into your queue. (Ian McKellan as Scrooge? Oh, I think so.)
Next: A Christmas Story. I love this film. Although it’s technically set in Indiana in the late 1940s, parts of it almost feel lifted from my boyhood in the 50s. Coal furnace? Check? Visiting Santa? Check? Schoolyard bullies? Check. Everything plugged into one socket? Check. Check check check.
The story was adapted (and narrated in the movie) by humorist Jean Shephard from various short stories he had written. Our protagonist, Little Ralphie Parker, is inhabited by Peter Billigsly in one of the best performances by a child actor I’ve ever seen — true to the character and the material but with a sense of comedic timing beyond his years. Ralphie desperately wants a Red Ryder, carbine action, two-hundred shot range model air rifle (BB gun) only to be thwarted by every adult who replies, in one of the movie’s signature lines, “You’ll shoot your eye out!” Mom, played by Melinda Dillon as a bit sexier and a little ditzier June Cleaver, leads that pack.
I can remember, as a boy, wanting some toy (not necessarily a BB gun) so badly I ached and being told by the parent it wasn’t good for me. Ralphie’s mania was my mania sometimes.
Another item in the movie’s favor – Darren McGavin as Ralphie dad, a.k.a. The Old Man. Lots of us around here are Darren McGavin fans, if only for his role as Kolchak in the original Night Stalker. I’d argue this is McGavin’s most memorable movie role. The Old Man curses up a storm when in battle with the furnace, his delight in winning perhaps the tackiest sweepstakes prize ever (they sell replicas and I keep threatening to get one) is palpable, and he sees every flat tire as an opportunity to beat his old record in changing it – this is a rich part and McGavin does it full justice.
There is a scene late in the movie where Ralphie gets a present from an aunt who obviously hasn’t seen him in a while. Said Aunt has hand made Ralphie a Doctor Denton’s style sleep suit – head to toe, with feet and a hood that has bunny ears on it. His mother thinks it’s adorable, of course, and Dad knows its utterly humiliating and gets Ralphie out of it ASAP. I mention it because this stuff still happens. I was talking with a friend on the phone when a package arrived from an aunt. In it were hand made winter hoodies for the kids – with bunny ears. Her kids are way to old for bunny ears. I simply said, “Ralphie.” She agreed. The aunt had done a “Ralphie.”
This is a funny, warm, and knowing holiday movie.
This is getting a tad long and I still have more picks to mention so I’ll think we’ll cut it off here and resume next week. I’ll also discuss what’s not on my list and why. In the meantime, feel free to mention some of your own faves and we’ll see how it all links up – or not – next week.
Ho Ho HO!
Writer of Star Wars: Legacy, Suicide Squad, GrimJack: The Manx Cat (here on ComicMix) and Munden’s Bar (soon to return to ComicMix), John Ostrander sells himself short. He a was featured performer in the prestigious Goodman Theatre’s annual production if A Christmas Carol starting back when Uncle Scrooge was nary an egg, working with future comics collaborators William J. Norris and Del Close.