Monday, December 1, 2014

Holidaze Review: A Christmas Carol (1971)

According to Wikipedia, the oldest known film adaptation of A Christmas Carol, the 1843 Charles Dickens novella that introduced the world to Ebenezer Scrooge--the mean, cheap old man who nonetheless gets a shot at late-life redemption thanks to the ghost of his late business partner, Jacob Marley, and spirits representing the past, present and future of the Christmas holiday--popped up in 1901, when film itself was little more than a decade old and Dickens had existed within living memory.

Over the century-plus since, dozens of versions have appeared on screens big and small. Full-length features, made-for-TV specials, musicals, adaptations filtered through the pop culture prisms of Mister Magoo, Mickey Mouse and the Muppets, sitcom episodes…you name it, A Christmas Carol has probably been pounded, shoved or twisted into it.

The most popular version of the tale is probably the 1951 big-screen version starring Alistair Sim as Scrooge. Completely understandable--that version was in the public domain for years and played on many TV stations in many holiday seasons.

But did you know that, 20 years later, Sim starred in another version of A Christmas Carol--possibly the best, if most obscure, version of all?

It was a half-hour animated TV special, which aired in 1971 and was later issued on VHS, but never made it to DVD, much less Blu-ray.

That’s a shame, because this version deserves the widest audience possible, for a number of reasons.

First off, the special, produced by the legendary Chuck Jones directed by Richard Williams, is visually stunning, with fine line work in the hand-drawn animation that not even the blur of my copy (a bootleg bought from eBay and obviously dubbed from the aforementioned VHS release) could obscure. There are some moments that hint at Jones’s usual style (previously gracing another Christmas classic, How the Grinch Stole Christmas), but many more that look like book illustrations come to life.

Second, the special uses the relative brevity of the original story to great advantage. It was, after all, a novella, not a full-blown novel, and this version packs nearly all the major incidents into its 25-minute running time while still hitting on minor moments often forgotten in other, more lavish versions, like the visits to a mining camp and a ship at sea with the Ghost of Christmas Present, or Bob Cratchit lamenting at deathbed of Tiny Tim. There’s not a line or scene in it that’s not straight from Dickens, making this possibly the most accurate adaptation of all.

Lastly? The ghosts. The scary, scary ghosts.

Marley’s Ghost (voiced by Michael Hordern, who played the same role opposite Sim in the 1951 version) is one of the most frightening creatures ever to float across a TV screen, and even the usually jolly Ghost of Christmas Present had kids jumping behind the couch when he pulled back his robe to reveal the children, Want and Ignorance, clinging to his legs. (I remember this scene from the one time I saw this version when I was a kid—probably when it originally aired in 1971--and it still gives me the creeps.)

We can always hope that somebody somewhere gets the bright idea to release a “special edition” of this special, especially in high definition. It really deserves to be seen. Until then, those of you who still own VCRs (like me) can track down VHS copies on eBay or Amazon. Trust me--it will be worth it, though I apologize in advance for any nightmares Marley’s ghost scares up…sorry about that.

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