06 December 2009

CHRISTMAS CAROLS: THE MUSICAL

In adapting a text as well-worn as Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol to the screen, it's not enough just to be faithful to the material and capture its essence; particularly when that task has been done so many times, sometimes quite well. It is occasionally the case that a producer will decide that the material needs some sexing up, which leads to things like gender-bending casting, or some kind of technical gimmick, or - as in the case of the 1970 Scrooge - by turning it into a big Broadway-style musical.

This particular film boasts a screenplay and soundtrack by Leslie Bricusse, best known for his collaborations with Anthony Newley, including Stop the World - I Want to Get Off and The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd; regular visitors may have recalled spotting my opinion of Newley once or twice, and if they do then they know I have very, very little use for that man's art. It would appear from the evidence of Scrooge that my indifference extends to his partner, but I am getting ahead of myself a bit.

As far as adapting Dickens goes, the film is somewhat more on the "faithful" end of things, but not nearly so faithful as the standard-bearing 1951 Alastair Sim vehicle. It certainly gets most of the especially famous lines of dialogue right, though, and the events put in the right order and all. The only significant changes Bricusse makes to the text are the addition of a lengthy comic "Scrooge in Hell" scene at the end of the journey with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, and the omission for some intensely bizarre reason of the final line - yes, this is a version of A Christmas Carol in which Tiny Tim does not cue the end credits by wishing that God should bless us, every one, which is a bit like an adaptation of Hamlet in which the melancholy Dane stands up in an empty room to muse: "I could either kill myself, or not - that's certainly something worth pondering."

The miserly Ebenezer Scrooge is played, this time out, by Albert Finney, all of 34 years old at the time, and if you are like me, your first thought is to wonder why in God's name anybody thought they could get away with something like that. The answer is fairly simple: Finney gives a much more believable performance than you or I would be likely to credit. In retrospect, this should not be terribly surprising; Finney is nothing if not a fairly excellent movie actor, probably the most talented performer of the 1960s, post-Angry Young Man era of British male stage and screen stars. It still seems like asking him too much to portray a convincing 60- or 70-something man, but he is, probably 90% of the time, up to the challenge.

Given that Scrooge is a musical, it's perhaps to be expected that it's also relatively comic and lighthearted, and thus Finney's take on Scrooge is by necessity not so dark and probing as most of the best-loved interpretations (Sim, George C. Scott, Patrick Stewart, to name a few). He plays the character mostly as an addled, grumpy old man, who mumbles a lot and snarls out his imprecations in a whiny squeak. This works against Finney sometimes: in nearly all of the Ghost of Christmas Present sequence, he talks with a high-pitched squawk that reminded me of absolutely nothing so much as Terry Jones's "old man" voice as heard in Monty Python's Flying Circus and its cinematic spin-off. Never a good comparison to make, that.

But outside of a few stumbles like that, Finney is always believable as an elderly man, thanks to some outstanding make-up effects, and by lightening the dramatic import of the story, he's not called upon to dip into the well of suffering and misery that an old man brings to the character. He's disagreeable and grouchy, and these are qualities that Finney can play very well. His Scrooge may not be one for the ages; may in fact be nothing but a crusty, amusing misanthrope; but for the limitations put on him by the material, he's as good a Scrooge as you could want to see.

He's also the only element of this production that is really up to much good. Some of the other cast members do well enough for themselves, sure - Alec Guinness's Jacob Marley is every bit as sly and sarcastic as you would hope from that actor, and David Collings makes for an awfully satisfying Bob Cratchit, given the inherent limitations of Cratchit as a character - but try as I might, I could never find Scrooge more than a borderline acceptable take on the material. A lot of this has to do with Bricusse's wildly unengaging, unmemorable score - it has not been so very long since I saw the movie, and I'd be hard pressed to hum more than a few notes from any of the eleven songs. What I can swear to is a dreadful lack of melody or tunefulness, like every single number was meant to be played in that Rex Harrison "spoken-sung" fashion that has never really worked outside of My Fair Lady.

The greater problem is simply that the film lacks energy or dramatic thrust: it is hobbled by the lack of a terribly cruel, angry Scrooge, and there aren't really any emotional fireworks to speak of as a result; when Finney's Scrooge is redeemed, it's not a relief to us, because there was never any real fear or agony of Scrooge's wickedness. Not that director Ronald Neame is noted for his emotionally probing cinema: he is generally a flaccid filmmaker, whose best work exactly correlates with the best performances given by his actors (Guinness in Tunes of Glory, Maggie Smith in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie). He's absolutely not very visually imaginative, and Scrooge is no exception to that: filmed in anamorphic widescreen by cinematographer Oswald Morris (who would much outdo this film just one year later, with Fiddler on the Roof), there are very shots that make much use out of that aspect ratio at all, and the whole thing looks impossibly set-bound. Which it was, of course, but just because something takes place on a soundstage doesn't mean you have to light it that way. All in all, the film has the approximate look of a television film with unusually high-quality set design, and even that isn't consistent. I admire the effort put forth, and the resolute high-spirit Britishness of it all (especially the Ghost of Christmas Past, played by Edith Evans as sort of gossipy schoolmarm), but Scrooge is a bit flimsy in far too many places. A solid Scrooge does not a great Christmas Carol make.

2 comments:

Zev Valancy said...

Having heard this score on the radio every year around Christmas, I can attest that it is eventually memorable. I could still sing you several lines of "Thank You Very Much" and a few others. No classic, but tuneful enough.

Brigdh said...

I was in a stage production of this when I was 12 or so, and I have to side with Tim that the songs are very forgettable. Despite knowing them all at one point, the only bit I remember is the score when the Ghost of Christmas Future appears, which had an almost heavy-metal beat to it. We used to hide behind pieces of furniture on the stage and do our best head-banging in attempts to make our Scrooge laugh in front of the audience.