THERE is probably no way of destroying A Christmas Carol. A lavish musical spectacular would seem to be the most likely possibility, but, despite enough flaws to sink a less hardy subject, the spirit of Dickens manages to shine through in Scrooge, and for some that should be reason enough to go see it.
It's too bad, though, that Ronald Neame, who directed Scrooge, and Leslie Bricusse, who did almost everything else, couldn't come up with more exciting ideas about what to do with Dickens' story. As it is, the best that can be said for them is that they didn't absolutely pervert A Christmas Carol in making it a movie musical. It's too bad, for example, that none of the songs are memorable, none of the dances exciting, and none of the inevitable padding of the original story has any interest whatsoever. But we can't ask for everything.
Ebenezer Scrooge, according to Dickens, "carried his own low temperature about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn't thaw it one degree at Christmas." Albert Finney, as Scrooge, knows how to act cold, and he knows how to sound cold. His performance is really remarkable, though after all he has dialogue that even Mister Magoo can make effective. The problems with his Scrooge are not exactly his fault: in the first place he doesn't look like Scrooge. I've always pictured Scrooge as a shriveled up old man with small beady eyes and thin, bloodless lips, sort of like a nun who taught me in the second grade. No amount of makeup could make Albert Finney look like that nun, and I guess he wasn't perfectionist enough to go on a starvation diet. The second problem is that Finney can't sing. He may sing well enough in his normal voice, but he can't even manage the Rex Harrison method of speaking a song when he puts on Scrooge's old, gruff voice.
At any rate Finney seems to have a wonderful time flying through the air in his nightshirt, being mean to people, being frightened by the ghosts, being nice to people, and generally dominating the movie. Another person who looks like he's enjoying himself is Alec Guinness, who hilariously overplays his role as Jacob Marley. It must be great fun for an actor who is used to understating his comic roles to be able to show anger by shooting up ten feet into the air and rattling huge chains and padlocks draped around his body. And, luckily, he hardly has to sing at all.
Unfortunately, Briscusse feels obliged to make practically everyone else sing a lot. The ever so cute street urchins with the absolutely charming Cockney accents have a comic song, and Bob Cratchit sings a merry Christmas tune, and Tiny Tim gives us a wistful little solo, and Fezziwig's daughter, in Christmas past, has a beautiful love song, none of which make me want to buy the sound track. Aside from the mediocrity of the music, the problem is that Dickens is already about as full of sentimentality as a writer can be without being positively offensive, and this kind of music is occasionally enough to tip the scale.
The most flagrant example of this occurs in the romance of the young Scrooge and Fezziwig's daughter. Dickens only gives us a scene in which a woman (not Miss Fezziwig) returns her engagement ring to Scrooge because he has a new passion, for Gain. Briscusse shows the whole courtship to the background of a song called "Happiness Is," or something like that. Pure, thick soup. The level of intelligence is nowhere near an old version of A Christmas Carol, with Alistair Sim, in which the Fezziwig episode was padded much more effectively by having Scrooge ruin Fezziwig and heartlessly take over his business.
THE production does have some good points, though. The credits appear against a background of beautiful Phiz-like sketches of Dickens' London. The sets are remarkable, especially Scrooge's gray, musty rooms, which made me want to sneeze just looking at the dust, and the vibrant, colorful street scenes on Christmas Eve. Some people dislike this romanticizing of London, which was a pretty grim place in the middle of the nineteenth century, saying that it's untrue to Dickens' very realistic descriptions of the place. This criticism just doesn't hold for A Christmas Carol, which is a moral fable, not a piece of social criticism. To set it in the Never-never land of the back lot of a movie studio doesn't blunt Dickens' message, especially in a movie aimed basically at kids.
Whether kids should be brought to see this movie is a problem, though. I'm not a member of the Sesame Street generation, so I don't know how mature kids are nowadays. All I can say is that some parts of Scrooge are really scary. Jacob Marley takes Scrooge out to show him the spirits of the damned floating by, and those spirits are just hideously deformed. And they come right at you, and they stare at you, and I for one didn't feel like staring back. The Ghost of Christmas Future is a pretty frightening figure in Dickens, a hooded, faceless creature who never speaks, but Bricusse adds a scene in which Scrooge falls into his newly dug grave, catching a glimpse of a skull under the hood of the ghost, and tumbles all the way down into Hell. Pretty strong stuff.
If you can put up with that, and with all the claptrap of the movie musical, Scrooge is a movie worth seeing-but only when there's nothing left to do on your vacation. If you've already been to Santa's Village, if you've already fed the reindeer on the Common (a pretty scrawny bunch this year), and you've bought your holly and your ivy at Xmas Tree City, take your kid sister. But first make her promise to read the book.