Tuesday, December 09, 2008

A Christmas Carol (1984) - GUEST REVIEW

Several months ago, I asked Scott Marks, my former film school professor turned San Diego film critic and keeper of one of the most diverse collections of vintage Hollywood memorabilia, for some reviews of Christmas movies to post here at the yuleblog.

Scott is fearlessly honest and doesn't pull punches when it comes to movies. He doesn't write puff pieces (like I do) and share his "one-man's opinion" (stole that term from Irv Kupcinet) for all to share. Without further ado, here is his review of the TV remake of "A Christmas Carol" from 1984. Over to you Scott...

A Christmas Carol (1984)

Directed by
Clive Donner
Written by Roger O. Hisron from a short story by Charles Dickens
Starring: George C. Scott, David Warner, Susannah York, Roger Rees, Frank Finlay, Edward Woodward, Michael Gough, Joanne Whalley and Introducing Anthony Walters as "Tiny Tim"
Photographed by Tony Imi in Tele-Vision


You know Alis-tair and Ma-goo and Derek Ja-co-bi; Va-nessa Williams played a "Scrooge" named "E-bo-ny." But, do you recall, the an-gri-est Scrooge of them all?

George C. Scott, in the role he was born to play (20 years earlier), stars as Ebeneezer Scrooge in this Classics Illustrated tele-version of Charles Dickens' beloved Christmas staple. By this point in his career, Scott had amassed a big enough steamer trunk filled with tricks where he could stop acting and quickly slip into caricature. Eyes roll, his brow furrows, teeth gnash, the voice thunders and yes, Virginia, there is a blow up scene. In fact there are a few volcanic bursts scattered like uncut diamonds throughout this faithful adaptation.

He first erupts while calling for his beleaguered employee Bob Cratchit (David Warner). Once you've been summoned by a pissed off George C. Scott, all other commands wilt in comparison. He also has a hell of a hard time shaking off the Ghost of Christmas Past (Angela Pleasence). George C.'s mighty mitts are no match for his throbbing temples. Soon we hear that gurgling Scott growl slowly begin to roar, like a tiger starting his engine. His pained anguish can no longer be internalized and he wails, "LEAVE ME!!!" Not exactly a Hardcore "TURN IT OFF!!!," but it kept me humming.

Scott deemed television beneath him, as well he should, and with the exception of a few small screen performances (Fear on Trial, The Price), showed up on set and hit "auto pilot." During his first two ghostly visits, Scott's appearance is pretty much relegated to cutaway shots. The anger must settle and simmer for a few commercial breaks before the grand final venting where he pleads for his life, as all Scrooge's must, with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (Michael Carter).

Watch as his face turns into a Fourth of July fireworks show! His agony is so authentic that my head almost exploded from laughter. There are even a few residual chuckles during and after his nice guy epiphany. One would anticipate a crap-eating grin when he tosses that street urchin some goose money on Christmas morning, but when, if ever, have you seen a full-grown Scott jump up and down on a mattress? Turn it on!

IMDB's trivia patrol reports that this is, perhaps, the only version of A Christmas Carol in which Scrooge wears dress-slacks, a dress-shirt and vest instead of the character's customary nightgown, slippers and cap. Legend has it that Scott made a wardrobe call after going ballistic at the very thought of freezing his unmentionables while filming the cold winter exteriors in England.

Aside from Scott's pyrotechnics, this version has a few other things to carol about, most notably a fine supporting cast. What Edward Woodward's Ghost of Christmas Present lacks in girth is more than compensated for by height. At 5' 9" he towers over Scrooge. Woodward is one of the few actors capable of convincingly staring Scott down and one actually feels the menace as he issues Scrooge his cautionary warning. Frank Finlay is perfectly cast as Jacob Marley and David Warner is as kind and compassionate a Bob Cratchit as any committed to film.

CBS obviously pumped some money into the production. They hired Clive Donner (The Caretaker, What's New Pussycat?, Luv) who had already directed Scott in a small screen adaptation of Dickens' Oliver Twist. The cracks in the production design are handsomely plastered by Tony Imi's dark cinematography, but overall the project lacks atmosphere. The filmmaker's idea of ambiance is a smoke machine, a fan and some cobwebs left over from The Munsters.

Then there's cherubic Anthony Walters. In this case, Tim's nickname "Tiny" refers to both his stature and acting ability. Walters can frequently be caught looking off camera for direction. If one more sickening cry of "God bless us all, everyone" came out of this tyke, I'd have beat him to death with the crutch he rode in on. Come to think of it, the over-applied black rings around the kid's eyes make him look as though he already went a few rounds with Mike Tyson. Could this Tim be television's first post modern goth child? Were it not for Scott's impending tirade, I'd suggest you hit stop right after Tiny buys it in the fantasy scene and draw your own cynical conclusions.

- Scott Marks

CAPT'S NOTE: When I worked for Suncoast Motion Picture Company over a decade ago, we were bombarded every Christmas by people asking us when this movie was to be released on home video. Before Christmas, 1995, my store manager attended corporate meetings and relayed this story to me:

The head of Fox Home Video approached the head of Suncoast and wanted to thank him for a great year and "is there anything we can do for you guys?". The Suncoast bigwig asked about the release of this version of "A Christmas Carol".

After several phone calls and wranglings, it was determined that Scott needed to sign off on the release of the video. An overseas phone call was placed to George's home in London - he took the call and was okay with the release - as long as he didn't have to come back to America and sign the papers needed, having just unpacked.

With time running out to get the video released for Christmas, the Fox Home Video guy flew to England (14 hour flight one way) to get the signature needed. Ever hear of a fax machine, George?


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Mr. Marks review notwithstanding this is a favorite version of a very favorite story of a very favorite season. Critics must recognize in the current age they are subject to criticism. When I read a negative review, as this one is, I look for criticisms that ring true. Perhaps I am relegated to the unwashed and untutored masses in my understanding of the high art but Mr. Marks failed. Scott's portrayal is masterly, miserly scrooge whether incidental or generated. The only negative gong in synch with is the portrayal of poor young Walters. The comments of the Capt concerning the demand for popular release show the unwashed masses win the review.