Top Five Film & TV Rewrites/Updates of “A Christmas Carol”

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Top Five Film & TV Rewrites/Updates of “A Christmas Carol”

The basic storyline of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” has been borrowed many times by the Entertainment Industry. The simple plot points—Grouchy Person hates Christmas, makes everyone else miserable, is visited by variations of the Spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future, Grouchy Person has a change of heart, Christmas is saved—have been the source of many Sitcom and Drama plots, as well as fertile inspiration for many, many Variety Show skits. This list concerns itself with Films and one-off TV Movies, many of which are nearly impossible to locate for viewing these days, but are worth the effort to find on cable TV or via tired and used VHS tapes or DVD-Rs.

5. Ebbie: One of the few to feature a female Scrooge character. Susan Lucci (All My Children) is the owner of Dobson’s department store, and as per the iconography of “A Christmas Carol,” she is a stingy, self-involved boss. Her ghostly visitors show her the events that created her animosity towards Christmas, what she is missing out on today, and the dark future path she is following. By Christmas Morning Ebbie is a changed woman. No big surprises in this adaptation, aside from a woman in the role of Scrooge, but it is an enjoyable take on the classic story. The Lifetime Channel often offers this movie during the Holiday Season.

4. John Grin’s Christmas: This is a hard-to-find one-hour TV movie from 1986, featuring an all-black cast. Robert Guillaume directs and stars as the title character, a Scrooge-like toymaker. A fire on Christmas leaves the young John Grin an orphan, making him not only alone but estranged from the holiday. Roscoe Lee Brown, Ted Lange, and Jeffery Holder are the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, respectively. Carolers are replaced with break-dancers, and the Tiny Tim character is not sick, he just needs a job in John Grin’s toy factory. Not available today except on a few home-recorded video tapes stacked in closets here and there, this is one production worthy of a grass roots letter-writing campaign demanding its release on DVD. Hey, it worked with “The House Without A Christmas Tree.”

3. An American Christmas Carol: Starring Henry Winkler (Fonzie from Happy Days), this 1979 made-for-TV movie takes place during the Great Depression year of 1933. Fonzie—I mean Winkler plays Benedict Slade, Big Man in a small New Hampshire town. The big granite quarry that employed most of the people in town has been closed for many years, and the townspeople implore Slade to use his resources—from his furniture and home appliance business—to reopen the quarry and put the town back to work. This goes over with Slade about as well as the local orphans requesting a cash donation for the Children’s Home. Now we are set for the hauntings to begin. Christmas Past is accessed through old broadcasts coming from Slade’s bedside radio. The orphans he encountered asking for donations are his guides for Christmas Present, and during Christmas Future Slade witnesses his personal belongings being sold off and burned. He awakes on Christmas Morning a new man, returns the furniture and other items he had repossessed the day before, and at the orphanage selects a young boy, one that reminds Slade of his younger self, to become his apprentice. By no means perfect, “An American Christmas Carol” is nonetheless an admirable attempt at updating the language and story of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”

2. Scrooged: This is one of those adaptations for which there seems to be no middle ground as far as viewers are concerned—people either love it or hate it. After my first viewing I was on the side of the Haters. The film seemed too mean-spirited and I found very little about it humorous. Then I saw it again, and again, in different frames of mind, and I started to see that it was actually a fairly clever adaptation and updated telling of the original story. Bill Murray plays the lead character, Frank Cross, the youngest Network executive in Television history. His IBC network is putting on a live Christmas day broadcast of the Dickens’ tale of Scrooge (A Christmas Carol), but Frank Cross is only interested in ratings and ad revenues. David Johansen of The New York Dolls gives a great comedic performance as the cabbie/Ghost of Christmas Past, and there we see events that made Frank Cross emotionally closed off and success driven. Carol Kane is a strange, fairy-like Ghost of Christmas Present with a penchant for S&M. Comedian Bobcat Goldthwait is almost unrecognizable as the Cratchit-type character, and Alfre Woodard, Robert Mitchum and Karen Allen also stand out in the cast. The ending scene of the new-and-improved Frank Cross is less than effective, but “Scrooged” can be appreciated as a heart-felt if subversive updating of the old Christmas tale. And it actually got funnier the more I watched it.

1. Karroll’s Christmas: As the title implies, this A&E made-for-TV movie gets a lot of things in the story backwards, purposely. Allen Karroll (Tom Everett Scott) is a once idealistic and romantic man who suffered a humiliation on a previous Christmas and is now less than enthusiastic about the Holiday. But he tries, even while enduring the grouchy onslaught from his cranky neighbor Zeb Rosecog (Wallace Shawn), who seems to take special pleasure in tormenting Karroll. Christmas Eve arrives and brings with it the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Future (Alanna Ubach, Larry Miller, and Verne Troyer, respectively)  to haunt the old coot, Rosecog. The only problem with this is that the ghosts arrive at Karroll’s house by mistake. In an effort to salvage their night of Christmas haunting, the Ghosts prevail upon Karroll to take the place of Rosecog as they travel through Rosecog’s past, present and future (although the order gets fouled up and they travel to the present, past and future). Along with learning that his neighbor was not always the nasty piece of work he knows today, and that Rosecog was once sentimental and in fact the owner of the greeting card company for which he now works, Karroll gets a look at his own Christmas missteps and sees that he is on a similar past, present and future path as Rosecog. Christmas Morning, Karroll awakes in his own easy chair, and decides to help the resistant Rosecog find his Christmas Spirit. He is aided in the task by the inept ghosts, whose skills seem questionable at best. In the end Karroll not only saves Rosecog, but himself as well. In his last conference with the three ghosts, Karroll says that it turned out to be a good thing that the ghosts had made the mistake of haunting him instead of their original target, Rosecog. The ghosts respond that maybe they made mistake, and maybe they didn’t. This is another movie not available commercially in any of the formats, but which sometimes shows up on cable channels during the Holiday Season.

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Top 5 TV Christmas Specials

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Top 5 TV Christmas Specials

Aside from the Holiday stories presented on episodic TV, Television has brought viewers Christmas entertainment in the form of seasonal specials geared towards the whole family. Here is a short list of some the most memorable. Add your own memories in the comments.

5. Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962). For many persons of the later Baby-Boom generation, this animated special was their first encounter with the Charles Dickens story of Scrooge. This musical Carol featured songs written by the team of Jule Styne and Bob Merrill, who a few years later worked on Funny Girl. The story is highly edited from the Dickens original, and seasoned with jokes about Mr. Magoo’s bad eyesight, but Magoo’s usual mishaps are reserved for the scenes that take place outside of the Broadway theater in which Mr. Magoo is starring in the play. Many folks today still prize Mr. Magoo as their favorite Scrooge.

4. Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964). Beginning life in 1939 as a booklet given away by Montgomery Ward department stores, then evolving into a popular song in 1947, the story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer matured into an hour long TV special in 1964, with more characters and songs added to round out the tale of the young reindeer ostracized for being different, who later employs that difference in the service of Christmas, after which he is hailed as a hero.

3. The House Without a Christmas Tree (1972). Based on the book by Gail Rock. Despite being rather cheaply produced and shot on videotape instead of film stock, this well-written adaptation won many fans through the touching story and the superb acting – especially that of Jason Robards and Lisa Lucas as the widowed father and his daughter. After much clamoring and letter writing by the special’s original fans, it has finally been re-released on DVD.

2. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966). The original children’s book by Dr. Suess gets a colorful makeover in this animated special. Boris Karloff (the original Frankenstein’s Monster) uses his distinctive voice to narrate the story and speak as The Grinch. The music for the songs was written by Albert Hague, who some may remember as Mr. Shorofsky , the music teacher in the movie and TV show Fame. This is another old special that has been repeated every year and delights new generations of fans – something the horrible live-action version produced in the year 2000 will never achieve.

1. A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965). A Christmas tradition that almost wasn’t. Television executives hated the Peanuts special from the get-go. They complained that: it was too religious (Linus quotes Luke 2: 8-14); there was no laugh track; the music was contemporary Jazz (by Vince Guaraldi); it used the voices of real children. But audiences and reviewers fell in love with A Charlie Brown Christmas at first sight. The night it premiered – Thursday, December 9, 1965 – the special was seen in over 15 million homes, capturing nearly half the possible viewing audience. It went on to win an Emmy and a Peabody award, and in the 45 years since its debut it seems like Christmas Season cannot officially begin until it has been broadcast.

Top 5 Old Time Radio Christmas Programs

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Top 5 Old Time Radio Christmas Programs*

(*That are available for listening to on YouTube)

People even celebrated Christmas in the olden days – before cable TV, HD TV sets, DVDs, Bluerays and hand-held video players. Click on the titles to go and listen – and many of the links are only Part 1 of the particular program, so please be sure to listen to the other parts available at the YouTube site.

Superman’s Christmas Message – 1945

 

Bing Crosby Christmas Show – 1946

 

A Christmas Story – Jean Shepherd – 1974

 

Christmas Shopping – Abbott and Costello – 1945

 

A Christmas Carol – Mercury Players – 1939

More Christmas Novelty Recordings

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The Sublime, and the Sublimely Bizarre

Because so many deserving recordings were left off the Top 5 list.(Click on the individual song titles to hear the recordings)

The Yogi Yorgensson Ouvre:

I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas

Yingle Bells

I Was Santa Claus at the Schoolhouse (for the P.T.A.)

The Christmas Party

” ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” by:

Art Carney

Liberace

David Hasselhoff

Henry Rollins

John Cleese

Songs about the 1914 Christmas Truce:

Christmas 1914 In No-Man’s Land” – Mike Harding

Christmas in the Trenches” – John McCutcheon

Snoopy’s Christmas” – The Royal Gardsmen

A Red Sovine Classic:

Billy’s Christmas Wish”

More:

“The Twelve Pains of Christmas” – Bob Rivers

Christmas Balls” – Ben Light and his Surf Club Boys

” ‘Zat You, Santa Claus?” – Louis Armstrong

Everywhere It’s Christmas” – The Beatles (1966 Fan Club Record)

Santa and the Purple People Eater” – Sheb Wooley

Donde Esta Santa Claus?” – Augie Rios

Monster’s Holiday” – Lon Chaney Jr

Christmas Boogie” – Canned Heat with The Chipmunks

Linus and Lucy” – Vince Guaraldi (from A Charlie Brown Christmas Special)

The Littlest Christmas Tree” – Red Skelton

White Christmas” – Walter Brennan

All I Want For Christmas is a Beatle” – Dora Bryan

I Want A Beatle For Christmas” -Becky Lee Beck

“An Old Fashioned Christmas (Daddy’s Home)” – Linda Bennett

Santa Claus is a Black Man” – Akim

Happy Birthday Jesus” – Little Cindy

Top 5 Christmas Novelty Recordings

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Top 5 Christmas Novelty Recordings

There is never a greater need for a sense of humor than during the Christmas Holiday season. Over the years many recording artists, the famous and the obscure, have done their best to carve out a few minutes within which we can take a breath and laugh as we are dragged into the desperate, eccentric follies of the modern Christmas Celebration. Here are some examples to get you started – leave your own favorite Christmas Novelty recordings in the comments.

5. Santa Claus and his Old Lady – Cheech and Chong (1971). “The Christmas Story” for the Stoner Generation. This single by the famous counter-culture comedy duo made the Billboard Christmas Chart for three years running – #4(’71) and #3(’72 & ‘73) – and is still dragged out and dusted off annually at most AOR stations.

4. I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas – Gayla Peevey (1953). This is one of those recordings for which there seems to be no middle ground: one either loves it, or one hates it. Sung by 10-year-old Gayla Peevey (who in 1960 recorded the song “My Little Marine” using the name Jamie Horton), the song reached #24 on the Billboard Pop charts. The recording often appears on various Internet sites mislabeled as being performed by Shirley Temple.

3. (Tie)“Green Chri$tma$”(1958) & “Christmas Dragnet”(1953) – Stan Freberg. “Green Christmas” is a brilliant satire of the advertising profession and the commercialization of Christmas by the same. Borrowing from Dickens, Scooge is the COB of a large advertising firm, who is confronted by Bob Cratchit, the owner of a small spice company who is resisting the push to use Christmas as an advertising bonanza. Many of the most prominent products being hawked in a Holiday vein at that time (Coca-Cola, Chesterfield cigarettes, etc…) were slyly parodied, and subsequently many advertisers of the day refused to have their commercials air anytime the record was played and as a result the record received no commercial airplay. Nevertheless, the record sold, and there was a newspaper report on December 27, 1958, that the day after Christmas of 1958, Stan Freberg presented a check for $1,000 to the Hemophilia Foundation of Southern California as his royalties from the first year’s release of “Green Chri$tma$.” He gave all royalties from the song to charities to quell any criticism that he was profiting hypocritically from the subject of his satire. “Christmas Dragnet” is a terrific parody of the then popular police drama starring Jack Webb, and is almost as funny as the real Christmas episode from the TV show.

2. A Christmas Carol – Tom Lehrer (1959). Piano-playing humorist Tom Lehrer also found the overt commercialism of Christmas a fat target for his incisive musical wit. His nightclub act at the time consisted predominantly of satirical takes on different popular song forms, and his “A Christmas Carol” combines a merry original song with snippets of familiar Holiday hymns and carols featuring reworked lyrics reflecting the unabashed marketing and consumerism that was suffocating the Holiday even in the 1950s.

1.The  Twelve Gifts of Christmas” Allan Sherman (1963).The late, great Allan Sherman – King of the Song Parody – gave us this reworking of the interminable old workhorse “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” and saw it rise to #5 on the Billboard charts in 1963 and back again to #32 in 1965. Though some of the gift items listed in this 47-year-old recording might require a brief history lesson for some young listeners of today, the Christmas Bacchanalia Theme will be universally recognizable, and the gross Holiday Materialism of 1963 seems somewhat quaint by modern day standards. It’s amazing – and sad – what we can become accustomed to.

Top 5 Christmas Recordings of the Rock And Roll Era

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Top 5 Christmas Recordings of the Rock And Roll Era

Whether in the car, office, department store or the home, Radio provides the soundtrack for the Holiday Season so often and for so many. Here is my list of the Top 5 Singles released during the Rock And Roll era. The recordings included are not necessarily Rock And Roll music. I just wanted to limit my choices a bit. So much Christmas themed music has been released every Fall and Winter for the past century, that narrowing the list of favorites down to less than half a dozen would be like trying to pick your favorite 5 hairs on your head (regrettably much easier when it comes to my head).

5.“The Little Drummer Boy” – Harry Simeone Chorale (1958). Aside from a triangle or two, just human voices heard on this popular recording. This song is the English translation of a Czech carol titled “The Carol of the Drum.” The recording was released every Christmas season from 1958 to 1962, and made the top 40 each of those years.

4. “White Christmas” – The Drifters (1954 & 1955). The rockin’ Doo Wop version of the Christmas Pop standard was recorded by the original Drifters with Clyde McPhatter late in 1953. It hit #2 on the Billboard R&B charts in 1954 and entered the Pop charts in 1955. In 1957 Elvis Presley recorded a version of “White Christmas” heavily influenced by the Drifters’ single, and this one caught the attention of the song’s composer, Irving Berlin, who hated Presley’s rendition and waged a serious campaign to try and get radio stations to ban the Presley version. He was unsuccessful, the Elvis Presley “White Christmas” single topped the Billboard charts, and the royalty checks rolled on in.

3. “The Christmas Song” – Nat King Cole (1946 & 1960). Written one hot July day by Mel Torme’ and Bob Wells, who were just trying to see if they could mentally cool themselves off by writing about a different season, this modern standard was originally recorded in 1946 by the Nat King Cole Trio. Nat rerecorded the song in 1953 with Nelson Riddle’s string arrangement. The orchestral version was released in 1960, only spent a couple of weeks on the Billboard charts, but that was all it needed to earn a Gold Record. Often called/referred to by it’s first line, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…

2. “Happy Xmas (War is Over) – John Lennon and Yoko Ono (1971). In 1969 the Lennons put up billboard advertisements in major cities around the world that stated simply: “War is Over! (If You Want It).” This became the theme around which John Lennon composed an anti-war Christmas song. Recorded with the Harlem Community Choir and produced by Phil Spector (who’s own legendary Christmas Album suffered the fate of having been released the very same day President Kennedy was assassinated, and was quickly pulled from release), the single did not initially chart well. But as with so many records with a short but annual shelf life, it sold much better the following year. It has since been covered by a wide variety of musical artists, and the original recording is regularly heard on radio and TV whenever the Christmas Season rolls around.

1. “Merry Christmas Baby” – Johnny Moore’s Three Blazers (1947).  Slightly pre-dating what is generally accepted to be “the Rock And Roll era,” this influential 1947 composition was and continues to be covered by nearly every performer who feels a need for a Christmas song in their set list whenever December rolls around. It’s been recorded by such authentic artists as Chuck Berry, Bonnie Raitt and Otis Redding, as well as wanna-be artists like Jessica Simpson, Christina Aguilera and Hanson. For the original recording Johnny Moore stacked things in his favor by hiring guitarist Oscar Moore of the Nat King Cole Trio, and singer/pianist Charles Brown. The single reached #3 on the Billboard R&B charts.

Christmas Therapy

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Christmas Therapy

 

The modern Christmas Season, at least as practiced here in the United States, produces more anxiety and dread than joy and peace in most adults. The out of control commercialism and forced socializing that feeds unnatural expectations and feelings of emptiness and lack is, for the most part, impossible to avoid. Coming right on the heels of all of this Holiday splendid-osity is the arrival of the New Year, and its attendant year-end tallying up of the columns, both the material (taxes, etc…) and the spiritual (assessing the past, and aspiring for the future). It can all add up to Crazy-Making, to use the non-clinical term.

A decade ago, give or take, in the midst of my own Christmas Holiday disquiet, I bumbled into creating a little self-help exercise that actually succeeded in taking a good portion of the loaded holiday stress from my mind. I’ve repeated it every year since, and I offer it here in the much ballyhooed Spirit of Goodwill.

To make it short and sweet: Write a letter to Santa Claus. Wait! Don’t leave! Hear me out!

The idea at first may sound stupid to many, but is it really any dumber than standing in line to spend a half a week’s pay buying Starbucks gift cards for the office Secret Santa exchange you just found out about the day before? Allow me a little more time to make my case.

Children are encouraged to write letters to Santa Claus, the general motivation being the acquisition of desired material goods. Many thousands of letters addressed to Santa are sent by children every year, and the postal service has even instituted Operation Santa Claus, a program in which volunteers open the letters and try to fulfill some of the wishes contained in them.

For adults, belief in Santa Claus is tacitly and aggressively discouraged. And yet adults are actively encouraged toward, and even praised for, belief in a host of other entities that one is told are not seen but felt. So why should Santa Claus be treated any different? I say he’s as good as any other invisible entity to which one may plead.

As a therapeutic tool, writing letters has been proven to have great palliative value. So gather pen and paper, an envelope and a stamp (very important!), and sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve jot down a few ideas you would like to share with the Jolly Old Elf regarding what you would like to see happen in your life, and the lives of those you love, in the coming year(s).

It does not need to be a long missive. Start with saying hello to Santa and ask how he’s been. Steer away from the unapologetic materialism of the typical childhood letter to Santa. Instead, tell Santa Claus what you need that can’t be easily bought: a new or better job, a healthier body, success for an endeavor, a new philosophy, meeting the right people, wishes for the New Year(s)—tell Santa what you need, why you need it, and then how you will pay the gift forward. Sign the letter (I usually just use my first name—Santa Claus is magic, after all, and he will know it’s me when he reads the letter). Then put it in the envelope, address it to Santa Claus, North Pole (or whatever derivation of that basic address you choose), put a stamp on it (yes, you may feel like you’re wasting a good stamp, but the Post Office still has to handle your letter, and you can think of it as akin to the blood sacrifice required in many of the Hero’s Journey stories) and, most important of all, mail it! Before Christmas Eve.

Send those hopes and dreams out there. It only takes a few minutes of your time and costs a stamp, but something nice may come to you in return. You just never know. That’s the magic of the Christmas gift—anything could be wrapped up in that colorful paper.

You just never know.