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.

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

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.

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.

The Top 5 Film Versions of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”

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The Top 5 Film Versions of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”

On this list we will numerate what I feel are the best film adaptations of the Charles Dickens novella, “A Christmas Carol.” This is the most common means by which the average person, over the past 5 decades or so, experiences the Dickens story. Rating the quality of the various “A Christmas Carol” movies is never without controversy, as most people who care about such things already have their own sentimental favorites. My own favorites have changed and evolved over the years, never more so than subsequent to finally reading the original book. This list will concern itself solely with ‘authentic’ adaptations – films that aspire to telling the Dickens story as written. Movies that involve huge overhauling and updating of the original book will be discussed in a separate list. As always, please feel free to offer your own list in the comments section.

5. A Muppet Christmas Carol(1992). The only musical version of the story that does not make me cringe, the ‘Muppet Carol’ is unfairly disregarded by most people. Underneath the songs and humor is a production nicely faithful to the book. A lot of the weak points in casting that cause trouble for the other live-action films (the role of Tiny Tim is a chronic problem, affecting even the best of the film versions) are avoided by the use of Muppets for many of the characters. Michael Caine brings an interesting, if understated, reading to the main character of Scrooge; there is a foundation of deep sadness in his portrayal that is unique in the pantheon of film Scrooges, and his scene in the graveyard will rip your heart out. His Christmas Morning scene is the weakest part of his portrayal, but in that deficit he is in good company as only one actor in the entire list of film Scrooges has ever fully realized the potential in expressing Scrooge’s joy in receiving a second chance to make his life right. The original songs, written by Paul Williams, are used to punctuate rather than tell the story, and are the finest of all the attempts at a musical Christmas Carol. Why the song “One More Sleep Till Christmas” has not yet become a Holiday standard is perplexing.

4. A Christmas Carol 1938(the Reginald Owen Version). There was a time when this version was at the top of my list, and I’m sure it still rests unchallenged at the top for many other people. This was the third telling of the tale I ever saw (fourth if we include the December, 1969 production by Mr. Chapman’s 6th grade class at El Oro Way Elementary School, featuring my neighbor Kevin Gitane in the role of Bob Cratchit, and an impressive blacklight and fluorescent paint graveyard scene), and the first non-animated version I experienced. Owen plays Scrooge with a fierce growl in his voice, and the make-up employed to transform him to an appropriate age is impressive, especially for its day. Unfortunately, the actor chooses to convey Scrooge’s advanced years with a stiff-neck-and-back forward lean that fails to accomplish the task, eventually giving one the impression of a man severely constipated by too much Christmas pudding. The young actor cast as Tiny Tim is fine in the early scene watching the other boys slide on the ice, but by the Christmas dinner scene has become annoying. The casting of Tiny Tim is the most common weak link that plagues all the productions of A Christmas Carol, and it is a shame because while the role is small it is important. Gene Lockhart is a sympathetic if over-fed Bob Cratchit, and Leo G. Carroll plays the ghost of Marley as a weary, but less than frightening apparition. The producers solve the difficulty of portraying the Ghost of Christmas Past as described in the Dickens story by ignoring the author’s creation and having the Ghost played by a woman. This version leaves out Fezziwig’s Ball and Scrooge’s courtship of Belle, and the eventual destruction of that relationship due to his growing alliance to greed. The Christmas Morning Scene fails to truly demonstrate the transformation of Scrooge. Owen acts happy, but does nothing to show us the depth and the mix of emotions, which must necessarily result from such a profound look at the past, present and future and the 180-degree alteration in Scrooge’s baseline behavior. He is changed, but not humbled by his night among the spirits, and seems to feel no concern whatsoever regarding how his sudden change of heart will be responded to by those he formerly kicked and pushed away. Franz Waxman’s score is one of the highlights of this film version, perfectly embellishing the many fine performances. This is a fine film adaptation, so please understand that the deficits I mention for this and the other films are merely meant to explain the things about the different productions that keep me from rating them higher.

3. A Christmas Carol aka Scrooge 1935(the Seymour Hicks Version). Obviously made on a small budget, the rarely seen 1935 version makes up for its production limitations with an impressive performance by its lead actor and co-writer, Sir Seymour Hicks. Sir Seymour was already familiar with the role, having scripted and starred in the 1913 silent version. He plays Scrooge as a tough, cantankerous, bullying old man. The lighting design, inspired by German Impressionistic Cinema, is wonderful and spooky (“A Christmas Carol” is a ghost story, after all). The dialogue is lifted almost word for word from the novella, and most of the key points of the story are hit upon. We get to see the disparate Christmas celebrations described in the novella, from the busy shopping stalls to the fancy dinner at the Lord Mayor of London’s residence. Marley’s Ghost is invisible to us, represented by voice over and camera movements, and Hicks’ great performance will have you believing he sees the spectral Marley as he interacts with him. The Cratchits are presented as poor working class rather than the unexplainably posh Cratchits of most of the other productions, and the actor playing Tiny Tim is one of the few to pull off the role without becoming a sickly sweet annoyance. He only gets a few scenes though. The Ghost of Christmas Present is the weakest link. The actor portraying this spirit is just plain awful, and seems to have been the inspiration for the Jon Lovitz Master Thespian character on Saturday Night Live. The Ghost of Christmas Past is a glowing shroud, while the Ghost of Christmas Future is the usual spooky dark shrouded figure that we experience mostly from its shadow. The story gets truncated, and some key elements unfortunately get tossed out in this telling of the tale. For example, we are shown only one scene from Scrooge’s past – his losing the love of his life, Belle. But we get no clues as to when and how Scrooge developed into the poster child for selfishness and avarice. The Christmas Morning scene is well played by Sir Seymour, giving us a look at a tearfully happy Scrooge, and offering the lead actor and the supporting cast an opportunity to display their comedic skills. The final scene of Scrooge revealing his new self to Bob Cratchit at the office is shortened but gives Sir Seymour another chance for comic relief as he struggles to maintain his former gruff exterior while he sets up Bob Cratchit for his big change of heart. The 1935 Scrooge/A Christmas Carol is a very good film adaptation that deserves to be seen and enjoyed by a much wider audience.

2. A Christmas Carol 1999(the Patrick Stewart Version). By the time of this production, Patrick Stewart had already spent many Christmas seasons performing A Christmas Carol as a one-man play, acting out all the characters in what must have been an exhausting holiday tradition. Because of this he achieved an intimacy with the material and with the character of Scrooge that none of the other actors who have portrayed Scrooge on film could match. One of the most recent of the many made-for-TV film versions of the Dickens book (others run the gamut from the equally fine 1984 version with George C. Scott, to the interesting 1954 version with Fredric March, to the somewhat bizarre 1949 version with Vincent Price as host/narrator), in the promotional materials for the 1999 version Patrick Stewart sets for the cast and crew the daunting task of “…creating the definitive version of A Christmas Carol for the New Millenium.” That is really raising the bar. Patrick Stewart’s Scrooge is not the somewhat crotchety old man found in other interpretations. His is a Scrooge of strong physical power and presence, with a quick mind and a definite cruel streak, who does not walk so much as strut. Not many in his small world are willing to or capable of standing toe-to-toe with this Scrooge and look him in the eye. But we get the impression that all this bluster is not much more than a defense mechanism, and that there is more going on underneath the pose than Scrooge has the courage to admit. Stewart also shows us that Scrooge possesses a shrewd, analytic mind, and that he did not achieve his business success through bullying but through smarts. We see this when he abates his fear over the presence of the spectral Jacob Marley by trying to debate the causes of Marley’s penance of eternal torment, and later in the graveyard scene: when Scrooge demands of the Ghost of Christmas Past, “Why show me these things if I am beyond all hope?” he points his finger at the Ghost and exclaims “Ah-ha!” as in, “There! I’ve defeated you with logic!” The Stewart version also keeps Dickens’ subtle wordplay and humor intact, and even adds to it. For example: during the scene of Scrooge’s meeting with the specter of Jacob Marley, when he is listing the disorders of the stomach that could be the source of the ghost’s appearance, Scrooge says, “…and British beef, that can be very hard on the stomach,” no doubt a sly reference to the current worries over Mad Cow Disease plaguing the British sheep and cattle stocks. One of the biggest treats in this version is the Cratchit Family. These scenes make the viewer feel like he or she is eavesdropping on an actual family, so natural are the performances by the actors. The Cratchits are presented as lower working class/working poor and their accents and language seem much more realistic than the ‘drawing room’ upper-crust line readings in many of the other film versions. And we finally get a decent Tiny Tim portrayal – the young actor who plays Tim, and this is also true of the other young actors that round out the Cratchit family, seems natural and believable and a sympathetic character without falling into the trap of being saccharine. The weakest link in this version of A Christmas Carol – and it seems there must always be at least one weak link – is the Ghost of Christmas Present. The Ghost of Christmas Present is supposed to be the jolly embodiment of the Christmas Spirit, but alas in this version he is a rather dour old man who appears to be thinking more about his worsening prostatitis than the Spirit of Christmas. The Christmas Morning scene is not entirely effective, but Stewart gives a unique interpretation of the just redeemed Scrooge as a man completely alien to feelings of Joy and out of practice with expressing those feelings through laughter. This production benefits from the judicious use of a tool not available to the earlier productions: digital special effects. The art direction, photography and score are all top-notch, and the scene at Old Fezziwig’s Ball is one of the best and most authentic looking yet attempted.

1. Scrooge aka A Christmas Carol 1951 (the Alastair Sim Version). The reigning champ of A Christmas Carol film adaptations remains the 1951 Alastair Sim version, despite stiff (the Patrick Stewart and George C. Scott versions) and not-so-stiff competition in recent years (the horrid Jim Carrey computer animated version. First The Grinch and now A Christmas Carol – how many more of our Christmas traditions are we going to allow Jim Carrey to ruin?). And the bulk of that weighty responsibility rests squarely on the not-so-broad but deceptively strong shoulders of the lead player, Alastair Sim. Sim’s portrayal of the World’s Greatest Miser is multi-layered and unhurried. He lets his eyes and his body-language say more than is printed in the script; his voice is a musical instrument capable of the perfect nuance of tone and timber in order to convey Scrooge’s inner secrets, shame and self-pity, as well as his outer contempt and sneering bravado. We are treated to the most complex and fully realized performance of the character ever captured on film. Alastair Sim became Scrooge instead of just playing Scrooge. But all of his hard work would have been for naught without a terrific supporting cast, wonderful art direction, perfect lighting and photography, sensitive directing, and a score that hits all the right ‘notes.’ Marley’s Ghost, as Michael Hordern portrays him, is at the same time terrifying and piteous. And this version boasts one of the few good Tiny Tims. Many adaptations of the book add original scenes and this version has several: During the trip through Christmas Past a new businessman character named Mr. Jorkins is seen first planting the seeds of the money-grubbing miser that Ebenezer Scrooge will become, and this same sequence shows the young Scrooge and Marley meeting for the first time. We are shown Scrooge’s sister dying postpartum. And we see Marley on his deathbed, trying to warn Scrooge with his last breaths. Certain things are inexplicably changed or left out as well: For some reason the script leaves out Nephew Fred’s wonderful Christmas Speech, given when he visits Uncle Ebenezer on Christmas Eve. And Scrooge’s former fiancé is now named ‘Alice’ rather than ‘Belle,’ and she goes on to become a spinster instead of a happily married mother as in the original story. But, these imperfections aside, there is not much that can tarnish this, the Gold Standard of A Christmas Carol films. The Christmas Morning scene is a complete seminar in acting. Sim takes us on a roller coaster ride as he lets loose all of the powerful and sometimes contradictory emotions Scrooge is feeling: relief, ecstasy, giddiness, embarrassment, joy, humility. All fans of A Christmas Carol will forever feel grateful that a certain phonetics and elocution teacher from Scotland decided to enter the acting profession at the relatively advanced age of 30, and gave us the portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge by which all others are measured.

Top 5 Christmas Stories

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Top 5 Christmas Stories

(other than the original and the stories contained in my book “Christmas Wishes”)

This is a short list of stories containing a Christmas theme that have become annual favorites of mine. Some are stand-alone stories; others are excerpts from longer works. Some you have heard of, some you have not. Some you may agree with their being placed in the “Top 5,” others you may not – Feel free to add your own Top Christmas stories via the comments.

5. Christmas Eve by Washington Irving. Irving’s 1812 publication The Sketch Book contains five entries regarding a traditional Christmas celebration at a country manor house in England. Because of these chapters, the Sketch Book is often credited with revitalizing the celebration of the Christmas Holidays in the United States as well as England, both of whom had been indifferent to what was then considered a minor holy day by most Christian faiths. Indeed, in most areas of Puritan New England the celebration of Christmas was illegal, probably due to its past history as a time of unbridled revelry and debauchery by the lower classes. Irving presents the reader with a polished, calm, fictionalized account of a ‘traditional,’ Old World Christmas, complete with blankets of pure, white snow, mistletoe and holly, merriment and gatherings of family and friends.

4. Gifts of the Magi by O. Henry. As the pen name of William Sidney Porter, O. Henry became synonymous with the ironic or ‘twist’ ending. This is on full display in what is his best-known short story, “Gifts of the Magi.” In this 1906 short story – allegedly written at Pete’s Tavern in New York City – an economically disadvantaged young married couple each give up their most precious possession in order to buy the other a special Christmas gift. Often re-written and/or parodied, the original story has never been improved upon.

3.A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote. A boyhood memory of young Buddy (Truman Capote) and his elderly distant cousin in which she engages Buddy in the annual hunt for special ingredients with which to make her Christmas fruitcakes as gifts for friends and family. You do not have to be a fruitcake fan (and let’s be honest – most aren’t) in order to be warmed by this recollection of the holiday during simpler times, prior to unrestrained commercialization, when the love that went into making a gift and the time spent in receiving it were often of greater value than the gift itself.

2. Christmas Fare by Rip Rense. In a chapter from his fictionalized autobiography, “The Oaks,” writer Rip Rense recounts (how’s that for alliteration?) a treasured Christmas memory. Young Charlie Bogle, getting off the bus en route to visit his mother for Christmas, finds himself in a strange town and discovers he has lost all his money. It’s a Christmas only Santa himself can save.

1. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. It seems so obvious for this book to be on the list that I debated its inclusion for quite awhile. But, as I write in the beginning of my book “Christmas Wishes,” while most folks are familiar with the title of this Dickens book and much of its iconography, it turns out very few have actually read it, and that is a shame of tragic proportions. Everyone owes it to himself or herself to read the story of Scrooge and his dark night of the soul and his eventual redemption by the grace of Christmas, in its original version and at least three times during their life. A diligent reader can plow through the novella on a Christmas Eve, and the lazy ones can start the book during Thanksgiving weekend and easily finish by Christmas. The humor and humanity of the story will give the modern reader pause for reflection regarding what the Holiday Season has become, who exactly is really ‘at war with Christmas,’ and inspiration to create something more meaningful, within their own family at the very least.