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A viewer’s guide to various versions of ‘A Christmas Carol’

George C. Scott delivers a riveting performance as Scrooge in the 1984 TV version of Charles Dickens' holiday classic, "A Christmas Carol." 20th Century Fox/Courtesy photo

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From page B1 | December 25, 2012 | Leave Comment

OK, it’s December and you feel like indulging in Charles Dickens’ holiday classic, but there are several versions on TV on multiple channels … and one of them is a musical. How do you choose?

Fear not, gentle reader, for I am here to lead the way. I’ve seen them all, picked them apart and separated the wheat from the chaff. We’ll stick with the straight-up versions — as much as I love “Scrooged,” I don’t feel like dealing with the western “Old Ebenezer” or Henry Winkler’s “An American Christmas Carol.”

Starting from the bottom:

* “A Christmas Carol: The Musical” (2004): This one stars Kelsey Grammer as a singing, dancing Ebenezer Scrooge. Grammer trades his usual hamminess for a permanent scowl and a rolling gait reminiscent of a drunken sailor having a stroke aboard an unsteady ship. After his redemption, he comes off like a rather happy orangutan. The songs are drivel, the production values are lacking and there are bizarre directing choices that make no sense.

Jennifer Love Hewitt, for example, plays young Scrooge’s girlfriend, except she’s named Emily and not Belle. Why? Who knows? Maybe “Emily” made a rhyme in a song I can’t remember. And Jason Alexander, who was pretty much born to play Bob Cratchit, is inexplicably cast as Marley.

Do yourself a favor. If you see this version on the TV guide, turn off the set entirely. You don’t want to accidentally switch to it.

* “Scrooge” (1935): I can’t imagine any TV channel would still play this version — the film quality is so bad it can’t possibly pass in the HD era — but there might be a UHF station out there desperate enough to give it a whirl.

I suppose there is something to be said for the expressionist cinematography, which feels at times like something out of a silent film, but you could say the same for most of the cast — they clearly haven’t adapted to talkies yet. The exception is Seymour Hicks as Scrooge, who chews through scenery like a starved hyena and has a cackle to match. His disheveled appearance, though, makes Scrooge look less like a miser and more like a deranged homeless man.

The casting of the Ghost of Christmas Past — described by Dickens as an androgynous, ageless being — is always a tough call. In this case, they went with the silhouette of a woman with a man’s baritone voice. Marley, by contrast, is completely invisible. “Only you can see me,” he tells Scrooge, and he means it.

Watch this one if the only other choice is “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer.”

* “A Christmas Carol” (1938): After the British misfire of three years earlier, the Yanks gave it their first try with this outing, and it’s not much better. Reginald Owen plays Scrooge, and by “plays,” I mean he stands with his legs apart and bends over a bit. He delivers his lines with the subtlety of a freight train, without the faintest trace of an English accent. He couldn’t be more American if he wore a stars-and-stripes cowboy hat.

Great chunks of Dickens’ plot are missing, replaced by brand-new scenes such as Cratchit losing his job after knocking off Scrooge’s hat with a snowball, and Scrooge calling the police into his house to deal with Marley’s ghost.

The Ghost of Christmas Past is played by a young Ann Rutherford in a very 1930s beauty-queen getup, while the Ghost of Christmas Present has pretty good chemistry with wide-stance Scrooge. I believe this is the only version that keeps the part where he breaks up random street fights with his torch.

The one who really saves this picture is Gene Lockheart as Cratchit, who owns every scene he’s in. I feel like every subsequent version of the character owes something to Lockheart’s performance, which completely embodies Dickens’ idea of the working-class hero, happy to enjoy the simple pleasures of life no matter how dire things get. The Cratchit family Christmas is always the emotional centerpiece of the story, and Lockheart makes sure it works here.

It works, that is, except for the biggest mistake in this movie, Tiny Tim …

Now, I don’t want to nitpick, but if you’re going to refer to someone as “tiny,” he probably shouldn’t be quite so … huge. I mean, the boy is gargantuan, with an enormous melon-round head. His legs almost drag on the ground when his father carries him on his shoulder. The idea that this kid might be malnourished is ludicrous.

This one is in the “so bad it’s good” category. Watch it for the laughs.

* “A Christmas Carol” (2009): This is one of those films whose greatest strengths are also its greatest weaknesses. On the one hand, the 3D computer animation produces some breathtaking sequences. On the other, there are plenty of 3D-for-3D’s-sake scenes, including a “Honey I shrunk the Scrooge” chase sequence.

Likewise, while it’s pretty cool that Jim Carrey can voice Scrooge and all three spirits, having Gary Oldman do Marley and Cratchit is a waste … and having Robin Wright play Scrooge’s sister and fiancee is downright gross.

The ghosts are imaginatively rendered, and Christmas Past is completely inhuman — a living candle. The Christmas Present bit includes a rooftop view of London and a debate on the theological implications of closing bakeries on the Sabbath, two things left out of every other version.

Ultimately, the “performance capture” animation technique sinks the picture. The characters look just real enough to be creepy. Watch only with hyperactive kids.

* “Scrooge” (1970): The first musical version. While the production values are superb, the whole movie has an “Oliver!” feel to it — and the big song-and-dance numbers intrude on what is a very personal story.

Albert Finney stars, and it’s not his best work. His Scrooge is a whiny old kook, and he seems afraid of the people he’s supposed to be intimidating. Speaking of “Oliver!,” Alec Guinness channeled Fagin in his rather campy portrayal of Marley and earned a double hernia for his efforts. They dealt with the Ghost of Christmas Past conundrum by casting it as an old woman in a red dress, not the white usually associated with the character.

The movie settles down in the middle bits, where Dickens’ prose is allowed to return, but at the end we get another huge dance number that finishes with Scrooge in hell as Fagin-Marley capers around like a lunatic.

If you like show tunes, this probably will be your favorite. Otherwise, you’re merely enduring for a good half of the film.

* “A Christmas Carol” (1999): We’re in “can’t miss” territory now. The final three versions are all worth watching. This one stars Patrick Stewart, an odd choice, but he pulls it off. His Scrooge is a man who’s too clever for his own good — penny-wise and pound-foolish, as they say.

You get a lot of straight Dickens dialogue in this one, although some of it is Americanized (“the next block” instead of “the next street but one”), and the computer graphics allowed some scenes that were impossible in previous versions. For example, the Ghost of Christmas Present takes Scrooge on a whirlwind tour of a mine, a lighthouse, a prison and a ship at sea to see various folks celebrating Christmas as best they can.

The CGI breaks down with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, though. He looks like a gigantic Jawa from “Star Wars.”

Christmas Past is played by a smallish older guy in heavy makeup, getting just the right balance of weird and wise. The Fezziwig sequence is brilliant in this version, as is the pawnbroker scene, and Saskia Reeves is a force of nature as Mrs. Cratchit.

Where Stewart really shines is in showing Scrooge’s growing revulsion with his own life. He starts earlier than most and by the end, the self-loathing is palpable.

* “Scrooge” (1951): This is the most highly regarded version and the one most people think of when they say they’re going to watch “A Christmas Carol.” Alastair Sim plays the definitive Scooge, a conniving bully who unnerves everyone around him.

The cast is superb, to the point where they added extra scenes for Marley and Scrooge’s housekeeper, played by Michael Hordern and Kathleen Harrison, two West End legends. As fascinating as Sim’s performance is, however, they spend a bit too much time on these three and not enough on the Cratchits or Scrooge’s nephew.

The Ghost of Christmas past is played by a rather frail old man, undercutting those scenes, too. Ultimately, it’s a flawed script rescued by top-notch acting.

* “A Christmas Carol” (1984): My personal favorite; hunt this one down and save it on your DVR. While the film quality of a mid-’80s made-for-TV movie doesn’t quite stand up on modern HD screens, the superb sets and costumes make up for that.

The star is George C. Scott, and once you see his version of Scrooge, you’ll have a hard time accepting anybody else in the role. This Ebenezer Scrooge is a human wrecking ball, laying waste to everything around him. Alternately raging, caustic, sly and sarcastic, he allows no one to feel at ease in his presence.

David Warner is a bit too strapping for a Cratchit, but he brings an honest humility to the role. The kid playing Tiny Tim is perfect; puny, sallow-eyed and with the world’s greatest Cockney accent. Christmas Past is a middle-aged woman made up to look younger, wise yet somehow impish. And Frank Finlay is amazing as a tortured, despairing Marley.

But Scott owns this picture. His self-righteous rage is soon stripped away into a petulant defensiveness, and then honest repentance as the consequences of his wasted life are made clear.

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