Retro-Review: “A Christmas Carol” (1984, George C. Scott)


by Robert Gillis – December 2008

There have been countless adaptations of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” over the last century. One of my annual Christmas traditions is to watch several of them. This is one of my very favorites…

Version: 1984 (CBS)

Scrooge: George C. Scott

Cast: David Warner (Bob Cratchit), Frank Finlay (Marley’s Ghost), Angela Pleasence (The Ghost of Christmas Past), Edward Woodward (The Ghost of Christmas Present), Michael Carter (The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come), Susannah York (Mrs. Cratchit), Anthony Walters (Tiny Tim), Roger Rees (Fred Holywell / Narrator), Caroline Langrishe (Janet Holywell), Lucy Gutteridge (Belle), Nigel Davenport (Silas Scrooge), Mark Strickson (Young Scrooge), Joanne Whalley (Fan)

The star: George C. Scott was an icon; legendary American stage and film actor, director, and producer, perhaps best known for his Academy Award-winning portrayal of General George S. Patton Jr. in the film Patton. He was, quite simply, one of the finest actors of his (or any other) generation. An actor who often played gruff and harsh roles, Scott was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor for his portrayal in A Christmas Carol.

Scott’s interpretation of Scrooge is spot-on. His Scrooge is a complex human being and as the story unfolds the viewer sees WHY he became so bitter and cynical in his old age, and for (perhaps) the first time an actor playing Scrooge successfully portrays the REGRETS the character has. His Scrooge feels REAL. He takes familiar dialogue and makes it seem spontaneous and fresh. He face, his movements, his words, all convey the emotion the man feels — and he does feel. His ultimate transformation seems believable: This is a man who has closed his heart to love to feeling, and finally realizes what he’s lost. Scott is brilliant as Scrooge.

Ebenezer Scrooge: [Sitting under the bridge after the Ghost of Christmas Present leaves] “What have I done… to be abandoned like this? What?”

The Cast and Characters: The entire cast is wonderful. No role is miscast. In addition, many of the actors are British, so the mannerisms and accents and use of language seem natural. The acting is believable, making characters in an all-too familiar story seem REAL and full of life.

David Warner’s Bob plays just the right balance of timid clerk and loving husband/father. Susanna York (who will always be “Lara” to me), is pitch-perfect as Mrs. Cratchit. There’s a nice scene where Bob Cratchit and his wife kiss under the mistletoe and hug lovingly. This version shows that that are not just parents but a couple who love each other very much.

The Cratchit children are not overly sugary but just seem like nice kids. I like when Mrs. Cratchit tells one of the children to go butter the bread and she adds, “Thinly.” Tiny Tim is sickly looking, but not overplayed as the over-the-top doomed child.

Roger Rees as Fred is very good, and the casting directors actually made an effort to cast Scrooge’s sister Fan and Fred resembling each other. Rees’s Fred is just a little too reserved for me, but that may be a directorial choice to contrast him with his Uncle Ebenezer.

Frank Finlay (Marley’s Ghost), performance is incredible; you really believe he is filled with regret for his lot. Finlay plays the role as just a bit crazy, just a bit over the top emotional; which is perfect for Jacob Marley.

The Ghost of Christmas Past is wonderful; Angela Pleasence conveys just the right balance of teacher/reminder and clear contempt for Ebenezer. What’s interesting in this version is that the ghosts have obvious disdain for Scrooge — and aren’t afraid to show it. When the Ghost of Christmas Past is departing as Scrooge insanely screams, “Leave me,” she smiles wickedly. But she also prods him, sometimes gently:

[The Ghost of Christmas Past and Scrooge are watching his past self dance with his great love, Belle:]
Christmas Past: “How long since you danced, Ebenezer?”
Scrooge: “Waste of time.”
The Ghost of Christmas Past: “You didn’t think so then.”
Scrooge: “The was a REASON then.”

GREAT writing. GREAT characterization. Honest regret over choices made and not made.

Edward Woodward as the Ghost of Christmas Present is exceptional. He is full of life and humor, sarcastic when he needs to be, and he also doesn’t hide his disapproval of Scrooge. He is bombastic at times, commanding, powerful, and a man (ghost) on a mission. He is enjoying his torment of Scrooge. I get the feeling he really doesn’t care whether Scrooge repents or not.

[Scrooge, observing the Cratchit’s meal:]
Scrooge: “It’s a very small goose.”
The Ghost of Christmas Present: “It’s all Bob Cratchit can afford.”

And when the ghost reminds Scrooge of his “decrease the surplus population” comment he is positively venomous as he snarls, “”It may be that in the sight of Heaven you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child!” It’s familiar dialogue but man, this ghost is seething when he says it.

Throughout the film, many of the actors communicate with facial expressions rather than words. A good actor can pull this off brilliantly. There are many such examples in this film: Scrooge’s look of confusion when he sees Marley. Young Ebenezer’s look of sadness and regret when he knows he’ll never please his father. And so much more.

The film itself: The entire film is VERY faithful to the original story. It was filmed on location in Shrewsbury, England, giving it an authenticity not found in other adaptations. The costumes are perfect. The attention to detail is meticulous. Nothing looks like a “set,” All the places — the homes, the markets, the offices, look real. The scenes of commerce at the exchange, the frenzied shopping at the market on Christmas morning, the bustling city — it looks and sounds very real.

The foggy, dreary London described in the Dickens story is very well created here. The streets where Scrooge walks to his home are dark and creepy.

The majority of the special effects are conveyed by traditional stage effects with smoke, and lighting. It’s all very effective.

The scene at the when the horses and Marley’s funeral carriage pass by — we see it but Scrooge doesn’t — creepy.

Marley’s makeup, lighting and clothing — all a deathly blue — is well done.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come first appears as spotlight shines on him in the distance, and it is conveyed mostly through shadows of hands and hoods. It’s all very well done.

The transitions from one scene to the next during the time-travels are unique to each ghost — the cap the Ghost of Christmas Past holds in her hand reflects each scene as we transition from one time to the next. The Ghost of Christmas Present’s torch bridges one sequence to the next scene, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come transitions each scene with a loud crash and brilliant flash of lightning.

And in each of Scrooge’s visions of the future, after he witnesses the scene the lights dim and only a spotlight effect remains on him — almost like standing alone on a stage. It’s a very effective presentation.

Liberties with the story (all good): As Scrooge takes his cold gruel by the unlit fireplace, he sniffles, a reminder that (in the story) Scrooge had a head cold.

I love it when Scrooge adds his own “Amen” to the Cratchit’s Christmas prayer.

We see several scenes of Scrooge conducting his commodity trading business at the exchange. Scrooge is clearly recognized as a man of business and is deferred to as such, but a hard businessman with no compassion or room for negotiation.

The Ghost of Christmas Present doesn’t age and fade away in this version — he laughs at Scrooge and abandons him outside in unknown territory.

We finally meet Scrooge’s father in this version — he’s a cold man, a mean spirited old bastard. He does not love his son — We learn that Scrooge’s mother died giving birth to him and Silus Scrooge holds a grudge against his son because of it. This makes the characters seem much more real. Also, I think this is one of the few versions where Fan is older than Ebenezer.

There are dozens upon dozens of memorable scenes in this film, but my favorite is the end — in this version, it’s clear that Scrooge is a man whose newfound joy is tempered by remorse. Not only is his intention to make things right in the present and future, but to apologize for his past behaviors. His apology to his nephew is here an integral part of the story–it is heartfelt. And it works.

Scrooge: “Well, I’ve come for three reasons. The first is to beg your pardon. [What I said about Christmas] THAT was a humbug, Fred.”

He goes on to meet Fred’s wife Janet and says, “I, uh, I was in love once. Can you believe that?”

Janet: “Yes.”

Scrooge: “But I had neither the courage nor the conviction that you two share.”

He then reminds Fred how much he resembles his sister Fan and adds, “I loved your mother, Fred. For a time I’d forgotten how much.”

And finally Scrooge says, “May God forgive me for the time I’ve wasted.”

Summary: An outstanding adaptation of the story with a perfect cast, believable, flesh and blood characters and meticulously detailed sets and streets. A perfect Scrooge and a larger-than-life stage, an adapt ion that takes a very familiar story and makes it feel fresh, and real. I HIGHLY recommend this Christmas classic.

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