By 1970, the gargantuan razzamatazz Hollywood musical that had once been a main staple in the industry was truly dead, or rather, its lithe and lyrical joie de vivre suffering from a queer and uncanny ennui. Musicals were still being made. Only now they appeared as more the ghostly apparitions from some bygone era, incapable of generating the aural/visual excitement of their predecessors. It stood to reason, actually. The studio system that had coddled great musical stars with long-term contracts, had honed their inimitable talents over decades until they could be trademarked with a degree of homogenized certainty, and, the behind the scenes artisans who implicitly understood the unique strengths and requirements of the Hollywood musical had either been cut loose from their tenure or simply retired and/or died off. In their wake came a different kind of ‘artiste’. Changing audience tastes, budgetary restrictions and a departure of the old guard all conspired to put the final nails in the coffin of the big – oft bloated – though ever glossy movie musical as an art form, a faint whiff of mothballs and formaldehyde now seeping into these lumbering extravaganzas suffering from an acute elephantiasis and a deplorable lack of overall good taste to sell any of it as high art.
It is all too easy to cast Ronald Neame's Scrooge (1970) into this latter category; an ambitious musical retread of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Robert Cartwright's art direction, Oswald Morris' cinematography and Margaret Furse's costume design have the richness and pedigree of a film like Carol Reed's Oliver! (1968). Scrooge is also blessed with star performances: Albert Finney (in the title role), Kenneth More (The Ghost of Christmas Present) and Alec Guinness (Jacob Marley) among others. Yet Scrooge quickly becomes an exercise in tedium, desperately second rate in its re-telling; wholly unrealized in its claptrap of episodic vignettes loosely strung together in Leslie Bricusse's weighty script and thoroughly weighted down in forgettable songs. The shame of it is that everyone in front, as well as behind the camera is working at full speed to make a grand success of the film. That they miserably fail in spite of themselves is a more personalized disappointment than artistic embarrassment; though arguably Scrooge is a little of both. It is difficult to lay the blame squarely at one creative’s feet. But the cumulative effect of their considerable efforts is a disaster in lieu of a dramatic tragedy; the songs – mediocre to a fault – nevertheless tinged in an almost ribald disgust for its subject matter, particularly, ‘Father Christmas’ (a taunt performed by the local urchins, who dog Ebenezer’s every step as he travails through the London streets, cluttered in all manner of Christmas merriment and merchants) and ‘I Hate People’ (Ebenezer’s ‘on the nose’ diatribe about humanity at large). If only a little more subtly had been applied; a little less saccharine and stooge-like folly to the ghosts, a tad more humanity in Finney’s zero to sixty transformation from brittle to befuddlement, then perhaps there would be at least something to reward and to glean from this remake of a remake of a remake…well, you get my point.
Our story begins on Christmas Eve. The perennial miser, Ebenezer Scrooge (Finney) is working his accountant Bob Cratchit (David Collings) late into the night. Despite this hardship, Bob harbors no ill will against his employer, even thanking him for his miserable Christmas pay before taking to the London streets with young daughter, Kathy (Karen Scargill) and son, Tiny Tim (Richard Beaumont) in preparation for the all too brief celebration that will be their Christmas Day. Scrooge is invited by his nephew (Michael Medwin) to celebrate the holiday at his home. But Scrooge will have none of it. Instead he locks himself inside his dark and brooding gothic home (shades of Wuthering Heights) as he plans to escape the merriment of another Christmas by remaining bitter and alone. Bah, humbug! All, however, does not go according to plan.
The ghost of Scrooge's partner, Jacob Marley (Guinness) appears and forewarns Scrooge that he is coming to no good end. After some initial fear, Scrooge admonishes the ghost who promises to show him the error of his ways by sending three spirit guides that will plague the rest of his evening's slumber: the ghosts of Christmas Past (Edith Evans), Christmas Present (More) and Christmas Yet To Come (Paddy Stone). Scrooge superficially indulges the first two ghosts, reliving the folly of his own youth and the loss of his one true love with Christmas Past; recalling the hearty pleasures of romance. With Christmas Present, Scrooge visits the Cratchit home, amazed at how joyous this destitute family is despite Tiny Tim’s polio that will likely claim his life. Scrooge is further shown the Christmas Day celebration at his nephew's home where various guests poke fun at Scrooge’s miserly ways. But it is the third and final spirit of the night who presents Ebenezer with the most sobering glimpse of all; his own mortality, foretold as an exile into the bowels of hell where he will be forced into an eternity of servitude as Satan's book keeper in chains. Oddly enough, when Scrooge is shown on television this sequence is always cut from the film. Realizing the error of his ways, or perhaps simply petrified over the thought of spending eternity in hell, Ebenezer awakens to find himself in his own bed Christmas morning. He dresses in earnest and hurries into the streets to buy up all the goodies he can and spread his renewed cheer to all. London rejoices at Scrooge's conversion and joins him to celebrate this blessed day.
Scrooge has everything going for it. And yet if struggles to keep pace and time with the best in the musical genre. Perhaps the fundamental flaw remains its central character. Ebenezer Scrooge is hardly a lovable literary figure - except in the last ten minutes of the film. Albert Finney, a superb actor, is devotedly malevolent as the penny-pinching codger, but perhaps a tad too acrimonious to be believable as the cheery convert of Christmas present. Lest we forget that Dickens’ original text was written at a time when the oddities of the supernatural could still fascinate his literary audience. But on film the excesses and eccentricities of these ghosts has always translated to more rank curiosity than genuine fascination. Dramatic interpretations of the story have fared only slightly better on the whole. But as a musical, Scrooge tends to lack the one essential to make Dickens’ prose justly soar – heart. In general then, Dickens’ masterwork is an ill fit for the splashy musical treatment. Re-titling the film 'Scrooge' herein, only serves to place the emphasis squarely on Finney's shoulders. As an actor, he is more than up to the challenge and perhaps if the film were a non-musical he would have had better luck in bringing his character to cantankerous life.
But the screenplay forgets a fundamental of what makes the Hollywood musical work – namely, a central character endearing to the audience who can manage the bulk of the score with minor assists from the rest of the cast. Regrettably, Finney has but one edifying musical moment in Scrooge and it comes after his character's conversion at the end of the story, belting out a secondhand reprise of 'Thank You Very Much' - the one faintly memorable song in the score. Yet even this ditty does not belong to his character. It is first sung by the undertaker at Scrooge's own funeral during the film's third ghostly visitation of night. Which brings me to the woefully lethargic score; songs sung as almost incidental afterthoughts by supporting cast or as ensemble set pieces: all of them mere backdrop, thus rendering the film's premise as a musical moot even before the story has begun. It is perhaps a telling bit of foreshadowing that Paddy Stone (who plays 'death' in the film) is also listed as Scrooge's 'stager: musical sequences' since the choreography is as stiff as a freshly laid out corpse. The dances are pedestrian at best, with most of the supporting players simply shuffling about while waving their hands and rocking back and forth from the waist up. In the last analysis, Scrooge bombs as a musical entertainment because its musical elements are out of whack with the time-honored conventions of the genre. Its narrative center is as hollow and void of inspiration, love and magic as the central character of Ebenezer Scrooge himself.
Scrooge comes to Blu-ray via CBS Home Entertainment - a subsidiary of Paramount. The results are actually quite impressive. The image is remarkably pristine and vibrant, showing little signs of its age. Colors have been accurately reproduced, giving full range to the understated, and at times, drab sets and costumes. Flesh tone looks natural and fine details pop in 1080p as they should. Film grain is expertly rendered with the occasional age-related artifact never distracting: all in all - a very pleasing visual presentation. The audio is quite a revelation too. The DTS 2.0 is remarkably powerful. Dialogue is rather frontal sounding but clearly delineated while the songs explode from the sides and rear with solid bass and excellent tonality. Good stuff for a mediocre film. According CBS’s usual miserly ways, there are no extra features. Probably, just as well, as there is really nothing more I wanted to know about this incarnation of the time-honored tale. Bottom line: unless you absolutely love this version of the story, pass – and be very glad that you did.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)