carol

  • Year: 1984
  • Director: Clive Donner
  • Starring: George C. Scott, David Warner, Roger Rees

Seeing as how Ebenezer Scrooge is one of the pinnacles of British literature, the list of acclaimed British thespians who have played him should come as no surprise—Michael Caine, Alastair Sim, Patrick Stewart, etc. So who was Clive Donner’s choice for Ebenezer Scrooge? An American whose two most famous roles to date, Buck Turgidson in Dr. Strangelove and George Patton in Patton, were gung-ho, over-the-top generals.

Many of us today associate George C. Scott so closely with the role of Scrooge that we don’t realize how strange of a choice this must have seemed in 1984. Among those hesitant was Scott himself, saying that Alastair Sim’s Scrooge was so definitive that he didn’t feel he could live up to it. Instead, he settled on a new way of portraying Scrooge, saying in an interview, “I decided that he was the loneliest man in the world, and that’s how I played him.”

Scott’s Scrooge is easily the most subtle Scrooge ever put to screen. Like Alastair Sim, Scrooge turns his anger inwards and rarely ever raises his voice, speaking usually in a weary voice that would suggest he is simply tired of people. When Bob Cratchit (David Warner) puts coal on the fire, Scrooge gives him a cold lecture as to why he should stop, as opposed to an angry rant.

coal

Scrooge here also has an incredibly dry and sardonic sense of humor, making snide remarks at nearly everyone he comes across. This humor is befitting the story, as the original novel itself has some very funny asides. Charles Dickens knew that Scrooge’s remark about burying someone who loves Christmas with “a stake of holly through his heart” was comical, but so many Scrooges play it straight, with both Albert Finney and Seymour Hicks both delivering it with the utmost sincerity. To its credit, Scrooge 1951 leaves it out altogether, but this version is the only one that does it perfectly. Scrooge is laughing at both himself and Fred (Roger Rees) as he delivers the line, bemused at his own wit and wordplay.

A similar thing happens in the scene with the charity workers, which takes place at the exchange in this film.

alfred
And yes, that is Batman’s butler.

The two collectors identify Scrooge, with the one on the right saying, “You don’t know us.” Scrooge responds with a dry “Nor do I wish to.” After Scrooge says his famous line about decreasing the surplus population, the charity workers, obviously taken aback, ask him if he is serious. Scrooge wryly says “With all my heart.” He is not truly wishing death on people, but rather just trying to get these two out of his hair. Yes, that still makes him a jerk, but a believable one.

Not only are Scrooge’s quips very funny, they also make his transformation more believable. It is always odd in other films to see a formerly humorless Scrooge cracking jokes about his old self and playing a prank on Bob Cratchit at the end.

Each of the four spirits also turns in a memorable performance. Frank Finlay plays Jacob Marley as sorrowful, with his screams being from a place of regret and not merely intended to scare Scrooge.

marley2

As with many others, this Marley could have done with a bit more subtlety, but at least he and Scrooge have a believable rapport. The “wandering spirits” scene is also included, in the form of shrieks coming from outside an open window. This is actually pretty horrifying, and it works much better than showing the scene with cheap effects.

With the exception of Marley, the ghosts all seem to adapt Scrooge’s dry sense of humor to combat him. When Scrooge is shown his break-up with Belle, he tries to brag to Christmas Past about all his personal accomplishments. She scoffs and gives a sarcastic “Congratulations.”

past

Christmas Past is played by Angela Pleasence (daughter of Donald Pleasence) as a fairy-like creature. You know, I don’t think this character has been portrayed the same way twice. I guess this is somewhat similar to the 1938 one, but Pleasence just brings so much more to the table with her performance. She has a rich, commanding voice that echoes the same way the past does in your mind.

When shown the shadows of his childhood, Scrooge tries to talk to his friends, and Christmas Past explains that they cannot hear him. From this point on, most Scrooges opt to stand back and watch the events unfold from a distance, with the exception of Albert Finney who constantly tries to talk to them anyway. George C. Scott’s Scrooge will instead often walk right up to the people in the vision. Look at the scene where Scrooge watches a younger version of himself talking with his father and sister.

fATHER

There are mere looks that George C. Scott gives in this film that say so much more than words could. Like the 1951 film, we learn that Scrooge’s mother died giving birth to him, so Scrooge’s father holds a grudge against him. Old Scrooge is both angry at his father and disappointed in himself for holding on to the anger for so long.

Mark Strickson portrays Young Scrooge, and he does a terrific job of showing Scrooge’s downward spiral. He makes the audience completely believe that this guy turns into George C. Scott in his later years. Young Scrooge is portrayed as someone who was always on the more cynical side of things, but he had people like Fezziwig, Belle, and Fan to balance him out.

As these influences faded, he just continued down that road. By the time Belle (Lucy Gutteridge) does leave him, he is jaded and apathetic. He cannot give a complete answer when she asks if he would go after her now, and Belle calls him out on it. The older Scrooge tells Christmas Past, “I almost went after her.”

Even Christmas Present (Edward Woodward) is more subtle than usual. Sure, he’s dressed in the traditional garb, but he is Scrooge’s equal in the sarcasm department.

oh really

There’s a humorous exchange between them at the Cratchit’s home after Bob has blessed the food. Scrooge is so touched he adds a quiet “Amen.” Christmas Present asks Scrooge if he said something, which Scrooge of course denies. This is a scene that would have been tired or perhaps corny in other adaptations, but with the subtlety of both Scott and Woodward, it is actually quite funny.

The scenes with the Cratchit family in both the present and the future are really given room to breathe here, and David Warner and Susannah York are wonderful as the couple. I’m afraid that some films portray the Cratchits as a bit unintelligent, but we don’t get that here at all. Like so many families of the time, they are good, hard-working people who just haven’t caught a break. We always see them as loving parents, but here we also see them having an extremely loving marriage, something that is usually implied but not shown too often. We very much get the impression that they would not be getting by without Bob and his wife’s deep love for each other.

Roger Rees is also great as Fred, having a blast hosting a similes game at his party. The comparison between Fred and his mother Fan is made many times, but I have to say, they do genuinely look alike.

res

Christmas Present also shows Scrooge a homeless family living in a tunnel, trying to enjoy their Christmas. These are the kind of people Scrooge said earlier should go to the prisons and workhouses. This scene also exists to show Scrooge that the Cratchits have it bad, but there are still those who have it worse. The lesson that Scrooge should help the Cratchits is a fairly easy one, but he should not stop there. This desolate place where the poor family lives is also the perfect eerie location for the Ghost of Christmas Present to leave Scrooge.

Out of all the depictions of the Ghost of Christmas Future and the scenes he shows, I think this is the creepiest. The ghost doesn’t stand next to Scrooge, but rather far off in the distance, pointing his long finger at the locations where the scenes play out. All of the future scenes happen at night, and the ghost kind of lets Scrooge wander about and investigate what is going on for himself.

future4

Christmas Future as usual doesn’t talk, but he does respond in a kind of metallic screech, which sounds like a cemetery gate closing (or opening… hmm). Of course, this gives Scrooge the opportunity to make one of his best quips of the whole film, “You’re devilish hard to have a conversation with.”

George C. Scott’s Scrooge pretty much knows the whole time that he is the man who has died, and that makes these scenes work so much better. Instead of watching the scenes of the hobo buying his things and wondering why they are similar to his, Scrooge has to genuinely come to grips with the fact that they are his and in this future, he is dead. Sure he tries to deny it, saying they merely look like his things, but deep down he knows.

I mentioned earlier that all three ghosts combat Scrooge’s wit, and even the voiceless Christmas Future has his way of doing this. He essentially takes everything Scrooge says in the most literal way possible. When Scrooge asks to see emotion in relation to his death, he is taken to the slums where his belongings are bought and sold joyously. When he asks to see “tenderness, some depth of feeling,” he is taken to the Cratchit home, where Tiny Tim is mourned. Just look how much older and weaker Bob looks in this scene.

cratchit

This scene is always hard to watch, but David Warner’s heart-wrenching performance makes it all the more difficult. Watching Bob Cratchit try to hold back tears as he lovingly comforts his remaining children is a masterclass in acting.

Christmas Future gets his final joke in when Scrooge asks to be taken home, and he is taken to a graveyard. As I said back in my first review, there are two scenes that make or break a Scrooge performance—the graveyard scene and the waking-up scene.

When Scott’s Scrooge does wipe the snow off the gravestone and reveal the truth he’s known all along, he does not grab the stone and try to shake it, he does not scream and wail, and thankfully he does not fall into Hell. Instead, through tears, he asks the spirit why he would be shown all this if there was no hope of changing, and he offers a sincere prayer, promising that he will change.

grave2

George C. Scott hits the final nail on the head with the Christmas morning scene. Finally, we get to see an actor (who’s not a duck) portray the pure joy in this scene without any of the complete silliness usually shown. Scrooge saying he is “light as a feather” or “merry as a schoolboy” often comes off as cliche, but here it just feels like Scrooge is playing the simile game he saw at Fred’s party. Scott’s Scrooge laughs at himself again in this scene, and for a second he has to just fall on his bed and get it all out.

Scrooge’s “wishing to remain anonymous” is brought back around in the final scenes, as he purchases the prize turkey for Bob Cratchit and family, only saying it is from a friend. This is right out of the book, but Scrooge 1970 and A Christmas Carol 1938, among others, opt to have Scrooge visit them on Christmas. While both create a happy ending, I like how Scrooge here lets the Cratchits have their merry Christmas and visits with his nephew instead.

When Scrooge shows up to his home on Christmas Morning, Fred is of course surprised, but he also says he believed Scrooge would show up one day. Rees just plays this reaction perfectly. There’s also a great little moment where Scrooge tells Fred how much he reminds him of Fan. He tells Fred, “I loved your mother, Fred. For a time there, I forgot just how much I loved her. Perhaps I chose to forget.” In this line, Scrooge finally acknowledges that he is the one to blame for his life being awful, and we know that his change will stick.

Well, I guess it’s time to wrap up…

LFF

Oh, do I have to? Alright, well there really isn’t much. I suppose Tiny Tim isn’t great, but he really does appear sick. Then again, you could argue his stilted line delivery just gives him an otherworldly quality, but that might be pushing it. The only other thing I suppose is that the score is a bit over-dramatic in comparison to other versions, but if you can accept the fact that there’s a lot of it, it is a beautiful score. It just seems a bit odd when coupled with Scott’s subdued performance.

For years, this is the Christmas Carol I have called my favorite, and it is the version I make a conscious effort to watch every year. This is probably the most character-driven adaptation, caring more that we get the essence of these characters than just hitting every scene. Even scenes that have been done dozens of times before feel fresh thanks to the performances. Let’s get to the final score.

Story (29/30 Points)

The film is never in a rush, fleshing out its scenes and letting its characters breathe. Some films tend to breeze through Christmas Present and especially Future, but here we get to spend a good bit of time in each. Scrooge understanding he’s dead from the get-go is one of the best changes any version has made. I dock the single point, not because anything is wrong, but because I find the 1951 film just a tad more innovative with its past scenes.

Scrooge (30/30 Points)

I’ll take George C. Scott’s cold bitterness over a shouting Scrooge any day. I believe Scott entirely as the miserly Scrooge at the beginning and the reformed Scrooge at the end. Plus, giving Scrooge a sense of humor throughout really elevates the character. It’s not just my favorite Scrooge performance—it’s one of my favorite performances in a film, period.

Ghosts (8/10 Points)

They are all memorable, and the way that they are snide like Scrooge is a nice touch. Marley is better than usual, but still a little too overdone, and while I like Christmas Present here, I like the one from Scrooge 1951 just a little more.

Bob Cratchit (10/10 Points)

Mickey Mouse aside, we have been getting progressively better Bob Cratchits with each adaptation. Many actors have done a great job at playing Bob Cratchit, but as far as I’m concerned, David Warner is Bob Cratchit.

Supporting Characters (9/10 Points)

Belle is more of a three-dimensional character here, calling Scrooge out for not answering her question directly. Susannah York is wonderful as Mrs. Cratchit, and Roger Rees brings depth to Fred’s character that most do not.

Experience (9/10 Points)

I know I have given many versions a 9 out 10 in this category, but it seems like most adaptations really want you to feel Christmas, and this is no exception. Only the most British carols are used, in addition to the song “God Bless Us Everyone” which feels like something out of this era. The scenes of fear, sadness, and joy are all done wonderfully, and the tonal switches never feel awkward.

Final Score: 95%

I cannot emphasize enough how great George C. Scott is in this film. I had to cut back during the writing of this, or there would have been a lot more rambling about how much I love his performance. If you haven’t seen A Christmas Carol 1984, do yourself a favor and check it out.

On Monday, we’ll be taking a look at another adaptation directed by someone named Donner, 1988’s Scrooged starring Bill Murray.

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