Saturday, December 20, 2008

A choice of humbugs

Last Christmas I offered the seasonal classic Dont Open Till Christmas (sic) as my recommended yuletide movie.
This year I've decided to suggest a couple of the lesser-known variations on Dickens's Christmas Carol, if by any chance you are thinking of giving Alastair Sim a miss.
"Nothing like a Dickens Christmas!" says Mervyn Johns in Too Many Christmas Trees, my favourite episode of The Avengers (and a fine support to the main feature). I'm assuming that you do make it your business to watch at least one version of this season-defining tale every year?
In our house, it is usually not Sim's, however, gold standard though that ultimately remains, but a much less well known mid-eighties production with George C. Scott as Scrooge, a fine British support cast and atmospheric location shooting in Shrewsbury that we make ritual reaquaintance with. It's probably the most useful adaptation for any mildly reluctant newcomers.

Also recommended is the BBC version from the seventies (notable for cramming the whole story, without ill-effect, into fifty minutes, for its interesting use of drawn backgrounds somewhat in the manner of Rohmer's The Lady and the Duke, and for the presence of John Le Mesurier as Marley's Ghost and dear old John Ringham as one of the charity gentlemen).

Then there's the musical version by Leslie Bricusse called Scrooge which looks a treat but pales by comparison with the revised stage version that toured Britain in the nineties with the great Anthony Newley in the lead. Here we have Albert Finney made up old: not the same thing at all.
The thirties Hollywood version is a surprising misfire; an MGM superproduction, it displays few of the qualities of Cukor's David Copperfield, which it seeks to emulate, and gets much wrong. Gene Lockhart as a roly poly Bob Cratchit is only the most obviously crass of several bad decisions.

Of the many newer versions, the one everyone loves is the one with the Muppets: I though it was okay. There's at least one other musical version, with Kelsey Grammar realising just in time what Dickens knew and any of us could have told him: that the true meaning of Christmas is, of course, Jennifer Love Hewitt. Made for American tv in 2004 it often resembles the version Bill Murray's character is producing in the funny-ish Scrooged, with its misjudged sense of period and crazily anachronistic ghosts, but I sat through the lot because it has Jennifer Love Hewitt in it, and I'm only human.
..........A picture of Jennifer Love Hewitt. Because it's Christmas.
But if all these strike you as excessively familiar, here are two extraordinary adaptations, both closer in spirit (and in one case in fact) to Dickens's age than our own. Modern versions try hard to recreate the iconography of the original illustrations but it's always a visible effort, regardless of whether that effort be successful or not. The two films I have selected don't merely revive the true Dickens flavour but seem to have it embedded; they are steeped in it like a pudding steeped in brandy.
Scrooge; or Marley's Ghost (1901) must at first seem a strictly novelty suggestion; nobody would seriously propose it to someone looking for a good adaptation of the book. Plainly, four incomplete minutes of a silent film that only ran for eleven minutes in the first place could never be anything of the sort. Nonetheless, I offer it to you not in jest, but on the assurance that it will transfix and transport you, especially if you are familiar with the life and work of its creator, R. W. Paul, Muswell Hill's maverick genius and innovator of early cinema.
This haunting little production, of such naivety yet such authentic charm, is played out in front of a series of painted backcloths that occasionally ripple in the breeze (all Paul's productions were filmed in an open air studio making use of natural light), with some nice special effects as Marley's face and the various visions are superimposed over the main image. (One clever means of condensing the story is having all the visions revealed to Scrooge by Marley's Ghost, thus dispensing with the other three spirits and much exposition.)

It is available on two DVDs from the British Film Institute. If it is Paul and his amazing world of early cinema that most intrigues you, then pick it up in the 2 DVD set of Paul's surviving works, all of them fascinating, many of them beautiful. (If you've got any money left over, pair it with Silent Britain, a documentary that, among many other treats, features a good section on Paul and visits the site of his studios.)
Or if it is the story itself that attracts, go for the gorgeous set Dickens Before Sound, a mesmerising compilation of early adaptations embracing shorts, full features, a documentary and even lantern slides. The highlights include a beautiful 15 minute chapter of The Pickwick Papers (The Honourable Event, 1913), the 1922 Hollywood Oliver Twist with Jackie Coogan and Lon Chaney and a 12 minute documentary from 1924 called Dickens' London, which features ghostly superimpositions of Dickensian figures on contemporary scenes of the original locations, unsurprisingly looking far closer in spirit to the age of the novels than our own. For personal reasons of proximity, my favourite bit is the shot of the Spaniards' Inn off Hampstead Heath, name-checked in The Pickwick Papers (as well as Dracula and Dennis Wheatley's first novel The Forbidden Territory.) There can be few better accompaniments to the season.
But look out too for Scrooge (1935), widely available on public domain budget labels (albeit usually in a shortened version). Made just sixteen years before Sim, and only three before the Hollywood version, it seems lifetimes older, far closer in spirit, and even technique, to Paul's version. It's a talkie, though, and a highly theatrical one, and that feels right somehow too.
.The star is Sir Seymour Hicks, who also wrote the screenplay, a genuine Victorian and one of the last great actor-managers, who first played Scrooge on stage in 1901 (aged 30) and about 2,000 times thereafter, as well as in a silent film in 1913 (sadly not included in the BFI compilation).
The atmosphere is sinister from the first; the Old City here is not remotely jolly but dank, foggy and cold. Beggars lurk menacingly in doorways, barking dogs strain at the leash as Scrooge passes. ("Even the blind men’s dogs appeared to know him," Dickens writes, "and when they saw him coming on, would tug their owners into doorways and up courts; and then would wag their tails as though they said, “No eye at all is better than an evil eye, dark master!”")
No other version makes Scrooge's office and living quarters seem so dusty, mildewy and grimy. Ostensibly candlelit rooms are not brightly detailed in the manner typical of early talkies but illuminated indistinctly with a murky glow; Hicks himself has dirty, disordered hair and a vaguely unclean appearance.
There are many beautifully composed images; in particular one of the carol singers outside Scrooge's window, with Scrooge visible by candlelight within, looks like it has leaped straight to the screen from a nineteenth century engraving. There are some gorgeous cityscapes and exterior sets filled with life and detail, and while the plot is not tampered with there are frequent imaginative deviations and additions, not least a peculiar sequence which juxtaposes Scrooge eating a meagre meal in a seedy tavern with a royal banquet and a gathering of paupers lit atmospherically outside.
Against these many strengths must be weighed the occasional eccentricity, most notably the decision to make Marley's Ghost invisible ("Only you can see me," he says to Scrooge), so we don't get to see his chains and cash boxes.
Both of these films, I suppose, are for confirmed fans of the story; neither is fully satisfactory to anyone unfamiliar with the original and it's true that neither of them have Jennifer Love Hewitt in them. But both are striking as pieces of cinema, as adaptations, and as ghosts of Christmas past.