Saturday, 7 December 2013

Scrooge (1951)

Scrooge - 1951 | 86 mins | Comedy, Drama | B&W

I don't like the Muppets, I don't like them at all. I never have and I'm probably sure that I never will. It's a controversial viewpoint which I know will upset many, but I have my legitimate reasons.
"That bloody Frog is here somewhere.......

Even as a child I never really had much time for those supposedly loveable puppet things that celebrities almost seemed to trample over each other to get their faces on; Kermit the blooming Frog simply annoyed the hell out of me, Miss Piggy reminded me of an old schoolteacher from my Grammar school and Fozzy bear just creeped me out for some unknown reason that I couldn't ever quite put my finger on. The only character that I ever found remotely likable was the drummer, Animal. "So Stuey, what is the actual reason for this hatred of an entertainment institution?" I hear you ask. Well, partly it may be that at school one of my lesser flattering nicknames was 'Gonzo', given to me by some wit who thought that as I had a slightly bug nose it would be highly hilarious to give me that name. It could have been worse I suppose, they could have call me Joseph Merrick - now that would have been cruel. But no, I'm way past that now - after all, those years of therapy had to amount to something.....

No, it is far more than just a half-arsed witty nickname that causes me to tense up just at the very thought of Jim Henson's crazy Muppets. The thing that more or less sealed the deal was a certain adaptation of arguably the classic ghost story of all ghost stories. As far as I'm aware there have been over fifty adaptations in various forms of Charles Dickens Literary classic 'A Christmas Carol'. Some of them have been truly excellent (the 1984 TV film starring George C. Scott being of particular note) while some adaptations have been, well, less than excellent. You see, I truly love the story of A Christmas Carol, not necessarily for it's theme of personal redemption (which is a quite nice thing I suppose), no I love it because at the core of the story there is a genuine substance of spectral horror. Yet, throughout the years a light-hearted and comforting tale of amusing and eccentric ghosts visiting a rather grumpy but still humorous old Ebenezer have replaced the original feeling of fear and horror that Dickens intended when he wrote the story........ and chief amongst those guilty of such a transformation from horror to cosy are those responsible for A Muppet Christmas Carol. I tell you now, 'Funny ghosts' and Michael Caine hamming it up are not anywhere on god's green Earth near to the original authentic subject matter of the source material. And don't get me started on the bloody songs.

Thankfully the more authentic adaptations are there to remind us how powerfully chilling this story can actually be when the will arises. Whilst the aforementioned TV version starring the excellent George. C Scott is a wonderful piece of work, for me nothing has yet has ever compared on a chill-factor level as a British made black and white version of the story - Scrooge (1951).
"You bloody well let me know when you hear the first sound 
of a song in this movie"

THE PLOT

You've got to be kidding me?! - Its A freaking Christmas Carol!

Well OK - for those 23 people in the Amazonian tribe yet to be discovered by the rest of 'civilisation' and so haven't got around to seeing any of the veritable plethora of movie versions, here is the plot in a very quick but informative way.

"Old, bitter businessman Ebenezer Scrooge hates Christmas and everybody who celebrates it - he does have one favourite Christmas pastime, which is shouting "Humbug" at all Crimbo devotees.....He especially has no time for his ever-so-nice employee Bob Cratchett who has a big annoyingly happy Family, including a crippled son called Tiny but annoyingly happy Tim.......Ebenezer is soon visited by the ghost of his dead business partner - Ghost warns him of his impending doom. Scrooge laughs it all off as the result of bad cheese, ghost gets a bit annoyed........ soon he's visited by the ghosts of Crimbo past, Crimbo present and possible Crimbo future which looks decidedly pants - It's all very very frightening with thunderbolts and lightening.......Eventually he sees the error of his selfish ways.........suddenly becomes very happy when alive to see Crimbo morning......treats everybody to free lunches & presents......buys the Cratchetts a big bird to eat......Tiny Tim is more annoyingly happy than ever...."

Yes the story for me has its faults; Tiny Tim is always genuinely annoying and if I was his older brother I would be deeply pissed off the old golden buy Tim gets all the attention. His father Bob Cratchett has always in my book deserved a bit of a slap around the chin with a wet fish for being overly wet and subservient. However even the cynic in me never fails to get sucked into the joy that Scrooge feels when waking up as a reformed man on Christmas morning.

This film is true, not only to the main episodes in the original story, but just as importantly to this blogger, faithful to its fundamental horror content. 
"But I've never even met Jim Henson!!"
For while learning from the error of ones' ways and attaining personal redemption are all well and good, it's the chilling psychological journey that Scrooge is forced to endure that has always appealed to me - and boy does this version lay on atmosphere and chill-factor galore.

The film is perhaps in some ways the most faithful in some ways to the original text and yet succeeds in adding some fascinating layers of previously unexplored back story of the character at Scrooge, in essence building upon elements of plot that Dickens at best only hinted at. For in this version the usual pantomime version of Scrooge as a grumpy yet still likable is replaced by a back story rich in detail that gives meaning and understanding to some of his behaviour. For example, Scrooge's resentment of Fred isn't purely due to his hatred of Christmas, but also because his birth resulted in the death of the only woman he ever loved, his sister.

It is partly the marvellous screenplay by Noel Langley which provided richly textured back story to Dickens' source material and partly the darkly ominous musical score from Richard Addinsell that creates a wonderful atmosphere. However, more so it is the central performance of Alistair Sim that brings out a rounded completeness to Scrooge's character - this is no cardboard cut-out performance from a giant of British cinema, it is a thing of genius. It isn't only me that believes that Sim's performance is the benchmark portrayal of Scrooge that all others should be measured by - George C. Scott himself said the very same when he was preparing for the eponymous role. 
"Look, this is where I've buried that bloody Gonzo"...

Sim's portrayal is an honest to god tour-de-force, with the more detailed back-story of his life providing him the chance to give depth, understanding and even a degree of sympathy to his selfish and outwardly seemingly downright evil treatment of the people in his life. For example, the well known antipathy he seems to have towards his nephew Fred is explained by the fact that his cherished sister died shortly after giving birth to him - an occurrence that has caused intense resentment and in some ways no little hatred towards the unknowing young man. No-one before or since has ever matched Alistair Sims magical performance of a man tortured by his past - there are moments when just a flicker of his eyes says more than a dozens of hammed up performance of Ebenezer have ever managed to do combined together.


However, this is a horror blog, so I'm especially concerned with the scare factor of this version - and by Jove does it deliver.

I mentioned earlier that numerous adaptations of this story have resulted in what we now familiarly see as a series of vaguely unsettling but more so amusing spectres providing their various warnings of impending doom. This version thankfully remains true to the chills that it should actually provide - after all, the ghosts that appear are supposed to be intending to frighten the worst of moral offenders into changing his selfish ways.  For example, the slow atmospheric build-up leading to the appearance of Scrooges' long since dead partner is so expertly done that when the Ghost of Jacob Marley finally appears it produces perhaps one of the most unnerving spectres to haunt cinema - and I genuinely mean that. Not only is the deep despair about his own fate clearly apparent in the wonderful performance of Michael Horden, his rage and frustration at Scrooges initial scepticism is deeply convincing. The fact that a range of ground-breaking special effects were also employed in this production gives a true sense of chilling gravitas to the phantasmic scenes.

If that wasn't enough for the connoisseur of the frights,  the genuine chills of the ghost of Christmas future is the forbidding shadow of impending doom that Dickens originally intended him to be. 

The fact that the entire movie was filmed on a purpose built studio is a testament to the intense and foreboding atmosphere created for this Dickensian London. The bleakness of the black and white film gives an added gothic nuance that is reminiscent of the glory days of Universal monster movies. This is simply British film-making at it's glorious best. I would strongly advise that if you are going to view this version of the film for the first time that you watch the original b&w version and not the later colourised version which goes a fair way to robbing the film's ghost sequences of much of their power to scare - stay away i say....stay away from colour!!

Oh my good god - no word of a lie, but I've just seen a trailer on TV for The Smurfs: A Christmas Carol. Kill me now.








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