SCROOGE (1970)

By Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Ronald Neame
Cast: Albert Finney, Alec Guinness, Edith Evans
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 75%

PLOT: In 19th-century London, a bitter old miser who rationalizes his uncaring nature learns real compassion when three spirits visit him on Christmas Eve (except this one is a musical).

[SPOILER ALERTS! (For anyone whose souls are so dead they have never seen or read A Christmas Carol before…)]

I happened to watch this musical version of A Christmas Carol shortly after watching my absolute FAVORITE version, the CBS TV movie starring George C. Scott as Scrooge.  The two could not be any different, but I can say that, were it not for an absurd cartoonish moment near the finale, this musical would be tied with the TV version as my favorite adaptations.  More on that cartoony moment later.

Albert Finney was only 34 years old when he played the skinflint Scrooge in this 1970 version, and I have to say, the makeup and acting ability on display to turn him into a crusty, hunched-over old man are phenomenal.  There’s a scene where movie magic allows Finney to be onscreen as old Scrooge AND young Scrooge at the same time; as a child, I was convinced they were two different actors.  It’s truly astonishing.

The musical numbers lend a slightly corny air to the storytelling, diminishing the gothic nature of the ghostly visitations.  However, it does make the movie more FUN than other adaptations.  The songs (music and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse of Jekyll and Hyde fame) do capture the spirit of the scenes, in particular “Thank You Very Much” (sung, in a moment of delicious irony, at Scrooge’s death during his visit with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come) and my favorite INDIVIDUAL number, the jig danced at Fezziwig’s party: “December the Twenty-Fifth.”  (I would imagine some of these are available on YouTube, for anyone who hasn’t seen the movie and wants a sneak preview before committing to the whole thing.)  The weakest number would have to be the (thankfully) brief song by Jacob Marley, played with vigor by Alec Guinness.  Let us all give thanks Obi-Wan Kenobi was never called on to sing in the cantina on Tattoine.

But the absolute highlight of the movie – really, the BEST reason to watch the film, in my opinion – is the grand finale.  (You’ll have to bear with me, I love this moment, and I want to make sure my description convinces anyone who HASN’T seen the movie to take the plunge.)

It takes place after Scrooge has awakened on Christmas day, a changed man, and has purchased the enormous turkey.  As he skips merrily to Bob Cratchit’s house, with several children in tow, he starts to sing the song originally sung to him by the Ghost of Christmas Present, “I Like Life.”  This kicks off the longest sustained sequence of pure joy in a musical that I can recollect off the top of my head.  Scrooge nearly cleans out a toy store and dons a Father Christmas costume (prompting a delightful reprise of a song called “Father Christmas).  At one point, a troop of bell-ringers perform an elaborate, smile-inducing bit.  As he begins to rip up his debt sheets, “Thank You Very Much” is reprised.  The gathering crowd swells until the narrow streets are jam packed with dancers and singers.  His encounter with Bob Cratchit while decked out as Father Christmas is flat out hilarious.  The finale swells and swells, getting more and more joyous, until it feels like the entire city has turned out to get in on the fun.

Watching that number again today, I found, to my delight, that I was, ah…getting a little verklempt.  Now, don’t get excited, I’m not saying I shed actual tears.  I will say, though, that it wouldn’t have taken much to push me over the edge.  THAT’S why the movie is so good.  It’s very, VERY close to perfect.

And why ISN’T it perfect?  Oh, but let me tell you.

Whenever this movie was shown on television, a curious thing always happened.  In the TV version, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come scares Scrooge into falling into his own grave, and he falls and falls…and abruptly, everything goes black, and we see him lying in what appears to be a coffin-shaped hole in the ground.  And then there was a commercial.  And when we get back to the movie, Scrooge is struggling on the floor next to his bed, with his bedsheets wrapped around his head and neck like snakes, and he sounds like he’s choking, and the movie proceeds from there.

Well…what happened?  There’s obviously footage missing, right?  For years and years, I assumed that, whatever was missing from the television airings, it was deemed too terrifying to show on TV.  Maybe he wakes up in Hell, and snakes attack him, which would explain the bedsheets.

Nope.  The DVD version ends the mystery.

In a TERRIBLE move, Jacob Marley shows up again to escort Scrooge to his new quarters in Hell.  This time, Alec Guinness REALLY camps it up, trotting along down the corridors of Perdition as if the ground was too hot to keep his feet down any longer than he has to.  The set design for this version of Hell looks more like a forgotten room in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory than anything else.  Marley presents Scrooge with the chain he was forging in life (you know the story), and it’s so big, he says, “they had to take on extra devils in the foundry to finish it.”  I mean, really?  They couldn’t have just cut right to him waking up in bed after falling?  They had to add this utterly unnecessary cartoonish button?

It’s this scene that prevents me from marking this movie as a “10.”  Remove that altogether, we’ve got near perfection.  Alas.

But, setting that aside, this is a truly great Christmas film.  It makes the story fun, especially that finale.  If it doesn’t reach the gritty realism of the George C. Scott version, well, we’re kind of talking apples and oranges here.  This is a real treat.


By Marc S. Sanders

You may find this hard to believe but as I was watching the epic Best Picture winner of 1970, Patton, I was actually thinking of a dreadful film I had seen the day before called Under The Cherry Moon, featuring and directed by Prince.  How in the hell could that be?  Well, both films are laced with the vanity of their films’ main characters to the umpteenth degree.  However, I’ll save Prince’s piece for another column, when maybe I’m out of excuses to avoid death or a root canal.  The point is both films never tire of the close ups of its featured player to enhance the pride, ego and conceit they do not hesitate to thrive off of.  The difference is that director Franklin J Schaffner knew that to really show what motivated General George S Patton you had to drill for the American warrior’s drive, and Patton’s motivation was truly his own self-worth.  (Prince just wanted one more close up on top of one more close up as a means of self service.  Sorry but that’s not enough of a reason for a character to live.)

Patton is portrayed by George C Scott in an Academy Award winning performance.  No one else could have played this role.  No one else should ever play this role again.  Scott and Patton are symbiont in a camera’s lens.  One can not be imagined without the other.  Schaffner’s film opens in front an American flag that fills the entire screen.  Patton steps up in front.   Somehow, his figure seems like a bigger, more prominent figure than the large backdrop of the stars and stripes.  He delivers a monologue that was aimed at the troops fighting in the second World War, but this is really an introduction to the audience of what to expect for close to the next three hours.  He reminds us that the blood and guts of the Nazis will be used to grease down the tread of our tanks and he will be proud to lead his men on any battlefield that calls for the bloodshed of Hitler’s regime.  In the film’s first five minutes, you know that this biographical character will never sway from what he stands for.

The theme of the film tests the egotism of General Patton.  We see him get dressed in his military uniform before heading in to battle.  His subordinates put his military jacket on.  Another one places his helmet upon the great battalion leader’s head, but it is done with great detail.  This helmet will never fall off.  I can promise you that.  Early in the film, the two star general takes it upon himself to decorate his shirt collar with three stars.  He’s reminded that President Eisenhower has not made his promotion official yet.  Patton proudly dismisses that detail.  None of this has to do with the strategist Patton became known for on the battleground.  George C Scott demonstrates that the General knew when to bestow himself with another honor in his proud military career.  No one else, not even the Commander in Chief, would determine when the General was worthy of another star.

In the heat of battle, Patton happily volunteers historical facts about the regions he is fighting on.  He even insists that he knows for sure what happened before.  He, General George S Patton, was there.  He’s not kidding.  He truly believes that.  History did not deliver General George S Patton.  Rather, General Patton delivered history. 

All throughout the film, Patton is seen in moments of great pride.  He’ll be standing as his jeep caravans his military forces through conflicts in Tunisia and war torn Europe.  General Patton loved to lead, but his leadership was specific to sending a battalion into one conflict after another and what was most important was earning the glory for himself.  The British couldn’t have the accolades.  Certainly, his fellow generals couldn’t either.  Patton is who the Nazis feared.  Patton is the towering six foot tall man who must be seen walking off the bow of a ship into battle when the US back home gets film updates. 

Scott’s character is tested however as Ike loses confidence in the great general.  Patton’s mentality on war does not mesh well with the propaganda of the United States with the other allied countries, particularly Russia.  Patton is not interested in making friends with Russia as he is more concerned with anticipating an eventual disagreement with them and thus, we must be prepared for war.

More significantly, Patton only cared for the bravery of his men.  Early on in the film, Patton arrives at the camp site of a US battalion to take over its leadership.  George C Scott’s presence is all that needs to be said as he visits the mess hall followed by an office and then an infirmary.  Men will no longer show up late for breakfast.  If other men are going to sleep, well then that’s fine as long as it is a means to end with an advantage towards military victory.  Doctors will don their helmets even if it means drilling holes in them to continue properly using stethoscopes, and any man who is being treated for self-inflicted gun shot wounds will not be entitled to a bed for healing.  Get those cowards out immediately.  Hospitals are for those soldiers who proudly shed their blood in the name of the United States of America. 

This last detail is further echoed at a pivotal point in the film.  Patton chastises a crying soldier who is simply terrified of the shelling of war.  No man who dons a military uniform should ever be crying in fear.  Following slapping the boy around, Patton orders that the soldier be sent to the front lines.  My question is how useful is this kid going to be on the front line if he is crippled by his own fears.  Patton would have then slapped me around, most likely.  The front line will certainly wake this kid up and load his weapon to spill some enemy blood. 

The other interesting dynamic to the film falls upon the role of General Omar Bradley played with contradictory delicateness by Karl Malden.  The script by Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund H North display Bradley as a man who came up through the ranks of General Patton.  Yet, because of Patton’s controversial nature as a proud war hero and not a politician representing the ideals of Ike’s administration, Bradley is eventually put in charge of the United States’ positions in the War.  By the time this arrives, the film is only approaching the beginning of its second hour and I could only imagine how Patton is going to take this. He’s advised by his friend Bradley to calm his nature and maybe even question his motivations for battle.  Yet, Patton can only see that his apprentice has taken over and he has been grounded or meant to serve as a decoy to Hitler’s armies.  This is a complete misuse of his skills and his pride as an American symbol.  Patton is relegated to delivering speeches to gracious European women.  This is beneath him.  Adding insult to injury, the dog he proudly walks by his side is a fraidy cat when confronted with a woman’s little yappy pup.  The great general’s ego has been terribly bruised.

General Patton might have been controversial but the film serves as a means to show his imperfections ahead of his historical conquests.  When Patton is questioned as to how he can overthrow Hitler’s positions in various parts of Europe within two days of heavy snowfall, Patton is proud to say that he alone has trained his men to overcome any ordeal they are faced with.  His men are killers; killers of Nazis.  The doubt of other military leaders is proven wrong thanks to the General’s insistence.  Sure, the old general might have been a pain in the ass for the United States, but how would the war have really ended for the Nazis if they hadn’t have had to deal with the great leader?  Periodically, during the course of the film we see how the Nazis try to gage what Patton will do next.  It makes no difference how the United States are censoring their general.  The Nazis stare at a proud photograph of him, knowing he is still out there.  Where is Patton leading his forces to, and how will they ever explain it to their Fuhrer? 

George C Scott is truly a great presence here. Schaffner’s work with the camera must also be recognized.  The film is epic because of its scale.  Years before the age of CGI and a great war film like Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, this film from 1970 showed vast settings populated with tons of extras and infinite tanks and vehicles, as well bomber planes.  It’s astounding.  How was this all accomplished?  Other films like …Ryan or The Thin Red Line would show more intimate fights among the opposing forces.  Shootouts and one on one grappling.  Patton shows the enormous battles.  Tanks are overturned, bombs are dropped right in the middle of a sea of extras.  The film was also awarded for its art direction and its hard to question why.  It’s unbelievably impressive.

As the film directly says, Patton lives for the love of war.  Therefore, the ending is a little sad.  The war ended.  The Nazis fell to the triumph of Patton, the United States and their allies.  Schaffner simply offers a wide shot of Scott walking alone into a field of no significance.  Other biographical films would resort to a death bed moment.  That’s too easy an escape sometimes.  In a way, the film could be a tear jerker.  Mind you, I didn’t cry at the end of Patton.  However, any film must have a certain sense of sorrow when a character no longer serves any meaningful purpose in life.  The heart might continue to tick, but the soul no longer has anything left to accomplish.  Coppola and North knew that, as well as Schaffner, and George C Scott knew so as well.  Once the war had ended, a proud (very, very proud) man was put out to pasture.  That has to be more meaningful than any physical passing.