Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Obscure "Christmas Carols" of Christmases Past




This month, The Film Detective, a two-year-old streaming service that refreshes its film library monthly, presents “25 Days of Christmas.” So far, offerings have included Peter Pan (1955), the live NBC production with Mary Martin famously starring as Peter Pan, and a 1990 Lifetime TV production, Home for Christmas, in which Mickey Rooney stars as a homeless ex-con taken in by a family at Christmastime.


Christmas Day will showcase two condensed adaptations of Charles Dickens' holiday classic, A Christmas Carol. For anyone somehow unfamiliar with this legendary tale, it's the story of a cold-hearted miser who is visited on Christmas Eve by the ghost of his departed former business partner and then, one by one, the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future - and he, Ebenezer Scrooge, is transformed by the experience. Both presentations are TV productions of less than half an hour, feature stars of Hollywood's Golden Age, and are worth checking out.


Vincent Price narrates The Christmas Carol (1949)

From 1949, comes a 25-minute version called The Christmas Carol. This was an early US television special that aired in 22 cities across the U.S. on Christmas Day that year. The telecast is hosted and narrated by Vincent Price who is, as always, pricelessly hammy; in other words, a delight. The production overall is pretty primitive but, again, this is from the very early days of TV. Taylor Holmes, a veteran actor of stage and screen, stars as Scrooge (spelled Ebeneezer in the credits and on Scrooge’s headstone, for some reason) and delivers a wildly melodramatic performance underscored by a voice that manages to quaver magnificently in key scenes. The production also features the Mitchell Choir Boys (The Bishop’s Wife/1947) and a 9-year-old named Jill Oppenheimer, later to be known as Jill St. John, as the youngest Cratchit daughter.

Jill Oppenheimer/St. John, as a girl and all grown up
Interestingly, the Billboard Magazine issue of Dec. 24, 1949 that carried a story about the broadcast also included a report that the sales of cathode ray tubes for TV receivers in October 1949 had increased more than 100% over the previous quarter’s monthly average. Television had arrived.
Basil Rathbone as Ebenezer Scrooge

And, from 1959, a British TV adaptation of A Christmas Carol introduced and narrated by Fredric March and starring Basil Rathbone. Close to 25 minutes long, this production of the Dickens story is better made and acted that the 1949 version. Less stagey and overly theatrical, it is also more technically sophisticated; there are transparent ghosts and low-lying theatrical fog hovers through certain scenes. Rathbone gives a passionate performance as that old miser, Scrooge, and March brings gravitas as host/narrator. While he may not be as entertaining as Price in the same role, March's genial sincerity complements this poignant rendering of Dickens’ story.


When I was a child, my favorite aunt gifted me one Christmas with an illustrated edition of A Christmas Carol. It was my favorite book for a very long time and I would read it and get teary-eyed every holiday season for many years; I am still moved today by this timeless and inspiring story of transformation and redemption, which I now know may not be easy but is possible.

Click here to learn more about The Film Detective’s “25 Days of Christmas.”

Jay Oh at Cinema Essentials recently published a piece on the best film and TV adaptations of A Christmas Carol. Click here to find out what version tops his list.

A unique and delightful version: The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), with Michael Caine as Scrooge

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