Perhaps Charles Dickens was writing musicals and didn’t realize it.
Over the years numerous novels by the great Victorian author have been adapted as stage tuners, among them The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop, David Copperfield, Hard Times, A Tale of Two Cities, and Great Expectations.
The hallmark of musical theater is emotional catharsis, something Dickens specialized in. With his bigger-than-life characters, clean narratives, and innate moral sense, he’s a natural for musical adaptation.
None of Dickens’ stories have been treated to more musical adaptations than the the beloved A Christmas Carol, which each Yuletide is staged in dozens of different versions in the U.S. alone.
Which brings us to the lavish British musical film Scrooge (1970), with Albert Finney playing the legendary miser. Clearly, the success two years earlier of Oliver! encouraged the money men to invest in yet another Dickens musical.
Plus, this one featured a script, music, and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse, who in the 1960s was a very hot property.
A few years later he reteamed with Newley for The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd, which produced another standard: “Who Can I Turn To (When Nobody Needs Me)?”
And just a year after Scrooge he wrote the music for the 1971 Gene Wilder version of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, producing the song “The Candy Man” and winning an Oscar for original score.
For Scrooge Bricusse composed 11 original tunes in traditional British music hall styles. The best was “Thank You Very Much,” a bleakly funny and very catchy production number in which the Londoners Scrooge has abused dance on his coffin and thank him for dropping dead. It received an Oscar nomination for best song.
Like any adaptation of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge is a major-league tearjerker. But director Ronald Neame (The Horse’s Mouth, I Could Go On Singing with Judy Garland, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie with Maggie Smith, and the original Poseidon Adventure) keeps it from becoming maudlin. He wades through a sea of sticky sentiment without ever getting his feet wet. Not only does he put a lump in your throat, he makes you grateful to find it there.
In the title role 35-year-old Albert Finney (already an Oscar nominee for 1964’s Tom Jones) gives us an Ebeneezer Scrooge who is not only a miser but a world-class misanthrope.
“I hate life,” he sings with conviction. He’s not content just to curse a band of caroling street urchins; he attempts to break a few young skulls.
Of course his evilness is merely a suit of emotional armor to shield the vulnerability inside, and as his visions of the Christmas spirits strip away the crusty shell we find a truly unhappy human being. Scrooge exhibits some psychological sophistication by posing its protagonist as a man both desperate to break free of his tough hide and terrified that emotional openness will invite pain as well as joy.
Finney steals the show but he gets some fine support from minor players, especially Laurence Naismith as Fezziwig and Kenneth More as the giant, bearded Ghost of Christmas Present. Less effective are Dame Edith Evans as the Ghost of Christmas Past (she can’t seem to find anything interesting in the character) and young Richard Beaumont whose Tiny Tim is too cute by a furlong.
As Jacob Marley, Alec Guinness was required to dangle in a harness for endless days of filming. This resulted in back injuries which plagued him the rest of his life.
As with Oliver! a couple of years earlier, the production is thick with lavish dinginess. London’s streets are dark and dirty, but color and warmth emanate from every window. And the ghost sequences, with the London skies filled with howling damned souls, can put a few goose bumps on even the most weathered cynic.
Scrooge received four Academy Award nominations. Remarkably, it is the only live-action version of the story ever to be nominated for an Oscar.
Other films in the series “A Very Dickens Christmas”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- December 1: A Christmas Carol (1951) Not Rated
- December 8: The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) Rated G
- December 15: A Christmas Carol (2009) Rated PG
- December 22: Scrooged (1988) Rated PG-13
- December 29: Scrooge (1970) Rated G
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.