An American Christmas Carol (1979)

Notable for having perhaps the least creative title among scores of loose adaptations, An American Christmas Carol is a 1979 TV movie that's sort of a mix of a retelling and a sequel of Dickens's classic. Like the big-budget musical that kicked off the decade, the lead role is played by an actor in his 30s with makeup used to effectively double his age. In this case, the actor is Henry Winkler, best known as Fonzie from Happy Days. And, for what it's worth, I think he works a little better as an old man than Albert Finney in 1970's Scrooge, despite Finney's makeup being quite a bit better. Winkler's physicality sells his age, which makes for a more convincing illusion.

Because this is set in New Hampshire in 1933, Winkler isn't technically playing Scrooge - his character is Benedict Slade, which isn't quite an anagram for Ebenezer Scrooge, but if you squint you can see the game they're playing. Same with the name of his underpaid assistant, Thatcher.

Here's the basic setup: Slade is a businessman who repossesses furniture and electronics from hardworking people unable to make ends meet because the local granite quarry closed a few years earlier. Thatcher hates this, but does his job as well as he can, because he needs the money to pay for his crippled son to go to a clinic in Australia. On Christmas Eve, Slade repossesses a stove and radio from two farmers, a piano from the local orphanage, and a bunch of books (including an original copy of A Christmas Carol) from a bookseller. Incidentally, that last one means we technically get a scene where someone pulls a copy of A Christmas Carol off a shelf and opens it, for those of you keeping track.

Thatcher approaches Slade with a proposition to reopen the local quarry, but Slade dismisses the idea. Rather than drop it, Thatcher argues with his boss until Slade eventually gets angry and fires him. Thatcher leaves to tell his family what happened while Slade returns to what he was doing, tearing the covers off old books under the logic the leather is worth more than the book. He gets to A Christmas Carol, and there's lightning, because of course there is.

The spirit of his former partner appears to kick off the whole "three ghosts" thing. No major changes here, aside from the fact the dialogue is (mostly) new, and character dynamics are slightly different. The Ghosts are slightly altered, in that they appear as characters Slade repossessed property from, so we go through brief moments of confusion as he attempts to address them as such.

The bulk of the movie is spent in the past, as Slade's backstory is far more detailed than Scrooge's. I still don't like that they cast a young man as an old one, but at least they got their money's worth by having him double as his younger self for a significant chunk of the runtime. We're shown Slade getting adopted from the orphanage, him learning a trade from his foster father, him falling in love with his sister, him--

I should probably pause a moment to reflect on that last one. I guess someone thought it would be clever to combine Fan and Belle into one character, and... uh... yeesh. To be fair, Slade was already a teen when his foster family took him in, so it's not like he grew up with the girl. And obviously they're not genetically related. But while "technically not incest" is better than the alternative, if you're making a family movie, maybe rethink the whole subplot rather than asking viewers to rationalize something like this. Just saying.

At any rate, Slade has a falling out with his adoptive father over a disagreement about the future of furniture making. The old man wants to keep doing it the traditional way, while Slade wants to modernize the operation, utilizing an assembly line. The quality won't be anywhere near as good, but Slade believes they'll turn a hefty profit. When they can't reach a compromise, Slade eventually takes a job in another city.

He comes back a while later and almost mends fences. Then the family's factory is destroyed in a fire, Slade betrays him by convincing a local investor to put his money in one of Slade's schemes instead of rebuilding, and his foster father dies of a heart attack. Oh, and his fiancé who isn't exactly his sister leaves him. It's all very melodramatic.

As is the stuff in the present, which is mercifully shorter. We get a brief look at Slade's sister's new life, with Slade pining over not being the father of her child, which... still creepy. Still really goddamn creepy. Then we quickly move on to the Thatchers and their crippled son who will die if nothing changes. It's cheesy and overly sentimental, though to his credit Winkler sells the reactions.

I also want to mention the Ghost of Christmas Present is played by Gerard Parkes, who'd go on to play Doc on Fraggle Rock a few years later. The actor exudes whimsy, which is a nice reprieve from the tired melodrama of the screenplay.

The third ghost is... well... here's where things get awkward. Christmas Past was introduced with music from the radio from decades earlier, and appeared as the bookstore owner. Present was the man running the orphanage where Slade repossessed the piano. For future, we return to the radio, which now plays music from the years between 1933 and the '70s. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come looks like the farmer from the beginning. The farmer was black, so the Ghost is as well, which is...

Okay, there are a few ways to look at this. I assume the casting was intended as a statement about how the future was going to be more equitable. Having a black man as the literal embodiment of the future makes for an interesting statement, even if the relative future was pointing at 1979, which was still racist as hell (not that 2022 is much better).

The problem is that's not the only way to look at this. In the original book, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is literally a being of darkness and shadow (as Dickens puts it, "It would have been difficult to detach its figure from the night, and separate it from the darkness by which it was surrounded"). The movie doesn't call this out, so it's certainly possible this wasn't in any way intended. Still, as this is the only black actor in a major role in the movie, the choice feels questionable. 

That said, the ghost is kind of great as a character. The actor plays the character with a cold indifference that works well. Rather than being mute, he answers questions ambiguously in ways that imply more than they say.

The rest of the section isn't as good. There's a massive auction for all of Slade's possessions, many of which are then burned by the buyers. We then get a quick look at the Thatchers visiting the grave of the Tim analog. This is used to drop the movie's theme, that if someone's remembered with love, they never truly die. Bla bla bla - you get the idea.

So does Slade, actually. He vows to make amends, and when he wakes up, he discovers there's still time. So he does... basically everything you'd expect. He takes care of the Thatchers and returns all the stuff he repossessed in a sequence that feels more like the Grinch than A Christmas Carol. He gives out gifts to everyone, then stops by the orphanage to pick up a troubled orphan of his own, just as he was taken in.

Oh, and he's going to reopen the quarry, of course. And he'll rebuild his dead adoptive father's old factory for some reason. It all gets pretty ridiculous, but what do you expect.

For the record, this section is decent in isolation. Winkler doesn't go the usual route of portraying Scrooge (or Slade or whatever) as borderline insane. He's still basically the same character, and that includes being a bit of a prick. He still manipulates people and plays on their fears, only now everything he does has a benevolent punchline instead of a sadistic one. He basically turns into a goodhearted asshole, which is fun (and not entirely a departure from Scrooge in the original).

None of this nullifies the fact this movie is too long and far too melodramatic. It's not good, but I feel like that was a foregone conclusion from "TV movie from 1979." And, for what little it's worth, I think this is better than it probably should have been. Some of the casting is genuinely inspired, and there are a few neat twists. It's just nowhere near enough to warrant any kind of recommendation.

The most difficult aspect of this to rate is Winkler himself. He really does do a good job selling his age here, which couldn't have been easy. I still question the wisdom of this kind of casting at all, but he's not bad.

He is, however, Jewish, a fact that comes through in his take on Slade. Readings of Scrooge as Jewish have been around nearly as long as A Christmas Carol, and this depiction reinforces them. I doubt any of it was intentional, but for the second time, a casting choice has troubling implications, this time seemingly reinforcing anti-Semitic aspects of the story.   

Ultimately, while this is better than it probably has any right to be, it doesn't come close to actually being good. Serious fans of Winkler may find this worth a viewing, but I can't think of any reason for anyone else to bother.