Carry On Christmas (1969)

This is one of those times where I find myself a bit lost. Ostensibly a comical retelling of A Christmas Carol, this is really better described as a farcical sketch special loosely tied together with a frame story about Scrooge. The key word here is "loosely," in that the majority of the sketches have nothing at all to do with the story or its characters. Also complicating matters is the fact it's part of a franchise of comedic British films with what I assume is a similar style of humor. That style, incidentally, is a longstanding British tradition utilizing innuendo, absurdity, and intentional shock. While I suspect this is a form of comedy deserving of respect, it's also kind of the forerunner of what would eventually turn into things like Scary Movie.

In short, I didn't like this, but I'm having a hard time parsing out whether that's because it's bad, it's dated, or I'm simply lacking the context necessary to appreciate what they're doing. Ultimately, I don't have the background to judge this objectively, so I'm more or less going to have to limit myself to describing the experience of watching it without that background. And, as I've already said, that experience wasn't great.

Let's start with the story, to the extremely limited extent the word applies. Again, the point of this isn't to retell Scrooge, so much as to use the familiar setting and frame as a starting point to introduce sketches. And the frame starts out more or less like you'd expect, by introducing Scrooge and showing him acting cruelly. Eventually, the first ghost shows up to show Scrooge the past, and that's where things go completely off the rails.

The "past" in this case, concerns a doctor Scrooge refused to give a loan to the previous year. The doctor in question is named Frank N. Stein, who was trying to complete an experiment in bringing a monstrous creation to life with the help of his lab partner, Count Dracula. Also, there's a formula from Dr. Jekyll involved. And a very horny woman based on Frankenstein's bride. It all ends with a homophobic joke about the monster trying to mate with the doctor.

Homophobic jokes are a recurring theme in this, actually.

After that, we cut back to Scrooge, who rings a bell to summon a prostitute (at least I think she's supposed to be a prostitute), then it cuts away to a sketch about a nun and three schoolgirls getting ready to sing carols on the street outside.

I should probably mention that, in the style of most sketch comedy shows, the same set of actors are appearing again and again in each segment playing multiple parts. The fact the core of the troop are men, and they handle most (but not all) of the female parts is half the joke here.

At any rate, Scrooge eventually shows up on his balcony and pours liquid on them that's initially implied to be him peeing before that's revealed as a fake-out.

We then get to the Christmas Present section, which involves a half-naked Ghost played by an actress. This section is about the poet, Robert Browning, trying to elope with Elizabeth Barrett despite being denied the loan from Scrooge he needs to afford the wedding.

Browning is played by the comedian, Frankie Howerd, who's a guest star in this thing. Ultimately, the setup is an excuse to let him do stand-up comedy for five minutes, and... actually, this was pretty good. Again, I want to stop short of outright dismissing the rest, but I will say Howerd's style and sensibilities felt much funnier than three other performers. This bit goes on too long, but it was still the highlight of the special for me.

Anyway, it ends with Browning getting shot and Barrett sexually assaulting Scrooge, who shows up too late with the loan money.

Oh yeah, sexual assault is another recurring theme. Actually, it's arguably the dominant theme, as every section ends with someone trying to sexually assault a male character. This is the only time it's an actress, rather than an actor in drag.

Time for the Ghost of Christmas Future, who is presented as a hippy. We then transition to our final story, centered around Cinderella.

I'd say it doesn't make any less sense than the monsters bit, but at least that felt thematically linked to the concepts of "the past" and (relative) "present," albeit loosely. I can't think of any way Cinderella connects to the future, no matter how generous I'm being.

Once again, plot is light, as we're really just here for jokes. Scrooge plays an extended role in this, as he shows up looking for money he's owed then sexually harasses Cinderella, who fears he'll try and rape her. Her fairy godmother, played by Frankie Howerd in drag, uses her magic to prevent this, then implies she's going to sexually assault Scrooge, so lots of rape-based humor in this bit.

Scrooge then wakes up, vows to give his money away to prevent this, and is almost immediately arrested when the first woman he meets misinterprets his charity for trying to solicit her.

Okay, so... that's what happens. Certainly a lot of jokes about rape, sexual assault, and men dressed as women in this... All right.

I want to be fair. I understand that comedy considered offensive in one generation may have been subversive and even culturally important in another time. My assumptions as to who these jokes are at the expense of may not be accurate. Like I said at the start, I don't have all the context here. And I also don't have the time right now to try and parse this out.

What I will say is this stuff feels pretty offensive viewed in hindsight. Maybe that's fair and maybe it isn't, but I suspect it would be a common reaction.

Also, most of this isn't particularly funny. There are exceptions to that - even beyond Howerd, there are jokes that hold up here. I don't want to give the impression none of it works anymore; that's not at all true. But overall less of this worked for me than didn't, and by a pretty wide margin.

There's not much more to say about this. It really doesn't have enough of the source material left in the DNA to warrant much discussion along those lines. I suppose it's worth noting the sets are pretty good facsimiles of the sort you'd see in serious adaptations. And it does demonstrate that A Christmas Carol was ubiquitous enough to be a target of parody in the late 1960s, though seeing as I've watched nearly 30 adaptations at the time of writing this, that's hardly surprising to me.

If you're a fan of British humor from this era... honestly, I have no idea if you'll like this or not. I'm not not a fan myself - I certainly watched my share of Monty Python growing up - but this feels like it's coming out of a slightly different tradition. I didn't much care for it, but I don't feel like I understand the politics and social norms it's engaging with well enough to completely dismiss it.

For those of you more familiar with this stuff than I am, by all means chime in in the comments and let me know what you think. Is Carry On some sort of brilliant tradition, or just yet another example of comedy aging poorly?