Scrooge (1970)

We did a few adaptations of A Christmas Carol back when we started this blog, but we lost interest pretty fast. It wasn't so much that we were bored watching them (if that were enough, there's a host of genres we'd have dropped a decade ago), it's that we felt like we'd said everything we could possibly say on the subject. To put it another way, I figured if I'd seen one of these, I'd pretty much seen them all.

I now realize I was wrong. Hilariously wrong. In more ways than I can count.

Granted, if I'd tried watching through one after another back then, I'd have basically been wasting my time. The variations wouldn't have interested me back then, and I was too new to all this to perceive how different versions reflect their times or what they meant to holiday media in general. Even so, I should have watched this one ages ago. I have no excuse save ignorance for waiting this long.

It's not so much that this is good or bad; it's that it's... well... there's just so much of it. This thing is bonkers - a high-budget, massively complex, gorgeously designed film that hilariously miscasts the lead, turns the story into a musical, and includes perhaps the most absurd addition in the history of A Christmas Carol adaptations. For better and worse, it's incredible.

There are quite a few ways to approach A Christmas Carol, depending on what you want to focus on. This is pretty upfront about being a comedy, first and foremost. The ghost story elements are downplayed (though this does feature a few details often overlooked, such as the ghost carriage passing Scrooge on his staircase at the beginning). Likewise, the dramatic bits aren't given much weight. This wants the audience laughing and clapping along, so it glosses over anything that might feel like a downer.

I've seen several sources claim it's the first musical adaptation, which isn't entirely accurate. The 1954 version made for the television series, "Shower of Stars," was a musical, as was the 1956 "Stingiest Man Alive" and the 1962 animated special, "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol". Granted, those were made-for-TV, while this is a major motion picture. As far as I know, this is the first theatrically released musical adaptation.

The quality of the music of course varies from song to song, but overall it's one of the weaker aspects of the film. The best song is probably the love song from Isabel (a reimagined version of Belle, now the daughter of Fezziwig to tie those plotlines together). It's a fairly generic love song, but it's kind of pretty and not as obnoxious as the bulk of what's here. That said, the songs at least serve to flesh out characters and situations. This is competently constructed as a musical - not all are.

The sets are easily the most impressive I've come across in any version of A Christmas Carol I've yet seen. A few years earlier, the same studio did a version of Oliver, and they were able to reuse sets from that production. I suppose that's a bit of a cheat, but I'm sure it allowed them to get some extra mileage out of their budget, and it shows. This is a gorgeous realization of the London of Dickens's writings.

I don't think this is an issue, but it's worth noting there are some anachronisms in the design. In particular, there are some colored electric lights in a few shop windows. They went with old-fashioned bulbs in an attempt to make them fit in, but they're still off by at least 50 years. Again, no one's grading for realism, but I found the detail notable. Likewise, there's a "Father Christmas" outfit in the resolution clearly based on 20th Century designs after the character merged with Santa. Father Christmas of the 1800s looked like... well, that's who the Ghost of Christmas Present is supposed to be.

Let's talk about the lead for a minute. Scrooge is played by Albert Finney, who at the time was thirty-three. They then applied generous amounts of makeup in an attempt to make him twice his age. It didn't work.

To be fair, the makeup work is good - really good, in fact. And if you're feeling generous, you can write off some of Finney's choices as a comedic approach. The main problem is his body doesn't move like an old man's: he moves like a young man trying to mimic someone older. This becomes even more absurd in the resolution when he's a young man playing an old man who feels young: none of it's convincing. Same with his face: the makeup is impressive, but you can still see right through it. He just doesn't have the right body type or physicality to pull this off. Or the voice - his "old man" voice is ludicrous. Again, I think he's going for comedy here, and it almost works in a "so awful it's funny" sort of way. But regardless of whether it's intentional or not, it's still awful.

For the life of me, I can't figure out why they cast him. Obviously, this opened the door for him to play his younger self in the Christmas Past section, but it certainly wasn't worth the trade-off. And it certainly wasn't easier than double-casting the part, as they wound up incorporating elaborate camera tricks and effects to allow both versions to appear on screen simultaneously. Granted, those effects were great for the time, but hardly worth having a thirty-three-year-old squinting and talking in a high-pitched voice for the entire movie.

The rest of the cast is good, but it's rare to find a theatrically released version of A Christmas Carol where that's not the case. I should note Alec Guinness appears as Marley, though he'd regret taking the role due to the toll the wire harness took on his body. His Marley is impressive as a visual, thanks to some clever lighting and some wirework, but honestly they could have put anyone in the suit and gotten a similar effect. I do enjoy referring to him as Jacob Marley's force-ghost, however.

Let's talk about changes to the source material, because this is where things get really bizarre. The majority of the film sticks fairly close to the book, though they do gender-flip the Ghost of Christmas Past (Edith Evans does a particularly good job with the part and gets the movie's best joke). The section set in the past is somewhat streamlined: Scrooge's sister is all but written out, and I already mentioned how Fezziwig and "Isabel" are connected.

There aren't too many changes to the main beats of the present section, either. The ghost is pretty straightforward, and they do a solid job selling his size (like I said, visuals are the strong suit of this adaptation). The content of Past and Present are reconfigured around the musical numbers, of course, but overall the story's pretty much as you'd expect.

Now let's talk Future...

First, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is bizarrely short and unimposing. My guess is they wanted it not to be scary - again, the approach is to make this as kid-friendly and funny as possible. To that end, virtually everything that occurs in Stave Four is replaced with a song built around Scrooge misinterpreting people celebrating his death for them celebrating him as a person. Until he's shown the Cratchit residence, this whole section is a musical farce, a far cry from the somber, creepy section it's based on.

The loss of Tiny Tim is fairly muted, as well. They don't want kids upset, so they kind of gloss over this and move on to the cemetery, where Scrooge is shown his tombstone. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come briefly turns skeletal and pushes Scrooge into his open grave...

And Scrooge falls. And falls. And falls. And eventually lands in hell, where he's mocked by Marley's ghost, who brings him to his new "office". Lucifer (who sadly doesn't make an appearance) wants Scrooge as his clerk, so Scrooge is to work for eternity in the one frozen spot of hell as Satan's personal Bob Cratchit. Also, a bunch of shirtless men bring him his chains, which are comically huge.

From here, Scrooge wakes in his bed and we get a musical version of Stave Five featuring a couple reprises. Naturally, this is over-the-top and absurd. Scrooge makes amends with his nephew, the Cratchits, and the charity collectors, of course, but he also forgives loans to virtually everyone in London. Sure. Why not.

So. Is this good? Bad?

Honestly, kind of both. It's sort of a live-action cartoon, full of spectacle but light on thought. Most of the soul of the book is missing, but it's both astonishing and (mostly) fun. If the songs were a little better, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it unconditionally.

But unfortunately the songs aren't better. Overall, they're not awful, but they're not exactly enjoyable to listen to, either. And at least one got stuck in my head for several hours. It's one that gets a reprise, too. Goddamn ear worm.

Even with all that, I'd rank this pretty high among adaptations. It's cheesy and ridiculous, but at least it's got something of an identity. This is A Christmas Carol done about as comical and absurd as the story allows, while simultaneously boasting arguably the best production values of any adaptation to date. It's campy, and there's no real compelling emotion or teeth in the entire movie, but for what it is, it makes for a pretty damn enjoyable experience. Take that as a lukewarm endorsement, I suppose.


  1. I and my family love it and will continue to watch it annually.

  2. I actually like this adaptation of ‘A Christmas Carol” more than any other with Mr. Magoo’s coming in second (haven’t seen Muppets yet)

    1. I'm discovering this one has a dedicated fanbase. I'd be curious to hear why Magoo speaks to you - while I respect its historical importance, nothing about it really stands out to me.


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