Tales from Dickens: A Christmas Carol (1959)

"Tales from Dickens," alternatively referred to as "Fredric March Presents Tales from Dickens," was an anthology series adapting stories by Charles Dickens that ran for four years.

I think.

See, here's the thing: there's virtually no information about this series anywhere online. It doesn't have a Wikipedia page, IMDB's data is full of holes, JustWatch hasn't heard of them, and - with one exception - every episode seems to have been swallowed by the abyss of time. Fortunately, that exception is their 1959 adaptation of A Christmas Carol, which was released on VHS, DVD, and can be easily found on YouTube. So while I'm a little light on context, I was able to watch the episode itself.

This is notable for a couple reasons, the first being it features Basil Rathbone as Scrooge, a role he played three years earlier in the live television musical, The Stingiest Man in Town. This adaptation is very different - perhaps Rathbone wanted a chance to portray the character in a more serious production. As alluded to earlier, the narrator is Fredric March, who played Scrooge himself in another television musical adaptation, the 1954 version made for the anthology series, Shower of the Stars. And since we haven't tied this in enough knots yet, Basil Rathbone also appears in the Shower of the Stars version as Marley.

The Tales from Dickens version is a 30-minute adaptation that squeezes in almost every major scene, so things are a bit rushed, though perhaps not as badly as you'd expect. After a brief introduction from March who tells us he's reading the story in the same room Dickens wrote it (I assume that's true but can't confirm), we get a truncated version of the sequence in Scrooge's business. It skips the charity collectors entirely and shortens his conversations with Bob and Fred, but the significant details remain.

This forms the underlying philosophy of the episode: trim out dialogue that won't impact the plot and cut scenes where necessary, but include as much as possible. Interesting, they're fairly cutthroat about what gets pulled. Iconic details like Marley's face appearing in the doorknocker and Scrooge's skepticism around his senses are excised. Meanwhile, sequences that would be easily lost - such as Scrooge's school or his business associates joking about his death - are included in shortened forms. Given the time constraints, I think they made some smart choices: while some of the removed segments are beloved, prioritizing story results in a better whole.

That's not to say the pacing is beyond reproach. I think they manage to pull this off until the last section, when Scrooge wakes up in his bed and sets about righting his wrongs. But by then they're left with less than three minutes to resolve everything... and I do mean everything. He wakes up, celebrates his opportunity, sends Bob the prize turkey, goes to his nephew's, then plays his joke on Bob the next day before giving him a raise. Oh, and there's still the closing narration: when I say this is rushed, I mean it practically feels like it's playing in fast forward. Still, the fact they managed to do the Past, Present, and Future sections justice in a half-hour special is pretty remarkable.

What really impresses me, however, are some designs and visual effects. This is clearly a television production made at a time when TV resources were scant, but it still pulls off some cool moments. I'll start with the costuming: the spirits look remarkably good. In particular, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is significantly better costumed than I'm used to seeing from television - or even movies - from this era. It's not that they do anything complicated: they just give the actor robes that are heavy enough to sit right, then make sure to film him from angles that convey the idea his features are always concealed in shadow. To be frank, most versions from this era don't pull that off - this one does.

They also deliver a fun effect for Scrooge's visions, though it's eventually overused. When the spirits take him to homes, instead of using full sets, Scrooge is in a fog-filled expanse with freestanding doors, floating windows, and furniture used to block out spaces. This works extremely well in the past, where it feels as if only details retained in Scrooge's memory have substance. If that was the idea, it gets lost when they use the same trick in the Present, where it makes significantly less sense. Still, it looks neat, even if the fog machine is turned up a little too high for the scene where Belle breaks up with Scrooge.

The real standout for me, though, are the spirit effects. The concept is pretty much unchanged from the era of silent films: spirits appear see-through. This manages some cool variations, however, a few of which I had to pause and rewatch to see how they were accomplished. Twice, Scrooge returns to his room with a spirit. They fade in together, interact physically, then the spirit fades away, leaving Scrooge alone. If you're looking closely, you can find errors where Scrooge's pose changes slightly when the spirit vanishes, but you have to be watching for it. Considering when this was made and the medium, they put some real effort into those moments, and it shows.

I'm a little torn on Rathbone's performance here. I think he does good work in the second half, when he sells Scrooge's fear and regret, but I find him much less convincing at the start. He's hardly the first actor I could sum up that way, and I'm unsure how much blame to attach to him versus the director. It's fairly common to treat Scrooge as a caricature prior to his epiphany, but it rarely works in my opinion. I also found Rathbone's portrayal calibrated a bit more for the stage than screen: it feels as though he's acting for a distant audience, rather than the camera right in front of him, and it makes for a less convincing performance. That said, there are moments where he's quite good. He's just not quite consistent enough.

All things considered, this short adaptation was likely better than it had any right to be. I'm trying to think of another 30-minute live-action version that did the story better, and I'm drawing a blank (though I've still got more to watch, so who knows what I'll come across). Despite this, I can't really recommend this to anyone who's not abnormally interested in the subject matter. There's a lot here to like, but you have to be familiar with the era to appreciate it.