It might be hard to believe now, but once upon a time I was an impressionable, wide-eyed 8-year-old, and when my parents allowed me to skip school one cold December day in 1970 so we could all go to New York City's Radio City Music Hall to see the new movie 'Scrooge,' I thought Christmas had come early. Of course I knew little, if anything, about Charles Dickens' immortal novel, 'A Christmas Carol,' but this musical version, directed by Ronald Neame and starring the always impressive Albert Finney, enchanted me with its characters, songs, spectacle, and irrepressible holiday spirit. And it continues to do so today. Though there are perhaps more film versions of 'A Christmas Carol' than any other story – holiday or otherwise – in history, this melodic take on the tale possesses more energy and flair than most, and remains one of the top adaptations, as well as a perennial holiday favorite.
Almost everyone is familiar with the crusty, bitter miser Ebenezer Scrooge (Finney), whose disdain for mankind and yuletide joy conjures up a Christmas Eve visit from the ghost of his business partner, Jacob Marley (Alec Guinness), in Victorian London. Marley hopes to spare Scrooge an unfortunate afterlife by helping him become a more caring and generous human being. Three spirits — the Ghost of Christmas Past (Edith Evans), the Ghost of Christmas Present (Kenneth More), and the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come (Paddy Stone) — visit Scrooge during the night, transporting him back to the seminal events that shaped him, and offering disturbing visions of what his future might hold if he continues on his greedy, cold-hearted path. When he "awakens" on Christmas morning, a rejuvenated Scrooge giddily mends fences with those he has badgered and wronged, and pledges to help those in need, especially the struggling family of his beleaguered clerk, Bob Cratchit (David Collings).
Although some purists may find the idea of a song-filled 'Christmas Carol' distasteful, even blasphemous, I am constantly struck by how well Dickens' classic works as a musical. The slow ballads add extra poignancy and emotion to the tale, while the rousing ensemble pieces lend the film a festive, exhilarating flavor that eclipses other versions. Credit composer-screenwriter Leslie Bricusse, who also wrote the songs for 'Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory' and 'Doctor Dolittle,' for seamlessly weaving his melodic, hummable score into the action. Pieces such as 'Father Christmas,' 'I Like Life,' 'Happiness,' and the toe-tapping 'Thank You Very Much' enhance the emotional shadings of the characters and spark the various stages of Scrooge's transformation.
Finney leads a superstar gallery of distinguished British actors and totally inhabits the irascible, ultimately lovable Scrooge. To think he was a mere 34 years old when he tackled the role of the elderly curmudgeon makes his performance all the more admirable. Makeup artist George Frost helps to put over the illusion, but Finney loses himself in the part, filling his performance with subtle nuances and a heartbreaking melancholy that make Scrooge a three-dimensional character instead of the customary caricature. (To think both Richard Harris and Rex Harrison almost played the part instead gives one pause.) He also performs double duty, portraying Scrooge as a young man — a rare feat among movie Scrooges. A few very effective processed shots allow the two Finneys to share the screen, strikingly illustrating the actor's virtuosity.
Unfortunately, the film stumbles at times, taking a few unnecessary liberties with the material. Whenever 'Scrooge' strays too far from Dickens' novel, it loses credibility. An extended sequence of Scrooge in hell adds an unwelcome cartoon quality to the story, despite a couple of amusing bits and the welcome return of Guinness (whose gravelly-voiced Marley is a highlight). Ditto Scrooge's impersonation of Santa Claus during the finale. Yet because 'Scrooge' is a musical, one can more easily forgive such faults. The sets and songs often bring 'Oliver!' (released just two years earlier) to mind, but director Neame's masterful pacing, dramatic sensitivity and command of the musical numbers allow 'Scrooge' to stand on its own. Having just come off 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie' (which won Maggie Smith an Oscar), the underrated Neame would further prove his versatility with his next project, 'The Poseidon Adventure.'
'Scrooge' may not be on everyone’s short list of essential holiday films, but it’s on mine. Alastair Sim may well remain the finest movie Scrooge, but Finney gives him a run for his money and helps make this tuneful treat a true Christmas classic.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Scrooge' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. The 25GB single-layer disc features a 1080p/VC-1 video transfer and a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio track. A language selection screen pops up before the full-motion menu with music. There are no previews or promos.
Much like the man himself, for years 'Scrooge' looked craggy and worn when shown on TV. Paramount's 2003 DVD spruced up the presentation considerably, but even that fine effort pales when compared to this Blu-ray edition. The 1080p/VC-1 transfer often dazzles with wonderful clarity, fine contrast, and good color timing. This 1970 musical certainly has never looked better, sporting a lovely film-like appearance, marked by a light grain structure that adds welcome texture to the quaint reproductions of 19th century London.
Though the color palette is often muted, emphasizing the drab pallor of Scrooge's dingy office and dilapidated flat, there are flashes of beautiful lushness, such as the red velvet dress of the Ghost of Christmas Past and the Santa suit Scrooge dons in the finale. The toy shop also comes alive with vibrant hues, the brief scenes of the English countryside highlight its verdant fields, and the auburn hair of the two youngest Cratchit children exudes a subtle sheen. Fleshtones look natural, black levels are deep and rich, and the white snow never overpowers the image.
Shadow detail is quite good and background elements are surprisingly crisp (for the first time I was able to discern the wire that hoists Guinness' celestial Jacob Marley in the air), allowing us to get a great feel for the Victorian period. Close-ups show off Scrooge's wrinkled and weathered face well, not to mention his filthy fingernails, but the intense scrutiny never lessens the impact of George Frost's seamless make-up.
And yet some nagging video issues remain. Bits of debris crop up at times at the bottom of the screen and sporadic faint white specks dot the print. Some shots flaunt a bit more grain than others, and crush occasionally afflicts low-lit scenes. The heightened clarity also draws more attention to processed shots, such as Scrooge's descent into hell. Still, these are minor annoyances that only minorly detract from one's enjoyment of the film.
Like the young Ebenezer, 'Scrooge' hasn't felt much love over the years, at least from a video standpoint. This high quality transfer rights that wrong, and fans will be thrilled with this presentation.
'Scrooge' receives a welcome upgrade to DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, and the enhanced clarity and fidelity render the previous Dolby Digital 5.1 track that graces the 2003 DVD obsolete. As soon as the opening credits begin to roll, there's noticeable stereo separation across the front channels that isolates various vocal parts in the song 'A Christmas Carol,' and the overall brightness of tone and excellent dynamic range immediately arrest the senses. High ends resist distortion and bass tones exude just the right amount of weight to complement the action without intruding upon it.
Details, from horse hooves galloping down snowy London streets to the clink and clank of coins as Scrooge meticulously counts them, are always distinct and vibrant, while dialogue is well prioritized and easy to understand. No age-related defects such as hiss, pops, and crackles are present, and though true surround opportunities are slim, the track possesses enough depth and presence to provide a subtle wrap-around feel.
Of course, Leslie Bricusse's marvelous score is the meat and potatoes of this track, and whenever voices are raised or orchestrations swell, the resultant audio is literally music to our ears. The songs benefit from a slight volume boost that punches up fidelity, but whether the tune is a lilting solo or full-scale ensemble piece, the sound is always perfectly modulated so we can hear vocal nuances and distinguish the abundant counter melodies and harmonies that are such a major part of the music.
Though the film's overture has been dropped from this release, the exit music has been restored, and provides a nice coda to this high quality track.
The Blu-ray improves upon the previous DVD release, which included no extras whatsoever, by providing the film's original theatrical trailer as the sole supplement. It's not much, but the three-minute preview, presented in high-def, possesses a distinct vintage feel that adds to the production's holiday warmth (and makes one appreciate the prime video and audio transfers all the more). It's too bad an audio commentary wasn't recorded eight years ago with Finney and director Ronald Neame, who died last year at age 99; it would have greatly enhanced this disc.
'Scrooge' puts a rousing musical twist on Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol,' and the result is a delightful family film that's sure to infuse everyone with holiday spirit. A melodic, often exhilarating score, expert performances led by the versatile Albert Finney, and sure-handed direction from Ronald Neame enhance the time-honored tale without cheapening it. Paramount's Blu-ray edition features solid video with only a few minor glitches and excellent audio. Supplements are practically non-existent, but don't let that keep you from picking up this essential yuletide disc. Recommended.