Friday, November 26, 2010

A Christmas Carol (CBS/Desilu, 1954)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan * Copyright (c) 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan * All rights reserved

The program was an intriguing 1954 adaptation of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol from the Alcoa Aluminum-sponsored anthology drama series Shower of Stars, filmed (not broadcast live) at Desilu Studios in 1954 and originally made in color, in the CBS scanning-wheel color system that could only be received if you owned a CBS-made or -licensed color TV set, though (alas) the only surviving record of the show is a kinescope in black-and-white. The show had a top-of-the-line cast both in front of and behind the cameras: Fredric March (wearing one of the most outrageously obvious fake noses I've ever seen) was Scrooge and Basil Rathbone was the ghost of his late partner, Jacob Marley -- marking a reunion of them from the cast of the 1935 MGM version of Anna Karenina, in which Rathbone played the title character's husband and March was Count Vronsky, whom she cheats on him with.

The director was a minor figure named Ralph Levy but the screenplay was written by Maxwell Anderson and the complete musical score by Bernard Herrmann -- and the two collaborated on at least three songs that were included as part of the package. (This may be the first adaptation of A Christmas Carol that qualifies as a musical: it certainly pre-dates the 1962 Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol and the Broadway musical Scrooge, later filmed in 1981 with Albert Finney as Scrooge.) One of them was a duet between the young Scrooge (Craig Hill) and his girlfriend Belle (Sally Fraser, who doubles as the Ghost of Christmas Past -- the resemblance between them becomes a plot point in Anderson's script) in which Belle's voice is doubled by the great Marilyn Horne on her way to becoming one of the great opera stars of all time. (This was the same year she was Dorothy Dandridge's voice double for the 1954 film Carmen Jones; 18 years later, in 1972, she would sing Bizet's Carmen at the Met with Leonard Bernstein conducting and record the score for Deutsche Grammophon, thereby becoming to my knowledge the only person to record both Carmen and Carmen Jones.)

The story is well-known to anyone who hasn't lived their whole life in a yurt in Ulan Bator, and so much of the fun is how they deal with the familiar plot points and what they emphasize -- I regretted the omission of the flashback scene in which Scrooge, as a boy, is left behind at his boarding school during Christmas because everyone else at the school has a family to spend the holidays with and Scrooge -- an orphan, like so many other Dickens leading characters -- doesn't, and also the scene after Scrooge's reclamation in which he sends the young boy he accosts from his window to buy a huge turkey for the Cratchits' Christmas dinner, but for the rest Anderson had chosen wisely and I can only regret that he had to cut the story even more severely for an hour-long running time (less commercials, not included here) to fit in the songs. Quite frankly, these are no great shakes: Tiny Tim's big solo (though whether it's Christopher Cook, who plays the role on screen, or a voice double I don't know) is offensive enough the first time and later, when Scrooge visits the Cratchits at the end and Tiny Tim offers to sing it for him, it seems the final test of Scrooge's forebearance -- will he be nice and say yes, or will he react like a normal person and tell Tiny Tim to shut up, and get the hell out of there if the kid doesn't comply.

The show was well done all around but quite frankly I wish they had reversed the casting of the above-the-title leads and had Rathbone playing Scrooge: March comes off as merely a crotchety old man but Rathbone, with his more incisive diction and his more flamboyant acting style, would have thrown himself into the part with more verve on both sides of his reclamation. (I don't know if Rathbone ever played Scrooge, but March did the part again four years later for another TV series, this one an anthology in which all the shows starred him and were based on stories by Dickens.) Otherwise it's an intriguing adaptation, and though the change usually comes without supernatural assistance the pattern of Scrooge's life -- spending the first half unscrupulously making money and the second half giving much of it away in philanthropies of one sort or another -- is actually quite a common one in the lives of the very rich, from John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie a century ago to Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and George Soros today.