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Celluloid Christmas: Holy Hollywood! "Scrooge"

Albert Finney's transformation is one for the ages. His Scrooge dons a Santa suit.

I don’t think I’m going out on a Christmas-tree limb when I say that Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” is the most influential source material for holiday interpretations. The Dickens novella has everything that a fan of literature and an enthusiast for the Yuletide season could crave. It’s funny, dramatic, uplifting, scary, and, above all, entirely relatable. That’s why I’m choosing “Scrooge,” the less-frequently-seen musical version of the tale, as my ninth selection in the 12 Films of Christmas.

“Scrooge” (1970) is a lavish, opulent musical meditation on the familiar Dickens storyline. In this big-budget British production, Albert Finney kicks up his heels as the tight-fisted, squinty-eyed moneylender. It’s really a testament to Finney’s acting ability, and dedication to inhabiting a role, that he is such a convincing Ebenezer Scrooge. In real life, Finney was not quite 33 years old when he put on the makeup and the necessary old-man wigging. There’s not a moment that he seems like a young fellow playing dress-up.

Albert Finney as young Ebenezer; Suzanne Neve as Isabel

What’s fascinating about his portrayal of Ebenezer is that Finney was known as a very physical, very aggressive actor. One of England’s “angry young men” thespians, Finney would frequently crash through movie sets and collide with his co-stars. With an oversized head of auburn hair, and a prominent barrel chest, Finney was noted for his sexuality, carnal charisma, and bodily presence. It had long been whispered that he would have affairs with any and all females who appeared opposite him in a production. That kind of unbridled passion is not normally associated with the unmarried, miserly, lonely Scrooge.

The filmmakers for this 1970 adaptation (director Ronald Neame, screenwriter and musical composer Leslie Bricusse) give us a more in-depth look into Scrooge’s past. We see Ebenezer’s doomed relationship with the comely Isabel Fezziwig (Suzanne Neve). During their musical interludes and cinematic montage, we note that Isabel is totally enthralled by the young, handsome Ebenezer. Of course, she is! It’s Albert Finney, out of his elderly getup, prowling about the screen in his virile, domineering glory. While Isabel seems to be completely smitten, Ebenezer seems more aloof and even cold at times. I’m not saying that this is a “50 Shades of Grey” relationship, but the moviemakers are smart enough to show how seamlessly Ebenezer’s avarice and greed replace the woman he supposedly loves.

Albert Finney in old-age makeup as the miserable, miserly Scrooge

I don’t know what the suits at Cinema Center Films were predicting when they agreed to produce this extravaganza. I can only speculate that they had visions of “Oliver’s” Oscar gold dancing in their heads. “Oliver!” (and, yep, the exclamation point is part of the official name, like TV’s “Jeopardy!”) debuted two years earlier and attained huge success at the Academy Awards. It was nominated for 11 awards and netted six of them. The choreographer Onna White even received a special honorary award at the ceremony.

“Scrooge” racked up four Oscar nominations for its efforts (art direction, costume design, original song, original song score) but didn’t take home a single golden statuette. Because of its failure to score an Academy Award, I think the movie has ended up getting short shrift. A lot of critics dismissed Bricusse’s score as ear candy and overwrought. It’s funny that they termed it “ear candy,” since Bricusse would achieve long-lasting acclaim for his work the following year on “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.”

Jacob Marley (Alec Guinness) reminding Scrooge that he built his fate, link by link.

If “Scrooge” pops up on your streaming-service watch list or curated suggestions, then you should give it a whirl. The overall appearance of the film is meticulously crafted and evocative of what I imagine Victorian England might have looked like, sounded like, and smelled like. Its streets are teeming with humanity, and Finney, in full makeup, bumps against his fellow Londoners on his way home from the counting house. With cane in hand, which he brandishes as a weapon and crowd-control device, this Ebenezer is a brutal, hardened man. His soliloquy “I Hate People” is a declaration of anger and misanthropy. It is a Scrooge that seems realistic and full of gravitas. He’s not a cartoon miser, like Scrooge McDuck; rather, Finney’s Scrooge is a bitter, hardened man who has accumulated wealth, but has not spent his time wisely.

The Ghost of Christmas Present (Kenneth More) is an intimidating, jolly fellow.

The spirits who visit him and save him from his own abysmal fate are a Who’s Who of British acting legends: Alec Guinness (Jacob Marley), Edith Evans (Ghost of Christmas Past), and Kenneth More (Ghost of Christmas Present). Kay Walsh, the doyenne of British cinema and the wife of David Lean, portrays Mrs. Fezziwig, and Roy Kinnear, who is best remembered as Veruca Salt’s daddy, Henry, in “Willy Wonka,” is one of the charity gentlemen asking Scrooge for a donation.

Scrooge (Albert Finney) learns to be generous with his purse and his personality.

It’s a wonderfully evocative musical, and it also works as a dramatic telling of how a young man can lose his way, his soul, and his chance at love because of misspent ambition. That’s a lesson that is applicable at the Christmas season as many people complain about shortchanged bonuses or unequal amounts spent on present exchanges. The takeaway from “Scrooge” is that we are all young once, and we all have the potential for love in our hearts. The key to a life well lived is to treasure the interaction with those we trust above coins and currency. That’s what Ebenezer Scrooge learns, and, luckily for him, it’s taught with time to make amends.

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