21st 12 - 2008 | 13 comments »

Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962)

Director: Abe Levitow

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Oh, Magoo, you’ve done it again!

In 1941, John Hubley and several other animators who were on strike from Disney left that studio altogether to form United Productions of America (UPA) and produce cartoons that use what is now called “limited animation.” Hubley felt constrained by Disney’s emphasis on realism and wanted to create more stylized cartoons. In 1949, UPA came up with a very distinctive character—the short, bald, near-sighted Quincy Magoo, with actor Jim Backus as his first and only voice. The Magoo cartoons were hits, with two of them winning Academy Awards. When times got tough for UPA, Mister Magoo transitioned to television. It was there that Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol first appeared.

Although many consider this animated film a classic, you’re not likely to see it airing with the same frequency as A Charlie Brown Christmas and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. In fact, you may not find it at all, and that’s a real shame. Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol tells a shorter, but still faithful version of Dickens’ story bookended with classic Magoo comedy and a glorious score by Jule Styne, composer of “Let Me Entertain You,” “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow,” and many more great standards. The 1960s would see a radical change in musical styles, but since the setting of Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol is a Broadway stage, Styne produced a score fit for the Great White Way. (In fact, one song not used in the animated film went into a real Broadway show and became a hit—“People” from Funny Girl.)

The film opens with Magoo driving the wrong way down a Manhattan street singing the pizzazz-y “It’s Great to Be Back on Broadway.” Magoo narrowly misses hitting dozens of cars and ends up wrecking against a pole. Never missing a beat, he crosses busy streets, forcing cars to screech to a halt to avoid hitting him, and arrives at the theatre where his musical “A Christmas Carol” is playing to boffo B.O. Looking for the stage door, he misreads the sign of an adjacent restaurant and clangs and clatters his way through it and past a nervous stage manager to make his triumphal entrance in the offices of Marley and Scrooge. This opening is classic Magoo.

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Once the musical gets underway, it’s played fairly straight. Magoo as Scrooge is drawn with a nasty scowl; his face only brightens when he begins counting his gold coins in “Ringle, Ringle.” The song becomes a contrapunctal duet with Bob Cratchit (Jack Cassidy), who contrasts Scrooge’s love of money with his own misery at working in the cold. The song ends as Scrooge stops Cratchit from taking any more coal for his stove. The famous confrontation between Scrooge and the men collecting for charity manages to remain as shocking in cartoon form as it is in live-action versions of the story.

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Returning to his home, Scrooge sees a strange face overlaying his lion’s head door knocker—a bit of a joke on Magoo’s poor eyesight that fits perfectly into the story. No time is wasted once Magoo dons his night clothes and tucks into bed. Climbing up the stairs, only legs, chains, and strong boxes visible, comes the ghost of Jacob Marley (Royal Dano) to confront Scrooge. In response to Scrooge’s dismissals of his reality, Marley gives a truly frightening wail and points through the window to the other chained apparitions wandering the night sky. He tells a shaken Scrooge that he will be visited by three ghosts that night who present a way for Scrooge to save himself from Marley’s fate.

The Ghost of Christmas Present (Les Tremayne) takes Scrooge directly to Bob Cratchit’s home to view his assistant’s meager Christmas celebration. All are waiting for Bob and Tiny Tim to come back from church. When they do, a line Bob speaks strikes a particular Christmas note: “(Tiny Tim) hoped the people saw him in church because he was a cripple and thought it might be pleasant to let them remember upon Christmas Day who made lame beggars walk and blind men see.” I could be wrong, but I don’t remember this line in other filmed versions of the story. Then a wonderful song, “The Lord’s Bright Blessing,” begins in quiet anticipation as the Cratchit children imagine what it would be like to have a Christmas tree, stockings stuffed with treats, and jars and cakes of “Razzleberry dressing,” a particular obsession of Tiny Tim (Joan Gardner). When their humble Christmas dinner of soup is served, Bob leads them in the song’s buoyant chorus.

The past provides two of the best sequences of the film. First, The Ghost of Christmas Past (Joan Gardner) takes Scrooge back to his boarding school where he has been left alone for the holidays. The song “All Alone in the World” has the kind of lyrics a child can relate to, but it is the animation that is particularly poignant. There is no rescuing sister in this version—only a chalk family drawn on a chalkboard. When young Ebenezer traces his four-fingered cartoon hand and attempts a handshake with it, he shows his frustration by smearing the chalk.

If you’re a believer in root causes, this simple song shows how a miserly heart can grow from one deprived of love. We move quickly through Fezziwig’s Christmas party, where Belle (Jane Kean) only dances with Ebenezer, to Belle’s rejection of Scrooge. “Winter Was Warm” is a lovely ballad that talks about the beginning and the end of love; it certainly ranks with some of the best love ballads written.

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Scrooge does not return to his bedroom to await the arrival of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come; instead Scrooge is plunged into this part of the tale directly from Belle’s rejection. It is a bit abrupt, but there is something appropriate about juxtaposing the death of love with the death of the body. Nothing is left out of this part of Scrooge’s journey, from the businessmen talking about his death, to the scavengers who pawn his belongings in a ghoulish musical number, “We’re Despicable (Plunderer’s March),” to the death of Tiny Tim and Scrooge’s discovery of his own tombstone.

Scrooge’s rebirth in the morning as a man of love and generosity is handled particularly well. As Scrooge flatters the young boy he sends to buy the prize turkey, the boy shows pleasure at every compliment—again something I don’t think I’ve seen in other versions. When the butcher arrives with an enormous turkey, the near-sighted Magoo pokes the butcher’s belly instead of the bird, a welcome visit by the star within the play. A rousing finale of “The Lord’s Bright Blessing” ends the show, and Magoo literally brings down the house with his bumbling.

I know I’m reflecting the bias of my own childhood in thinking that the simple animation and show tunes of Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol have an enormous appeal, but I also think that for children, anyway, I’m right. Children’s movies are the last refuge of movie musicals, reflecting the importance of music to children’s development and entertainment. There are few children’s films today that have music to match the quality of Jule Styne’s score for this film, and with a return to realism in animation—hyperrealism, actually—visual experimentation of the type practiced at UPA is becoming something of a lost art. I know that illustrators are still interested in it, if the number of visitors linked to my review of The Dot and the Line through graphic design sites is any indication. If they can produce anything as pleasurable, intelligent, and graphically interesting as Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol, I’d personally like to encourage them to pursue movie-making for the whole family. To all those families out there, pick up the DVD of this wonderful seasonal cartoon and welcome a new-old classic into your home.


12th 12 - 2007 | 7 comments »

A Christmas Carol (1938)

Director: Edwin L. Marin

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Of the many screen adaptations of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, to my mind, the best and most definitive version is the 1951 production starring Alistair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge. Filled with wonderful performances, evocative settings, and a fully fleshed story, this is the movie that has imprinted my mind’s eye with how the story goes.

So when the hubby said that his favorite Carol was the 1938 version starring Reginald Owen, I suggested we watch it. I was sure I had seen it before, but after a full viewing of this short, 73-minute film, I can say I had only seen clips, not the entire thing. So different was it in so many respects from my cherished version, I found the entire experience a revelation.

First a word of thanks to the good people of Turner Classic Movies who dig up all those interesting facts for their various movie hosts to drop at the beginning and end of each screening. Robert Osborne, the indispensable main host on TCM, introduced the film by saying that to radio audiences of the 1930s, the audio version of “A Christmas Carol” with Carol%20Barrymore.gifLionel Barrymore as Scrooge was as ubiquitous and popular as A Christmas Story and It’s a Wonderful Life are today. To capitalize on the popular radio special, MGM decided to produce a filmed version with Barrymore leading the cast. Shortly before filming was to begin, Barrymore had a crippling fall that, added to an earlier injury, would cost him the use of his legs. Because so much was already invested in the film, MGM decided to forge on. Barrymore suggested Owen as his replacement and did a promotional trailer for the film. This background helped me enormously in understanding the very different choices director Marin and screenwriter Hugo Butler made in telling this familiar story.

The film opens not on the offices of Scrooge & Marley, but rather in the street near the accountancy, where Scrooge’s nephew Fred (Barry MacKay) is sliding on the icy sidewalk with some youngsters. This scene goes on for quite some time, setting up Fred as a handsome and likable lead; this image is further reinforced when he enters his uncle’s place of business and encourages Bob Cratchit (Gene Lockhart) to put more coal on the fire and have some wine Fred has brought as a gift for Scrooge. This scene of good cheer and camaraderie really is delightful. Bob retrieves a glass from his boss’ office and hands it to Fred. “What’s that smell?” Fred inquires. “Cough syrup,” says Bob. They both grimace and chuckle as Fred fills the glass for Bob. It is then that Scrooge makes his entrance. Cratchit hurriedly puts down the glass and runs to the fireplace to remove some unignited coal briquettes.

The scene then progresses as Dickens wrote it, with Fred and Scrooge declaring their opposite philosophies of Christmas and life in general. When Scrooge dismisses some men collecting for charity with the famous line “If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population,” it comes as the shock it always does, no matter how often it has been repeated.

The story deviates again from the original by having Bob take off after collecting his week’s wages and getting involved in throwing snowballs with some neighborhood boys. He ends up throwing a snowball at Scrooge and knocking his top hat into the street where a coach tramples it. Scrooge fires him. Bob blows his entire wages on food for Christmas dinner and chestnut treats for his children.

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From this point on, the story proceeds in pretty much the traditional manner, with light sprinklings of sugar here and there. Leo G. Carroll ably acquits himself as Marley’s ghost. The Spirit of Christmas Past, played by Andy Hardy regular Ann Rutherford, is the strangest casting in the film. She is far too glamorous and sounds like a scold as she preaches to Scrooge of his failings. D’Arcy Corrigan as the Spirit of Christmas Future looks like a fugitive from an Ed Wood film. But the brilliant performance and costuming of Lionel Braham as the Spirit of Christmas Present make him my favorite of all those who have played the part.

Carol%20Kilburn%20edit.JPGThe hubby thinks Terry Kilburn is a creepy-looking Tiny Tim, a sort of Peter Lorre in training, but he’s still endearing and manages to toss off “God bless us, every one,” without too much syrup coating the screen. Lynn Carver as Fred’s fiancée Bess takes the romantic lead other versions of the story properly reserve for Ebenezer’s lost love Belle, whose story is never told. Old Fezziwig (Forrester Harvey), a great favorite of mine, is barely a walk-on in this movie. So much is left out of this A Christmas Carol, it seems like a Cliff’s Notes version. Additions leave other moments hanging; for example, Bob Cratchit’s splurge on Christmas dinner makes Scrooge’s purchase of the prize goose on Christmas day rather beside the point. And Owen’s bald wig and roaming eyebrows are atrocious.

What then are we to make of this movie? I think the key is the radio drama it was supposed to emulate and the conventions of the time that demanded an attractive ingénue couple, moving Fred and Bess to center stage. This shorter version, which I’m convinced must have tracked closely with the radio play, certainly fits the restrictions of radio and simplifies some plot twists that might have been confusing to listen to. The film is filled with sounds, from the clock in Ebenezer’s bedroom striking the hour to the pop of Scrooge’s hat under some carriage wheels. These sounds certainly would have brought the tale alive for a radio audience. The omniscient voiceover is omitted to keep the narrative moving, but its absence leads to some heavy-handed moralizing by the Spirits. There is, however, one shocking image that the radio could not deliver—Scrooge reading his own tombstone. That scene still has a lot of power and was well handled in this telling.

And how does Reginald Owen stack up as Ebenezer Scrooge? He had less to work with than Sim or other screen Scrooges, and yet, I think he set a standard that others followed. His gestures and carriage are perfect, and his transformation from a miserly humbug, though a bit too swift, is heart-warming nonetheless. This A Christmas Carol delivers the sentiments we all crave at this time of year. I’m glad to have welcomed it into my home.


10th 01 - 2006 | no comment »

Oliver Twist (2005)

Director: Roman Polanski

By Marilyn Ferdinand

It’s artistically dangerous to remake Oliver Twist. You face the problem of making a very familiar story your own and standing against other film versions, including a very flamboyant, successful, and well-made musical; so will your actors. If you are Roman Polanski, you will be (and have been) accused of trying to find yet another way of revisiting and exorcising your harrowing childhood, which everyone is tired of hearing about (well, not Polanski’s childhood per se, but the Holocaust). You will have to hear the sarcastically rhetorical question of whether a remake was really necessary.

I am of the opinion that a classic is a classic because it bears up to repeated tellings, and if a genius film maker like Roman Polanski decides to put his stamp on Oliver Twist, I am so there! I was not joined in that sentiment by many people—the film was a mere blip on movie screens this past year. However, I am happy to report that I was right, and the droves who stayed away were wrong. This Oliver Twist is wonderful.

As with all of Polanski’s films, the cinematography (in this case, by The Pianist cinematographer Pawel Edelman) is superb, somewhat resembling a hand-colored black-and-white photograph. This look evokes both nostalgia—a tip of the hat to the sometimes sentimentalized legacy of Dickens—and the realism of a gray England steeped in soot and poverty. The script by Ronald Harwood is crisp and elegant, giving the actors maximum aid in creating their characters anew—and perhaps with the exception of Ben Kingsley’s Fagin, every character breaks free of its stereotyping and past performances and truly lives.

It is the great strength of this Oliver Twist that the characters don’t seem to have popped off the page of a penny dreadful. Nancy, as realized by Leanne Rowe, is a very young woman injured by her bad upbringing, probably anti-Semitic, and more a captive of Bill Sykes than the love-starved romantic in deep denial she normally is made out to be. Bill (Jamie Foreman) is a self-pitying bully, not a fire-breathing dragon, little more than one of Fagin’s young pickpockets graduated to burglary and armed robbery. It’s hard for Ben Kingsley to do much to reinvent Fagin, but he does give him a more cutthroat edge than fans of the other Twists may be used to. Finally, Barney Clark impresses as Oliver Twist himself. He seems a bit clueless a lot of the time, but still a real boy who has a talent for adaptation. His appealing, magnetic screen presence is reminiscent of Jackie Coogan. Clark has two good films under his belt so far (The Lawless Heart being the other), and seems to be on the road to a solid career.

Polanski has given us a well-trod classic made of flesh-and-blood characters. If he doesn’t completely escape the pit of familiarity, he at least makes us feel as though we have lived it a little more than we ever have before. That’s well worth the price of admission in my book. I especially recommend this to parents and their children—it’s one of the great family films we were treated to in 2005.


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