Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Scrounger’s Cheapjack Christmas Special! #38: The Christmas Carol

Y’know, it’s not like I have to travel for the holidays or anything. I’m just going to make a mad dash and see how far I get this weekend…and to seal the deal, this entry is That Dickens Story.

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Other DVD’s have A Christmas Carol, but this set has The Christmas Carol, buddy!

Just Enough Information: Do I really need to give you the lowdown on Dickens and Ebeneezer Scrooge? Do you seriously not know anything about the narrator Vincent Price? Of course you’re up to speed on that, so instead, I’d like to spend a paragraph on Jerry Fairbanks, Inc., the company that pushed this version of the old warhorse onto the market in the first place.

Jerry Fairbanks originally made his name in Hollywood with a series of theatrical short subjects, first at Universal , then at Paramount. These days, more people are likely to remember his Oscar-winning Speaking of Animals series, the ones where the animals delivered the punchlines with animated mouths, but he also produced 14 years of color films with the cooperation of Popular Science. A nice tidy business, but in June 1947 Fairbanks turned an eye to the future and announced his intentions to set up a TV film unit with the aim to produce filmed programs for television, syndicating them (with NBC financial backing in some cases) on a city-by-city basis.

The Fairbanks unit pioneered the multicam filming technique that Desi Arnaz later picked up and ran with for I Love Lucy, and one of the earliest productions they distributed was a fun little series called Crusader Rabbit, the first video cartoon series of Alex Anderson and Jay Ward—Bullwinkle’s two dads.

The Christmas Episode: “The Christmas Carol” (yeah, I know, but look at the title card, buddy). Originally Distributed: December 1949.

It’s been over 150 years since the Dickens story was first published, so the question isn’t what the story’s about, but how this production hit the old familiar beats. That makes a job like this a lot easier, so we’ll start with the obvious one: yes, Vincent Price is featured in this one, and no, he’s not Ebeneezer Scrooge, he’s the narrator.

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Eat your heart out, Bill Hader. And that goes double for Dana Gould.

The narrator happens to be very important, since once you subtract the slow-as-molasses credits, there’s only 20 minutes to tell the story. The man with the book does a lot of heavy lifting.

Our Scrooge doesn’t sound particularly British, choosing to go for a Lionel Barrymore-on-the-radio vibe. Most of the cast follows suit, some splitting the difference and going for what they used to call the “mid-Atlantic accent”.

And now, Jacob Marley, and the only special effect in the whole shebang!

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Basically, Marley burst through a sheet of paper, which was superimposed over the door. Very nice on a shoestring.

The Ghost of Christmas Past is the Ghost of Christmas Bathrobe. We don’t see Fezzywig and we’re only told about the broken engagement, so when Scrooge says he can see no more, he’s only seen 30 seconds of the poor lonely boy Scrooge.

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The Ghost of Christmas Present, breaking with tradition, looks more like the Ghost of Christmas Wrestling! Suddenly it’s Festivus! Air the grievances! Yeah, now it’s a party!

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You have never seen the likes of me…and neither will that snotty punk the Miz at Summerslam! Mmmmmwhatarush!

The Ghost of Christmas future is apparently played by The Shadow, which only makes sense because only he knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men.

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But hurried storytelling or no, the old miser wakes up right on cue and promises to keep the spirit of Christmas past, present, and future. And just to keep things tight, nephew Fred brings his wife and Scrooge over to the Crachit house so God can bless them every one on the cheap.

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If you can see only one version of A Christmas Carol before the holiday runs out, you should see the Alistair Sim one. If you can see only two, squeeze in Patrick Stewart’s. Three? Mister Magoo, you jerk. But if you’re like my mother, who watches all the Christmas Carols, including the updated ones, you should definitely take a half-hour to see this one too. It’s not the best, but it’s still fun to see how the story was done for pre-Golden Age television. And it’s got Vincent Price in a cozy chair! Who couldn’t get on board with that?

Our Holiday Lesson For Today: The classics never die…no matter how hard you try to kill them.

But Don’t Take My Word For It: Are you kidding me? This thing is everywhere! The front half of the Youtube double feature that ended in “A Picture of the Magi”, for instance…

Next: The Ruggles! Another sitcom, you say? Yeah, why not…

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