Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Old Sinner: Alastair Sim (1971)

Though Alastair Sim of course played Scrooge in of one of the most famous adaptations of A Christmas Carol, what you may not know is that he was also the voice of Scrooge in Richard Williams' animated version from 1971. And if you didn't know that, you also didn't know that it was produced by Chuck Jones and won an Oscar in 1973 for best animated short.

"Now wait a minute," you might say. "How did it win an Oscar two years after it was released?" I wondered the same thing. Apparently though, it was created for TV and originally aired at Christmas in '71 on ABC. According to this Christmas Carol site, it was released to theaters especially so that it could be eligible for the Oscars. It won, but that led to the Academy's changing its rules so that nothing else originally shown on TV could win again.

It opens with threatening music, an impenetrable fog, and falling snow. The orchestra soon gives way to a children's choir singing "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," but the arrangement still has a sinister air to it. The fog clears enough to show us the London skyline, dominated by chimneys and thick, black smoke. That gives way though to other Christmas-in-London scenes as the credits begin to roll. Saint Paul's Cathedral is in this montage of course, but what's most remarkable is the shaded-pencil style of the animation. It's dirty and messy, but also soft and lovely. Much like Victorian London at Christmastime.

The camera's still flying us over rooftops when the credits end and Michael Redgrave's narration begins:

The Place: London.
The Time: 1843.
The Season: That of jollity, of festivity and charity; holly and berries and good will to all men. With perhaps one exception. It is with this exception that we are concerned in our story. The exception is Ebenezer Scrooge.

The camera closes in on a single, lighted window in all the dark town. We go through and find Scrooge writing at his desk. He looks haughty; almost bored with what he's doing. There's a fade to black, then we fade back in to focus on Bob Cratchit, miserably trying to warm his hands over his small candle flame. Bob looks lifeless, sad to his soul, and utterly defeated. The two work in silence for a couple of seconds before the door opens and a visitor comes in.

Like with the Shower of Stars adaptation, this abbreviated version is going to cut out any preliminary getting to know Scrooge and let the characterization play catch up as the plot unfolds. I said about the Shower of Stars version that that's a logical cut, but it just now occurs to me that the also-short Mickey's Christmas Carol didn't do it that way. As we'll see when we get to it, Disney uses jokes to show Scrooge's stinginess, but also takes the time to reveal his personality (and let us know about dead Marley) before any visitors arrive at the shop. It'll be interesting to continue keeping an eye on these shorter versions and think about what they choose to trim, what they decide to leave in, and what that says about the themes they're highlighting.

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