Thursday, December 08, 2011

Old Sinner: Fredric March (1954)

This one's not a movie, but an episode from the '50s anthology TV series Shower of Stars. I'd never heard of that show, but according to Wikipedia it was a companion show to CBS' Climax Mystery Theater (most famous for its episode that adapted Casino Royale with Barry Nelson as an American James Bond). Climax focused on drama; Shower of Stars on musical comedy.

The Christmas Carol episode has a fantastic cast and I can't believe it's not more popular. Fredric March (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) plays Scrooge, Basil Rathbone (Sherlock Holmes, Son of Frankenstein, etc.) is Marley, and a very young Bonnie Franklin (One Day at a Time) is a young Cratchit. Also, the music is by Bernard Herrmann (The Day the Earth Stood Still, all the best Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock films).

It opens with a Victorian lamplighter igniting a gas lamp as carolers sing a Christmas song. Unfortunately - because it's quite beautiful - I can't find a YouTube clip of it, but the lyrics are:

On this darkest day of winter
Through the snowy woods we go
Gathering garland for our Christmas:
Holly, pine, and mistletoe.

We shall hang above the lintel
Mistletoe across the beam.
Holly sprigs shall brighten windows
While the steady yulefire gleams.

Here then in the silent forest-
Shapely, straight, and fair to see-
Grows the yule tree we have chosen.
This will be our Christmas tree.

As the carolers sing, they walk around a Victorian street and greet shoppers. It's a remarkable set - especially for live TV, which I assume this was - complete with a horse-drawn cart full of Christmas trees. Like I said, the song itself is lovely. It's sung by a young tenor soloist with each verse being repeated by a mixed quartet.

The carolers finish their song and move on, leaving us outside a bookstore. Inside, the bookseller shows his customer a volume and a close up of the spine reveals that it's A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. The book opens while a full chorus sings the theme song again and we see the credits printed on the book's first pages.

The song ends and the customer buys the book. When he goes outside he's approached by two gentlemen with a ledger who ask him if they can "put him down for something." He enthusiastically pledges ten pounds, "a little better than last year." They all express their mutual delight, wish each other a Merry Christmas, and part.

It's obvious who these two solicitors are and - though I like how this is all set up - it raises a weird question about continuity by putting the finished story of Scrooge's adventure in the story before the events ever take place. The bookseller must have once been visited by a traveler from the future. Probably with a robot sidekick. That's what I think anyway, making this the best Christmas Carol ever.

We follow the two gentlemen to a storefront and the light flute music changes to ominous horns as we see the name on the door: "Scrooge & Marley." Clueless, the gentlemen check their ledger to make sure they have the right place and go inside.

Since Shower of Stars was only an hour long - including commercials - cutting out any introduction to Scrooge is an economical way of getting the story moving. The abrupt brass music is our first - and so far, only - clue that something's not right about this place. We'll have to wait until we go inside to learn why and find out anything about the old sinner who works here.

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