Jim Brymer discusses the under-appreciated holiday special An American Christmas Carol in today’s post:
Personally, I think most people who celebrate Christmas have some sort of tradition. When we were kids, my sister and I got to open one Christmas present on Christmas Eve. I remember several times being so enamored with one enticing looking box that it just HAD to be the one I opened (usually one that looked like it contained a book… I loved to read even as a child).
A Christmas tradition that I have carried with me for many years is to read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and to see at least one film version of the story every year.
But I also have a place in my heart for the pastiches, adaptations of the story set in different times with characters who embody the main theme of the story. In 1979, a TV movie starring Henry Winkler, better known for his role as “Fonzie” on Happy Days starred in a great adaptation set during the Great Depression in the New England area of the United States. Make-up makes Winkler look like the octogenarian miser Benedict Slade, and I understand that Rick Baker, a name that may be familiar to some of you, had a hand in the transformation of the then-34 year old Winkler to look like he had aged 50 years.
Benedict Slade (Henry Winkler) is a businessman with a heart of stone. On Christmas Eve he forces his employee, Thatcher (R. H. Thomson) to accompany him as he repossess items from members of the community who, due to the Depression, are unable to repay loans on items that they have bought.
His first project is to take back a stove, a chair and a radio from a poor black family, headed by Matt Reeves (Dorian Harewood). Next he takes the piano that is the pride of an orphanage run by a Mr. Jessup (Gerald Parkes). Finally he takes all the books owned by a bookseller, Merrivale (David Wayne), to be sold as scrap to help recover a loan.
Thatcher expresses some ideas, including one of restarting production in an abandoned quarry, which would bring new jobs in the Depression ravaged town, but Slade instead fires poor Thatcher for his efforts.
One of the prized possessions of Merrivale is a first edition copy of Dickens’ classic, handed down by Merrivale’s grandfather. Slade looks at the book and dismisses it as trash. Of course, we all know what’s coming next. Slade is first visited by his old partner, Jack Latham (Kenneth Pogue), who tells him that the afterlife has not been so much fun for him because he was a nasty man in life. Latham also tells him that he has arranged for Slade to be visited by three spirits to try to educate him on what life should be like for Slade in order to redeem himself.
The great part about the spirit visitations is that, initially, Slade is unable to come to terms with the spirit visitation because they resemble the people whose possessions he took from them earlier that day. The first visit is by The Ghost of Christmas Past, looking like Mr. Merrivale (David Wayne). In keeping with the theme, the ghost takes Slade on a tour of his past. Slade started out as an orphan (at the same orphanage that he had earlier repossessed the piano). A furniture manufacturer, Mr. Brewster (Chris Wiggins), comes to the orphanage looking for a likely candidate as an apprentice, and latches on to young Slade as the potential worker. One scene, which plays out later in the denouement, has Mr. Brewster giving young Slade a piece of wood and asking what it is.”A stick”, the kid replies. Brewster then begins to give the child a lesson in imagination, stating that it could potentially be any one of several items.
Slade grows up, and falls in love with Brewster’s daughter, Helen (Susan Hogan), but as is typical of the story, Slade’s desire for advancement and wealth overshadows his blooming love, and the two eventually depart over irreconcilable differences. There is also a new twist in that Slade, in his zeal to make money, latches on to the idea of assembly line production of furniture which doesn’t set well with Mr. Brewster, who is old-fashioned and likes the quality that comes from making things by hand.
Back in his own home, Slade is visited by the Ghost of Christmas Present, again looking like the orphanage master, Mr. Jessup (Gerald Parkes). The ghost shows Slade how life has turned out for his lost love, as well as the fact that Thatcher has a son, Johnathan (Chris Cragg) who, like Tiny Tim in the Dickens story, is suffering from a malady that can be cured, but requires a trip to Australia where an innovative treatment is available. Of course, this Australian practitioner is the only one that can help poor Johnathan.
One more visitation is imminent, that of the Ghost of Christmas Future, looking like Matt Reeves. You don’t need me to tell you the rest of the story if you are familiar with the classic tale, but let me tell you that Slade’s transformation at the end is one of the more heart-warming scenes of the traditional tale.
If you have an hour and a half this holiday season, I think it’s well worth a view.
Jim Brymer, AKA Quiggy, runs the movie blog The Midnite Drive-In, check it out for more insights on other classic films.