Last of the Monster Kids

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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Christmas 2016: September 5

A Christmas Carol (1938)

There’s certainly no shortage of adaptations of “A Christmas Carol.” Enough so that everyone can be said to have their favorite versions. My favorite is the one with the Muppets, followed closely by the one starring George C. Scott. My dad, however, preferred the 1938 adaptation starring Reginald Owen. Even this early carol was preceded by seven silent versions and two British sound versions, one of which is lost. Yet Owen’s Scrooge does seem to be relatively well regarded by classic film aficionados. Since December isn’t complete without some version of Ebenezer Scrooge and the three ghosts, I guess it’s about time I give this one a shot.

There’s no point in describing the plot of any version of “A Christmas Carol.” It’s one of the most well-known stories in the English language. Due to its iconic and classically structured story, few versions stray far from Dickens’ outline. 1938’s “A Christmas Carol” is notable for the elements director Edwin L. Marin and writer Hugo Butler added to the story. More attention is paid to Fred, Scrooge’s nephew, skating on the ice. Later, during the Ghost of Christmas Past segment, a priest similarly slides in the snow. After Marley appears, Scrooge calls a group of cops up into his room to investigate.  Following a snowball fight gone wrong, Ebenezer actually fires Bob Cratchit. These are little additions but, considering how everyone knows exactly what’s coming, any deviation is noticed.

For everything this “Carol” adds, it also takes out a well known element. Dicken’s text was cut down to fit into a 69 minute run time and also to better suit MGM’s suite of family films. So many of the darker aspects got clipped. Scrooge’s beloved but long gone fiancé Beth is excised entirely. Jacob Marley’s appearance is shortened. The Ghost of Christmas Present presenting the children of Want and Need is removed. Scrooge being humiliated by Fred’s party game is no more. By removing the darker elements of the story, 1938’s “Christmas Carol” seems overly sanitized. Scrooge proclaims he loves Christmas halfway through but this change doesn’t feel earned. The joy of the Cratchit’s feast is lingered on while how little they have is ignored. The power of these things is diminished without the contrast of Dickensian misery.

Apparently, this “Christmas Carol” was originally meant to have a 1939 release date. A last minute change pushed the film up a year, forcing the entire production to be rushed through in a few weeks. This is most obvious in the rather flat direction. There’s very little of that British atmosphere, isolated to a few shots of Scrooge walking the snowy London streets. Even the Ghost of Christmas Future is surprisingly un-spooky. Edwin Marin’s presentation is usually stagey, focusing on people standing around and talking. What flourishes he adds, such as Scrooge grinning in his sleep, only amount to so much. However, Franz Waxman – whose “Bride of Frankenstein” score I admire – does contribute some interesting elements. Such as the Ghost of Christmas Past being proceeded by a lightly chiming bell.

Since the “Christmas Carol” story is immediately recognizable, the performances often end up defining the various film versions. Reginald Owen is a pretty good Scrooge. He’s nasty enough in the early scenes. When confronted by Marley or the Ghost of Christmas Past, his composure slips in interesting ways. His easy transformation from miser to merrymaker is more the fault of the script then Owen. Lionel Braham’s Ghost of Christmas Present gets a good moment, when he spreads the Christmas cheer to a pair of arguing men on the street. Gene and Kathleen Lockhart play the Cratchits. Both are unerringly merry. Even after getting fired, Lockhart’s Bob seems in awfully high spirits.

I suspect this “Christmas Carol” is probably the first version a lot of people saw. It used to get shown on TV all the time throughout the sixties and seventies. Turner Entertainment even released a colorized version in 1988. For me personally, 1938’s “Christmas Carol” seems de-fanged and non-personal, taking out the story’s grit without elaborating on the other elements. It’s about as stock parts as a “Christmas Carol” can get. I think I’ll stick by the versions I prefer. But I guess I have to give Alastair Sim a shot next year? [5/10]

The Lobo Paramilitary Christmas Special (2002)

Ah, Lobo. Created in the late eighties as a one-note villain, the character would come to fame in the nineties as an absurdist parody of then-popular superhero trends. Like bulging muscles, chains, face paint, and grimdark anti-hero attitudes. (Though not everybody got the joke.) Many of the things Deadpool is now beloved for, Lobo did first and somewhat less obnoxiously. The character’s cult following was such that, in 2002, director Scott Leberecht made a student film adaptation of “The Lobo Paramilitary Christmas Special.” The premise has the hyper-macho space biker being hired by the Easter Bunny, sick of Christmas dominating the holiday market, to take out Santa Claus. Lobo being who he is, things don’t exactly go according to plan.

The short, available to the masses thanks to convention bootleg tables and the internet, was reportedly made for a little over two thousand dollars. This lack of funds shows sometimes. The short mostly takes place over three sets and the majority of the action happens off-screen. Apparently some professionals contributed their wares free of charge. This is also evident, as the make-up effects on Lobo and the Easter Bunny are well done. There’s even some popular music on the soundtrack, including a Rob Zombie song. Which is appropriate considering how much Lobo and the shock rocker resemble each other.

What it lacks in production values, the short makes up for with fidelity to the source material. “The Lobo Paramilitary Christmas Special” perfectly captures the irrelevant, over-the-top tone you associate with the character. Lobo hunts and tears Santa’s elves apart like a slasher movie villain. Andrew Bryniarski – whose other credits include “Batman Returns,” “Street Fighter,” and the “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” remake – has the right attitude, an utterly ridiculous character unaware of his own ridiculousness. The sight of the Easter Bunny jumping up and swearing is pretty amusing too. Santa’s characterization as a holier-than-thou manipulator, willing to strike down his opponents, is a nice touch too.

Lobo has never reached the same popularity he had in the nineties, though he’s show up in several cartoons and remains a favorite among comic nerds. For a while, Warner Brothers was even trying to make a feature film about him. Guy Ritchie was going to direct, with a PG-13 rating and a teenage girl co-star in mind. Which doesn’t sound very faithful. It’s hard to imagine the character’s absurdist humor working in DC’s current, self-serious film universe. (Though I'm not surprised to read the project might be resurrected, due to "Deadpool's" success.) Until W.B. makes that movie, fans have got “The Lobo Paramilitary Christmas Special,” which is pretty well done and quite entertaining. [7/10]

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