Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, December 2, 2017

Christmas 2017: December 1

While my yearly Halloween horror marathon is something I plan for all year, a shorter December marathon devoted to holiday movies is always a much more rushed concept. So here's to twenty-five days of Christmas and winter-related movies. I have no idea if this is going to work but let's give it a shot anyway.

A Christmas Carol (1951)

If you've seen one version of “A Christmas Carol,” you've seen them all. Or so common wisdom would dictate. This is why movie studios put out a new version every ten years or so, in hopes that it'll imprint on whatever the current generation is, thus becoming a seasonal classic in certain households. Whichever version is considered the best is hard to say, since there's roughly ten thousand of them. I've said my piece on my faves. However, classic film buffs and cinema connoisseurs like to single out the 1951 version. Starring Alastair Sim, the movie is known as simply “Scrooge” in its native England but was released as “A Christmas Carol” in the States, just in case people didn't realize what story they were paying to see.

The plot of Dicken's novel is so well known, there's no reason to summarize it. Instead, time is better served pointing out the changes this version makes. 1951's “A Christmas Carol” spends more time on Scrooge's backstory than most versions. The Ghost of Christmas Past segment is the longest part of the movie. We see what becomes of Scrooge's younger sister and his former fiancee. How his business grew, and how his heart hardened, is shown in more detail. After Scrooge awakens from his nighttime voyage, we get an extend scene of him freaking out his maid with his jovial mood. We even see Scrooge getting dinner on his way home from the office on Christmas Eve.

This focus on backstory is both a strength and a weakness. On one hand, it's sort of nice to get some more information on these famous supporting characters. Some of these elements are taken from overlooked episodes in Dickens' novel but many are exclusive to the movie. If you've ever wondered what became of Fan or Mr. Fezziwig, this is the movie to see. However, the backstory-heavy script also creates a somewhat slow pace. By giving the Ghost of Christmas Past so much screen time, the other two segments feel somewhat abbreviated. The middle act feels especially rushed through. This results in pacing that's a little unsteady and top-heavy.

One element that this particular version of “A Christmas Carol” is especially lauded for is Alastair Sim's performance. Sim's take on Scrooge is really interesting. From the earliest scene, Sim plays Scrooge as very angry. He's not merely a miser and really grouchy, he's extremely bitter. Sim's acting also makes it clear that this bitterness is rooted in loss and hurt. As Scrooge revisits the painful events of his youth, Sim's Scrooge becomes more and more pathetic. By the time the Ghosts of Christmas Yet to Come shows up, this Scrooge already seems pretty scared and traumatized. After awakening a changed man, Sim plays Scrooge as frenzied and almost unstable. It's certainly a more emotional and humanized take on the character than we're perhaps used to seeing.

This “Christmas Carol” is also one of the more stylistically directed adaptations. Brian Desmond Hurst directs the story almost like a horror film at times. The appearance of Marley is really creepy, the ghost screaming and rattling his chains more than often. This leads to an atmospheric shot of dozens of ghosts lingering around the streets. Whenever the Ghosts of Christmas Present travels between time periods, the film dissolves over a sequence of a lantern shining through a tunnel of snow. The shadowy aspect of the direction increases as the film leads into its last act, the Dickensian London seeming especially dark and dreary. For a Christmas film, this is pretty spooky looking movie at times.

The film's supporting cast is pretty good too. Glyn Dearman's Tiny Tim clearly influenced future versions of the character. Ernest Thesiger, Dr. Pretorious himself, has a bit part as an undertaker. Since every version follows the same outline, the joys of any given version of “A Christmas Carol” comes from the smaller details. Thanks to a strong lead performance and atmospheric visual sense, this “Scrooge” does stand above quite a few other version. It's certainly an improvement over the somewhat stale 1938 adaptation I review last year. It won't become my go-to “Scrooge” but it's definitely pretty good. [7/10]

Hardrock, Coco and Joe (1951)

One of my favorite bits of anti-cheer Christmas entertainment is the “TV Funhouse” Christmas episode. A hilarious segment in that episode is “Tingles the Christmas Tension.” I just assumed that this was meant as a goof on any number of classic Christmas cartoons. Listening to the commentary revealed that it was specifically a riff on “Hardrock, Coco and Joe.” A three minute long stop-motion short, this cartoon first aired on Chicago public television in 1951 and has been a seasonal staple ever since. The black-and-white musical short follows Santa on his Christmas trip, focusing on his three helpers. The little dwarves are the titular characters, each one serving a different purpose. Hardrock steers the sleigh, Coco navigates, and Joe is there just because Santa's fond of him.

It's pretty easy to see why “Hardrock, Coco and Joe” has endured as a regional classic. Not because it's particularly good. The animation is crude. The characters move stiffly when they move at all. Several sequences are repeated. The character designs are broad and kind of creepy. There's really nothing to the short's story. The film simply focuses on the elves doing goofy stuff while Santa's going about his work.

However, the song that plays throughout is ridiculously catchy. The refrain of “Oh-lee o-lay-dee” is repeated several times, before the helpers announce their names. It's senseless but there's no denying that dumb song sticks in your head. That, more so than the fairly mediocre cartoon itself, is probably why Chicogians remember this so fondly. Having watched the original, I think I still prefer “Tingles” though. [6/10]

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