Friday, December 12, 2008

Christmas Classics on Early TV: “The Christmas Carol," “Miracle on 34th Street”

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran him a couple of quirky Christmas shows he’d downloaded from a 1949 kinescoped live version of A Christmas Carol (for some reason retitled The Christmas Carol even though Charles Dickens himself, as well as all his other adapters that I know of, used the indefinite article) and a 1955 (though misidentified on the site as also from 1949) hour-long TV version of Miracle on 34th Street. The Christmas Carol was produced by Mike Stokey and Bernard Ebert (which makes it sound like a film-review show from Chicago) and written and directed by Arthur Pierson. It begins with a narrator, Vincent Price, reading from a large picture-storybook edition of the classic Dickens tale, and periodically (where the original commercial breaks were spotted) the scene returns to Price in his armchair with his book giving us the next tidbit of exposition needed to follow the story.

It’s a good adaptation even though it’s hamstrung by the limited time available — it was squeezed into a half-hour time slot and, less commercials, they only had about 25 minutes to tell their story. Pierson did a good job of condensing the Dickens story into the limited time available — though other people (including whoever wrote the script for Ronald Colman’s performance on Decca records) have done it better — and there’s one pretty astonishing special effect for live TV: Marley’s ghost enters the scene by walking through a closed door (actually a piece of paper with the image of the door superimposed over it) and into the set representing Scrooge’s room. Charles was annoyed by the identification of the central character as “Ebeneezer” (he lamented the fact that it had five “e”’s and I pointed out that that was only one more than Dickens had used) but otherwise it was quite good for the limited budget, facilities and running time, getting the basics of the story in even though it wasn’t a great adaptation: Taylor Holmes’ Scrooge didn’t have the authority of the truly great portrayals (including Alastair Sim and Jim Backus, who voiced the character superbly on Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol) and the ghosts were appealing (and George James as Christmas Present was clean-shaven and considerably hunkier than what we usually get!), while the Cratchits included the child Jill St. John (under her real name, Jill Oppenheim) as Missie and a refreshingly un-milked Bobby Hyatt as Tiny Tim.

Miracle on 34th Street (1955) was considerably better, partly because it was shot on film — when we saw the principals observing the real Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade it was clearly a process shot rather than some stopgap cooked up in a live TV studio — and partly because it was the work of a major studio: 20th Century-Fox, which had produced the original 1947 film (written and directed by George Seaton based on a story by Valentine Davies), hired writer John Monks, Jr. to boil down the story to a 46-minute time slot, not counting commercials (less than half the 96-minute running time of the movie) and threw some great people into the project on both ends of the camera: MacDonald Carey in the John Payne role, Teresa Wright in the Maureen O’Hara role, Thomas Mitchell stepping into Edmund Gwenn’s red suit as Santa Claus and the marvelous Hans Conried playing Shellhammer, Doris Walker’s (Wright) direct supervisor at Macy’s (who in the 1947 film was played by a nondescript character actor named Philip Tonge) and some of the usual Fox people in the technical jobs: Lyle Wheeler as co-art director, Ben Nye and Stanley Orr doing makeup and Charles Le Maire as one of the costumers.

The director was Robert Stevenson, no doubt warming up for his later assignments at Disney (including Mary Poppins) but still an excellent director and easily in Seaton’s league in terms of getting this story told and evoking the tears without going all-out in jerking them. MacDonald Carey doesn’t have the romantic panache John Payne brought to the role of Gaily (which sounds really weird on the soundtrack!), the attorney who successfully defends Kris Kringle (Mitchell) from a charge of insanity because he believes himself to be Santa Claus, and Sandy Descher as the daughter is good and shows welcome restraint but doesn’t quite grab the part the way Natalie Wood did in the film. Still, this is a quite appealing movie and, despite the condensation, tells basically the same story as the original and makes all the same points — and both Wright and Mitchell are every bit as good as their 1947 counterparts, O’Hara and Gwenn. This was a quite nice production, and I wonder how many other interesting TV remakes of their film hits are moldering in the 20th Century-Fox vaults!