Monday, December 19, 2016

A Christmas Carol (Desilu/CBS, 1954)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I’d stumbled across an intriguing holiday-themed DVD in the collection that my late roommate had bought: a 1954 TV adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol featuring Fredric March as Scrooge and Basil Rathbone as the ghost of his late partner, Jacob Marley. (Ironically, March later did an actual TV series called Fredric March Tells Tales from Charles Dickens in which a 1959 episode re-did A Christmas Carol, only this time Rathbone played Scrooge and March played Marley.) The 1954 A Christmas Carol was offered as part of a CBS-TV series called Shower of Stars, and CBS preserved the show and re-ran it the next two years, hoping to establish it as an annual holiday attraction. According to, it was also originally filmed in CBS’s noncompatible color system (which returned to the scanning-disc technology of the early TV experimenters in order to split a black-and-white TV image into three colored parts that could then be combined into a color picture), but since you had to have a CBS color set to see the program in color (otherwise you couldn’t receive it at all), most people only saw it in the simultaneous black-and-white telecast made using normal 1954 TV technology, and apparently this black-and-white kinescope is all that survives. Also, some editions of the program left in the original commercials for the Chrysler Corporation, but this one didn’t.

The actual creation of this version is a story as interesting as the technology behind it; Ralph Levy, who both produced and directed, hired some high-powered writing talent: the script was by Maxwell Anderson and Bernard Herrmann was credited with both the background musical score and the melodies of the songs, for which Anderson wrote the music (and though Kurt Weill had been dead for four years when this show was made the influence runs deep, especially since Anderson had been the lyricist and book writer for Weill’s last two Broadway shows, Lost in the Stars and the unfinished Huckleberry Finn). The songs are not particularly memorable but quite charming, and both Charles and I gave Herrmann and Anderson credit for writing two songs for the street carolers at the beginning to sing that sound like traditional British carols even though they aren’t. There’s also a quite nice solo for Scrooge’s girlfriend Belle (played onscreen by Sally Fraser but dubbed offscreen by the young Marilyn Horne) and, alas, two, count ’em, two sappy numbers for Tiny Tim (played by Christopher Cook but undoubtedly also voice-doubled — since this was a live telecast, the voice doubles had to stand offstage and sing along with their live on-screen counterparts, who lip-synched as best they could, much the way Joan Barry had doubled for the heavily German-accented Anny Ondra in the role of a British shopkeeper’s daughter in the 1929 film Blackmail). This version of A Christmas Carol has its moments — March is a pretty good Scrooge (though hardly in the league of Alistair Sim in the famous film from three years earlier) and Rathbone is a typically authoritative Marley even though one can’t help but think he’s really Sherlock Holmes in disguise, sent by Britain’s Bureau of Inland Revenue to infiltrate Scrooge’s operation undercover and bust him for income-tax evasion. One trick Anderson borrowed from the classic 1939 film of The Wizard of Oz was to make the Spirits of Christmas Past and Present people Scrooge had known in his real life — Christmas Past was Belle, the girlfriend he had who left him because she saw he was becoming so obsessed with money he no longer loved her; and Christmas Present was Scrooge’s nephew Fred (Ray Middleton), though Charles complained that Anderson’s script omitted Scrooge’s sister and therefore contained no explanation of how he came to have a nephew. (Middleton was the actor hired to perform Earl Robinson’s “Ballad for Americans” at the 1940 Republican National Convention after Paul Robeson, who had recorded the piece and was the first person they invited, not surprisingly turned them down.)

Indeed, mainly to squeeze in all the songs, the script deleted a lot of scenes from the original that do make it into most of the adaptations, including Scrooge as a schoolchild (the only one who can’t go home for the holidays since he has no living parents or older relatives); Belle jilts him at Fezziwig’s party instead of on a later occasion; there is no montage of other people celebrating Christmas during the Spirit of Christmas Present sequence (just Bob Cratchit’s wife slow-roasting a goose over an open fire); no scene of Scrooge post-reclamation bidding the boy outside to buy the Cratchits the biggest turkey in the local butcher’s shop; and a pat resolution telling us that the whole business with the spirits was all just Scrooge’s dream. (Feh.) The appearance and disappearance of Marley’s ghost is handled through simple double-exposure (Rathbone was presumably being filmed against a blank backdrop in another part of the studio and was beamed in electronically) and there isn’t the marvelous scene Charles and I saw in another early TV version of A Christmas Carol (a 1949 show in which Taylor Holmes played Scrooge and Vincent Price narrated and hosted) in which the door to Scrooge’s living room was made of paper so the actor playing Marley’s ghost could literally walk through it, tearing it open as he entered. Also, there wasn’t much of a Gothic effect in the graveyard during the Christmas Yet to Come scene (nor was there a visible third spirit); Scrooge simply stumbles around on set, sees first his own tombstone and then one marked “Tiny Tim” (surely he would have been buried as “Timothy Cratchit” instead!), and then wakes up from the dream in his bed, refreshed and reclaimed. Still, despite all the flaws, this is an estimable adaptation and it’s nice to see a bunch of old-pro actors — March, Rathbone, Middleton and Bob Sweeney (as Bob Cratchit) — doing their thing, and may we still hope that one day a color version will surface and we’ll get to see what 1954 TV audiences (the handful of them with CBS color sets, anyway) originally got to see and hear?