Tag Archives: movies

The Alastair Sim ‘Christmas Carol’ is the only one Worth Watching

“Cratchit, you magnificent bastard! I sent you a turkey!”

Some of you may have seen George C. Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge in 1984’s ‘A Christmas Carol.’ Some of you may have enjoyed it. But none but the very foolish would consider it superior to the 1951 ‘A Christmas Carol’ starring Alastair Sim. Yet, I have heard of people who think the Scott version is not only superior to the Sim version, but the best Ebenezer Scrooge of all. I have seen articles asserting this calumny.

Who could think such a thing?

Most in the Scott camp are Millennials, which explains a lot. They grew up in a cultural Black Hole, they can’t spell, they don’t know where to put an apostrophe, their self-esteem is way too high and they all need to get off my lawn.

But one of the afore-linked articles appears to have been written by a fellow Gen-Xer. Horrifying.

Madness.

Now, I love George C. Scott. He was a fine actor. I have seen ‘Patton’ more times than a woman should admit. It’s my ‘go-to’ movie when I’m blue. But the Alastair Sim version is the only Christmas Carol worth your time.

What sets it apart? Four things: horror; humour; music; casting.

The Victorians were good at ghost stories, and this version of Dickens’ classic reflects the tradition well, starting with Peter Bull’s sonorous narration and moving along to Jacob Marley’s lamentations and rattling chains, to the toiling, tormented ghosts outside Scrooge’s window, all the way to the grim Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come.

Some of this is present in other versions, but nowhere else is it as effective. Black and white film helps, but it’s more than that – the mood here is dark, and darkly funny. There is much humour in this version, too many witty moments to list. The best, for my money, is when the undertaker, waiting patiently outside the dying Jacob Marley’s room, explains his presence by stating that “ours is a highly competitive profession.” Coming in a close second is Scrooge’s post-redemption conversation with his mortified housekeeper, Mrs. Dilber, and the moment when the Irish lady in the shelter says to Alice (in gratitude for her kindness), “Cut me throat, rip me liver from down the line, this is the happiest Christmas I ever had.” (It occurs to me that I should start thanking people like that. )

The use of music in the 1951 version is unparalleled in the panoply of cinematic Christmas Carols. (Why, it’s even better than the music in the ‘Scrooge’ musical, which went something like this: “I hate everyone, la la la!”) From Christmas carols, to the recurring use of Barbara Allen – if that song does not make you weep, you have no soul – to the celebratory clanging of ‘Oranges and Lemons’ when we first see the regal Spirit of Christmas Present, to the fiddlers at Fezziwig’s party, to the traditional ‘My Love’s an Arbutus’ which accompanies Scrooge’s visions of his lost love, it all works perfectly.

The cast is extraordinary. No room to list them all, but it is a measure of how well-selected each actor was that a most poignant moment takes place with no words: when Scrooge visits his nephew Fred on Christmas Day, Fred’s maid answers the door. The small nod of encouragement she gives a hesitant Scrooge is perfection. Of course, Sim’s performance as a weary man who feels “too old to change,” brings everything together.

Yes, I know, the 1951 version isn’t true to the novella. Scrooge’s mother didn’t die giving birth to him and Fezziwig’s Christmas parties weren’t all that and blah blah blah. Phooey! You can insist till the figgy pudding is ready that whatever version of ‘A Christmas Carol’ you prefer – the one with the Muppets, or Reginald Owen, or Fonzie, or Patton – is the best. But you’ll be wrong.

I will still, however, wish you a Merry Christmas, in keeping with the situation.

Il Picchiatello

Many of the obituaries of Jerry Lewis have mentioned his popularity in France, but none of those that I have read have talked about Italy. Regular readers of this site know I spend a lot of time in Italy and I can assure you he was/is held in as high regard there as in France. In Italy, they call him Il Picchiatello (the ‘crazy one’ or ‘nutty one’). I’m a huge Lewis fan, for the record — I love Cinderfella, in particular, and I think his philanthropy shouldn’t be dismissed or mocked, as it sometimes is. But I do find some of the European over-intellectualizing of his career — and of cinema, in general — a bit rich. Here is an example from Italian TV. If you speak Italian, enjoy. If you don’t, well, enjoy the sound of the gorgeous language, and stand in awe at the low production values of Italian TV.

Other Movies I’d Like to See Remade with a Female Cast, a la Ghostbusters

Bad Day at Black Rock

John Sturges’ brilliant 1955 Western/suspense film, dealing with themes of bigotry, mob mentality and redemption, is one of my favourites. The story of a one-armed stranger (Spencer Tracy) ready to give up on life, taking on a town of thugs and scoundrels (a mostly male cast that includes Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan and Lee Marvin) when that life is threatened, never fails to inspire. And how much more inspirational will it be with Dame Judi Dench as the one-armed stranger who unwittingly uncovers a hate crime, and Emma Stone, Angelina Jolie and Rachel McAdams among the criminals eager to keep their involvement in that hate crime hidden?

Lawrence of Arabia

I just have a feeling that David Lean’s work of pure genius, a film many would say should never be touched, would benefit immensely from some feminine mystique. All the more so as there are no female speaking roles in it, unless you count ululating. Imagine the unforgettable “we want two large glasses of lemonade” scene with Meryl Streep as the charismatic Lawrence, Keira Knightley as the boy and Catherine Deneuve as Colonel Brighton; picture Marion Cotillard uttering Anthony Quinn’s darkly humorous line, “Ah, it was written then.” Anyone who believed Lean’s classic could not be made even more classic would have to eat their arrogant words.

The Great Escape

Another great movie with no female speaking roles, but oh, the possibilities with an all-female remake: Viola Davis as Bartlett; Helen Mirren as The Forger; Megan Fox as The Scrounger; Anne Hathaway in Charles Bronson’s role as the claustrophobic Tunnel King; and the bittersweet final scene with Drew Barrymore as the cocky Hilts and Diane Kruger – a German actress who has said she doesn’t like to play Nazis – as von Luger, a Nazi about to be sent to the Eastern front, admitting that Hilts will see Berlin before she does. 

The Dirty Dozen

Who says women can’t do action flicks? The World War II story of a bunch of anti-social psychopaths – described during the film as “one religious maniac, one malignant dwarf, two near idiots and the rest I don’t even want to think about” – saved from the gallows in order that they might help the Allies kill Nazis would look so much prettier with Sandra Bullock as Jefferson, Lucy Liu as Franko, Nia Vardalos as Maggott, and Julianne Moore and Kristen Stewart reprising the roles made famous by Lee Marvin and Charles Bronson. And how about the entire female Dirty Dozen reciting the rhyming chant that helps each member of the group remember their part in the mission? Worth the price of a ticket and a large container of popcorn in and of itself.

Ladri di Biciclette

If there is any worry that an all-female cast wouldn’t bring in the gentlemen, wait till audiences see Monica Bellucci and her large breasts wearing a skimpy dress and trudging sweatily and desperately through the hot streets of Rome with her adorable daughter trying to find her stolen bicycle so she can work because she’s really, really poor and it’s after the war and everyone in Italy is miserable even though they get to live in Italy. Vittorio De Sica’s masterpiece of neo-realism and human suffering never looked this voluptuous.

Hobson’s Choice

A number of people on social media — as well as in some newspaper columns — have called the U.S. election this year a “Hobson’s Choice.” It is not. A Hobson’s Choice is a take-it-or-leave-it scenario, not a situation where there are two unsavoury options. That would be “a dilemma.” I guess it could also be called a “Sophie’s Choice,” but I don’t like that expression for two reasons: 1) it brings up images of Nazis killing children, and 2) it makes me think of the book (and the movie) of the same name, both of which were tinged with anti-Semitism.

On a brighter note, here is a clip from the brilliant David Lean film, Hobson’s Choice, with Charles Laughton in the lead role. And yes, the title character is given a Hobson’s Choice at the end of the story.

For VE Day: Heavy Water War

On the occasion of VE Day, I recommend this series (it is available on Netflix). It is fascinating and frankly, we often forget how important stopping the heavy water production in Norway was; if the Germans had got the bomb before us, it would have been beyond disastrous. The series certainly has its standard 21st century biases — for example, the Americans are made to look like bullying allies, whereas if you read World War II history, rather the opposite is true.

But the basic facts of the sabotage are there, and I love the portrayals of the Norwegian heroes — men for whom we should be forever grateful and who, in true Norwegian fashion, were ever humble about what they did (a profile of one of them here).

My uncle — his war letters website is here — was being trained to parachute into Norway, interestingly enough. It is possible they were considering him to be part of this project, as he had the language skills required. Either way, the likelihood of survival was slim.

I got a kick out of this movie, and I’d love to see this one, but I believe this most recent series to be the best of the lot.

“Wolf Hall” versus “A Man for all Seasons”

Or Thomas Cromwell versus Thomas More.

After having read — and enjoyed — the Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall books, I became insanely addicted to the Masterpiece Theatre adaptation of the same. It was almost a retro historical drama, like something one would have seen in the 1970s, which I think was very much its strength. A stranger-than-fiction plot, brilliantly staged, written and acted.

It’s a measure of the genius of Mark Rylance, the extraordinary actor (how have I never heard of or seen him before?) who brings self-serving machinator and yet strangely-likable lawyer/fixer/son-of-a-blacksmith Thomas Cromwell to full life, that by the end of the six hours I had a teeny crush on him. What a (not handsome) face! He can convey more with a slight smile/smirk, than one ever cares to know – as good as acting gets. His Cromwell is self-serving, yes, but also sympathetic, intelligent and possessed of some moral boundaries (though he pushes at those a bit).

And it’s a measure of Claire Foy’s talent that, after watching her turn as the mean-spirited Anne Boleyn for six weeks, your heart aches for her as she quiveringly prepares to be parted from her head.

And Damian Lewis as Henry VIII? He comes very close to usurping my previous favorite screen Henry VIII, Robert Shaw. I say “close” because his Henry is far more cruel than Shaw’s interpretation, so it’s hard to feel affection for him (as I did for Shaw’s Henry). Of course, the script played a part in that.

Which brings us to A Man for all Seasons. I have always loved this movie. But it’s interesting because in Wolf Hall, Thomas More is a preening, morally superior hypocrite, a man who tortures “heretics” (apparently enjoying it) and acts all snooty toward the Cromwells of the world, the sons of blacksmiths. It is hard to believe that the More of Wolf Hall believes that the devil deserves benefit of law, though at the end, when he is beheaded, one admires (as in A Man for all Seasons) his powerful faith and his unwillingness to deny it in order to save his earthly life.

And where Wolf Hall makes you care about Cromwell, the Leo McKern Cromwell of A Man for all Seasons is not someone for whom you develop any feeling. The character is not given the depth he is in Wolf Hall, which focusses on Cromwell’s private life (including much loss) and makes his ability to survive (up to a point) at a merciless royal court the centre of the tale.

So what can we learn from this?

That we should learn history from books, many books, and just enjoy movies and TV for what they are — movies and TV (nothing wrong with that, either). Speaking of, off to read this now.

Kitty Foyle

Kitty Foyle is one of my favourite schlocky movies from days of yore: it’s sort of an early rom-com, though short on comedy, more of a romance novel (and it actually was a novel) turned vehicle for Ginger Rogers (who was terrific in the role). One has to take it, though, as being “of its time,” so to speak. There is, for example, one particularly cringe-worthy moment where Kitty says that she is “free, white and 21.” Oy.

I watched it recently on Turner Classic, and I realized that for me, it represents  a connection to both of my parents. My dad told me once that in his youth, he had a big crush on Ginger Rogers, though he got over it when he discovered that she was, in his words, “a fascist.” Now, I did some reading on Rogers, and she was not a fascist. She was a Republican and not a fan of the New Deal or FDR. That said, when the war started, she abandoned the Republican isolationism of the era and became a full-on supporter of the war effort – she owned a ranch that donated milk to soldiers and she performed in numerous USO tours.

It connects to my mom, at least in my mind, because of her love of the word “pill” to describe a certain type of man. What type of man? Well, just watch Kitty Foyle and you’ll see that she is torn between two pills. In the end — spoiler alert — she chooses the pill who wants to marry her, rather than the pill who just wants her as a mistress. It’s a smart choice, I suppose, though one senses Kitty preferred the latter pill.

Here is the original trailer of the movie, in which you can see both pills, and Ginger rocking the role of a white-collar gal. (By the way, I like to think of myself as a “sassy mick,” just like Kitty!)