Since we only covered two films in the previous installment, we’ll finish out that grouping’s other three entrants now. And since I did a lengthy preamble last time I will spare my dear readers that type of verbosity this go round.
23 A Christmas Carol
When I first did this series at the original Manofesto on MySpace I left out A Christmas Carol. My reasoning was that there were so many different versions, many of them very good in their own way, that I just could not pick one. That is still the case, but this time I am not letting that fact stop me from recognizing the story and putting it in its rightful place in The Top 100. There have been dozens of adaptations of A Christmas Carol on the big screen and on television, and countless others that aren’t really versions of the story but borrow certain elements.
For anyone who has been living in a vacuum their entire life, A Christmas Carol is an 1843 novella by Charles Dickens in which bitter old miser Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, & Future on, of course, Christmas Eve. He is shown the error of his ways and wakes up on Christmas morning a changed man. Along the way we meet Scrooge’s poor but cheerful nephew Fred and Bob Cratchit, Scrooge’s underpaid and mistreated clerk, who is barely able to support his large family, which includes young son Tiny Tim, who has been stricken with a disease that is never specified and will die without proper (and expensive) medical care.
I highly recommend reading the book, but we are here to talk about movies. So with that being said, I have a few favorite versions of the tale. Reginald Owen starred as Scrooge in a 1938 MGM release which one can usually catch a few times during the holiday season on Turner Classic Movies or American Movie Classics. It is a scaled back, family friendly movie that leaves out some of the darker details of Dickens, but still gets the point across. More grim is the 1951 movie starring Alistair Sim. This one doesn’t leave out as much but it adds some things, detailing some peripheral issues in which Dickens was not as specific. It too is a favorite of the classic movie channels at Christmas time. In 1999 TNT did an excellent made-for-TV adaptation with Patrick Stewart (Captain Picard from Star Trek: The Next Generation) as Scrooge. I was attracted to it initially because I am a Trekkie so I dig Stewart, but it is a really good version, especially for being a television movie instead of on the big screen. It is more faithful to the book than any other take on the story that I have seen. Last year Robert Zemeckis and Jim Carrey teamed up for the newest A Christmas Carol using the same unique performance capture technology used in The Polar Express (which we will discuss at a later date). I saw it in the theater and was impressed, though it is the darkest vision of the story I have seen yet. They were very faithful to the book but went a tad crazy with special effects, making it a bit of an assault on the senses. Time will tell where it rates in the pantheon. Several movies have been made that are not meant to be faithful to the book…they are “modernized” updates. Among the best of those are 1988’s Scrooged in which Bill Murray plays a cynical TV producer, Mickey’s Christmas Carol and Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, both lighthearted animated fare starring some of our favorite cartoon characters, and A Carol Christmas, with Tori Spelling as a Scrooge-esque talk show host, a Hallmark Channel offering I mention only because it stars a uniquely kitschy combination of Spelling, William Shatner, and Gary Coleman.
Modern audiences may not fully grasp the significant role A Christmas Carol played in reviving Christmas. English Puritanism had nearly killed the holiday in the 18th century, but Dickens and his little novella helped spearhead a renewed Christmas spirit. Some may criticize his seemingly secular vision of what is meant to be a celebration of the birth of Christ just as many complain about the modern issues of commercialization, and those are valid criticisms…Dickens does not mention Jesus or delve into the religious aspects of Christmas at all. But A Christmas Carol is about Christian principles like friendship, love, and generosity, and I don’t think The Lord would have any objections.
More than 30 years after the release of Jaws I still have no desire to swim in an ocean. I think that speaks volumes about the impact of this particular movie. Not really a horror film but more than a thriller, Jaws was the first summer blockbuster and permanently altered the way we view movies and the way Hollywood produces and promotes them. Nowadays it is an expected cliché that all the “big” movies, mostly special effects laden action flicks or highly anticipated sequels, will come to your local cineplex sometime between Memorial Day and Labor Day. But in 1975 this was not the case. Jaws changed the rules. However, while I think it appropriate to give that aspect of the story its proper due, I am more interested in the story itself, which is awesome.
I am not really all that much into action movies, a fact that I am sure I have mentioned more than once in the course of this series. Too often the filmmakers seem to believe that if enough people get shot, a plethora of stuff explodes, and computer generated special effects make us gasp in amazement that we will overlook little things like character development, plot, and good writing. And sadly they are correct way too much of the time. But that sort of trickery doesn’t work with me. Obviously I am a writer, so that is what I tend to focus on. Jaws is the rare film that works on both levels. Based on a 1974 novel by Peter Benchley, Jaws scares of the crap out of the viewer but also makes us give a damn about the folks on the screen. As faithful readers know, I tend to believe that the book is better than the movie in almost all cases. Is that the case here?? I don’t know. I have to confess that I have never read the book. I have heard that the movie is much better, that the book isn’t really all that stellar. Maybe someday I will decide for myself. In the meantime, Roy Schneider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw star as a police chief, a marine biologist, and a shark hunter charged with the task of hunting down a great white shark that is terrorizing a small New England tourist trap. We get to know each of these characters, and the subplot of the town’s angst concerning the safety of the masses versus the need to make a profit is an important element as well. But make no mistake…the real star of the show is the shark. Jaws was directed by Steven Spielberg before anyone knew or cared who he was, and he does a masterful job of exercising restraint, creating suspense and drama instead of just enabling the cheap blood and gore mentality. Much of this was due to a limited budget and a lot of headaches during filming, but those negatives are turned into such a positive that Jaws is and will forever will be a legendary movie. It is not a coincidence that several subpar sequels were made and that Spielberg was not involved in any of them. I would be remiss if I did not mention the haunting musical contribution of composer John Williams. Who knew that two simple notes could be made into such spectacularly memorable music?? Jaws is like a fine wine…its greatness grows on a person over the course of time and multiple viewings. Modern filmmakers should take heed of the lessons learned from this movie. Just because one has access to unlimited funds and countless technological toys does not mean that the movies they make are great. Write a good story first, then get some truly talented actors (and just because they are huge movie stars does not mean they qualify as good actors). Don’t go too crazy with all the special effects…a little goes a long way. Throw in a quality musical score and you just may have something. Spielberg’s offerings have been kind of hit or miss over the last decade. Minority Report?? War of the Worlds?? Come on Spielberg…step away from the pitcher of Tom Cruise Kool-Aid. But no matter what he does in the future he must always be given kudos for the ultimate summer blockbuster.
I did not realize it until just now, but today’s threesome really brings home the old adage “they don’t make ’em like they used to”. The best versions of A Christmas Carol were made more than 50 years ago, Jaws is the youngster at only 35 years old, and then we have 1942’s Casablanca. Some of the films in this Top 100 may fall out of fashion and not frost my cupcake 10 or 20 years from now, but I will be shocked if Casablanca ever leaves the collective consciousness of the moviegoing public.
I don’t remember when I first saw Casablanca. I am sure it was probably sometime back in junior high on a channel like American Movie Classics. I am not one to try to keep up with the joneses, but there are certain books that I feel need to be read and certain films I think need to be seen in order to become the well rounded, educated, cultured person that elevates one above toothless hillbilly, perpetual bottom feeder status. I am proudly born and bred in the great state of West Virginia and tend to be sensitive to such things. At any rate, Casablanca stars Humphrey Bogart as Rick, an American misanthrope running a nightclub in the French controlled North African colony of Morocco during World War II at a time when the Nazis are steadily taking over the vast majority of Europe. Rick gains possession of “letters of transit” which would allow the bearer to escape to America. Things get complicated when Rick’s ex Ilsa pops in, with her husband, a Czech resistance leader, in tow. Ilsa’s appearance explains Rick’s cynical resentment and hardscrabble attitude. She attempts to convince Rick that she is still in love with him in order to gain possession of the letters of transit so her husband can escape to America. Rick seems to buy into it, but at the last second pulls an ol’ bait & switch, revealing himself to be more of a softy than we realize. He makes Ilsa get on a plane with her husband, and runs interference against the Nazis and the corrupt local French police captain while the couple make their escape. Casablanca is one of our most quotable films and there is not a bad performance from any of the cast. It is a nearly flawless exercise in filmmaking. There’s a little romance, a little drama, some suspense, a twist ending, and even a laugh or two. There simply aren’t enough superlatives in the dictionary to properly encapsulate its greatness, and nothing I write can do it justice. Rent it at your local video store or make an effort to catch it sometime on AMC or TCM and you will understand. I hope that younger generations continue to embrace the superb quality of Casablanca and use it as an example in demanding better stories from modern Hollywood.
- A Christmas Carol DVD Movie Classic (christmas-dvds.net)
- Penguin Classics: The Divine Comedy and A Christmas Carol (chicandcharming.com)