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An American Christmas Carol
(1979)

Director: Eric Till  
Cast:
Henry Winkler, Dorian Harewood, Susan Hogan


I know it's a bit early, but around this time of year I like to start getting into the holiday spirit. For the past few years on this web site, I have been putting reviews with a holiday twist around this time of year. There was Blizzard, then Ziggy's Gift, and Whoops Apocalypse. Okay, maybe Whoops Apocalypse itself wasn't Christmas-themed, but it was "gifted" to me during last year's B-Master's "Secret Santa Roundtable". For this year, I have decided to take a look at the made-for-TV movie An American Christmas Carol. If you haven't seen it, it's likely that you have still correctly guessed what the movie is about, and that is an American twist on the story that originated from the classic Charles Dickens novella A Christmas Carol. Certainly, this version of the story is not by far the only filmed version, which leads to the question: Just why has A Christmas Carol inspired so many filmmakers to make their own version of the story? From what I have gathered over the years, the reasons range from someone converted from despair to joy and life, and Christmas presented as a time for renewal and celebration. I do have my own theory as to why the story has been so popular, however. My theory is that although most of us eagerly await the Christmas holiday, there is still a part of us that hates the holiday. We hate things like having to shop for presents for our loved ones, sending out cards, and all sorts of other distractions from our already busy lives. When we see Scrooge exclaim "Bah, humbug!" towards the holiday, part of us sympathizes with him and understands. I bet the pre-converted Ebenezer Scrooge would have really loved to have read the first three-quarters of the Dr. Seuss book How The Grinch Stole Christmas, or watched the Silent Night, Deadly Night movie series.

Whatever the reasons may be as to why A Christmas Carol has been so appealing to people over the years, it has spawned many different cinematic retellings, including this particular one. If you have read the cast list for An American Christmas Carol, you may be scratching you head as to why the likes of Henry Winkler would be in this project. That requires a little explanation. As you probably know, in the years leading up to when this movie was made, Winkler was hot from starring in the television show Happy Days. It may come as a surprise that while Winkler has admitted that for a couple of years he took advantage of his celebrity status when it came to the ladies, he otherwise remained level-headed and serious about his career. For example, when the network wanted to rename the show Fonzie's Happy Days, Winkler said no - he felt that the other people in the cast were just as important to the show's success and that retitling would be unfair to them. Later, when producers offered him a spin-off series, Winker said no again, reasoning that Fonzie was popular in small doses and that thirty non-stop minutes of him each week saying "Ayyyyy!" would bore and turn off audiences. Subsequently, when he got offers for projects that would be filmed during breaks between Happy Days' seasons, he carefully chose projects that would show audiences a different side to him. He was offered the Danny Zuko role for the cinematic adaptation of the stage musical Grease, but he turned it down, feeling that the character was too close for comfort to his Fonzie role.

Winkler's movie choices included starring as a Vietnam vet suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (Heroes) and an obnoxious wrestler (The One And Only), which must have given him satisfaction as an actor, even if the movies weren't big box office hits. Knowing Winkler's drive as an An American Christmas Carolactor around this period, one can understand why taking the lead role in An American Christmas Carol must have appealed to him. It actually gave him the chance to show two completely different sides of the same character, one as an old man (with makeup on him to make him look old, of course), and another as the same man during a younger part of his life. The setting of this Americanized twist of the Charles Dickens' classic novella A Christmas Carol is in the small town of Concorde, New Hampshire in the year 1933, when The Great Depression still had its grip on millions of unfortunate Americans. The elderly Benedict Slade (Winkler) has it good, however, running a successful finance company with the help of his assistant Thatcher (R. H. Thomson, Chloe), who at the beginning of the movie helps Slade repossess furniture and other belongings from many of the unfortunate townspeople on Christmas Eve. Later, when Thatcher asks Slade to consider a business venture that would give jobs to many of the town's unemployed, the heartless Slade fires Thatcher. That night, when Slade is all alone in his home, he is visited by the spirit of his former partner (Ken Pogue, The Dead Zone), who is temporarily out of Hell in order to tell Slade that he will be visited by three spirits during the night.

Since I am pretty confident that you have read the original Charles Dickens novella, or at least seen one of the countless cinematic adaptations of the novella that have been made over the years, I won't bore you with any more of a plot description - the characters and events in this particular adaptation are generally very similar to what Dickens originally wrote, despite the time period being updated by several decades and the location changed. Anyway, I am sure that your first question has to do with Winkler's performance in the movie. Is he up to the challenge of playing a serious character both as an old man, as well as in his younger years? Well, I will admit that when the movie began, Winkler's performance as the elderly Slade was a little rough. For an old man, he seemed to be moving around a little too energetically, and the tone of his voice didn't seem as gruff and aged as I was expecting. It didn't help that the makeup on his face seemed quite waxy and artificial. (A problem throughout the movie.) Though I decided to give Winkler more time, partially because my own father, who is in his senior years, still sounds like how he did when I was a child, and still has the energy to shovel the snow off his driveway during those brutal Canadian winters. Actually, I didn't have to wait very long. It doesn't take long for Winkler to have his first big scene, when Thatcher talks to his character about the proposed business venture. With this direct confrontation, Winkler nails the role. He suddenly becomes very bitter, uncaring, and mean-spirited, just how Dickens portrayed Scrooge. At the same time, Winker shows in his performance (with the aid of some pointed lines of dialogue in the screenplay) that Slade is someone who is vulnerable and afraid to not be on top of things. Even before Slade's past is shown, you can sense from this character's tone and reactions that he had been hurt and disappointed many times when he was younger. No doubt Winkler got the idea of this from his Fonzie character, who was on occasion shown to have a vulnerable side that as a result made him more palatable than someone who was completely cool and confident. This makes Slade a more interesting and multi-dimensional character, and we the audience are more interested in him and don't see him as a one-note character.

When the ghost of Christmas past appears, Winkler is given a break from being under all that somewhat unconvincing makeup. But he doesn't reduce the quality of his performance. Portraying Slade in his early adult years, Winkler gave an equally fine performance. (I didn't think about Fonzie once while watching him.) Another reason why I also enjoyed this part of the movie was that, unlike some other cinematic adaptations of A Christmas Carol, this version spends a good deal of time showing the past of the central character. With a good amount of time spent in this period, it is easier to see not only where the character came from, but what moulded him into being the cantankerous man he is at present. We see that he was hurt by relatives who abandoned him into an orphanage at a young age, which was the seed that transformed his mind into one looking for any opportunity for success, which eventually made him push aside the woman he loved so he could stay on top. We aren't the only ones who sees what Slade had and lost in his younger years - the elderly Slade clearly sees this as well, and when he later sees a vision of his former love married and with a child, he softly laments, "I could have had a child like that." It's a really powerful moment. Though the scene plays somewhat differently than what was in the original Dickens text, it's true to the nature of what Dickens wrote. In fact, while the setting and time period of the movie is different than that of the novella, this movie really respects the source material. Many people were poor and out of work in Dickens' time, so the setting of this movie during the American Great Depression is a very appropriate substitution.

The respect An American Christmas Carol has for its source material goes much beyond the setting. A number of its good attributes can be credited to director Eric Till. Working with a skilled production and design team, who replicate what small town America was like in the 1930s, Till gives the movie an authentic feel. And not just an authentic feel; he gives the winter surroundings (the movie was shot in Canada) a surprisingly cold and bleak atmosphere, which makes the introduction of spirits and ghosts in the movie not surprising in the least. All in all, the movie is a very good one, respectful of its source while telling its story with a few new twists. However, I had a few nitpicks with the movie that I feel prevented it from being even better than it is now. There's a small subplot about a copy of the actual A Christmas Carol getting into the hands of Slade. This subplot, I feel, just interrupts our feeling that what we are seeing is "real" and tells us what we are seeing is just a fictional story. It's very distracting. Another thing that was distracting was the portrayal of the ghost of Christmas future - he sports gold medallions and a suit that makes him look like he's headed to the disco. That was quite jarring. Lastly, the concluding part of the movie has a flaw that can be found in the original Dickens text. Although it is Christmas Day, the reformed character in both the novella and in this movie are somehow able to go shopping to buy things for their employee. Apparently, both Dickens and the screenwriter of An American Christmas Carol forgot that businesses were definitely closed on Christmas Day both in Dickens' time and during the Great Depression. So how were the characters able to buy all those things with all the stores closed? But if you have enough Christmas spirit to forgive the movie for occasional nitpicks like those, chances are that you will enjoy this movie as much as I did.



UPDATE:
Read MacGuirtose pointed out an error in the part of my review when I discussed businesses being closed on Christmas Day:

"I don’t know about the Great Depression, but in Dickens’ time that was definitely not the case. Most businesses were open on Christmas Day, and very few workers got the day off. (Modern readers may see Scrooge’s insistence on Cratchit coming in to work on Christmas Day as one of the most extreme examples of his nastiness, but in fact that wasn’t at all unusual at the time.)

"In the Victorian era when Dickens lived, the English were just beginning to take an interest again in Christmas, which at the time had been a long-ignored and mostly forgotten holiday. The royal family got their first Christmas tree only a couple of years before the publication of
A Christmas Carol, for instance, and Christmas trees didn’t become common among the hoi polloi till years after. Christmas then just wasn’t the big deal it is now. As a matter of fact, A Christmas Carol was largely responsible for Christmas becoming the major holiday it eventually did; while the holiday’s revival had already begun before Dickens’ story was published (though not long before), the popularity of A Christmas Carol gave it steam and really encouraged its observance."

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See also: Blizzard, Breezy, Ziggy's Gift

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