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Monday, September 24, 2012

An American Christmas Carol DVD Review

I've been called "Scrooge" more than once (Thanks, Charles Dickens), as I'm honestly not all that fond of Christmas and its trappings. But there is just no escaping the holiday, and that of course includes A Christmas Carol. This story has been told many times, even by Mickey Mouse and of course by The Muppets. And in 1979, it was told with The Fonz himself, Henry Winkler in the lead role. Yes, this was at the height of the Happy Days popularity.

Written by Jerome Coopersmith (with a credit that says, "Inspired by the Charles Dickens classic"), this version of the famous Christmas tale takes place in Concord, New Hampshire on December 24, 1933. Mr. Benedict Slade (Henry Winkler in old-age makeup) is this rendition's Ebenezer Scrooge. At the beginning of the film, he travels around with his employee Mr. Thatcher, repossessing items because folks can't make their payments. (Remember, this is the Great Depression, so there are lots of folks who can't make their payments.) He visits the orphanage (where, we learn, Slade lived for a year as a child), and repossesses the piano (there are several obligatory shots of sad children). He goes to a university shop and starts taking leather-bound books. Interestingly, there is a copy of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens in a glass case - an original edition. It's odd that his film refers in such a direct way to its source, because if the world of this story acknowledges the existence of that book, then wouldn't all the characters in it realize that they're living the story? Wouldn't they call Slade "Scrooge"?  Also, it's rough watching a person tear apart books. (Two things I have trouble watching being destroyed in films and on television are musical instruments and books.)

Anyway, a lot of people are out of work because the quarry has been closed for a year. Thatcher asks Slade to re-open it, and tells him that everyone would benefit, including Slade himself, because people would be able to pay him on time. Slade responds by firing Thatcher.

Thatcher returns home to his family (his son, Jonathan, is on crutches).  Slade, alone, begins to read A Christmas Carol aloud to himself, but isn't impressed, and rips it apart. And guess what? It isn't long before he himself is visited by some ghosts.

(By the way, this review contains spoilers, so for those two or three people out there that don't know the tale, you might want to skip to the end at this point.)

The first to arrive is Jack Latham, his old business partner (though when he shows up, it's time for a commercial break). He tells Slade that hell is living in your past forever. And he tells him he'll get three more visitations, of course. When the next ghost shows up (the book store owner), Slade says to him, "I suppose you're going to tell me now that you are the spirit of Christmas past." This line doesn't really work, because it seems Slade didn't know the Dickens story. He read only a few lines from it before tearing the book apart.

Slade of course travels to the past, to when he was rescued from the orphanage by a man named Mr. Brewster, who made him an apprentice in his furniture business. The man's daughter, Helen, is clearly smitten with the young Slade. And in the next scene he and she are older and are on bicycles. Now it's Henry Winkler again, without the old-age makeup (in a scene with the cheesiest romantic television music ever).

The next spirit takes him to Helen's house in the present. She is married, with a grown daughter. Slade says to himself, "I could have had a child like that. If only things were different." They then visit Thatcher's house, where his son, Jonathan, is sick. Fortunately for Slade, Thatcher and his wife talk about how they have to go to a clinic in Australia to help him. Even though they'd likely discussed this before, it's important that they say it for his benefit. And for ours.

But he still must visit the future, and there he sees the Thatchers at the grave of Jonathan. Thatcher father calls Jonathan "My little Mr. T," and I can't help but pity the fool. But Slade doesn't want to change until he sees his own unkept grave; that's when he finally cries. So really, has he learned anything?

Well, the answer is yes. And when Slade wakes in the morning, he of course returns everything that he'd repossessed the day before. How he managed to load it all, including a piano, into the truck isn't explained. And where he was able to buy all those gifts on Christmas morning is likewise a bit mysterious. But that's not important.  It's the happy ending that's important, as this is a story of redemption, of second chances. A story that says it's not too late to turn things around, to remember who you are. 

This story can't help but be heavy-handed. It's inherent in the material. Fortunately, there is also a sweetness inherent in it. And of course Henry Winkler has a certain charm. And it's his charm that goes a long way toward making this an enjoyable film.  And there are some funny moments in this television movie. There is a running gag with a radio that he had repossessed letting him know he's in different time periods. I laughed out loud when his radio started playing music from the future - a bit of funk.

As a bonus feature, the DVD includes a new nine-minute interview with Henry Winkler. He talks about what drew him to the project, saying that he didn't want to do it at first, that the project scared him, which is interesting. He's very candid, as always. He speaks with such passion and intelligence. He talks about how this story has a timeless theme, and also a timely one, as the economy is once again in trouble, as it was in the time this version was set.

I've always had a lot of respect for Henry Winkler. And I think he's doing some of the best work of his career now on Arrested Development, the fourth season of which is currently in production. Certainly, he's never been funnier. (By the way, in the interview, he talks about turning down the role of Danny Zuko in the film version of Grease.)

An American Christmas Carol stars Henry Winkler, David Wayne, Chris Wiggins, R.H. Thomson, Kenneth Pogue and Susan Hogan. It was directed by Eric Till, who also directed The Christmas Toy (1986), A Muppet Family Christmas (1987), Christmas In America (1990), Small Gifts (1994) and Mary And Joseph: A Story Of Faith (1979). Clearly he's a big fan of the holiday.

The DVD features a newly remastered picture, and is scheduled to be released on October 9, 2012 through Shout! Factory. It will also be available on Blu-ray.

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