The Best of A Christmas Carol Part Two - The Ghosts

Here's part two of the best of A Christmas Carol.

Key to Ebeneezer Scrooge’s transformation from mean old miser to jolly good old fellow are the ghosts which haunt him that fateful Christmas Evening.  In this week’s installment of The Movie Sleuth’s focus on the many iconic facets of the varied adaptations of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, we present our favorite performances and portraits of the iconic Jacob Marley and the three Christmas Spirits!

Best Jacob Marley
When we think of Jacob Marley, we think of a sad, angry spirit wandering the Earth in permanent purgatory, carrying chains and metal boxes heavier than himself amid other spirits of similar ilk.  Jacob Marley, being Ebeneezer Scrooge’s former partner in crime, is sent to provide his former colleague with a word of warning concerning both his fate while providing a chance of escaping such.  Of the numerous Christmas Carol adaptations, the question is which actor gives the most effective or memorable portrayal of this pivotal, tormented character integral to Scrooge’s eventual transformation?

Of the strongest, once again The Movie Sleuth points to the 1984 Christmas Carol adaptation with Frank Finlay as the definitive Jacob Marley for numerous reasons.  First of all, his introduction is positively chilling and strangely somber.  The pale figure with decomposed, dead eyes slowly saunters in with a blank expression, with a burial cloth tied around his head so his jaw doesn’t fall open.  When George C. Scott asks what Marley wants with him, the dead figure slowly unties the cloth and his jaw drops wide open before he answers ‘much!’  It’s a brief moment but it establishes a realistic tone with respect to mortality missing from the other portrayals of Marley. The use of contact lenses on the actor’s eyes is another completely original effect not present in any of the other adaptations, making this Marley far more corpse-like.  When Marley becomes angry at Scrooge’s scoffing at his presence, the camera cuts to a wide shot of Scrooge running for cover behind his easy chair as Marley howls furiously and rattles his chains.  When Marley speaks of what his business should have been, we get the full, unabridged speech penned by Charles Dickens.  It’s a haunting portrait that leaves you feeling both frightened and saddened by the encounter.

A close runner-up, though a little silly in moments, is Alec Guinness from the 1970 musical adaptation. Using slow motion and strings, the ghostly figure eerily glides into Scrooge’s room as his chains with boxes and keys float in the air.  When Marley loses his temper, he flies up in the air by flapping his hand.  In one of the creepier moments, Marley takes Scrooge by the hand and the two fly up high in the sky among other tortured souls adorning chains of their own.  Guinness was a regular collaborator with director Ronald Neame (The Horse’s Mouth, Hopscotch, The Poseidon Adventure), so it was only natural for Guinness to find a spot in Neame’s take on Dickens’ timeless tale.  Also noteworthy is Basil Rathbone from the 1958 Fredric March adaptation.  Typically known as the actor who made Sherlock Holmes famous in Hollywood, his brief appearance as Jacob Marley stands out for how he enters the scene, his transparent soul moving freely through Scrooge’s closed door with dead hands outstretched like Karloff’s take on Frankenstein.  In the end however, it’s the lesser known Frank Finlay who holds the crown as the best Jacob Marley currently on film.

Best Ghost of Christmas Past

Of the three spirits prepared to visit Ebeneezer Scrooge in the hopes of imparting a positive transformation on the bitter skinflint, the first spirit’s goal is to show how his past shaped him into his current state.  As with Jacob Marley, The Movie Sleuth points to Angela Pleasence as the strongest and most effective Ghost of Christmas Past for numerous reasons.  Unlike other adaptations which depict an aged woman, Angela Pleasance is a young blonde angelic figure with a subtly demonic edge to her snarky, wicked smile.  Carrying a coned cap designed to extinguish ‘truth’, which the eventually enraged Scrooge uses to shut out the spirit before being transported back into his room, this aged looking Tinker Bell of a Ghost of Christmas Past evokes an ethereal, dreamy feeling, traveling through time accompanied by fog machines, soft focus and lighting.  What makes this Ghost of Christmas Past unusual in particular is what she shows Scrooge after he witnesses his breakup with his fiancée Belle.  Scrooge asks to be returned home, but not before the Ghost of Christmas Past shows her happily married with a family to a new suitor, and the duo find themselves pitying Scrooge’s lonely existence.  Most portrayals of the Ghost of Christmas Past end with Scrooge seeing Belle walk away, but few take her departure a step further in such a way that angers him greatly.

Sally Fraser’s Ghost of Christmas Past in the 1958 Fredric March television adaptation also presents a unique twist on Dickens’ tale.  The first thing Scrooge notices about this beautiful and young Ghost of Christmas Past is that she looks just like his ex-fiancée Belle.  While the same actress played both parts, the production takes full advantage of the casting decision, forcing Scrooge to confront the sight of the woman he pushed away.  In the time honored tradition of Hollywood musicals, Scrooge and Belle share a duet at Fezziwig’s Christmas party that will remind some of the numbers sung by Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel.  It’s a unique detour for A Christmas Carol, having the Ghost of Christmas Past’s appearance waving his broken relationship with Belle right in his face.  Also worth mentioning for both how different and antagonistic this Ghost of Christmas Past can be is David Johansen’s New York City taxicab driver from the 1988 Bill Murray vehicle Scrooged.  Crass and sleazy in appearance, Johansen gives us both a hilarious stereotype and a vicious riposte to Murray’s callous Frank Cross.  After showing him his ugly youth with an abusive father figure (played by Murray’s brother Brian-Doyle), the Ghost of Christmas Past informs Frank Cross  ‘Let’s face it, garden slugs got more out of life than you’.  Cross is well aware of the trajectory ahead of him based on our collective familiarity with Dickens’ tale and scoffs at the Ghost of Christmas Past, to which Johansen replies ‘that’s exactly what Attila-The-Hun said…but when he saw his mother…Niagara Falls…’  Between these three, the most affecting Ghost of Christmas Present is probably Angela Pleasence for rubbing in how Belle has moved on with her life while Scrooge remains stuck in a rut of bitter contempt for his fellow man.  While bad enough for Scrooge to face his failed relationship with Belle stemming from his own greedy pursuits, you could argue it is far worse to see Belle much happier elsewhere.   

Best Ghost of Christmas Present

The Ghost of Christmas Present, a bearded, towering figure cloaked in a robe and carrying a torch, represents the second spirit whose mission is to convert the cantankerous miser Ebeneezer Scrooge into a generous and loving individual.  Of the various portrayals of this imposing, all-knowing figure who more than puts Scrooge in his place and serves him with just desserts, The Movie Sleuth boils down three of our favorite choices of the wise truth bearer.  Once again, we point to the 1984 George C. Scott adaptation with Edward Woodward’s formidable, sarcastic, unforgiving Ghost of Christmas Present.  In layman’s terms, Woodward’s Ghost completely destroys Scrooge before leaving him (and us) for dead.  When he takes Scrooge to Bob Cratchit’s home and uses Scrooge’s own words concerning the ‘surplus population’ against him, his eyes open wide before he begins to snarl, ending his delivery with a wicked grin and light nodding which Scrooge absolutely cannot dispute.  Later, in a move missed by multiple adaptations, is a devastating scene where Scrooge is shown a poor family huddled together in the freezing cold while their father considers the possibility of thievery to provide for his children.  When Scrooge balks at the reasoning behind showing him poverty, the Ghost of Christmas Present pulls back his robe to reveal two starving, emaciated children named Ignorance and Want.  The score builds up into a terrifying shrill as the camera zeroes in on low-angled close-ups of the sad, yearning faces of the children.  Woodward’s ghost bellows ‘they are your children!  Written on this boy’s brow is the word ‘Doom’ to all who deny their existence’.  It’s a monumentally powerful scene that hits you like a hammer and far exceeds everything that came before or followed after.  After showing Scrooge the children and reiterating his cruel words ‘Are there no workhouses?  Are there no prisons?’ he closes his robe back up and promptly leaves Scrooge alone in the freezing cold.  While it can be argued all the Ghosts of Christmas Present serve it to Ebeneezer Scrooge, few leave the man stung and struck down in the manner Woodward’s Ghost does.

In second place is the pixie dust angel from Hell, Carol Kane, in the 1988 Scrooged.  Aiming for slapstick comedy, this giggling, maniacal Tinker-Bell of Christmas Present doesn’t just pummel Murray’s Frank Cross with words, but clenched fists as well.  Upon introduction, she kicks Cross in the crotch and punches him in the face so hard his jaw briefly dislocates.  When shown the poverty of his secretary (Alfre Woodard playing a surrogate Bob Cratchit), she administers a series of electric shocks to his ears, making Murray’s hair stand on end.  Later still, upon being shown his brother with his family, she whacks him across the head with a toaster.  The coup-de-grace of the scene involves Cross being tossed into an icy sewer with a poor man Cross previously refused to donate money to, now frozen solid to death.  Something of a reworking of the way the Ghost of Christmas Present leaves Scrooge to wallow in the misery of poor people he has no knowledge or understanding of, the encounter in the sewer is equally bleak and dark in its own manner.  While Cross scowls at the dead man, begging the question why he didn’t stay in the shelter Claire (Karen Allen playing Belle) provided him, Cross knows his death is on his hands, with the frozen man’s eyes still open wide with a smile. 

An honorable mention goes to Kenneth More in the 1970 musical adaptation with Albert Finney.  Using spiritual powers, he telepathically lifts Scrooge off of his feet and places him atop the mantle of his fireplace.  Unlike the other two spirits quick to assail the embittered Ebeneezer, More’s Ghost provides him with a goblet containing a wine known as the Milk of Human Kindness.  Upon drinking from it, the contempt on Scrooge’s face melts away and he finds himself giggling uncontrollably, almost happily drunk.  Soon the two burst into the song I Like Life, with lyrics like ‘I like pouring the wine and why not?  Life’s a pleasure that I deny not’.  It’s the first time in the film Scrooge actually smiles and experiences joy again, but not before the Ghost of Christmas Present reminds him of his mortality and that with death, ‘suddenly you’re not there anymore!’  While deviating from what Dickens penned, the line and Ghost’s departure stings in its own unique way, reminding viewers they’ve only got so much time left to do right by our lives before mortality closes the doors for good.  Still, ultimately its Edward Woodward’s Ghost of Christmas Present stings the hardest, leaving modern viewers emotionally shaken by the sight of two starving children, providing a timeless civil rights and human message to all who witness it.

Best Ghost of Christmas Future

The Third, more mercurial spirit who appears in his own good time, represents the future Christmas of Ebeneezer Scrooge and the consequences that will follow if Scrooge doesn’t alter his miserly ways.  Usually depicted as a cloaked and hooded figure who neither speaks nor shows his face while coldly pointing in the direction Scrooge must look with his skeletal hand, the Third manifestation is undoubtedly the most frightening and unsettling figure Dickens’ protagonist encounters yet.  The looming, ominous figure can only spell doom and as with each various adaptation that has come and gone over the years, The Movie Sleuth boils down our choices for what we consider to be the most effective Ghost of Christmas Future. 

Once again, leading the pack is the 1984 television adaptation starring George C. Scott.  The demonic, imposing figure (played by Michael Carter) appears out of darkness and fog, silhouetted by a bright backlight.  Emitting no sound, only subtle nodding in response to Scrooge’s inquiries, the soundtrack takes on an eerie metallic scratching sound, sending goosebumps through your skin whenever the unearthly sound is heard.  The closest comparison one can make to the sound are the bizarre scratching sounds heard in Hideo Nakata’s Ringu.  When this ghost of the future raises his hand, we see through the light the cloth of his robe is tattered and worn, lending a vibe of decay and death to the silent entity.  Equally effective is the inclusion of wind blowing against the figure’s cloak, thunder and lightning illuminating strobe flashes of the demon against the darkness in classic stylized horror. 

In second place and among the few adaptations of the Ghost of Christmas Future to aim for full blown scares is Paddy Stone from Ronald Neame’s 1970 musical adaptation.  Initially appearing in Scrooge’s bedroom, the ominous figure leads Scrooge to the fateful cemetery where he’ll reveal both the death of Tiny Tim and ultimately himself.  Mortified, Scrooge pleads with the spirit for a second chance as the spirit walks towards him and raises its arms.  Scrooge turns around to look at his headstone and is started to instead find an endlessly deep hole.  Turning back to face the spirit, now a decaying skeleton, the soundtrack screams with a pipe organ shrill as the terrified Scrooge screams and falls backwards into the hole which takes him down into Hell.  While purists have no doubt balked at the notion of Scrooge taking a trip to Hell courtesy of the future spirit, the scene manages to terrify in ways the other adaptations most certainly do not.  The scene, almost out of nowhere, is so frightening it feels like it belongs anywhere but a Holiday film. 

An honorable mention for Ghost of Christmas Future goes to Robert Hammond from Scrooged, an oversized, grunting creature whose face is a television screen of Bill Murray’s face growing steadily demonic.  Murray’s Frank Cross lifts the spirit’s robe out of curiosity and sees three tormented souls imprisoned behind its ribcage.  From here, the spirit takes Cross through each possible future through an elevator, presenting an insane asylum, the love of his life’s heart of gold now withered and cold, and finally Cross’ body being cremated.  The approach is especially unique for both the comic spin and for exploring some genuinely dark territory which almost eclipses the bleakness of Dickens’ material.  You could argue Frank Cross experiences Hell in death, as he is transported inside his coffin being immersed in flames.  It’s an effective finale sure to change anyone previously unkind to their fellow man, and as with all the adaptations that have come and gone, the result is a reformed Ebeneezer Scrooge, overjoyed to be alive and still have a chance to change his life and those in it for the better.  Between the three mentioned here, we ultimately must concede to Michael Carter’s portrayal of the silent demon as the strongest and most frightening one.  There’s something about that scratching sound in the score whenever it appears from shadow that cannot help but burrow itself in our collective fears of the unknown.  

-Andrew Kotwicki