There’s quite an array of little surprises and delights to be had in Scrooge. None of them are more surprising or delightful than the movie sending Scrooge all the way to hell to make sure he understands how important redemption is. Because A Christmas Carol is already a perfectly succinct story, hell makes for a completely unnecessary scene in this Christmas movie. But the fact of its needlessness makes it all the more wondrous to behold, like a hot dog made of chocolate or a car that’s a submarine.
In that vein, Scrooge itself is something of a little Christmas marvel, simply because no one seems to be the least bit familiar with it. It came out in 1970, so it’s not that old; it’s got a fairly recognizable cast, headlined by Albert “Hercule Poirot” Finney; Alec Guinness, who gives one of the hammiest performances this side of a hog farm; and, in a small but notable role, Mr. Roy Kinnear, best known for playing Veruca Salt’s harried father in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Scrooge is one of the few large-scale Christmas movie musicals not starring Bing Crosby. But my poll of damn near everybody I know revealed only two people who have ever seen it, neither of whom had seen this movie since its theatrical run.
All of which is to say that Scrooge is, for me, a new Christmas movie that’s also worth watching. This is a big deal! It’s rare to come across a holiday movie that you haven’t either seen hundreds of times and maybe gotten a little bit sick of or thought about and dismissed hundreds of times, for thousands of different reasons.
And I’ll come back to those other surprises and delights in a moment. For now, let’s get right to the hell stuff.
The 1970 Scrooge musical goes full hellish camp
Our descent into the grim, glowing afterlife comes right at the dramatic peak of most A Christmas Carol adaptations. We’re deep into Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come territory, right when the spirit reveals to Scrooge that the person whose death brought so much happiness to so many was Scrooge’s own. The gravesite before which they stand is likewise Scrooge’s own. In Dickens’ telling, and in 100% of the other filmed versions I’ve seen, Scrooge grasps at the spirit’s robes, crying and wheezing and begging for mercy. Then he’s supposed to wake up in his own bed on Christmas morning, and we’re supposed to have a holly jolly finale. Right?
To reference Willy Wonka once more: Wrong, sir; wrong! Instead of that, the spirit reveals itself to be a skeleton worthy of the Halloween Lawn Ornament Hall of Fame. A terrified Scrooge tumbles backwards into his open grave, down a seemingly bottomless pit. When he lands, he’s in a depiction of hell that looks like an early version of the Hell Awaits album cover. Off in the infinite distance, hell winds wail and tortured souls gasp.
We get our second appearance from Jacob Marley, because Marley’s one scene in the original story was a bit skimpy for someone already a Commander of the Order of the British Empire as well as a Knight Bachelor. Nobody else wanted to be there to show Scrooge around, but Marley revels in the opportunity to tease his former business partner. He scamps and prances about Hell’s burning stone pillars looking for all the world like a Tin Man at a drag show who’s just learned he doesn’t need to oil his joints when sweat works just as well.
It’s Marley who presents the ironic conceit of Scrooge’s afterlife service. He has the “singular honor” of serving as Satan’s clerk: “You will be to him, so to speak, what Bob Cratchit was to you.” And of course Scrooge’s office is an exact replica of the one he had in life. But there’s a hell-catch: Satan thought the scorching heat of damnation might make Scrooge drowsy, so he decided that the office would be the only place in Hell without it. The office is also full of rats, who, Marley warns, like to “nibble on things.”
But the real coup de grace is Scrooge’s matching accoutrement. Marley apologizes for Scrooge’s chain not being finished yet: it’s “so big, they had to take on extra devils at the foundry to finish it.” Except as luck would have it, those non-union devils finish Scrooge’s chain just in time to tromp it in like a mirthless version of the bailiffs bringing the sacks of Santa letters into the courtroom at the end of Miracle on 34th Street.
It must be said that Marley watches these sweaty, burly fellows with a mixture of satisfaction and what I’m going to call intrigued arousal.
I’m not sure how Scrooge is supposed to get any of Satan’s bookkeeping done while he’s weighed down by this much chain. But then again, how much bookkeeping can Satan really need? It’s not as if hell has a naughty list and a nice list. Maybe Scrooge is supposed to chart the assorted miseries of all the different kinds of naughty souls?
And so that’s what this Scrooge musical gives us for its title character’s literal hell. Scrooge will spend eternity immobilized by a giant chain forged out of his own cruelty and sin, freezing past death, being nibbled on by rats and mocked by Marley and forced to do whatever Satan needs in terms of pencil-pushing. I don’t think it’s impossible to extrapolate this fate from Dickens’ original tale or from any of its many movie versions. So in the strictest sense, and speaking from a storytelling point of view, I don’t think that this hell scene needs to exist.
It’s also quite a ballsy move for screenwriter Leslie Bricusse (better known for his legendary songwriting; in addition to songwriting for this film, Bricusse did the songs for dozens of other productions, among them — you guessed it — Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) and director Ronald Neame to take a beloved Christmas tale and drop a six-minute hell vision right at the universally understood climax. Our muscle memory is such that by the time we’ve gotten to the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come — far and away the spookiest of the three spirits — we’re pretty much ready to get back to London and have some Christmas fun.
“Needs to exist” is a pesky idea, though. It precludes a great deal of fun. And if you don’t mind the potentially jarring side-trip, Scrooge is worth it for this most absurd and campy deviation alone.
Let Scrooge be your Christmas fatigue film
But then there is the matter of the other promised surprises and delights. For starters, I give you Alec Guinness’ first appearance in the film, which boggled my mind so thoroughly that I had to learn how to make a gif so I could present it in this article.
Why is Jacob Marley shimmying into Scrooge’s bedchambers like there’s a pole at the end of them? If this movie came out in 2021, we would recognize that maybe he’s trying to subvert staid expectations with a bit of fun, or trying to make Scrooge uncomfortable in an unexpected manner to help him see the error of his ways. In 1970, with an OBE at the helm, I have no answers. I can only watch, confused and happy to be so.
You must also appreciate Scrooge’s introductory song. The character’s best intro remains “Scrooge,” sung by a Muppet ensemble in the 1992 classic The Muppet Christmas Carol. In keeping with this release’s penchant for the audacious, though, giving Scrooge a song called “I Hate People” brings it in at a very close second place.
However, let me assure you that Scrooge is not all misanthropy and inexplicable vamping. Kenneth More’s Ghost of Christmas Present gives us a blast of aggressive good cheer with a perfect bookend to “I Hate People,” aptly titled “I Like Life.”
And while we’re on this subject, let’s also appreciate the Ghost of Christmas Present’s appearance. Yes, he’s supposed to be grand and bawdy; nonetheless, I feel that More’s depiction should be a regular costume fixture at both Christmas and Halloween parties. He’s got a crown of holly like an ushanka and a beard like a bird’s Zillow daydream.
He’s got a stern-yet-loving presence like if Logan Roy had been visited by the same three spirits at the beginning of his life, when it would have done him some good.
And most impressive of all, he’s got a barrel chest beneath that fur-trimmed forest green robe. More’s performance had to have been an influence — nay, the influence — on Ricardo Montalban’s Khan. The feast is resplendent, but good luck looking anywhere else.
Finally, there’s “Thank You Very Much,” the best song in the movie and Scrooge‘s most wicked moment. Just before he goes to hell, Scrooge comes upon a large celebration in the street in front of his office. At the behest of a man whom we earlier learned owes Scrooge quite a bit of money, the crowd — every member of which is also in debt to Scrooge — cheers and praises its debtee. Scrooge is confused by the admiration, but likewise humbled, and he thanks the crowd “from the bottom of my heart.”
And while he does this, his back is turned, so he doesn’t see the coffin coming out the office door.
Nor does Scrooge see the coffin loaded onto a wagon (the blocking in this scene is just fantastic). This all leads us into the song: the reason everyone sings “Thank You Very Much” to the corpse is because he died, freeing them all from debt. Because Scrooge is marching right along with them, he picks up on the words, too, and also sings. As ridiculous as Scrooge‘s hell is, that’s how beautifully impish is the sight of old Ebenezer unwittingly praising his own death alongside the hundreds of people overjoyed to see him in a pine box.
If you want Christmas familiarity, Scrooge won’t be for you until you’ve chosen to make it a new tradition. Watch it on Christmas afternoon or a day or two after the holiday itself: when you’re too tired to do much or go anywhere, and all you really want to do is sit in a haze of fatigue and holiday debauch and be surprised by something curious, the way it was in the long ago.