British film director Clive Donner felt that what the world really needed was a tougher Ebenezer Scrooge. So he's given us George Patton. Film versions of "A Christmas Carol" and countless holiday stage renditions have tended to give the character a sugary aspect, said Donner, a flavor he does not detect at all in the original Charles Dickens story.
"For instance," he said, "Scrooge is thought of as a miser. He isn't that at all. Dickens never uses the word miser. He's a man who's become obsessed with gain, with business. He's anything but the spidery weirdo he's often made to seem.
"He's implacable, hard, tough . . . "
And whom do we know who's got a tougher and harder screen persona than George C. Scott?
"Once the possibility of doing 'A Christmas Carol' came up and we talked casting, I thought George was the first choice," said Donner. Scott, who won an Oscar in 1970 for his unforgettable portrayal of Gen. George S. Patton, was in North Carolina doing another film. Donner went down to have a chat. "We talked about it for a long time. He's a maverick, a hell- raiser and an independent man -- that's his image, and it's true. But he's also an intelligent man . . . analytical . . . he allows his instincts to guide him. And then he uses his technique -- voice, body, makeup -- to express them."
The result of their collaboration -- a new version of the Christmas classic -- airs Monday at 8 on CBS.
Scott and Donner agreed from the start that Scrooge was not one to be laughed at. "There's humor in the film," said Donner, "but you don't laugh at Scrooge." So, when it comes time in the film for a ghost to visit Scrooge in the middle of the night, he doesn't find a funny old man in a night shirt. "That would make it sort of a Wee Willie Winkle-type scene," said Donner. Scrooge greets the ghost in a brocade dressing gown. Would Patton address the troops in fatigues?
Before the shooting started in Shrewsbury, England, "we agreed that Scrooge should be, as Dickens described him, as solitary as an oyster. We wanted someone who was shut off from others," said Donner. "George brought out that he lived a bleak life -- no family or friends, no woman, no warmth, a preoccupation with business . . . not eating much food . . . an exhausted individual."
To enhance the image, Scott asked that some padding be stitched into his costume across the back of his shoulders, not to convey disfigurement but to show the consequence of years spent hunched over his books. He is a man with a complicated and tragic family background that has left him with only work to fill his life.
"I think it was perfect casting," Donner said of Scott. "Frankly, if I owed him money I'd feel I was up against a tough nut. Anyone who had to deal with him would be frightened of him."
Time and Nielsen ratings will tell whether this new version of "A Christmas Carol" becomes a seasonal classic, but it is definitely geared for future holiday airings. The soundtrack is in stereo, with an eye and ear to the future when stereo TV broadcast becomes common. "In scenes involving ghosts and manifestations -- it is after all a ghost story -- the stereo sound is particularly effective," said Donner. The film is also playing in theaters in England.
Donner, whose credits include "Nothing But the Best," "What's New, Pussycat?" "Luv" and "To Catch a King," has surrounded Scott with an interesting cast. David Warner and Susannah York play Bob Cratchit and his wife; Roger Rees from "Nicholas Nickleby" is Scrooge's nephew; Frank Finlay plays Marley's ghost; Edward Woodward ("Breaker Morant") is the ghost of Christmas Present and Angela Pleasance is Christmas Past.
For all of its emphasis on on the hardness of Scrooge, Donner hopes his "Christmas Carol" still has a heart. He viewed it in London recently, prior to its theatrical release. "I don't want to sound immodest," he said, "but my God, it was even getting to me."