BOOTLEG FILES 212: “A Christmas Carol” (1971 Oscar-winning animated short).
LAST SEEN: Available on several Net sites.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Available on VHS video during the 1980s and early 1990s.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: The film, for no clear reason, has been out of commercial release for many years.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It is possible, though one has to question why it is taking so long.
Yes, it is that time of the year for the usual round-up of holiday films to be dusted off. For my tastes, the best of the year-end flicks is Richard Williams’ 1971 animated short “A Christmas Carol.” Yes, I know what you are thinking – not Ebenezer Scrooge again!
However, this version of “A Christmas Carol” is perhaps the definitive screen adaptation of the Dickens landmark. This production eschews the icky sentimentality and lame humor that permeates too many screen versions of the tale. Instead, it plays upon the fears of emotional isolation and visceral horror, creating “A Christmas Carol” that stands out from the pack.
“A Christmas Carol” was the first major triumph for the Canadian-born, British-based Williams. Prior to this film, he was primarily known for his stylish credit sequences for such diverse films as “What’s New, Pussycat?” and “Casino Royale.” Around 1970, he came to the attention of American animation icon Chuck Jones, who was embarking on a new career phase as the vice president of children’s programming for ABC. Just how “A Christmas Carol” came to be proposed as a made-for-TV production is not clear, but Jones gave Williams free rein to create an animated version that played up the ghostly elements of the story. Jones served as executive producer on the film, but he obviously had little direct impact on the story or production – the mood and tempo of “A Christmas Carol” is entirely antithetical to Jones’ approach to animation.
Key to this endeavor was recruiting veteran British actor Alastair Sim to provide the voice performance as Scrooge. Sim, of course, achieved immortality for playing Scrooge in the 1951 feature film version of “A Christmas Carol.” But this was hardly a reprise – whereas Sim’s 1951 film version is closer to a light comic spin, his Scrooge in the animated version offers the brutal presentation of an elderly man who is genuinely unaware of the emotional brutality that he both carried and inflicted upon others. It is a surprisingly complex and deeply moving voice performance, and the anguished fear within Sim’s voice performance is thoroughly gripping.
The other primary element to the film’s success is its haunting artistic style – with an emphasis on “haunting.” “A Christmas Carol” is, after all, a ghost story and Williams plays up the horror aspects of the tale by creating an unexpected visual shocks. In this version, Jacob Marley’s ghost is literally a walking dead man: he arrives bearing his lifeless eyes, a jaw that drops to his chest in a sickening scream and a labored gait weighed down by the endless chains fastened eternally to his body. Marley’s departure is followed by a quick and sickening sight of other doomed ghosts in a futile effort to provide solace to a crying woman sitting on a street curb.
It gets better. The Ghost of Christmas Past is an ocular nightmare – an eerie woman whose presence repeatedly divides into overlapping images while her physical dimensions age rapidly before Scrooge’s eyes. Even more shocking is the appearance of the two miserable children who reside at the feet of the Ghost of Christmas Present’s robes: the feral boy Ignorance and the pathetic girl Want. These characters are always cut from other film versions, but in this adaptation they are presented with furious vengeance. In contrast, the mute and black robed Ghost of Christmas Yet to Be is fairly sedate, even if he presents heart-wrenching images such as Bob Cratchit wailing aloud in a darkroom over Tiny Tim’s premature death.
What makes this all the more shocking is Williams’ plan to frame “A Christmas Carol” in the style of John Leech’s illustrations from the original 1843 print edition of the Dickens story. Much of the film has a distinctive Victorian lithographic quality that is highly unusual within the parameters of an animated production. For the creepier elements of story, the film employs a noir style that is heavy on sinister shadows. In these sequences, only flashes and slices of color penetrate an enveloping darkness that imprisons Scrooge.
For all of the supernatural elements and visceral emotions on display, it is somewhat surprising that ABC even allowed this to be shown. Perhaps it was a reflection of its era, when cynicism and the desire to shock the status quo was in fashion, but the network broadcast “A Christmas Carol” in December of 1971. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive – the praise for the unorthodox and daring approach to a holiday TV special confirmed Williams’ position as a major force in animation.
But that wasn’t the end of “A Christmas Carol.” The following year, Williams arranged for a brief Los Angeles theatrical engagement of his film to qualify it for the Academy Award as Best Animated Short. The strategy worked and “A Christmas Carol” won the Oscar – albeit against decidedly inferior competition (the British cartoon “Kama Sutra Rides Again” and the Yugoslavian import “Tup Tup”). “A Christmas Carol” made history as the first made-for-TV animated film to win an Academy Award – and the last. Williams’ peers raised a stink over this achievement, forcing the Academy to change its rules to forbid any film that premiered on television before its theatrical run from being eligible for the Oscar.
“A Christmas Carol” continued to be broadcast annually on ABC during the 1970s, but then it was dropped from the network’s holiday line-up. The film was released on VHS video by three different labels in the 1980s and early 1990s. Today, however, the film is out of circulation. There has never been a commercial DVD release of “A Christmas Carol,” although overeager collectors have created and sold illegal copies on DVD. Bootlegged versions of the film can also be found on a variety of online video sites.
Why is “A Christmas Carol” out of release? It is difficult to say. It would appear that it is just one of those films that fell through the proverbial cracks and became forgotten by the powers who run the DVD industry.
So if you want to enjoy the perfect bootleg title for Christmas, scoot about the Net and locate “A Christmas Carol.” And when you are done watching it, don’t be surprised if you find yourself wiping the sweat from your brow while exclaiming “God bless, each and everyone!”
Merry Christmas, y’all!
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.
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