Judge Erich Asperschlager is the Spirit of Christmas Layaway.
"You can't block out the Christmas spirit. It's everywhere."
Without looking up actual numbers, I'd venture to guess there are as many filmed versions of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol as there are cover recordings of the Beatles' "Yesterday." That is to say, a whole heckuva lot. Some of the best known are faithful reproductions of the book's Victorian trappings, like the 1951 Alastair Sim version. Others are comedic interpretations with a modern twist, like Bill Murray's Scrooged or that one Christmas episode of Family Ties.
1979 brought the made-for-TV movie An American Christmas Carol, starring Henry Winkler. Made at the height of Fonzie-mania, Winkler plays the movie's Scrooge equivalent—a wealthy businessman with the unctuous name of Benedict Slade—under a pile of heavy makeup. The network wanted to cash in on the actor's fame. Winkler wanted a chance to show he was more than a leather jacket and a catchphrase. Neither plan worked out terribly well.
To be clear, I think Henry Winkler is great. I couldn't be happier that he found a career after Happy Days (especially one that includes a stint on Arrested Development). If An American Christmas Carol starred modern day Henry Winkler, it would likely be a fine addition to the holiday movie canon. Whatever Winkler's acting chops, though, it's hard to get past the two pounds of makeup it takes to make a 34-year-old look 80.
If you can get past the prosthetics, there's a solid Dickens adaptation here. At the very least, Depression-era America is a smart place to set the story. Even if the screenplay—written by Jerome Coopersmith—doesn't take full advantage of the history, it does include timely references to things like Roosevelt, the WPA, and the 1931 Frankenstein. As Slade goes around, repossessing furniture and appliances from hard-luck cases on Christmas Eve, and dismissing an appeal for help from out-of-work laborers, the connection between miser and poor townsfolk becomes more than just the set-up to a musty Victorian tale. It feels distinctly American—and in our current economic climate hits uncomfortably close to home.
Other of the film's changes aren't quite so purposeful. Going with new names is a good way to break from Dickens' original, but while "Benedict Slade" works as a Scrooge alternative, "Jonathan Thatcher" is a poor stand-in for the iconic Tiny Tim. I have no problem with the spirits looking like the customers Slade has screwed over, but there's something a little distasteful about the Ghost of Christmas Future showing up as a wide-lapeled black man bearing funk, even if he is played by recognizable character actor Dorian Harewood. Actually, the whole "future" section is lacking, from the auction where vengeful townsfolk outbid each other to burn Slade's portrait, to the grave scene—the highlight of the best adaptations—which takes place here in less-than-dramatic full daylight.
An American Christmas Carol arrives on DVD (and also on Blu-ray) courtesy of Shout! Factory looking surprisingly good for its 30-plus year age. Even if it's only standard def 1.33:1 full frame, it benefits from having been shot on 35mm film. There is a gauzy feeling to the movie that doesn't lend itself to strong detail or high contrast, but those who have worn out their videotapes will be pleased. Audio arrise in a clean Dolby 2.0 Mono mix.
There is only one bonus feature, "An Interview with Henry Winkler" (8:34). This new interview with the star is engaging and fun to watch. He seems genuinely proud of his work, and appreciative of the fans who continue to make this a Christmas family tradition.
It's hard to recommend An American Christmas Carol over the countless other versions of a holiday tale most of us know by heart. It is, however, one of the most interesting of the story's serious adaptations. The gamble of moving the story to the States pays off a bit better than the decision to cast a young Henry Winkler as an old man. Still, Winkler does a better job with the material than you might expect. So does Shout!, who continue their fine work of bringing niche television from yesteryear to modern home video formats.
You there boy! What verdict is it? Why it's Not Guilty, sir.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
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