MOVIE MEMORIES: Taking a look at festive classics and a dynamite Disney animation

Greeting once again film fans, my latest ‘Movie Memories’ article for Lanarkshire Live takes a look at cinema’s best adaptations of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and seminal Disney adventure Pinocchio.

In cinema history, A Christmas Carol – the 1843 anti-capitalist novella by Charles Dickens – rates among the most frequently adapted stories for film and television with a summation of 24 film versions dating back to 1901, and more than eight animated versions with new adaptations appearing regularly.

The 1951 British version of Scrooge stars Scotland’s brilliant character actor Alistair Sim in the title role of the ill-tempered old miser who regards Christmas as “humbug”. He finds redemption following a visit from three spirits, the ghost of Christmas Past, Present and Future, in what is widely-regarded as his finest performance.

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The world of Charles Dickens is populated with wonderfully memorable characters and A Christmas Carol is a perennially popular festive fantasy drama with universal appeal.

The production, with a quintessential British cast directed by Brian Desmond Hurst – who was hailed as Northern Ireland’s best film director – is a beloved classic celebrating the joy of the festive season.

Although there will always be a dispute over which is Alistair Sim’s finest screen performance, there’s little doubt as to which is the best known.

‘A Christmas Carol’ featured Alistair Sim’s “best known screen performance”

His 1951 characterisation of notorious curmudgeon Ebenezer Scrooge is not only generally regarded as definitive, it is also the only one of his films to achieve wide circulation in America, where it became a Christmas television regular to rival The Wizard of Oz .

There it was known by the title of Dickens’ original story A Christmas Carol but in Britain, it was named Scrooge after the lead character. And rightly so, because despite the stellar cast and a middle section where he is temporarily usurped by George Cole playing his younger self, this is Sim’s film from start to finish.

The Victorian London setting is effectively staged, creating an atmospheric white Christmas, contrasting with the altogether harsher impression of the poverty and difficult times in Dickens’ literary classic.

In 1954 the two talented stars appeared in The Belles of St Trinian’s , the first of several British comedies featuring the girls of St Trinian’s school, Alistair Sim playing the dual role of the school headmistress Amelia Fritton , and her brother Clarence , with George Cole as Flash Harry .

For several decades Hollywood was the dominant force in movie musical productions. However, it was unexpected and ironic that the last of the large-scale screen musicals were made in Britain and based on famous stories by Dickens.

Oliver (1968), the winner of six Oscars including best picture, played at the Leicester Square Odeon in London for 90 weeks.

Scrooge (1970) is a delightful musical adaptation of A Christmas Carol , with Albert Finney in the titular role, supported by a best of British cast, notably Alec Guinness, Edith Evans, Kenneth More, Laurence Naismith and Michael Medwin, with a fabulous ensemble of over a thousand extras.

The era of Dickensian London was painstakingly recreated on soundstage H at Shepperton, one of the largest in Europe. The elaborate sets constructed were designed by Terry Marsh, whose work on Oliver gave him valuable experience for Scrooge .

As Albert Finney was in his 30s, he could play the younger and older Scrooge . It took two hours every morning to transform Finney from a youthful 33 to a wrinkled old man, and an hour each evening to remove this make-up.

His hair was flattened down and a bald cap was placed over it, then a wig of wispy hair was put on top. Layers of plastic skin were put around his eyes and on his hands to make them look wrinkled, and his make-up was blended in with the plastic additions.

His teeth were stained yellow to complete the unsavoury effect. Creating the role of Scrooge was a formidable experience as Finney recalled: “I had spent three years turning down scripts, but Scrooge revived my interest in acting.

“I found the role of the thoroughly mean businessman more challenging than some of my earlier roles, which did not really show my considerable versatility.”

Directed by Ronal Neame, with a spinning musical score, Scrooge is an uplifting, highly entertaining film that vividly captures the true meaning and spirit of Christmas.

Scrooge has found a new lease on life every year around Christmas, when it is broadcast on British television.

This next movie examination is dedicated to the memory of veteran Disney animator Frank Thomas, who generously encouraged my passion for animation and collecting Disney stills and posters.

The images here from Pinocchio were courtesy of this brilliant craftsman.

‘Pinocchio’ is “one of Disney’s most visually innovative films and also his meatiest animated adventure”

One of the most eagerly anticipated events at Christmas in the 1950s and 60s was the return engagements of Disney classics at the Monklands cinemas in Airdrie and Coatbridge.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) may have provided Walt Disney with his finest moment, but Pinocchio is probably his greatest film.

It shares in all the qualities that made Snow White such a huge success and adds to them a technical brilliance that has never been surpassed.

Pinocchio is one of Disney’s most visually innovative films and also his meatiest animated feature.

The movie has some of the most terrifying scenes of any Disney feature. It contained a cast of five colourful villains, all males who delay Pinocchio’s journey to righteousness in becoming a real boy.

‘Pinocchio’ was a hugely successful critical and financial hit

The plot of Pinocchio required extensive adaptation from the 1883 Italian children’s story by Carlo Collodi, The Adventures of Pinocchio , to make it suitable for the screen.

Disney added imaginative and creative touches to the tale of the puppet, brought to life by the Blue Fairy , who can only become a real boy by proving himself brave truthful and honest.

Jiminy Cricket becomes Pinocchio’s friend and conscience to guide the puppet in his mission down the straight and narrow path, beautifully expressed in the song Give A Little Whistle .

The film has a traditional storybook opening, introduced by Jiminy Cricket singing the Oscar-winning song When You Wish Upon A Star , which would become the signature tune for Disney. The animation and voice characterisations in Pinocchio are superb and it’s no surprise it won an Oscar for its delightful, engaging musical score.

It reached new heights in inventiveness, combined with layout drawings that are extremely beautiful – and the same can be said for the background paintings.

This creative process is all largely due to the extensive use of Disney’s Multiplane Camera. The huge vertical camera gave depth to an animated film by using layers of backgrounds painted on glass; it could hold up to six background layers.

The camera was first used in 1937’s Silly Symphony The Old Mill , and its creators received a special scientific and technical category Academy Award. It was also used in other animated features in the 1940s, such as Bambi and Fantasia .

The Disney classic has a traditional storybook opening

After three years in production at an estimated cost of $2.5 million, Pinocchio was released in February 1940. This was just five months after the outbreak of World War II and the film was not an immediate success, as the European market was cut off, losing Disney a vital source of revenue.

Nevertheless, Pinocchio went on to be hugely successful, both critically and financially, performing admirably in future reissues.

In 1955 it opened at the New Cinema Airdrie, with a special Boxing Day matinee. I adored this masterpiece and have been hooked ever since.

Pinocchio returned to Monklands once again in 1961 at the Pavilion Cinema in Airdrie. This was also during the festive season, much to my delight and that of many local kids who were treated to a sensational double feature program that included the premiere of Disney’s classic true-life, live-action adventure feature Nikki Wild Dog Of The North .

Disney’s films were rich in simple truths, and moral values. They were not only inspirational but had a tremendous emotional impact as well.

We can’t have the golden age of cinema back, but we can be reminded of the silver screens.

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