An American Christmas Carol Review

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has been adapted again and again over the years, in every form of media possible. An American Christmas Carol was a tele-film that originally hit the airwaves in 1979, starring at the time one of television’s biggest stars, Henry Winkler, better known to audiences as “The Fonz” from his 1970s hit show, Happy Days.

This adaptation loosely takes the basics of Dickens’ tale and sets it in Depression-era New England. The well-known story mostly works its magic once again, even though most know the plot going in. This version fleshes out a few new things about the familiar characters to give this movie its own unique take on the classic tale.

The one thing that sticks out immediately is the change to the names of Ebenezer Scrooge, Jacob Marley and Bob Cratchit. It’s probably the most obvious deviation this movie takes from the original story. Here Winkler’s character is called Benedict Slade, a Scrooge in all but name. Winkler was a relatively young 34 at the time of production and here uses extensive prosthetics to appear as the elderly Slade. It looks a tad hokey at first but viewers should get used to it as the movie develops.

Slade is a miser, repossessing things right before Christmas for his finance company. Accompanied by him is his assistant, Mr. Thatcher, the stand-in character here for Bob Cratchit. While their names may be different, the new characters’ stories and backgrounds are largely similar to the more well-known versions.

After Thatcher questions Slade’s behavior, he is fired and has to go home to his wife and two children, including a disabled young boy named Jonathan (why he couldn’t have been called Tiny Tim is beyond me). It is at this point where Slade ends up alone on Christmas Eve and is visited by three ghosts- Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Future. The television production here eschews flashy FX and instead relies on old-fashioned storytelling. It does seem a little boring without a single attempt to make the ghosts look like anything other than regular people. This adaptation will scare no one.

The best part of the movie is Slade’s trip to his past, a much meatier and lengthier section of the narrative than is typical for other adaptations. It spends a good deal of time on Slade’s history, starting with him being pulled out of an orphanage by a woodworker’s family, to him growing up and falling in love with that family’s daughter, Helen (played capably by Susan Hogan). This is where Winkler looks most at ease in the role, uncovered with no aging make-up to obscure his face. The romance between Helen and Slade is fairly convincing as it develops, though the script is a little clumsy in dealing with Slade’s eventual turn into becoming a real Scrooge, as he dumps Helen with a very flimsy excuse not laid out very well by the story. From there, Slade is taken by the other ghosts and sees the natural consequences of his miserly actions.

An American Christmas Carol is a heartfelt adaptation of the Dickens’ tale and most of it will still work for a modern audience. Setting it in the distant past of America helps to make the tone a little more timeless than most other television movies. The one misstep is the Ghost of Christmas Future, a stereotypical character that could have been pulled directly out of a Blaxploitation film. That might have been entertaining to an audience in 1979, but it feels horribly out of place and dated in 2012. Fans yearning for a nostalgia fix will probably enjoy this competently crafted movie.

Movie ★★★☆☆

Shout Factory has given this older television movie a very solid transfer, likely made from the original film elements. Presented in its original broadcast ratio of 1.33:1 at 1080p, the transfer must be a relatively new 2K scan of a well-preserved negative or IP. There is still a hint of minor film damage, including a couple of thin gate scratches and blotches at times, but overall the print is clean with a moderate level of detail. The AVC video encode on a BD-25 never falters, and retains the fine grain moderately well without smearing.

The image is largely film-like with a light layer of grain that has been untouched by serious filtering. There is the presence of some ringing, mostly thin halos that stand out in certain shots. It’s probably most noticeable on the willowy wig that Winkler wears, when he is playing the older Benedict Slade, though it is evident elsewhere. The contrast is stable with just a hint of overly warm flesh-tones that have been pushed towards magenta. Black levels are spotty on occasion and vary from being slightly crushed to washed out, depending on the scene and location. They are acceptable for a vintage production of this nature and budget but not the deep, inky variety of reference discs.

Remembering this was filmed in the 1970s on a tight budget, An American Christmas Carol is not the sharpest or crispest HD experience. Much of the cinematography favors a soft-focus approach with romantic lighting, especially when Slade is visiting the Ghost of Christmas Past and he’s transported back in time to his days with a young Helen. Certain close-ups are quite good with a generous amount of high-frequency content. Winkler’s old-age prosthetics look somewhat strange when viewed in tighter shots with their plastic smoothness and odd contours. The longer shots tend to go much softer with less inherent resolution.

Considering the only prior DVD version of this movie appeared in 1999, this Blu-ray is a revelation in comparison. There is a substantial increase in clarity and proper color saturation. The video score mainly reflects the nature and origin of the production itself, as a made-for-TV movie from 1979 was never going to become demo material.

Video ★★★☆☆

The original mono soundtrack is presented in a 2.0 LPCM wrapper, the only available audio option. It’s a satisfactory effort, but no one will be fooled into thinking the audio is anything but a television production from the 1970s. Dialog is intelligible and clear, though occasionally it does sound a bit thin and reedy. Don’t expect anything fancy from the mix, but it gets the job done with decent fidelity.

There are no subtitles on this release.

Audio ★☆☆☆☆

The sole extra feature provided is exclusive to this new edition, a recent Henry Winkler interview shot in full HD. Running nearly nine minutes, he covers a fairly large range of topics surrounding his role and thoughts on the production. Already famous as the Fonz, he reveals he was intimidated to be taking the role of Ebenezer Scrooge made famous by Alastair Sim, in the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol. Winkler also expresses his deep admiration for Dickens’ original story and the rigors he underwent for the prosthetic make-up, among other subjects.

Extras ★☆☆☆☆

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