An American Christmas Carol

american christmas carol

This is An American Christmas Carol, in case there was any doubt. Charles Dickens’s perennial classic gets a Stateside reimagining set during the Depression, which supposedly makes this familiar tale even more accessible to audiences there. What it really does is couch American individualism in the coziness of a holiday story.

Greedy Ebenezer Scrooge, renamed Benedict Slade (Henry Winkler), spoils the holiday mood when on Christmas Eve he fires his assistant Thatcher (R.H. Thomson) and repossesses some prized belongings, one of which is a first edition copy of The Christmas Carol. As he thumbs through the pages, he finds himself living out the nightmare of self-reflection.

Benedict revisits his youth where he was plucked from an orphanage by the kindly Mr. Brewster (Chris Wiggins), the owner of a chair company, and invited to serve as his apprentice. Winkler isn’t a bad choice for the role, even as the ghost of Fonzie looms over his performances during this period. The layers of latex prosthetics he wears makes his aged character seem like an expressionless grump, but Winkler does his best to disappear into the story. Benedict expresses a very un-Fonzie-like innocence when he falls for his benefactor’s daughter Helen (Susan Hogan), but those feelings are eventually replaced by ambition.

See, Benedict want to be someone, he declares. Not content with his average existence, he wants to maximize his opportunity, which is to say his capital. (So it is an American tale.) Mr. Brewster’s unwillingness to adapt to the times, always a virtue in these stories, initially worries Benedict, who thinks the company’s hand-crafted chairs will be unable to compete with the cheaper assembly line productions. But those misgivings soon give way to more selfish concerns, culminating in a pitch for “installment paying.”

The emotional climax comes, and I don’t think I’m giving anything away, when the ghost of Christmas future (Dorian Harewood bedecked in late 70s splendor) brings Benedict to his abandoned grave. The old miser has a proper breakdown and, in a dramatic show of tears and wailing, promises to change his ways – ostensibly because he does not want to be forgotten. But no matter as Benedict indeed gets the chance, and the world is transformed because one man is transformed. That, friends, is the message of the American Christmas Carol.

Except the ending of Dickens’s story rings with one man’s redemption, not praises for his good deeds. Indeed, Scrooge goes out of his way to hide his generosity, and there is more delight in his reformed disposition than his financial largess. But in this iteration, individual acts of charity win out. Benedict’s success is the result of Mr. Brewster’s benevolence, and he returns the favor in kind.

It’s disingenuous to suggest, as the movie seems to, that the financial ruin experienced by millions during the Depression might have been forestalled by greater charity rather than the wholesale restructuring of institutions. Indeed, the spirit of Horatio Alger runs throughout, and there’s a strong emphasis on individual responsibility and actions as salve to financial worries. It’s a narrative that works especially well for some at Christmastime, or any time, but there are many more adaptations of this classic that are worth an airing.

Original TV advert, thanks to the good people at the Museum of Classic Chicago Television (plus bonus ad for Kramer vs. Kramer):

Released: 1979
Prod: Stanley Chase, Jon Slan
Dir: Eric Till
Writer: Jerome Coopersmith
Cast: Henry Winkler, Dorian Harewood, Susan Hogan, R.H. Thomson, David Wayne, Christopher Crabb, Tammy Bourne, Chris Cragg, Chris Wiggins
Time: 98 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Network: ABC
Reviewed: 2014