“An American Christmas Carol” is a tale for today.

The Two Gay Geeks and our Staff are taking a much needed break from Thanksgiving through the end of the year, but we still wanted to have content for you to read during that time. As such we got busy and watched all of our favorite holiday videos. Some are classics and others are off-beat and loosely associated with the holidays. We hope you enjoy our offerings and that you holiday season is safe, sane, and satisfying.
We’re all familiar with Dickens’ classic yuletide story of A Christmas Carol. It has been told, re-told, revisited, probably more times in popular culture than any other story, save the story of the birth of Jesus. Aside from that, no other Christmas story has been told with this amount of frequency. And yet, they all have one thing in common and that is resonance. As beautiful as those stories are, and as amazing as those presentations can be (think back to either the George C. Scott or Patrick Stewart versions), they are all rooted in their Victorian era. Even Doctor Who, with all of its science-fantasy trappings, still gave their episode a Victorian treatment. Perhaps that is why in 1979 someone decided it was time to give this holiday fantasy a different coat of paint.

The tale is the same, but the names are slightly different, as is the setting. Instead of the Victorian era London this is now a small town in New England during the Great Depression, and instead of Ebenezer Scrooge we have Benedict Slade (played quite coldly by Henry Winkler), and he runs a company that provides loans to people who are struggling. If they can’t pay their loans he repossess what they put up as collateral. He has an assistant name Thatcher (R.H. Thomson), and right as Christmas approaches Slade grabs Thatcher and they set upon their mission to collect on all of the unpaid loans, including some personal, leather-bound books belonging to an owner of a bookstore. He even goes so far as to take back a piano for the very orphanage he grew up in (more on that later).

When the local, unemployed town folk ask Thatcher to speak on their behalf to get the local quarry open again, Slade promptly fires his employee. Of course that’s when the visitations begin starting with (naturally) his former business partner, Jack Latham (Kenneth Pogue). As always he warns him of three spirits who are going to visit him, only here these spirits are representations of people he has wronged by taking away their property right on Christmas Eve, starting with the owner of the bookstore Mr. Merrivale (David Wayne). It is here that we get a glimpse of Slade’s past and learn that he was an orphan only to be brought in to work at a woodshop. Overtime he grows up and tries to introduce newfangled ideas including automation, which would increase profit while minimizing time. The owner, and his benefactor, Nathaniel Brewster (Chris Wiggins) shoots down the idea because it would eliminate his workforce and he has no desire to let workers go. In time Slade goes off into business on his own with Latham and the rest is, as they say, history.

Next his visitor is in the image of a man named Jessup (Gerard Parkes) who now runs the orphanage that Slade lived in as a child. He shows how Thatcher’s young son, Jonathan, is a cripple, but there is a revolutionary new treatment in Australia that could heal him. Then there is the final ghost, represented by a homeowner named Matt Reeves (Dorian Harewood), who had his stove repossessed earlier that day. Here the story follows suit where Slade learns of, not only the death of Thatcher’s son, but also of his own. He is led to his gravestone that is grown over with weeds and is totally forgotten. That vision alone is enough to make Slade want to change his ways immediately and strive to live a better life. He breaks down crying saying, “I’m willing to make a change.” It’s a scene that will break anyone’s heart. It’s not the flamboyant performance that is so typical in the Victorian Scrooge stories, but the expression of a broken man. It’s easily the finest performance that Henry Winkler has done in his career. As Slade collapses while crying he finds himself waking up in bed on Christmas Day. His first act of redemption is going to Thatcher’s home where he first informs Thatcher that he is, in fact, STILL employed by him. After bestowing some gifts he then gives Jonathan a series of tickets that will eventually take him to Sydney Australia for the treatment that will help him walk without crutches. In another tear jerking scene Thatcher’s wife expresses her gratitude to Slade. The description does not bear it justice. From there Slade takes Thatcher and they return ALL of the items they took, and Slade even offers to have all of the leather-bound books repaired and restored that he took from Merrivale. He even offers Thatcher a promotion with the title “Vice-President in Charge of New Projects” that includes the opening of the quarry to bring work to the town. As the movie ends, Slade goes back to the orphanage where he finds a troubled youth and takes him to teach him about the wonders of working with wood.

This movie is far more visceral than any of the other presentations of this classic story. The Victorian versions give it a romantic fantasy to it, but setting it in a depressed New England town makes it bleak, thus making all of the horrible things that Slade does even more tragic. Of course that makes all of the good he does at the end even more emotionally rewarding. The result is this movie takes on a whole new life. More “classic” versions are incredibly entertaining where you can be moved by strong acting performances and production values, but this movie, despite coming out in 1979, gives the story a strong punch in the gut that can leave you feeling quite raw by the time it ends. While the story that Dickens wrote may have made a strong impression at the time of its initial publication, this movie has that same impact for today’s audiences, and that makes An American Christmas Carol one of the most underrated versions ever made.


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