MS SCROOGE (1997) – Balladeer’s Blog’s Twelfth Annual Christmas Carol-A-Thon is fast approaching its finale. This time around I’m reviewing Ms Scrooge, a Hallmark TV movie starring the revered actress Cicely Tyson as Ebenita Scrooge.
Tyson is easily the best thing about this production and she towers over everyone trying to share the screen with her. Ms Scrooge would have had more impact if they had surrounded Cicely with other big names, but even as it is it’s still pretty enjoyable.
The main distraction in this telefilm is the one that afflicts many other attempts to set A Christmas Carol in more modern times – employers cannot, and for decades haven’t been allowed to, treat their employees the way that Scrooge treats Bob Cratchit in the original story. Some modern adaptations avoid the problem by just making vague references to Ebenezer’s merciless running of their business, and in my opinion that works the best. Unfortunately this Hallmark presentation constantly takes you out of the story with blatantly illegal conduct by Scrooge.
As Ms Scrooge rolls along a few elements indicate that the creative team really gets the Dickens story, while others indicate that they have no clue. Same ol’ same ol’ for most Carol adaptations.
Ebenita Scrooge runs a money lending business in the expected “grasping and covetous” manner. She abuses not just Bob Cratchit (John Bourgeois) but also her other employees Edna (Sandi Ross) and Marie (Allegra Fulton). We’re told that Ebenita’s late partner Marley died ten years earlier instead of seven, but that’s not a fatal change.
On her way to her office at the beginning of the movie Scrooge interacts briefly with Sam Catherwood (Ken James), who is dressed as a Salvation Army Santa complete with donation pot. Their exchange is so brief that it’s not until the end, when he and Scrooge meet again, that you realize Sam was this Carol‘s version of the Charity Collectors from the novel.
Next, we get a few scenes with Ebenita leaning on loan applicants in ugly ways that are blatantly illegal. People who try modern settings for this story would do well to just focus on generic acts of greed for Scrooge rather than constantly take the audience out of the story by including detailed actions that haven’t flown in real life in decades.
Ebenita’s nephew Luke (Michael Beach) is a reverend, a tweak to the Nephew Fred character that actually works very well. It makes his sermonizing about the good of Christmas seem more natural and less self-congratulatory than in other updatings of the tale. Luke is the son of Scrooge’s brother, who died in the Vietnam War.
Katherine Helmond, of Soap and Who’s The Boss fame, plays Ebenita’s late business partner Maud Marley. In lieu of a doorknocker, Marley first appears to Scrooge as a face on her computer screen in another nice 20th Century touch. Helmond tries to be appropriately spooky but she’s far too non-threatening a figure to get away with it.
Even worse, during her warning to Scrooge about one day sharing her fate of wearing gold chains, the creative team destroys the whole point of the ghost’s intervention. Ms Scrooge makes it so that Marley wants Ebenita to reform because it will also free HER (Marley) from her fate.
I can’t help but go Book Geek on a change like that. The entire point of Marley’s dialogue in the Christmas Carol novel is that the suffering that he and his fellow damned souls feel stems from remorse of conscience. They are forced to roam the world witnessing all the human suffering that they COULD have lightened while alive, but now that they’re dead, can never take action against.
Marley and the others (and no, Marley is not Jewish, nor are the other greedy tycoon spirits undergoing the same punishment) make it clear that if Heaven would only permit them to intercede in a positive way to alleviate the suffering in the world it would mean so much to them, even if it won’t lessen a moment of their posthumous punishment.
By giving Marley an ulterior motive, it ruins all of that. Marley is being permitted to intercede to save Scrooge for the pleasure of performing a selfless act. The kind of act which Marley and the other suffering ghosts are normally unable to perform. The unspoken reason for this permission seems to be the way that a reformed Scrooge can then perform untold selfless acts for others in a domino effect.
At any rate, after the departure of Marley’s Ghost, Ebenita locks herself in her walk-in office safe with her money, hoping to wait out the night. The Ghost of Christmas Past (Michael J Reynolds) shows up, and in the true “hallmark” of Hallmark productions, the actor turns in a bland, thoroughly forgettable performance.
Luckily, Cicely Tyson is there to save the day. Her gut-wrenching performance as Ebenita revisits many painful moments from her poverty-stricken past finally brought out in me the emotional reaction I’m used to having during versions of A Christmas Carol.
Scrooge’s early dealings with Maud Marley are handled in an adequate way, and the Lost Love portion of the Christmas Past segment is more bearable than in most productions. Ebenita’s romantic partner Steve (Derwin Jordan) is a lawyer who is relocating to another practice in another city. Scrooge by then is a Vice President in Marley’s money lending business and doesn’t want to start over elsewhere. Steve has more personality than most of the Lost Loves of other Scrooge stand-ins so that helps his scenes.
The Ghost of Christmas Present (Shaun Austin-Olsen) is as bland and forgettable as the previous ghostly visitor but is made much more annoying by his assertion that he – like Maud Marley – is a damned soul trying to reform Scrooge so that he, too, can be freed.
I won’t subject readers to another rant about how such notions destroy the story. Suffice it to say that this Christmas Present portion is hollow and not at all engaging. And that’s despite the way it’s usually my favorite part of any Christmas Carol. We also don’t get Ignorance and Want, another sign that the filmmakers lack a fundamental understanding of the Dickens novel.
We DO get a fun bit of trivia thrown our way as Bob Cratchit is shown playfully sliding along an icy sidewalk with a group of children, like in the novel and in a precious few Carol productions. Anyway, Scrooge is shown the Cratchits and her nephew Luke celebrating Christmas and comes to understand the medical needs of Tiny Tim (William Greenblatt).
And now … Emo Philips IS the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come! Okay, not really, but the actor (Julian Richings) wears his hair in such a way and has facial expressions that so thoroughly resemble Emo’s that I immediately checked online to see if it was him. It wasn’t, of course, but the fact that the “Emo or NOT Emo” question was the most memorable aspect of all three ghostly visitors should tell you just how much Cicely Tyson carries this entire production.
The Christmas Yet to Come segment gets points from me for trying. The creative team varied things up a bit to sidestep the usual obtuse way Scrooge takes forever to realize that the unmissed and unmourned dead person is really THEM. Not completely successfully, however.
We are shown that not only does Tiny Tim die, but Scrooge fired Bob Cratchit for missing work during Tim’s final days. Ebenita’s nephew Luke is the reverend at the Cratchit Family’s church and angrily confronts Scrooge about all this.
The confrontation induces a heart attack in Ebenita, really destroying the relationship in storytelling terms. Scrooge insists she’s okay, but dies in her vault that night, surrounded by her beloved money. In a very poor replacement of the tombstone with Scrooge’s name on it, the Christmas Yet to Come portion of Ms Scrooge ends with Scrooge recoiling in horror over the fact that the IRS is seizing most of her money. This bit is oddly out of place and almost seems like something from a comedy version of A Christmas Carol. (“No, not the IRS! Anything but the IRS … NOOOOOOOOOO!”)
Scrooge’s Morning After conversion scenes are beautifully handled by Cicely Tyson, and her Scrooge starts talking normally and without the harsh, bitter edge she had given her delivery throughout the rest of the movie. She interacts with the little boy on the street below, shows her new generous side to Sam the Charity Collector and punks Bob Cratchit at his home instead of the next day at the office.
Ms Scrooge ends with Ebenita showing up for her nephew Luke’s Christmas Day service, despite her usual refusal to accept his invitation at the beginning of the film.
As I’ve made pretty clear, Cicely Tyson is THE reason to watch this version of A Christmas Carol. She makes this production as enjoyable as it is and, despite how this review might make it seem, Ms Scrooge IS fairly enjoyable. It’s not the best Carol but it’s far from the worst.
FOR MORE VERSIONS OF A CHRISTMAS CAROL CLICK HERE: https://glitternight.com/category/a-christmas-carol-2/