Why do we love A Christmas Carol so much that we see it again and again, year after year? It’s an annual pageant of redemption that gives us a villain we get to boo, and a reformed soul we get to cheer. Scrooge stands in for our guilty and regretful selves, and offers the hope of meaningful change, even when it seems too late. That's a message that crosses cultures and doesn’t require a specific religious orientation, or a specific holiday, to resonate with an audience.
This weekend, the Denver Center Theatre Company will open its 23rd annual production of A Christmas Carol. Philip Pleasants, the most recent of seven DCTC Scrooges, is celebrating his ninth and last year in the role. (That's nothing compared to Hal Landon Jr., who'll be Scrooge for the 36th consecutive season at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, California, this year.) But, hey, Scrooge is a fun part to play. First, you get to act like a big jerk. Then you get to wander about for an hour in your jammies, meeting ghosts and delivering asides. Then you turn into the World’s Nicest Person. What’s not to like? Scrooge can even be played by men and women: Tori Spelling, Hoyt Axton, Henry Winkler, Vanessa Williams – Scrooges all.
We love this curmudgeonly character so much that we can see and hear the story again and again without tiring — unless we are Scrooges ourselves. Here’s our gallery of favorite Scrooges to watch while the days count down to Christmas....
12. Lionel Barrymore
A Christmas Carol
(NBC and CBS Radio, 1934-1935, 1937, 1939-1953)
Lionel Barrymore cornered the market on playing old coots, both irascible and sweet. He’s best known for his portrayal of mean old Mr. Potter in another Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life — but for twenty years, he played the ultimate Scrooge on the radio almost every Christmas Eve.
11. Alastair Sim
A Christmas Carol
(Brian Desmond Hurst, 1951)
The black-and-white classic suffered from colorization in later years, but Alastair Sim still hits all the emotional notes here, giving us a Scrooge with whom we can identify. Filled with great character actors such as Michael Hordern, Peter Bull and Hermione Badderly, this movie is the most truly English of any of the Carols on this list.
10. Jim Backus as Mr. Magoo
Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol
(Abe Levitow, 1962)
The very first animated TV holiday special (two years before Rudolph) sees myopic Magoo hit Broadway to play Scrooge in a musical adaptation by Styne and Merrill, who wrote the songs for Funny Girl right after finishing this project. Very corny, but c’mon – you got a problem with Mr. Magoo?
9. Stan Freberg as Mr. Scrooge
(Stan Freberg, 1958)
This little fable about crass commercialism violated capitalism’s the First Commandment of entertainment: Thou Shalt Not Upset the Advertisers. The two-sided single targets the advertising industry’s ruthless exploitation of Christmas; Capitol Records threatened not to release it. When it did, any disc jockey who played the record was threatened with termination. As a result, few people heard it until a 1983 reissue.
8. Albert Finney
(Ronald Neame, 1970)
A live-action musical, and none too good. If this extravaganza looks like Oliver!, it’s because it was shot on the same sets. Finney, only 34 when this was made, spent three hours in the makeup chair each day to become Old Scrooge. Finney’s great when his character is bad and awful when he’s good: This is a Scrooge you don’t want to see reform.
7. Alastair Sim
A Christmas Carol
(Richard Williams, 1971)
Encore! Richard Williams and Ken Harris’s 25-minute animated film is by far the most beautiful of all Christmas Carol adaptations, in touch with the darker strains of the original 1843 novella. It won the Oscar for Best Animated Short Film. And Sim reprised his famous role, voicing Scrooge twenty years after his signature appearance as same.
6. Gordon Jump as Arthur Carlson
WKRP in Cincinnati: "Bah, Humbug"
(Rod Daniel, 1980)
Every sitcom ever made has done a Christmas Carol episode; it’s just too easy. This is the best of that ilk, due to Lissa Levin’s excellent script. Normally genial station owner Mr. Carlson won’t give his staff a Christmas bonus; he eats one of DJ Dr. Johnny Fever’s special brownies and has his own life-changing visit with three spirits. While not as famous as the iconic WKRP "Turkeys Away" Thanksgiving episode, this is a hilarious half-hour that doesn’t fail to underline the original’s sentiments.
5. George C. Scott
A Christmas Carol
(Clive Donner, 1984)
Simply the best. Director Clive Donner edited the 1951 Christmas Carol and knew the material inside-out. There’s a sense of a getting things just right, and with George C. Scott, you have a huge, intense, unpredictable actor at the center. He’s constantly surprising you in this film, physicalizing mental distress and spiritual anguish as only he could, with a stellar supporting cast beside him.
4. Rowan Atkinson as Ebenezer Blackadder
Blackadder’s Christmas Carol
(Richard Boden, 1988)
Richard Curtis and Ben Elton’s Blackadder TV series was Britcom perfection as the cast, with wit and obscenity, skewered all the heroic ages of England and the values ensconced therein for four seasons. In this special, Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson), usually a heinous blackguard, is a most pleasant and put-upon Victorian knob. Of course, the Christmas Spirit inadvertently teaches him that “bad guys get to have all the fun,” and he turns into the jerk we know and love. With Jim Broadbent, who plays Prince Albert as “a naughty German sausage.”
3. Bill Murray as Frank Cross
(Richard Donner, 1988)
A super-smart, ambitious modern update. This Scrooge is an evil TV exec staging A Christmas Carol that stars Buddy Hackett and Mary Lou Retton. Bill Murray is genius as Mean Scrooge, but the movie falls apart at the end when he discovers he has a heart. I am sure we will never see a cast like this again, with Robert Mitchum, Bobcat Goldthwait, Robert Goulet and the Solid Gold Dancers all contained within the same film.
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2. Michael Caine
The Muppet Christmas Carol
(Brian Henson, 1992)
Damn. Michael Caine is the greatest film actor who ever lived, and this movie proves it. The guy is doing a movie with a bunch of CARPET SCRAPS, people! And he makes it work. He’s complex; he changes believably. Amazing. And, you know what? It’s the Muppets doing A Christmas Carol. Do you have to be so critical? Lighten up.
1. Patrick Stewart
A Christmas Carol
(David Jones, 1999)
A performance that stems from a successful return to the work’s initial style of performances. In 1988, Patrick Stewart began a one-man stage reading/enactment of A Christmas Carol in London, just as Dickens himself used to do. It was wildly successful, and led to this deeply moving outing.