Far as we can tell, there have been more than 50 adaptations of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol for movies and TV — and that, alas, includes versions in which Ebenezer Scrooge was played by the likes of Mr. Spacely (of The Jetsons) and Barbie (of your daughter's toy chest). But there have also been more than a few truly memorable incarnations of the old skinflint. Here's my list. Let us know if you think it's humbug.
Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol (1962)
Didn't I just finish ridiculing two cartoon Scrooges? Well, not only does Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol stand as one of the truly memorable adaptations of all time, Jim Backus' performance as the voice of Magoo/Scrooge is a classic — alternately pompous and pleading. Plus the songs by Jule Styne and Bob Merril (Funny Girl) add up to one of the greatest song scores ever written for TV.
A Christmas Carol (1999)
For years, the Star Trek captain performed a one-man Christmas Carol stage show, appearing as all the characters. In this 1999 version he's exclusively Scrooge, and a mighty formidable one he is, too. Stewart is perhaps most affecting after Scrooge's redemption, however: Witness the marvelous scene, on Christmas morning, when he stumbles into a church — perhaps for the first time in decades. He tries to sing along with "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," but is distressed to realize he doesn't know the words.
A Christmas Carol (1938)
There had been several stabs taken at Scrooge's story before 1938, but MGM set the production standard when it put its considerable talents behind this one. Owen makes perhaps the cinema's crankiest of all Scrooges, and he brings to the role the kind of authenticity you can't fake: Born in England in 1887, he actually remembered Victorian Christmases from his childhood. As a bonus, look for a young Leo G. Carroll (TV's Topper and Mr. Waverly on The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) as the Ghost of Christmas Past.
Scrooge (UK); A Christmas Carol (US) (1951)
Sim and Owen are usually mentioned in the same breath when it comes to classic Scrooges — this 1951 version was called Scrooge in the U.K. and renamed A Christmas Carol on these shores. Most people prefer Sim — his Scrooge shows more glimpses of humanity early on, so his rebirth at the end seems less of a shock. What I like most about both Sim and Owen is that they weren't big stars; both were character actors who had their one big moment in Scrooge's shoes. Thanks to that cheapskate moneylender, both are welcome visitors in perhaps billions of homes every Christmas.
The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
At first it seems like a gimmick to cast the great Caine opposite a cast of ping-pong-ball-eyed creatures. But Caine is perhaps the only actor who could have pulled it off. His is not a one-way performance; he manages to interact with the Muppet cast in a way that lends them even more humanity than they ordinarily achieve. For reasons known only to some marketing moron at Disney, Caine's most tender scene — a sad song with the girl he gave up in favor of money — has been cut from the widescreen DVD edition, but survives in the full-screen version on the same disc.
At 34, he was a little young to star as old Scrooge, but Finney is one of the most appealing of Ebenezers, playing the old boy as being a bit more clueless than many — and that's truer to Dickens' assessment that Scrooge's aversion to Christmas grew more out of ignorance than malice. He's particularly pitiful in the big "Thank You Very Much" production number, watching the city's populace literally dance on his coffin, mistakenly assuming they are celebrating a life well lived.
George C. Scott
A Christmas Carol (1984)
More than perhaps any other actor, Oscar-winner Scott explores the businessman side of Scrooge. Scott's approach to Scrooge's parsimony is matter-of-fact, logical even. When he tells Bob Cratchit he may not add coal to the office heater, he's not being mean; he's being practical. Faced with the sudden arrival of the Ghost of Christmas Present, he immediately collects himself and begins to negotiate with the spirit, as if with a business rival. Conniving, calibrating, and smooth as silk, in many ways, Scott's is the one Scrooge we'd gladly watch, even if those ghosts never showed up.
An updated version of the classic tale, Scrooged is admittedly kind of a mess, but you can't blame Murray, who pours every ounce of energy he's got into the part of a TV network executive who hates Christmas. Like most movies that take potshots at materialism — made, no doubt, by studio execs who take the bus to their modest little tract homes — the moral lessons of Scrooged ring pretty hollow. But Murray is a hoot as his Scrooge will do anything — and yes, I mean anything— to boost ratings. And his final monologue, seemingly ad-libbed as the cameras rolled, is as heartfelt a call to kindness and generosity as you'll ever hear at the movies.