When growing up in Los Angeles, a singular delight was getting the TV Guide in the Sunday paper and scouring it, pen in hand. My movie search. In the sixties, Los Angeles had the greatest number of TV channels in any city: 2-4-5-7-9-11-13. In trips to San Diego, the Mid-West or anywhere else, you’d be lucky to get two, maybe three channels. And not very good ones.
Some years ago, my daughter asked: “…so in the olden times, Dad, when did you see movies?” Hmmmm. Olden times. As if the wheel, the pen, writing, music, and entertainment were invented with her generation. I explained that there were two places to see movies. Theaters and Television. That was it. No DVD, VHS, iPod, or Hulu.com. My TV Guide search was essential to find the right movies and straighten out my schedule for the week by circling and grading the films. After all, if a movie came on at 11 p.m., you’d be up for two hours to “The End.”
But each week, when I got the TV Guide in my young hands, it was like opening a present. Before the internet, I explained to my daughter, we had this ancient forum called a “library” where you could get books on movies and famous actors.
“Oh,” she said. “You actually go someplace?”
But the TV Guide was a treasure trove. My favorites – “The Great Escape” – A. “Dirty Dozen” – A. “Run Silent, Run Deep” – A. Any film by John Ford. And at least watch anything with Bogart, Flynn, Coooper, Lancaster, Cary Grant, William Powell, Carole Lombard, Katherine Hepburn and others. I was delighted to discover that stunningly beautiful Hedy Lamarr was granted U.S. Patent 2,292,387 in 1942 for an early version of frequency-hopping based upon a piano roll to change between 88 frequencies. It was intended to make radio-guided torpedoes harder for enemies to detect or jam. Beautiful and designs weapons. What a dish!
But around Christmas, the most essential movie was “Scrooge” with Alistair Sim, a Scottish actor who portrayed Ebenezer Scrooge in the 1951 classic based upon Charles Dicken’s beloved “A Christmas Carol.” Nowadays, of course, you can buy the DVD with both color and black and white versions to our delight.
During my years of searching the TV Guide, this films was obscure and hardly remembered. As I recall, its television screening would occur only once, on Los Angeles Independent channels of 5, 11, or 13 in the years before conglomerate takeovers.
Once. Only Once. For a year.
The film is now regarded as a classic but, at the time, Alistair Sim had become an obscure footnote in film history. His stern visage and scattered hair perfectly complemented his impentrable dark miserly eyes for the role. It’s hard to believe that, with his harsh features, “in 1950 he was voted the most popular film actor in Britain in a national cinema poll.” His earliest successes as a leading man included the police detective in the thriller Green for Danger (1946); as the headmaster of Nutbourne College, co-starring with Dame Margaret Rutherford, in the comedy The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950); and as a writer of lurid crime fiction in the comedy Laughter in Paradise (1951).
He was the definitive Ebenezer Scrooge, the very personification of a miser in a vicious Humbug spirit that there was no chance of his redemption. And then he was miraculously changed through the Ghosts into a man of such unexpected generosity that the frightened charwoman, played to perfection by Kathleen Harrison, could only flee with fear.
“Scrooge” was screened on near midnight of Christmas Eve. It did not appear earlier in the week nor later. On Demand Media was science fiction. If you wanted to watch Sim and were one of the few people tuned in to his perfect portrayal as the definitive Scrooge, then you were a member of a group of film junkies who prized movie performances, film history, and pitch-perfect classics crystallized in celluloid. There was a commitment one had to make to see the film. If you missed it, you missed it. No second chances. No other way to see the film. It required a decision. Try explaining that to today’s teenager. “All that, for a movie?!
What I remember about those Christmases was the sheer joy of Sim’s transformation. His buoyant burst of generosity with the charwoman. The little boy running across the snow who Scroorge beseeches to wake up the butcher for the prize meat. “You mean, the one as big as me?”
Sim reminded me of the joy of Christmas, its real meaning, and the embrace of the Spirit in our lives to spread kindness and goodwill toward men.
Missing the film was like not seeing an old friend on Christmas Eve. Once a year, I made some time for him. And he spoke to me.