Little Lord Fauntleroy, A Christmas Carol and seasonal morality plays

Since it’s the run-up to Christmas, I’ve been watching favourite holiday movies, as they show up on TV. And so I ended up watching the 1980 adaptation of Little Lord Fauntleroy, starring Alec Guiness and Ricky Schroder, back to back with A Muppets Christmas Carol, starring Michael Caine and – well – the Muppets.

Now here in Germany, the 1980 adaptation of Little Lord Fauntleroy is a true holiday classic with a status much like that of It’s a Wonderful Life in the US (and a much better film IMO, but then I don’t like It’s a Wonderful Life very much). It’s that movie that’s always on TV during the run-up to the holidays somewhere and even though you’ve seen it a hundred times before, you still watch it anyway. A Muppets Christmas Carol doesn’t have the same classic status, though you can usually find several versions of A Christmas Carol on TV around the holidays and the Muppet version is a personal favourite of mine.

But watching both movies back to back, I was struck by how many parallels there are between both stories beyond the fact that both are based on classic works of Victorian literature, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, first published in 1843, and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy, first published in 1885, respectively.

In essence, A Christmas Carol and Little Lord Fauntleroy are both stories of grumpy old misers, Ebenezer Scrooge and the Earl of Dorincourt respectively, both played by distinguished British actors, Sir Alec Guiness and Michael Caine respectively, who learn about the spirit of generosity, compassion and of course the Christmas season via their exposure to sweet and angelic little boys, Tiny Tim and Ceddie Errol, Lord Fauntleroy, respectively. In Scrooge’s case, there’s also some significant supernatural intervention, probably because Scrooge is a more hardened case than the Earl of Dorincourt. Besides, Ceddie has more time to soften up his grandfather, since the novel spans several months rather than a single night like Dickens’ novella.

Both stories are basically Victorian morality plays about the importance of compassion and generosity towards the less fortunate. It’s a message that the Victorians age with its appalling living conditions for the poor, particularly poor children, needed to hear and it’s a message we’re still willing to listen to (and also need to hear on occasion), even though both Charles Dickens and Frances Hodgson Burnett drive it home with a somewhat heavier hand than a modern author would.

Nor are they the only popular holiday tales that praise generosity and compassion and tell of the transformation of a grumpy, unpleasant person, usually a man, into a happier and more open person. Indeed, this is the theme of a lot of classic holiday movies.

Die Zürcher Velobung (Engagement in Zurich a.k.a. The Affairs of Julie) from 1957, starring Liselotte Pulver, Paul Hubschmid and Berhard Wicki, is not just a lovely holiday movie (which for some reason is never on over the holidays) but also one of my favourite romantic comedies of all time. Again we get the transformation of a grumpy killjoy, film producer “Büffel” (buffalo) as played by Bernhard Wicki, into a more open and loving person, though Büffel has more of a reason to be grumpy than either Scrooge or the Earl, namely the fact that he’s a widower and single dad and has a mean toothache when we first meet him besides. Büffel’s transformation comes courtesy of Juliane (Liselotte Pulver), a struggling writer who moonlights as a dentist’s assistant, who in turn learns that romantic fantasies are just that, fantasies, and that sometimes Mr. Tall, Dark, Handsome and Swiss (Paul Hubschmid, being tell, dark, handsome and Swiss) isn’t necessarily Mr. Right. There’s the requisite cute kid as well, Büffel’s son played by a very young Roland Kaiser. Plus, the film also manages to subvert classic romance tropes and skewer the tropes of postwar West German cinema. Simply marvelous and also surprisingly risqué for the 1950s with clear hints of premarital sex and Juliane sharing a bed with both her suitors at one point (alas, the scene is entirely chaste). The film itself isn’t online sadly, but here is a trailer. There’s a 2007 remake, too, starring Christoph Waltz before he went to Hollywood and started playing Nazis and other villains for Tarantino, but it can’t hold a candle to the original.

Another holiday favourite of mine, We’re No Angels from 1955, starring Humphrey Bogart, Peter Ustinov and Aldo Ray, tells the story of three escapees from Devil’s Island who hide out in the home of a beleagured shopkeeper and his family, end up saving the family from financial ruin and find themselves transformed into better people in the bargain. There even is a miserly villain, though he gets killed courtesy of Aldo Ray’s pet snake rather than transformed.

And even that popular American classic It’s a Wonderful Life is a movie that sings the praises of compassion and generosity, because both are what makes James Stewart’s character, the world’s worst banker with the possible exception of his flat out crazy uncle, a person whose life is nonetheless valuable and worth saving. Though like We’re No Angels, It’s a Wonderful Life has zero interest in saving and transforming resident villain and grumpy miser Mr. Potter. Indeed, it’s telling that the two variations on the popular theme that are pure Hollywood products rather than Hollywood movies based on classic novels, punish rather than save their miserly villains.

Of course, not all holiday movies fall into this pattern. For example, Love Actually, Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella and Christmas in Connecticut don’t, even though they’re all beloved holiday classics.

But nonetheless it is interesting that around the holidays, we seem to crave stories, even heavily moralistic stories, about unpleasant people transformed into better people. Maybe it’s the secret hope that like Scrooge or the Earl of Dorincourt or Büffel or the three convicts of Devil’s Island we, too, can become better people and find love and companionship due to a good dose of Christmas magic.

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