The Fonz plays against type in 1979’s An American Christmas Carol

The Fonz plays against type in 1979’s An American Christmas Carol

You already know the 12 Days Of Christmas, with its drummers drumming and partridges and gold rings, but we here at The A.V. Club like to take everything one step further, for your reading pleasure. Hence, 13 Days Of Christmas, a collection of essays on a handful of beloved holiday classics and a few that have sadly fallen through the cracks. Up today, 1979’s An American Christmas Carol.

Henry Winkler enjoyed one of the unlikelier ascents to stardom when Garry Marshall cast him as Arthur Fonzarelli, the coolest guy in the Happy Days version of 1950s Milwaukee. Originally conceived as a part for a tall, dopey Italian, it went to the short, Jewish Winkler, a then relatively recent graduate of the Yale School Of Drama’s MFA program who was pushing 30 and seemingly couldn’t help but convey a feisty intelligence. Yet Winkler made the part his own, so much so that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing Fonzie. And by the end of the ’70s, it had become hard to imagine Winkler playing anyone else. He’d spent his time away from the show doing movies, but he feared typecasting so much that he turned down the lead in the movie version of Grease. “John Travolta went on to buy a plane. I went home and had a Coke. That was probably not a really smart business decision,” Winkler jokes in an interview included on the DVD and Blu-ray editions of An American Christmas Carol, a TV movie that aired just before Christmas in 1979, a year after Grease became a pop-culture phenomenon of the magnitude Happy Days had been earlier in the decade.

Winkler doesn’t seem to have any regrets about the choices he made, however, nor should An American Christmas Carol give him any reason to. Set during the Great Depression, it makes good on its title’s promise of offering an American spin on the Charles Dickens classic (despite being shot in Toronto and filled with Canadian actors). Under some impressive (for ’70s television) aging make-up—Rick Baker served as a consultant—Winkler plays Benedict Slade, a miserly New Englander with little use for charity and an abiding fondness for sticking it to the poor. He has his reasons, though: For Slade, it’s simply a matter of principle. In business, a deal’s a deal, and if making good on that deal means riding around repossessing his debtors’ possessions on Christmas Eve, so be it.

Over the course of An American Christmas Carol—which plays out, as versions of A Christmas Carol tend to, with the protagonist being visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future—Slade is revealed as a classic self-made man, his wealth the result of timely investments in assembly-line manufacturing and “time payments,” a scheme that allows his customers to purchase items and then pay for them at usurious interest rates or lose them. And if they lose them, that’s fine: Slade’s got a warehouse full of repossessed goods ready to be resold.

That warehouse serves as the base of the action in An American Christmas Carol—which was directed by journeyman Eric Till and written by Broadway and TV veteran Jerome Coopersmith—and three customers whose goods Slade has repossessed serve as the ghosts. These include the manager of an orphanage (Gerard Parkes) where Slade lived as a young man, a kindly bookseller (David Wayne) whose books Slade has begun destroying so he can resell the leather binding, and a young father (Dorian Harewood) whose radio Slade reclaims, only to discover that it seems to be sending broadcasts from different parts of history.

An American Christmas Carol is pokily paced and broadly drawn, but it’s effective largely because of Winkler, who’s clearly relishing the chance to work so far outside his Fonzie comfort zone. The makeup’s never so convincing that he vanishes into the part, but no one watching will expect him to break out a thumbs-up and an “Aaaaayyyyyy!!!” either. It helps, too, that in 1979, the machinery was in place for television to make cozy, TV-sized movies with relatively high production values, and for those movies to be able to sneak some messages in between the lines. When the orphans approach Slade for charity, instead of money or food he gives them copies of a pamphlet entitled You Can Do It! and the advice, “Thrift, hard work, pay your bills on time, maybe you’ll have a mountain of your own someday.”

Slade’s Depression-era attitude toward the less fortunate isn’t that far from the up-by-the-bootstraps talk offered by many on the right today (and, no doubt, in 1979), and by aligning those sentiments with the worst kind of capitalist exploitation, the film makes a point that’s hard to miss. It also ties its protagonist to some common types of hypocrisy. He refuses to give handouts or offer a hand up, but we learn that his life would be much different if someone hadn’t taken an interest in him as a boy and helped him out. Furthermore, for all his talk of free enterprise and the need for others to work for a living, he declines to reopen a quarry that would create jobs for the town for fear it wouldn’t be as profitable as the sure thing he has going ripping off those to whom he lends money. When he’s set straight by the Christmas spirit, it’s not just a personal awakening, but a political one. The same was true of Dickens’ Scrooge, of course, but An American Christmas Carol put it in terms that were easy for American audiences to see as belonging to their own country. There’s no talk of workhouses, but the film supplies an instantly recognizable example of how those who have can slip behind walls that allow them to forget the have-nots. It’s a remote location, but one the spirit of Christmas can still reach.

Tomorrow: Christmas comes to American Dad.

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