About Christmas TV History

Sunday, July 2, 2023

Christmas in July 2023: An American Christmas Carol (1979)


Merry Christmas in July! It is Day #2 in the month-long celebration of Christmas entertainment. Each day this month I will be sharing brief reminisces about Christmas TV episodes, specials, and movies that are a creative or imaginative adaptation of Charles Dickens' tale A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Just a little something different and a way for me to show off the diversity of holiday stories I've collected in the encyclopedia Tis the Season TV (the updated and expanded 2nd edition will be released soon). 


Henry Winkler as Benedict Slade, aged to look like a mature businessman.

Today's discussion is on the 1979 feature-length story An American Christmas Carol. Before he was the Emmy-winning actor who played acting coach Gene Cousineau on the HBO series Barry, the unscrupulous lawyer Barry Zuckerkorn on Arrested Development, or the successful children’s book author, Henry Winkler had an earlier career. He was the actor who embodied America’s favorite 1950’s rebellious, motorcycle-riding, ladies’ man--Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli on the hit TV series Happy Days. During his success on that sitcom, Winkler got this plum role as Benedict Slade on TV movie version of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” Under heavy make-up that ages him at least thirty years, Winkler is Ebenezer Scrooge, only this time the story doesn’t take place in Victorian England but Depression-era New England in Concord, New Hampshire, 1933.

Benedict Slade is the business-minded Savings & Loan President that repossesses his client’s collateral on Christmas Eve. After being warned by his former business partner Jack Latham, Slade is visited by three spirits of Christmases past, present and future. Each of these spirits is embodied by one of the clients he had repossessed items from earlier in the day. The Spirit of Christmas Past is the bookseller whose shop Slade closed down, the Spirit of Christmas Present is the orphanage director from who Slade collected the children’s piano, and the Spirit of Christmas Future is a farmer who wasn’t able to keep up with the payments on his family’s furniture. 


There are more changes from the Victorian era to the 1930s Depression era. Gone are the references to prisons for the poor. Modern TV audiences can more clearly connect with the pain of enduring unemployment known throughout the Depression. And, Tiny Tim’s mysterious ill health is also changed. Now the character, re-named Jonathan, suffers from infant paralysis, or polio, and his health and future well-being can be improved with treatments from a distant clinic.

This revised “Christmas Carol” also re-imagines charity-giving from the Victorian era. Slade offers more of a leg-up--not a hand-out--which reflects certain American values. After Slade’s transformation, he sees the benefit of investing in re-opening the recently closed quarry. This business decision will not only benefit Slade’s pocket but will provide jobs once again for the entire community. We also see the transformed Slade select one troubled boy from the orphanage and offer him an apprenticeship, much like the young Slade was offered by a local businessman when Slade was living at the orphanage many years ago. While An American Christmas Carol, much like the original book, is filled with charity-giving, it seems uniquely American to adapt the story to include the use of capitalism, and Slade’s business acumen, to invest in the community’s well-being too.

The cast includes Henry Winkler as Benedict Slade, David Wayne as Merrivale the bookseller/Spirit of Christmas Past, Dorian Harewood as the sharecropper/Spirit of Christmas Future, Gerard Parkes as Jessup the orphanage director/Ghost of Christmas Present, Ken Pogue as Jack Latham, and Chris Cragg as Jonathan.


Joanna Wilson is a TV researcher and book author specializing in Christmas entertainment. More about the TV programs mentioned on this website can be found in her book "Tis the Season TV: the Encyclopedia of Christmas-themed Episodes, Specials, and Made-for-TV Movies." Her latest book "Triple Dog Dare: Watching--& Surviving--the 24-Hour Marathon of A Christmas Story" was released in 2016. She is currently updating and expanding the encyclopedia for an upcoming release. Her books can be found at the publisher's website: 1701 press.com

*Support this website and its research by purchasing the books at 1701 press.com

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