Home > Greatest Scores of the Twentieth Century, Reviews > A CHRISTMAS CAROL – Franz Waxman



Original Review by Craig Lysy

MGM Studios decided that they wanted to bring the 1843 novella “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens to the big screen. They secured the film rights and assigned Joseph L. Mankiewicz to production. Hugo Butler was hired to adapt the novel and write the screenplay, however, the studio insisted that the final product be a “Family Film” as was its historic practice with literary adaptations. As such, much of the grimmest, and scariest elements of Dicken’s tale was excised, which robbed the film of much of its potent social commentary. Edwin L. Marin was tasked with directing and after recasting the lead actor role, a great cast was assembled, including Reginald Owen as Ebenezer Scrooge, Gene Lockhart as Bob Cratchit, Kathleen Lockhart as Mrs. Cratchit, Terry Kilburn as Tiny Tim Cratchit and Barry MacKay as Fred.

The story follows an old, crotchety miser Ebenezer Scrooge who one night is visited by the spirit of his former partner, who lived a life of meanness and misery coldness. He counsels Scrooge to change his ways lest he suffer a similar fate of suffering in the afterlife. Scrooge is dismissive and continues his way until he experiences three ghost visitations; the first was the Ghost of Christmas Past, which revealed the joys and sadness of the Christmas’ of his past, which forged Scrooge’s persona. The second ghost was the Ghost of Christmas Present, which revealed how people he knows celebrate Christmas today. The final visit by the Ghost of Christmas Future revealed how Scrooge would be remembered, a visit which precipitates an epiphany. The encounter is transformative and opens his heart and reunites him with friends in the warm spirit of Christmas. The film was a commercial success, but failed to earn any Academy Award nominations.

MGM’s resident composer Herbert Stothart was unavailable for the project, and so Franz Waxman was offered the assignment. Waxman understood that this was a tale of redemption for the old, crotchety miser Ebenezer Scrooge and that he would have to speak to each of the ghost encounters, which ultimately transforms him. Additionally, he knew that given the film’s Christmas narrative, that he would have to infuse his soundscape with the requisite holiday carols, including “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”, “Adeste Fidelis (Oh Come All Ye Faithful)” “Silent Night, Holy Night”, “Schalfe, Mein Prinzchen, Schlaf Ein (Sleep My Little Prince, Go To Sleep),” and the “Galop” from “Jeux d’Enfants” by Georges Bizet.

For his soundscape, Waxman only provided one theme, for Scrooge, as this tale all about him. His theme opens with a surge by strings irato and then emotes for a dire exposition with forlorn horns and a pulsing string pizzicato of woe. This dissipates late in the film as he sheds his cold, austere and dour persona to embrace happiness and goodwill. In supporting the film, Waxman chose to emote music, which speaks to emotions, rather than people or places. As such, given that Scrooge’s character arc transforms over the course of the film, so too does Waxman’s musical accompaniment, concluding wonderfully with an ecstatic paean of joy to end the film.

We open with resounding fanfare reale, which supports the MGM Lion logo. At 00:12 we flow into “Main Title” atop a choir of celebratory church bells as the roll of the opening credits commences. Angelic women’s choir joins and ushers in a men’s choir singing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”. We flow into the film proper at 01:11 with a panorama of a snowy night in London with script that reads; “More than a century ago in London, on Christmas Eve…” with a tolling church bell crowning the end of the carol. At 01:23 we segue into “London Streets”, where we see bustling streets, which Waxman supports with a prancing musical narrative propelled delightfully by woodwinds felice and strings animato. Fred sees boys sliding down the streets on the snow, and decides to join them with gliding violins carrying his slide. Tiny Tim congratulates him, and another string glide carries his buddy Arthur’s slide. When Fred says to Tiny Tim that he should give it a try at 02:25, the boy defers and we descend with sadness as Fred sees the boy has a leg brace. But happiness returns when he offers to slide with the boy on his back. He runs up the street and then slide down again with Tiny Time ecstatic with Waxman supporting the string slide with accents of joy. They celebrate their effort only for another boy to slide down into Fred and knock him into a snow bank. His anger is forestalled when Tim introduces him as Peter, his brother. Waxman expresses joie de vie with music so full of happiness and playful fun, which provides a perfect confluence to these opening scenes.

When Peter learns that Fred works with their dad, he asks him to deliver a list as he would rather not see Mr. Scrooge. Fred agrees and at 3:54 we segue atop ominous strings into “The Revelation” when Fred admits that Mr. Scrooge is his uncle. As the boys gasp and run away, playful woodwinds carry their departure. As Fred walks to the store strings felice and bubbling woodwinds of delight carry his progress. When he reaches the store happiness subsides on a diminuendo as he enters and asks the hardworking Bob to wish him Merry Christmas. Fred asks for more coal on the fire and breaks out a bottle of port to warm them up. At 05:52 we segue into “Scrooge Arrives” atop dire strings as Bob raises his glass to toast and Mr. Scrouge arrives. He returns Fred’s greeting of Merry Christmas with a crotchety “Humbug!” Scrouge rages against Christmas and at 06:50 warm ethereal strings join as Fred explains the joy of Christmas, and the happiness it has brought him through the years. Scrooge is unmoved, rebuffs his invitation to dine with him tomorrow and meet his fiancé, and is impervious to Fred’s goodwill and pleasantries. At 08:48 Christmas warmth returns borne by strings and woodwinds as Fred bids Bob Merry Christmas and departs as two solicitors for charity enter.

At 9:02 we segue into “The Solicitation” as the two gentlemen introduce themselves to Bob and then Mr. Scrooge. Waxman supports with religious solemnity as Mr. Twill and Mr. Rummidge make their bid for charity to support those in need. At 10:15 strings irato surge and usher in a menacing Scrooge Theme as he coldly rebuffs and scolds them for wasting his time. Strings irato churn as Scrooge inhospitably shows them the door and shouts, “Humbug!” as a bass pizzicato carries him to his office. We close gently with comedy atop playful woodwinds as Bob looks up at the clock and takes a sip of Port. Later, the clock shows 5:30 pm as Scrooge exits his office and berates him for working overtime and then begrudgingly allows him to take Christmas off as he pays him his weekly wages. We close on Scrooges Theme borne by woodwinds tristi as he decides to keep the bottle of Port for himself. At 12:47 we segue into “The Ambush” atop churning strings, which carry Bob on his way home. As he passes a corner boys ambush him with a snowball barrage. It is all in good fun and Waxman supports with a delightful and playful musical narrative. Ashe explains to them how to make a perfect snowball, they alert him that a man with a topper hat approaches. Tremolo violins sow tension joined by plodding woodwinds as Scrooge approaches. Bob throws the snow ball and knocks of Scrooge’s hat and then realizes who he is. Scrooge is enraged, and contrite woodwinds descend as Bob runs up to Scrooge to apologize. Sardonic woodwinds support a worsening of his problem as a carriage rolls over and crushes Scrooge’s top hat. Stings tristi join as Scrooge sacks Bob from his job and storms off. We conclude with woodwinds of contrition as the boys apologize for getting him in trouble.

At 14:48 we segue into “Bob’s Sadness” as we see him walking home dejectedly carried by a dour marcia funebre. Yet at 15:03 a man ahead of him with a dangling goose strikes his funny bone, and the music brightens and become jovial as Bob begins to laugh and shouts out “Merry Christmas!” Bubbling woodwinds of happiness carry him to the butcher shop where he buys a goose. A musical narrative of happiness supports a montage of Bob buying all the trappings for a bountiful Christmas dinner and returns home. As he enters his wife kisses him, joined by his five kids all dancing with joy for the wonderful food they shall be eating. At 17:50 we segue into “Scrooge’s Disdain” atop the carol “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” sung diegetically by a children’s choir as Scrooge reviews his bank ledgers at a restaurant. As he walks past them on the street, he angrily slams their donation hat to the ground with disdain. At 18:46 we segue into “Marley” atop a dark resonance of strings and organ as he arrives home and a wolf doorknocker transforms into an image of his departed partner Marley. He is terrified, and closes the door as dire strings surge. A march by pizzicato strings, woodwinds of woe and ethereal Novachord carry him upstairs. At 19:27 the music darkens as he enters his bedroom and locks the door. A misterioso unfolds on Novachord as he lights another candle and the fireplace. He is clearly rattled and an eerie misterioso unfolds as he inspects the room, and checks under the bed. He changes and then all of a sudden, a cacophony of clock bells resounds, bringing him out of the bathroom. He is befuddled and then unnerved as silence returns.

At 21:20 we segue into “Marley’s Warning”, an exceptional score highlight, atop a piano crash as we see his chain bound apparition walk through the bedroom door. A dark musical narrative of woe and despair unfolds as he identifies himself as Jacob Marley, your partner. Scurrying violins and dark chords sow fear as Scrooge tries to take in what is happening. At 22:27 a crescendo dramatico commences as Scrooge alerts police passing by of an intruder and throws them the house key. Yet when they arrive, the crescendo dissipates as Marley is nowhere to be found, and they all mock Scrooge. After they depart at 23:51 the Novachord misterioso returns, as does Marley. He bears a warning, and slowly the music evolves into a narrative of menace and woe. At 25:15 strings affanato join as Marley relates his mistakes and misdeeds for which he now suffers. Slowly, the strings begin to warm revealing a kernel of hope as he entreats Scrooge to not follow in his footsteps. As he warns Scrooge that he but one chance to avoid his fate a misterioso arises at 26:21. A string surge and tolling bells support Marley advising him that he will be haunted by three spirits tonight, at 1:00, 2:00 and 3:00 o’clock. The music darkens as he departs out the window and he again portends the first visit at 1:00, supported by one bell chime, the second at 2:00, supported by two bell chimes, and the third at 3:00, supported by three bell chimes. As he vanishes Scrooge is left incredulous.

At 28:13 we segue into “Ghost of Christmas Past”, a score highlight, as the clock strikes one o’clock and his bed curtain is torn open. We behold an angelic young woman who says she comes for you who have forgotten gratitude, for your welfare and reclamation. Waxman bathes us in an ethereal, radiant, religioso splendor, which fully speaks to the beauty of the ghost. At 29:33 a radiant harp glissando supports the beautiful woman and Scrooge taking flight from his window. As they fly over London harp glissandi and an ethereal musical narrative supports. At 29:49 the music soars with magnificent propelled by violins brillante, with a graceful diminuendo taking them down to Scrooge’s boyhood school in the country. Yet joy is transformed into sadness as he yells to his boyhood friends and they do not respond, as the spirit informs him, they cannot see of hear them. As they walk to the school wistful woodwinds carry their progress. Scrooge sees himself as a boy left alone at the school, offering the sad excuse that his father though it best that he stays and study. As his friend Jack departs at 31:57, strings, so full of heartache inform us of how the young Scrooge really felt, descending into despair as he walks into the school and closes the door. The sad musical narrative continues atop oboe affanato as he weeps at the window. At 33:01 joy is borne by strings felice and bubbling woodwinds of delight as Scrooge’s little sister arrives unexpectantly. Happiness abounds as she informs him that father wants him to come home with her in the coach and celebrate Christmas with the family. At 33:39 strings full of familial love support the ghost and older Scrooge speaking of his little sister Fran’s love, and the one son she would later bear, Fred. As they depart a passeggiata maestoso carries their progress to Fezziwig’s Warehouse where he apprenticed. At 34:19 playful-comic woodwinds support the sight of his old friend Fezziwig. Descending strings of flight carry young Scrooge and Dick to Fezziwig’s desk, joined by playful woodwinds as he relates that he has worked them five minutes of overtime. He orders them to close up the shop and strings felice support their efforts. At 35:24 plodding woodwinds gentile support his invitation to join him for Christmas dinner. He gives each a gold sovereign coin and departs leaving the boys ecstatic. At 35:54 we return to old Scrooge and the ghost atop strings tristi as he realizes that Fezziwig was very kind to him. His theme joins for a warm statement that erupts in anger when she suggests he be kind to Bob Cratchit. She rebukes him for his enslavement to greed, ruthlessness, ingratitude and wretched thirst for gold. Strings irato surge with novachord dissonance as he screams “No more” and wakes up in his bed.

At 37:28 the clock strikes 2:00 o’clock and we segue into “Ghost of Christmas Present”, a score highlight. A novachord resonates a dissonant sustain and as he opens the bed curtains and sees a bearded, robed and portly man. Comic, waddling woodwinds support as he states he is the ghost of Christmas present and for Scrooge to join him. A playful musical narrative unfolds as he invites him to see sight of Christmas present. At 38:37 he says touch my robe and a harp glissando carries them into town where the see a bustling street. The ghost uses his magic horn to quell two fights and then signals at 40:15 as church bells ring, that they must go to church. Inside, a boy’s choir, Fred and his fiancé Bess, and other congregants sing the Christmas carol “O Come All Ye Faithful”. The ghost questions whether they really love each other and Scrooge insists they do. For the second stanza we see Bob Cratchit and his family singing. A chorus of church bells support people leaving the church. At 44:37 sliding strings of joy support Fred and Bess sliding and falling into a snow bank. Strings felice and prancing woodwinds of joy carry Bob’s run home with Tim on his shoulder. When scrooge asks if Tiny Tim will live at 44:57 the music grieves on strings tristi emoting the melody of “Sleep, my little prince, go to sleep” as the ghost says no if circumstances do not change, since he has no money or employment. He throws Scrooge’s own heartless words at him that his death would be good since it decreases the population. A warm promenade takes them to the Cratchit house where we they see through the window, their Christmas spirit and happiness as they eat their dinner. They then journey to Fred’s house where he, Bess and their friends also share happy times. At 53:35 Tom is blindfolded and they begin a game of blind man’s bluff, which Waxman supports with energetic merriment borne by flighty strings felice and bubbling woodwinds. The music slows and saddens as Scrooge protests when the ghost says they must depart. He throws Scrooge’s words that Christmas is for fools back at him and that he does not like Christmas. Violins of joy and happiness surge when Scrooge declares that he does love Christmas! At 54:23 we see Scrooge back in bed asleep with a montage of images of what the two ghosts had shown him. Waxman supports with a musical narrative abounding with joie de vie and ecstatic happiness.

At 54:46 the clock strikes three o’clock and we segue into “Ghost of Christmas Future”, another score highlight, where we see Scrooge standing in a windstorm. Waxman creates a swirling tempest, which spawns a dramatic string ascent joined at 55:01 by heraldic horns of death as we see the hooded Death himself approach. Pleading strings unfold as Scrooge affirms that he understands that the spirit is here to do me good, and that he hopes to be a better man from what he was. As they begin to walk, we swell on a crescendo dramatico. On the street they overhear men saying he died without friends and that no one will miss him. Scrooge is wounded and Waxman speaks to this with aching strings tristi. At 57:02 we shift to a bedroom with forlorn woodwinds and a pizzicato string pulse and novachord sustain. Scrooge is fearful and chooses not to lift the sheet up to reveal who lied beneath. At 57:30 Scrooge is taken to the Cratchit house where it is revealed that Tiny Tim has died. A musical narrative full of sadness, loss and longing supports the grieving family. As Bob arrives home and is greeted by kisses the music warms with familial love. He tells of his conversation with Fred, and his condolences to him and his wife for the loss of Tim. As he speaks of Tim the strings become wistful and full of longing, emoting the melody of “Sleep, my little Prince, go to sleep”. Yet familial warmth returns as his children gather round and he declares his happiness. Scrooge expresses his sorrow for Tim and then demands that he take him back to see the man he saw lying dead and the spirit agrees. At 1:00:19 they enter a grave yard carried by a funereal rendering of Scrooge’s Theme. The music swells and becomes pleading as he beseeches the spirit as to whether what he sees will be, or may be, stating if lives be changed, will not the ends be changed? At 1:10:04 and orchestral surge and gong strike supports the sight of a tombstone saying “Ebenezer Scrooge”, causing Scrooge to recoil in horror. The spirit points him to his grave, yet Scrooge refuses saying he will change his way of living and hold Christmas in his heart all year round. Waxman’s musical narrative brightens on resplendent ascending horns nobile and bathes us in religious auras of hope and forgiveness, ending with a crescendo brillante flourish.

Scrooge wakes in his bed, hits his chest to affirm he is alive and is filled with happiness. At 1:02:18 we segue atop a choir of church bells into “Merry Christmas”, a wondrous score highlight. A surge of orchestral happiness supports Scrooge opening his window and asking the boy below to buy the large turkey from the poulterer as he throws him his coin purse, promising a reward when he returns. Blissful strings and bubbling woodwinds animato full of delight support Scrooge’s happiness and goodwill. As the boy runs off and Scrooge begins to shave Waxman interpolates the melody from “Jeux d’Enfants”, which surges with unbridled happiness and joy. Waxman sustains the musical narrative of happiness as Scrooge departs with the turkey and stuns Mr. Twill and Mr. Rummidge on the street by wishing them Merry Christmas and promising to make a very generous donation to their charity. The happiness surges on an accelerando as Scrooge arrives at Fred’s house, where he informs the happy couple that he is making Fred a partner. At 1:05:58 sleighbells support his carriage arrival at the Cratchit residence with arms full of food and presents. He has great fun bestowing good cheer and presents to the joyous family. He then leads them in a toast at 1:08:26 saying; “To all of us everywhere, a Merry Christmas” supported by a heartwarming choral rendering of “Silent Night, Holy Night”, which brings the film to a perfect ending.

Waxman understood that the film offered a tale of Christmas, but also of redemption as we see Ebenezer Scrooge transformed from a cold, dour, crotchety old man devoid of compassion and empathy, to a loving, compassionate and happy man abounding with generosity and goodwill. Waxman’s music for Scrooge masterfully mirrored this transformation and ultimately endears him to us. His approach to scoring the film eschewed his usual practice of using leitmotifs, and instead he chose to express to the emotional dynamics of each scene. Joy, happiness, playfulness, as well as sadness, regret and despair all found voice and enriched the scenes to which they were attached, while the interpolation of Christmas carols created the joy and wonder of the holiday. As I watched the film, it was very clear that Waxman’s music enhanced the film’s storytelling in every way, which allowed Marin to realize his vision. I believe the joy, happiness and playfulness of Waxman’s score offer some of the finest passages in his canon. I consider the score one of the finest and highly recommend that you take in the film and witness the power of music to elevate a film.

Editor’s note: although there is no standalone commercial release of Waxman’s score for A Christmas Carol, 35 minutes of music from the score was included in the compilation album Captains Courageous: The Franz Waxman Collection, released by Intrada Records in 2017. Details are given below:

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to a wonderful 14-minute suite; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7gICT4Mlw4E

Buy the Christmas Carol soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (Felix Mendelsohn, arr. David Snell) (1:12)
  • Threadneedle Street/Fred and Bob (4:36)
  • Fred’s Speech (written by David Snell) (0:45)
  • Closing Time (0:32)
  • Bottle of Wine/Street Fight/The Goose Walk/Bob Comes Home (3:54)
  • God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen (traditional) (1:17)
  • Marley/Marley’s Ghost (3:19)
  • Marley is Back/Marley’s Warning (3:21)
  • First Spirit/Spirit’s Flight & Young Scrooge/Young Scrooge (5:21)
  • Before Awakening (written by David Snell) (0:44)
  • Magic Horn (1:26)
  • Montage/Third Spirit (2:26)
  • Tiny Tim (0:32)
  • Graveyard (1:29)
  • Christmas Morning (Georges Bizet, arr. Franz Waxman) (2:00)
  • End Title (Alternate) (written by David Snell) (0:49)

Running Time: 36 minutes 06 seconds

Intrada ISC-390 (1938/2017)

Music composed and conducted by Franz Waxman. Orchestrations by Leonid Raab. Additional music by David Snell. Score produced by Franz Waxman. Album produced by Douglass Fake.

  1. FilmFan94
    March 28, 2022 at 9:32 am

    A very well written review, as always, Mr. Lysy. However, I wish to correct you as far as the release status of this score. All the surviving tapes for this score (totaling over a half-hour’s worth of music) was released as part of Intrada’s magnificent Captains Courageous – The Franz Waxman Collection set (sadly now OOP).


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