When Love Is Gone
The Story Behind Disney’s Horrible Decision to Cut The Emotional Heart Out of The Muppet Christmas Carol
Jim Henson died, tragically and far too soon, on May 16, 1990.
He was fifty-three and about to achieve his childhood dream of being a creator for the Disney dream factory. In the year before his death, Henson had finalized a deal with Disney where The Muppets would move under the Disney banner, and he would steward the transition for 15 years.
The partnership with Disney was meant to include television shows (like The Jim Henson Hour, the last TV project he worked on), more high concept movies like Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal, and a long-term home for his most beloved creation: The Muppets.
All of that was up in the air after Henson died, suddenly and unexpectedly, from a bacterial infection at age 53.
Jim’s son Brian now at the helm, Henson Studios decided their first partnership with Disney should be one that was built atop a familiar story, and should allow a human actor, rather than a Kermit with an unfamiliar voice, to take the lead.
Jerry Juhl wrote the screenplay. Frank Oz, already an experienced feature filmmaker at this point, produced. Brian Henson took over for his father in the director’s chair, and one of his first and most significant decisions was to hire Paul Williams as songwriter.
You may not know Paul Williams by name, but you know his work. He wrote “We’ve Only Just Begun,” and “Rainy Days and Mondays” for The Carpenters. He wrote “Fill Your Heart” for David Bowie. He wrote “Evergreen” for Barbara Streisand. He wrote the Theme For The Love Boat!
He also did the music for the first Muppet Movie. Yes, this is the man who created “The Rainbow Connection,” and in this high pressure moment, a make-or-break movie for the family and friends Jim Henson left behind, who now had to prove The Muppets could go on without their creator, Brian Henson called Paul Williams and asked him to work his magic for the Muppets one more time.
Williams didn’t disappoint. The songs in The Muppet Christmas Carol strike the perfect balance between silly and somber. They create character, they advance the plot, and they bring life to the film. The opening number allows a chorus of Muppets all over a Muppefied London to sing to us about Scrooge. “Oh, there goes Mr. Humbug, There goes Mister Grim…” When the pivotal moment comes to introduce a new Kermit to the world, they do it in song, with a touching tune about the magic of Christmas Eve called, “One More Sleep Til Christmas.”
Paul Williams wrote a fun tune for Dr. Teeth and The Electric Mayhem to play at the party hosted by “Fozzywig.” He gave Tiny Tim a ballad. He gave Scrooge a feel-good number in the movie’s finale.
But Williams’s best work in the film by far, his Rainbow Connection for a new Muppet era, was the ballad that sings us through the most pivotal scene in the story. It was a perfect moment in a film that was turning out exactly as Brian Henson wanted it to be, a film where the Muppets provided the setting for a great actor’s performance of one of the most iconic roles in literature.
“That which promised happiness when we were one in heart is fraught with misery now that we are two.”
Stave II of A Christmas Carol by Dickens is the visit from the Ghost of Christmas Past. The ghost takes Scrooge to his youth, to his employment for the joyful Fezziwig, to the time he fell in love with Belle, to the time she ended their engagement because Scrooge’s love of money had changed him.
“Another idol has displaced me; and if it can cheer and comfort you in time to come, as I would have tried to do, I have no just cause to grieve,” Belle said to Scrooge.
“What Idol has displaced you?” Scrooge rejoined.
“A golden one.”
A Christmas Carol is a tightly written story, one where every scene matters, but no scene in the story matters more than this one. Belle’s rejection of Scrooge was the defining moment of his life. She loved him once, but his desire for money changed him, and she loves him no more.
This moment, the moment when Belle ends their engagement, is not only the primary source of Scrooge’s bitterness, it is also Scrooge’s last chance to avoid the dreadful path he’s taken, and he squanders it.
He was about to speak; but with her head turned from him, she resumed.
One line. One subtle line, a moment of opportunity lost. Speak, Scrooge! Fight for your love! Let her know you’ll change!
An old and bitter Scrooge looks on as a young Scrooge lets the moment pass with nothing said.
“May you be happy in the life you have chosen,” Belle says to him.
It’s no surprise that this moment, the emotional heart of the story, is the moment where Paul Williams came through the most. To capture the intensity of this scene for The Muppet Christmas Carol, Williams wrote a ballad titled, “When Love Is Gone.”
The song is built on an arresting melody, really a perfect melody for this moment in the story. It’s a song of beautiful sadness. It is Belle singing that she wished it were different, but she recognizes reality. It is Belle being stoic and brave, doing what she has to do, even though it breaks her heart to do so.
Sometimes, love is gone.
It’s right after the second chorus that “When Love Is Gone” creates a moment of pure movie magic.
Young Scrooge has let Belle walk away, but old Scrooge, looking on and hidden in his ghostly shadow, steps behind her, and sings along with a verse about how close his life came to happiness, and how tragic it is that he let it go.
It was almost love
It was almost always
It was like a fairytale we’d live out
You and I
And yes some dreams come true
And yes some dreams fall through
And yes the time has come for us to say goodbye
There are no Muppets on the screen. This is Michael Caine’s scene to carry. He breaks down in tears and can’t finish the verse. It’s a profound moment of change in Scrooge’s life, and it works because it resonates with the audience so deeply. Beautiful music, beautifully sung, matched with story, and great acting…this is the emotional heart of the movie.
And Disney cut the whole song from the final print.
It was Jeffrey Katzenberg who made the decision. He viewed a ballad sung entirely by humans, requiring a few minutes with no Muppets on the screen, as too much downtime in a movie for families with children.
He held firm against the protestations of Brian Henson and everyone involved. Henson was furious, and told both Paul Williams and Meredith Braun (who played Belle) that he had nothing to do with this choice, he didn’t like this choice, and he was sorry he couldn’t stop it from happening.
Henson knew better. The cut of the movie the way it is meant to be seen, with “When Love Is Gone” at its center, is a great movie, one that surprises with its emotional resonance.
The cut of the movie without “When Love is Gone” is bland and clearly missing something.
Today, The Muppet Christmas Carol is rightly viewed as a successful film that proved that Brian Henson, Frank Oz, Steve Whitmire, Jerry Juhl, and the rest could carry Jim Henson’s legacy forward. It regularly makes Greatest Christmas Movies of All-Time lists and may be the most popular adaptation of the Dickens classic.
It wasn’t always headed for this fate.
The Muppet Christmas Carol received lukewarm reviews during its theatrical run in 1992. It underperformed Disney’s expectations and got lost in a Christmas season that saw the release of both Aladdin and Home Alone 2.
It wasn’t until the VHS release that this movie began to find its audience, and the initial VHS release had one crucial difference from the theatrical release. The first VHS release of The Muppet Christmas Carol put “When Love Is Gone” back into the movie.
We forget that, in the 90s, movies could have a lengthy afterlife once the theatrical run was complete. We forget that, in the old world where VHS sales (and later, DVD sales) were just as much of a profit driver as ticket sales, that a movie could flop at the box office only to be reborn in the at-home market. This was a time when the average American family went to Blockbuster every weekend, when a movie like Shawshank Redemption could bomb in theaters only to become one of the most revered movies ever after people rented the tape.
The Muppet Christmas Carol was the same.
Brian Henson demanded that “When Love Is Gone” be re-added to the VHS release, it was, and The Muppet Christmas Carol became a sales juggernaut in the at-home market.
How could it not? Once you put that song back in, everyone loves the movie.
The story should end here. The success of the VHS release saved the Muppet franchise following an uncertain first outing after Jim’s death. The Muppet came roaring back. The Muppet Christmas Carol took its place in history. The end, right?
Sadly, Disney was unable to keep hold of the happy ending that fell into its lap.
Today, if you buy a new Blu-Ray or DVD version of the movie, the song is gone once again. Same for the people who watched the movie during its run on Netflix. If you see The Muppet Christmas Carol come on television this holiday season, know that you’ll be watching the truncated, highly inferior version with the central moment of the movie excised.
Why did they revert to the wrong version?
Because the right version is missing.
Yes, somewhere in some Disney warehouse, some original print of the film is hiding on some shelf, and until it’s found, there will be no new release of the film as it’s meant to be seen.
Here’s Brian Henson, quoted recently in a piece on Digital Spy, on the debacle:
“‘When Love Is Gone’ was not in the theatrical release, and is presently missing from the movie, which is a real shame. It was on the VHS release. I just remastered the film. I remastered it 2 years ago, and Disney has lost the film… I think they will find it because I keep reminding them, ‘You’ve got to go find it’.”
Fortunately for us, the Internet remembers the original VHS release. When the wrong version of The Muppet Christmas Carol ran on Netflix, millions of die-hard fans used Youtube to turn it into the right version. They paused the movie where the abominable cut took place, brought up the song on Youtube, and experienced some movie magic that Disney, in one of the most baffling decisions in cinema history, has now denied to its audience not once, but twice.
I invite you now to experience this scene. For those who thought they had seen the movie, but have never seen this greatest of all “deleted scenes,” or those who simply want to revisit a brilliant song from the writer of “The Rainbow Connection,” here is “When Love Is Gone” from The Muppet Christmas Carol.