For many there is really only one version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol; 1951’s Scrooge, affectionately known as the ‘Alastair Sim version’ and directed by Brian Desmond Hurst. In Britain there was already a longstanding tradition of renaming Dickens’ dark and brooding novel for stage and screen adaptations. But in America the tale had not been told on film since MGM’s 1938 frothy and featherweight adaptation starring Reginald Owen as the rather curmudgeonly skinflint Ebenezer Scrooge. In America the 1938 version was a resounding success. But in Britain it was frowned upon as something of a bastardization of Dickens’ original text – MGM’s zeal for ultra-glamor and its need to interject themes and vignettes not in the novel, ultimately interfering with Dickens decidedly more bleak authorship. Given A Christmas Carol’s box office success in 1938 it remains a minor curiosity that the story was not resurrected more often on the big screen in the United States.
Indeed, when Renown Picture’s 1951 version debuted on the other side of the Atlantic it was not well received by either critics or audiences. Yet, its reputation has steadily grown over the years, particularly with purists and Dickens aficionados. Viewing Scrooge today one is immediately dumbstruck by two impeccable aspects of its craftsmanship: first, and paramount is Alastair Sim’s sublimely poet and, at times, painfully dark regeneration of the misanthrope as the very embodiment of the Christmas spirit, and second, the gutsy verisimilitude in Noel Langley’s rich and evocative screenplay that not only parallels the bone-chilling darkness of Dickens classic but also mirrors some of the social angst befalling a postwar U.K.
One of Britain’s most admired farceurs, Alastair Sim had largely made his reputation playing loveable fops and delightfully obtuse wits who viewed the world ever so slightly askew. He was a master at the double take and the reaction shot – both serving him well in his varied and multi-layered portrait of the penny-pinching miser. In Sim’s Scrooge we have a curious, yet, not altogether immediate – although ever-present – tender sadness. For the first and possibly only time on film, an actor has made the serious attempt to analyze this character as more than just an embittered demigod who suffers a minor breakdown and major epiphany on the eve before Christmas Day. And Sim’s manages something greater than even this: a sort of fiery transformation that is so satisfyingly original, so utterly believable to life as well as true to Dickens himself, that he becomes not merely the definitive Ebenezer Scrooge but the essence of the universal fallen man, reborn into a new and perhaps brighter world. Such is the understated note of optimist interjected at the very end of the film: not nearly as celebratory as it remains enquiringly compunctious.
Scrooge was produced at the end of a golden period in British cinema. Only a few years prior to its release director David Lean had brought forth definitive versions of Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, each unapologetically extolling the darkness of Dickens original masterworks. But the renaissance in British culture was further sparked by a postwar exhibition that brought together the nation’s pride in both its heritage as well as future technologies. Viewed today, Scrooge saddles that juncture in the country’s 20th century evolution like a peepshow into two past histories. The first and most obvious is Dickens 1843 reality: bleak and interminably expressionist with its gothic trappings and stark reflections of an imperfect and socially unjust world, where its caustic protagonist, Ebenezer Scrooge can refer with a straight face to the filth-ridden workhouses and abominable prison conditions as plausible refuges for the poor.
But Scrooge is also a contemplation on Britain’s place in the world after the war; its social commentary on the welfare state and its utterly terrifying depiction of ‘ignorance’ and ‘want’ as two of mankind’s own self-destructive children (hidden beneath the elegant robes of the ghost of Christmas Present) foreshadowing the rights and freedoms being contested in Britain’s House of Parliament at that time, the same year the conservatives defeated the labor party to gain control of government and make sweeping reforms that set the country’s path onto a decidedly different course.
Noel Langley’s screenplay does an incredible job of marrying these varied ruminations into a cohesive and remarkably faithful adaptation of its source material. Yet, Langley too indulges in some minor creative license, tampering with Dickens text to expand the role of the charwoman and also interject a completely new character, Mr. Jorkin (played with inimitable aplomb by Jack Warner) into the proceedings to provide a briefly psychoanalytic cohesion into Scrooge’s backstory. Yet, these alterations do not dampened the mood or even dilute the impact of the story. On the contrary, they only serve to enhance it.
We first meet Ebenezer Scrooge (Alastair Sim) as he is leaving the London stock exchange on a frigid Christmas Eve. The wicked old gargoyle is already in a foul mood as he admonishes a homeless man on its steps, trudging with heavy feet and even heavier heart down some decidedly dark and very isolated city streets, past a trio of carolers whom he pushes aside. Arriving at his office Scrooge is confronted by a pair of collectors for the poor (Noel Howlett and Fred Johnson). He instructs both men that if the poor require help let them look to the prison wards and workhouses for their sustenance and survival. They shall receive no philanthropy from him.
Scrooge’s nephew Fred (Brian Worth) arrives, warmly greeting his uncle’s put upon accountant, Bob Cratchit (Melvyn Johns) before hurrying into Scrooge’s office to invite him over for Christmas dinner. Scrooge rejects the invitation outright but harbors a deeper resentment toward Fred, whom he speciously blames for the death of his beloved sister, Fan (Carol Marsh) because she died giving birth to him. From this rather dreary debut we segue to a moment of pure joy as Cratchit’s youngest child, Tiny Tim (Glyn Dearman) ogles a sumptuous store display of Victoriana animated toys. His sheer delight is momentarily dampened as the shopkeeper removes a large sailboat from the window; a gift Tim might have enjoyed for his own if only the Cratchits were not so damn poor. Regardless of their relative poverty or his crippling polio, Tim is a resilient boy, imbued with positivism for the immediate future – the modest Christmas feast and all too brief time to be spent with his father.
After discharging Bob for the evening, Scrooge retires to his home. He is greeted by a strange hallucination; a disembodied head dangling before his door knocker. Scrooge is next visited by the ghost of his dead partner, Jacob Marley (Michael Hordern) – perhaps, the most ghastly spirit of the evening. For in his chains and heavy padlocks, his head bundled in a tired old rag, Marley forewarns of a terrible end for Scrooge, shrieking in painful anguish. He reveals to his old partner a purgatory brimming with phantoms that, in life, were unable to do the necessary good to save them from their fateful eternal suffrage. Yet Scrooge is unmoved by Marley’s pleas and thus Marley commissions the arrival of three spirits to illustrate the error of Scrooge’s ways for him in more concrete ways.
The first, The Spirit of Christmas Past (Michael Dolan) takes Scrooge (now played by George Cole) back to his youth; exiled inside a private school because his own father had blamed him for the death of his wife during childbirth. Fan finagles a truce between Ebenezer and his father, resulting on one of the merriest celebrations Scrooge can recollect. But the divine escapism of these hours is short lived indeed. We move onto a doomed courtship; Scrooge ultimately bungling his one chance at romantic happiness with the pure of heart, Alice (Rona Anderson). Instead, he is lured away, along with Marley (played in youth by Patric McNee) from his benevolent employer, Mr. Fezziwig (Roddy Hughes) into the service of the more spurious embezzler, Mr. Jorkin (Jack Warner). Here too, screenwriter Langley is intent on extolling by comparison the Britain of days gone by with its then present; Fezziwig’s honest independent small business owner no match for the march of progress, depicted as corrupting influence by Jorkin.
With the arrival of The Spirit of Christmas Present (Francis de Wolff) Scrooge is introduced to the way his current age celebrates the holidays. We are shown glimpses of Fred and his wife (Olga Edwardes) entertaining an assemblage of dear friends, sharing a laugh at Ebenezer’s expense. A more humble pilgrimage is made to the Cratchit’s abode where Scrooge is startled to discover the true meaning of Christmas thriving, despite obvious hardships the family face. But the Spirit of Christmas Present has a more ominous message for Scrooge, revealing to him ‘ignorance’ and ‘want’; the perils of mankind trapped in the embodiment of two blind and emaciated children hidden beneath his robes.
Haunted by this vision, Scrooge is confronted by the Spirit of Christmas Yet To Come (C. Konarksi); a ghostly apparition cloaked in grim reaper’s attire, pointing its bony finger toward the graveyard where a headstone with Scrooge’s name has already been prepared in the frozen ground. Scrooge pleads with the spirit to show him no more and, having been brought to his knees with this final and very concrete understanding, awakens safe in his bed at the dawn. Hurrying into the streets, Scrooge rejoices at the opportunity to illustrate his reformation to those he has wronged, including Bob Cratchit and his family and his nephew Fred, whom he pleasantly startles with his arrival for Christmas dinner. Scrooge’s heart has experienced a most miraculous conversion, one that will presumably satisfy the spirits and alter that future shown to him.
Scrooge (a.k.a. A Christmas Carol) is a very sobering melodrama that owes much more to the gothic novel or American film noir than the traditional lighter than air fare usually associated with the Christmas holidays. C.M. Pennington-Richards’ stark cinematography evokes the bleakness of Dickens to a tee; only flashing us several welcomed moments of lightness that act as a visual counterbalance, but also heighten the overall reality of Scrooge’s world by comparison and contrast. In Britain, Scrooge garnered immediate critical praise and was a well-received by its audience.
But in America it was unduly and unfairly criticized; denied from having its premiere at Radio City Music Hall, despite a lucrative overseas distribution deal with United Artists, precisely for its overriding dreariness and relatively downtrodden narrative. In truth, Scrooge is a mostly desolate exercise – but so fascinatingly true to Dickens that one cannot help but admire its meticulous craftsmanship. Leonard Maltin perhaps said it best when he declared that Scrooge is a film “too good to be shown only at Christmastime.” Indeed, removed from its holiday trappings Scrooge is an exceptionally powerful piece of film making, with most of the plaudits rightfully going to Alastair Sim’s towering achievement.
Sim is Scrooge, in all his unrepentant austerity, brought to heel at the strength of sentiment and his own destiny. We can believe in Scrooge’s conversion, not so much for what he has experienced through the visitation by these three spirits, but because of the generous bounty of conflicting emotions Sim reveals throughout his performance, sometimes for only a moment or two, but for which there never has been, and arguably never will be another to equal it. In the final analysis, Scrooge succeeds not as the traditional ‘feel good’ holiday film, but as a morality play of timeless and universal appeal; its lessons hard taught and even harder learnt by a mostly unapologetic man made to rediscover his own humanity.
VCI Home Entertainment has re-released Scrooge on Blu-ray for its 60th Anniversary in 2011. Previously the company put out an ‘emerald edition’ DVD and Blu-ray that left much to be desired. But the 60th Anniversary yields a gorgeous 1080p transfer, mostly crisp and with a startling amount of clarity and fine detail throughout. The gray scale is beautifully rendered with exceptional tonality. Fine details pop and film grain is very accurately reproduced. On occasion, the image becomes slightly soft, mostly during SFX shots where the ghostly apparitions appear as transparencies against solid backgrounds. This, however, is negligible and mostly forgivable. We also get a minute hint of edge enhancement. It’s not terribly distracting, but it’s there and shouldn’t be! The audio is mono and presented at an acceptable listening level.
VCI has packed this disc with extras: several extensive featurettes chronicling the gestation, history, and making of the movie; a brief retrospective on Alastair Sim’s career, an in-depth critique with historian Christopher Fraeling, an audio commentary and trailers to boot. Truly, a joyous stocking stuffer for the holidays. One pet peeve: VCI precedes this presentation with an interminably long preview of other titles available from them that CANNOT be fast forwarded or skipped. Dumb and annoying! Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)