Sunday, November 6, 2016

A CHRISTMAS CAROL: Blu-ray (MGM 1938) Warner Home Video

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has been filmed too many times; the various cinematic permutations on this timeless tale of the redemptive quality of Christianity’s most sacred holiday, given over to a litany of fairly rich and vibrant impressions and some truly awful adaptations along the way. None, however, are quite as disappointing as MGM’s 1938 rendering, directed by Edwin L. Marin. It took six weeks for Dickens to pen this perennially revived magnum opus and a scant 69 minutes for Hugo Butler’s badly mangled screenplay to insincerely rush us through a series of vignettes even more episodic than as depicted in the novella. I confess a bias to never having been much of a fan of this immortal classic. I prefer A Tale of Two Cities or Oliver Twist to A Christmas Carol. However, without Dickens own ingeniousness for linking passages all Marin can think to do is periodically fade to black, Butler’s prose departing from Dickens too, and not in ways that improve on his greatness either. The narrative here is, at best, weak; a very clunky, clumsily edited and not terribly engaging motion picture. It comes to life in only the briefest of fits and sparks and, even then, mostly from the infusion of easily recognizable faces; their dumb show tragically less than convincing because they have precious little to say and even less treasurable time to say it with any genuine conviction.
It’s disheartening because MGM has afforded this Christmas Carol its usually exquisite production values; Edwin B. Willis’ art direction (cribbing from sets and costumes created for MGM’s immaculate 1935 adaptation of another Dickens’ masterpiece – David Copperfield); Cedric Gibbon’s production design, and a superb cast, headlined by Reginald Owen as the perpetually scowled Ebenezer Scrooge; an angelic Ann Rutherford as the Spirit of Christmas Past, Lionel Braham as the quintessence of The Spirit of Christmas Present, Terry Kilburn (an infallible Tiny Tim), Gene Lockhart (Bob Cratchit), Forrester Harvey (Old Fezziwig), Barry Mckay (Scrooge’s nephew, Fred), Lynne Carver (his betrothed, Bess) and finally, Leo G. Carroll as a thoroughly spooky, Jacob Marley’s ghost. Fair enough, Owen’s Scrooge cannot hold a candle to Alistair Sim in the 1951 British-made classic; renamed ‘Scrooge’. In fact, the Brits were fairly outraged upon viewing MGM’s version. Their contempt, however, did not spill over to this side of the pond where A Christmas Carol was a great commercial success and endured with some repute for decades and innumerable reissues to follow. Yet, the British-ness of the production is entirely superficial herein. A Christmas Carol has the look of a sumptuous period picture, but lacks its intuitive appeal and air of authenticity.
No, the fault of this Christmas Carol is decidedly not in its stars, but in the way director, Marin has managed to bungle nearly every opportunity to utilize the megawatt collective thespian prowess rechanneled as anything more or less satisfying than a veritable claptrap of snippets and sound bites. Interminably, Marin takes not only the hallmarks of Dickens’ enduring reputation – and that of the novella’s stunning success, but also the scantiness of a 69 minute feature and transforms both into a rank exercise in abject tedium. He also takes too many liberties with the original text, concocting vignettes while excising whole portions of the original text. The great tragedy of this Carol is it starts off quite strong, particularly as Leo G. Carroll’s Marley is every bit as frightful and haunting; Scrooge’s shuddered and creaky old manor house exemplified as the purgatory of its unscrupulous miser; redressed from MGM’s 1935 Anna Karenina. Carroll, a superb actor, is ominous and commanding as Scrooge’s forsaken former business partner, destined to stalk the netherworld between heaven and hell for all embittered eternity, dragging and rattling his chains behind him.
Worse, is the transient pointlessness to these visitations by the three Spirits in this Carol – the ghost of Christmas Past, as example, barely able to illustrate for Scrooge a glimmer of his lonely youth, ushered away at a private school and denied the joys of familial warmth at Christmas by his estranged father. We also catch a fleeting glimpse of old Fezziwig; the kindly gent and employer who treated Scrooge benevolently as his surrogate son. Missing from this sojourn is the novella’s lavish house party given by Fezziwig, and, Scrooge’s devotion to Fan (an ebullient Ira Stevens, barely seen); his beloved and ever-devoted sister who died in childbirth. Butler’s screenplay does not even mention Belle, Scrooge’s fiancée whom Ebenezer forsakes as he greedily pursues the love of wealth instead. What we are left with is one hurried night flight amidst rear-projected clouds, done with noticeable wires suspending our two stars, and some fairly transparent stock model shots.
The second spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Present, is as mixed a bag of blessings; Lionel Braham, lusty and enthusiastic, but given precious little to do in this rehash. In the novella Scrooge, who has declared Christmas a humbug, is shown the importance of the holiday on the collective mindset of humanity, witnessing various townsfolk reveling in their shopping experiences at market while the joys of the season continue to elude him. The movie jettisons this montage of revelry; scurrying with some urgency to Fred’s Christmas party instead. Far from the bright and bouncy occasion depicted in the novella, the filmic Fred is seen surrounded by close friends and his fiancée, Bess; the brood addressing the plight of Ebenezer. While the novella’s Fred does indeed discuss his uncle at the party with equal portions of empathy and pity, without the merriment to bookend the exercise on celluloid, the cinematic gathering takes on the flavoring of a psychoanalytic ‘wake’ and deconstruction of Scrooge’s barren soul.  After all, it’s Christmas. Don’t they have more pleasurable joys to pursue? The spirit now takes Scrooge to Bob Cratchit’s humble abode where he witnesses the impoverished family nevertheless imbued with the truest spirit of Christmas. Tiny Tim is quite ill, but teeming with excitement; the spirit informing Scrooge the boy has not long to live if his present course of illness is not intervened upon with the necessary medical treatment and care. Once again, director Marin cuts what ought to have been one of the movie’s most haunting vignettes from the film; the spirit revealing two destitute children beneath his lavish, fur-lined robe. Labeled Ignorance and Want; the spirit of the novel forewarns Scrooge of the perils of each, repeating his own words back to him, “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?” It should be pointed out that the infinitely superior 1951 film version, directed by Brian Desmond Hurst and starring the quintessential Scrooge (Alastair Sim) retains this blood-curdling moment to exemplary effect.
Predictably, the Ghost of Christmases Yet to Come arrives last; a hooded, threatening figure on the windswept moors, looming with skeletal fingers to direct Scrooge to the Cratchit household one year later; the family still gathered around the hearth, only now mourning the passing of Tiny Tim. The novella is fairly deliberate in illustrating the death of a ‘wretched man’ whom we quickly learn is Ebenezer. Only businessmen attend his funeral, and even then, simply because a luncheon has been provided. From here, the novella illustrates Scrooge’s indentured servants raiding his bedroom while his corpse still lays undisturbed in bed; collecting what treasures they can to sell off. None of this appears in the final vignette in the film; the ghost merely ushering Scrooge to a neglected tombstone inscribed with his name. The 1970 musicalized version of A Christmas Carol (also renamed Scrooge and starring Albert Finney) has Ebenezer struggle with this last spirit, revealing its skeletal remains beneath the weighty black robes; Scrooge tumbling through the ground in terror into the bowels of hell where he is reunited with Jacob Marley, directing several devil’s to sheath Ebenezer in heavy chains.
The epiphany suffered by Scrooge in virtually all of the many other incarnations is inevitably more fully realized than herein. In fact, Reginald Owen’s Scrooge begins to experience a miraculous conversion almost from the moment he is terrorized by Marley in his bed chamber; certainly, by the time he has been introduced to the Spirit of Christmas Past, and definitely in the shadow of Christmas Present. Owen’s lack of sour cider and vinegar coursing through his veins, except during the first brief spate of scenes inside his miserly shop, is an incalculable misfire from which his characterization never recovers. Owen is impeccably bitter as he admonishes Fred for his benevolent good cheer and orders the charitable collectors out without a donation. But once he arrives at his dimly lit abode he becomes a bumbler of sorts; just a fool about to get his justly deserved comeuppances, cringing from the sidelines and willing to rethink his supposedly dyed in the wool corruption of Christmas as the proverbial humbug. Like every other vignette in this adaptation; Scrooge’s penultimate revelation - to keep Christmas in his heart year round - is vastly truncated. We see him skulking about as though he were a sort of peg-legged hermit; grinning ridiculously from ear to ear. Is it any wonder Fred or Bob Cratchit should think him mad after their first sight of this newly reformed Scrooge; dancing about with bags of plum pudding, toys and a Christmas turkey to boot; shouting jovial blessings for a very Merry Christmas, and pledging his time, efforts and – most important and startling of all – his monies to the service of his newly reinstated partner, and the nephew he now intends should inherit the business after his inevitable demise.
A Christmas Carol ought to have yielded more treasures than this. Again, the actors are whitewashed into stereotypes; particularly Gene Lockhart’s effete and Humpty-Dumpty-ish naïve and his deliciously silly wife, Martha (Bunny Beatty).  Despite its A-list trappings, the film plays very much like a rushed – and severely botched – B-unit serial. Even its meager run time – 69 scant minutes of mostly joyless wonderment – suggests, perhaps, MGM was marketing its Carol as part of a double bill, rather than its own stand-alone holiday release. In preparing this review – like all others, I admit to doing a little fine-tuning and homework regarding the general and popular consensus among critics. Generally, I like to get a feel for such things. But I remain frankly unconvinced by the collective argument this Christmas Carol is second only to the 1951 offering. If we are to contextualize it as such then, by all means, label it an extremely distance ‘second’ in a queue with most any other version labeled 1B, 2B and so on! All prejudices aside, I was singularly unimpressed by MGM’s A Christmas Carol; particularly in the shadow of my reviewing the 1970 – and, more directly 1951 – screen adaptations: also, because it is an MGM film, and, from a period when more impeccable craftsmanship abounded in spades on the back lot. The apples to oranges comparisons really are embarrassing, though unequivocally serve as a twofold reminder; first, that not even the lyrical artistry of a William Shakespeare – or, in this case, Charles Dickens is infallible, and second; even with peerless material at its disposal, the cinema screen is quite capable of regressing the proverbial ‘silk purse’ back into a ‘sow’s ear’.
Nothing shoddy about Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray – a marked improvement over its lackluster, edge enhancement and artifact-riddled DVD from 2002. Wow! What an improvement! For starters, the B&W elements exhibit a cleaned-up and layered visual refinement that belies the film’s 70+ years. For the first time we see fine details in hair, clothing and background detail; the evocation of Victorian England far more impressive than I remembered. Film grain is very natural and the old problematic issues of shimmer, dirt and other age-related and digitally imposed anomalies have been completely eradicated for a decidedly pleasing and generally smooth visual presentation. Yes, the process shots are still wanting. The visitation by Marley and Scrooge’s flight with the Spirit of Christmas Past are quietly marred by the forgivable shortcomings and sins of matte process work of yore. It is unlikely more could have been done to improve the clarity and/or sharpness of these vintage and quaint SFX. But contrast is solid and black levels astound. The audio is a lossless DTS mono. Extras are limited to the same bunch included on the old DVD and in just as squalid a condition; 480i. Lousy! What is the point (except, economical) of extras presented in a quality – or lack thereof – that makes them virtually unpleasant to view? Bottom line: if you love A Christmas Carol – and this version in particular – then the Blu-ray wins as the preferred home video presentation.  It looks great.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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