A CHRISTMAS CAROL [aka SCROOGE] (1951)
There have been several movie versions of Charles Dickens’ classic story A Christmas Carol. Among them are a traditional 1938 MGM version, the musical Scrooge (1970) starring Albert Finney and the modern-day Americanized Scrooged (1988) starring comic actor Bill Murray. For me the best movie version remains the British-made A Christmas Carol (1951) starring Alastair Sim. Why do I feel it is the best? First, the Victorian-era British setting is best re-created by Britons already steeped in the history of time and place. Second, the casting is perfect down to the smallest roles. Third, screenwriter Noel Langley (Ivanhoe, The Pickwick Papers, Knights of the Round Table) adapted Dickens faithfully, retaining most of Dickens’ original dialogue. Fourth, the moody atmospheric lighting and practical camera effects by cinematographer C. Pennington-Richards never let the viewer forget that A Christmas Carol is a supernatural ghost story. Fifth, the original score by Richard Addinsell, which incorporates traditional English folk songs and carols, supports the underlying emotions of the characters in every scene.
Most importantly, what makes the 1951 film work so well is the casting of versatile character actor Alastair Sim as Scrooge. With A Christmas Carol Sim had the rare opportunity of running the gamut of emotions. The role requires that Scrooge be believable as a miserly misanthrope at the beginning of the story. When the spirits of his deceased partner Jacob Marley and the Ghost of Christmas Past visit, he must transition from abject fear to nostalgia for his idealistic youth to a profound sense of loss. When the ghosts of Christmas Present and Christmas Yet to Come give him a tour of his current life and possible death, Scrooge must undergo a total change of heart and become a generous soul hardly recognizable to those who know him. Alastair Sim clearly understands the character’s journey. He uses his expressive face, voice and physicality to create a fully dimensional character.
The cast is full of wonderful character actors, some of whom would achieve greater fame in later productions. Mervyn Johns, so excellent in the omnibus British horror film Dead of Night (1945), portrays Scrooge’s put-upon employee Bob Cratchit. Hermione Baddeley (Brighton Rock, Ealing Studios’ Passport to Pimlico and Mary Poppins) lends sympathetic support as Mrs. Cratchit while young Glyn Dearman gives a natural understated performance as the sickly Tiny Tim. George Cole, a young actor mentored by Alastair Sim himself, believably plays the younger Scrooge as a romantic fellow later scarred and embittered by the death of his beloved sister. Michael Hordern appears as Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s early business partner who, on his deathbed, attempts to warn Scrooge against the uncharitable and miserly ways they share. Playing the young version of Marley is Patrick Macnee, later to gain fame as John Steed to Diana Rigg’s Emma Peel in the hit 1960s television series The Avengers. Carol Marsh as young Scrooge’s doting sister Fan later appeared as Lucy in the Hammer Film version of Dracula (1958) [aka Horror of Dracula]. Ernest Thesiger, memorable as Dr. Pretorius in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), depicts a vulture-like undertaker eagerly awaiting Marley’s demise. The unforgettable visage of character actor Miles Malleson appears in the small role of Old Joe, a rag and bone man who would profit by selling Scrooge’s effects after his death. Peter Bull, later to play a Russian ambassador in Dr. Strangelove (1964), has a small role as an unnamed business acquaintance of Scrooge and also serves as the opening and closing narrator.
Director Brian Desmond Hurst and his collaborators took care to establish that A Christmas Carol is a ghost story. The shadowy interiors and frightening score add to the effect. Marley’s ghost lets out a blood-curdling shriek in frustration with Scrooge. He also reveals to Scrooge a nighttime tableau of a shivering mother and infant huddling outside surrounded by a powerless lamenting horde reminiscent of a Hieronymous Bosch painting. One of the most indelible images occurs when the Ghost of Christmas Present opens his robe to reveal two emaciated children with shockingly desperate stares who represent “ignorance” and “want.”
A balance to Scrooge’s miserly life and frightening ghostly visitations is the portrait of Bob Cratchit’s poor yet loving wife and children. In a standout wordless scene Tiny Tim happily gazes at toys in a shop window (all genuine Victorian-era playthings, some mechanical). Richard Addinsell’s “Tiny Tim theme” underscores the boy’s childhood innocence. Tim’s moment of joy is broken when a model sailing ship he has his eye on is bought and removed from display.
Although the Alastair Sim version is well regarded today, this was not always the case. The American distributor of the movie had hoped to have it open at Radio City Music Hall for the Christmas season of 1951. But the theater’s management felt that the film’s tone was too dark and the British cast too unknown for American audiences. So the movie opened at a smaller art house cinema instead. The movie sank into obscurity in the U.S. until, like Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), it fell into public domain. As a result it played on local TV stations throughout the country. Although the prints were often faded, scratched and missing frames, American audiences recognized the excellence of the movie and its reputation grew.
Blu-ray/DVD company VCI should be commended for keeping A Christmas Carol’s legacy alive through the VHS, DVD and Blu-ray eras. Over the years the company continued to improve the picture and sound quality. The latest Blu-ray edition (2011) is taken from the original negative and fine grain elements. There is also the option of hearing the original mono sound mix or a 5.1 mix with dialogue in the center with music in all channels and some sound effects placed in surround channels.
Trivia: Editor Clive Donner, who later became a film director (What’s New Pussycat, 1965), made a television version of A Christmas Carol (1984) starring George C. Scott as Scrooge.
Actor Glyn Dearman (Tiny Tim) later became a producer for BBC radio where he mounted a radio play production of A Christmas Carol.
Actors Mervyn Johns and Miles Malleson both appeared in Dead of Night (1945).
Blu-ray/DVD Combo Extras:
On the Blu-ray disc:
- Introduction by scholar/film critic Leonard Maltin (5:02)
- Audio commentary by film documentarian Marcus Hearn and actor George Cole (Young Scrooge)
- Mono mix or optional 5.1 mix (dialogue in front with music & some effects in surround channels)
- Optional English or Spanish subtitles
- “Dead to Begin With: The Darker Side of a Classic” with British critic Sir Christopher Frayling discussing such topics as how post WWII Britons dealing with destruction and continued rationing could relate to the conditions of the poor in Victorian England (26:31)
- “Scrooge by Another Name: Distributing A Christmas Carol” with U.S. distributor Richard Gordon (9:47)
- “The Human Blarney Stone: Life and Films of Brian Desmond Hurst” with Allan Esler Smith, great-great nephew and biographer of Hurst (41:14)
- “Alastair Sim Version: Too Good to be Shown only at Christmastime” by Fred Guida, author of “A Christmas Carol and Its Adaptations” (32:26)
- Clip from the silent film Scrooge (10:17)
- Clip from the silent film Bleak House (10:14)
- Original British theatrical trailer (1:43)
- American trailer (1:41)
- “Scrooge Revisited” tour of practical locations (2:29)
On the DVD disc:
- Full feature in standard definition with the same extras as the Blu-ray as well as the following additions:
- “Campbell Playhouse: A Christmas Carol” 1939 radio drama starring Lionel Barrymore and narrated by Orson Welles.
- “Bibliographic Essay” by Fred Guida which details the life and work of author Charles Dickens
PROD & DIR: Brian Desmond Hurst. EXEC PROD: George Minter. SCR: Noel Langley from the novel by Charles Dickens. CIN: C. Pennington-Richards. ED: Clive Donner. SCORE: Richard Addinsell. Cast: Alastair Sim, Mervyn Johns, Hermione Baddeley, Michael Hordern, George Cole, Rona Anderson, John Charlesworth, Glyn Dearman, Clifford Mollison, Patrick Macnee. B&W. Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1. Running Time: 86 min. Renown Pictures Corporation release (UK)/United Artists release (US). Blu-ray/DVD release: VCI Entertainment (www.vcientertainment.com).