A Christmas Carol (1951)

Ebeneezer Scrooge (Alistair Sim) prepares for a ghostly encounter in "A Christmas Carol."

Directed by Brian Desmond-Hurst. Screenplay by Noel Langly; based upon the novella by Charles Dickens. Produced by Brian Desmond-Hurts. Music by Richard Addinsell. Photographed by C.M. Pennington-Richards. Edited by Clive Donner. Art direction by Ralph W. Brinton. Starring Alistair Sim, Kathleen Harrison, Mervyn Johns, Hermione Baddely, Michael Hordern, George Cole, John Charlesworth, Francis de Wolff, Rona Anderson, Carol Marsh, Brian Worth.

It is a testament to the power of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol that it has been reimagined practically every single year by somebody, somewhere.  It’s almost a game in my family to compare each version with the others, like a new vintage of a fine wine: admiring the bottle, savoring the texture, and gaining a deeper understanding of the vineyard, because we have wildly different opinions on the flavors and yet come back every year. The story, first written in 1843 has lent itself to so many variations through the decades that we need a catalog to list them all. It’s been done straight, skewed, satirical, animated, updated, musicalized, Americanized, westernized, you name it, and that’s not even counting the sly Christmas specials that use similar themes but step just out of reach of copyright theft. However, for my money, the best film version of A Christmas Carol remains the 1951 Alistair Sim version (known in Britain as Scrooge). It’s just a wonderful movie, period.

Since Christmas is such a personal time of year, perhaps you’ll indulge me if I admit that my love for the Sim version is in part very personal. This was my father’s favorite Christmas movie, and he was a man who loved Christmas. He grew up watching it, introduced it to me and my siblings, and viewing it became our custom once or twice every year. That’s not even counting the late Christmas Eves where, between PBS airings and a battered VHS tape, he could put the film on again and again as he struggled with assembling gifts while we laid in our beds and pretended we were fast asleep. I can still hear its musical stings in the pitch of night, massaging me into dreams as I followed the movie with him from afar: ah, that music. The frame of the hourglass. We’re somewhere in the past.

I mention this to underline how impossible it is for me to quite separate myself from this movie, nor would I really want to. Yet, I think I can still make a legitimate argument that this version of A Christmas Carol is the finest filmed telling of the story. It is not a polished film, made in 1951 but looking even then perhaps a decade or two out of date. Its special effects, if you must get hung up on such things, are not so special these jaded days. Its technique is unremarkable: mostly competent framing, serviceable editing, and  a couple of scenes that are garishly overlit (like the Christmas dinner in the Cratchit household). Many of its sets look, frankly, like sets. Today, its DVD or blu-ray availability is hampered by the fact that no one is either willing or able to give it a proper remastering. And yet it still holds tremendous power…because it is so unpretentious. Unlike other versions that pump up Dickens’ story with songs and set pieces, A Christmas Carol ’51 trusts the source material and doesn’t try to turn it into something it isn’t.

And because Alistair Sim, as Scrooge, is probably the best performance of the character you will ever see in a film. The role of Scrooge frequently gives actors a license to descend into caricature, and that is not an unwelcome approach (nor is it altogether removed from the spirit of Dickens). But I prefer what Sim does here, which is to bring the character into the realm of believability by eliminating showy gestures. His take on Scrooge never seems to be making a statement, or reveling in a twisted worldview. He treats his opponents—the poor and the merry—with impatience and befuddlement rather than contempt. This is exemplified in the moment where Scrooge reacts to being told that others labor to help the poor during the holiday season. “Why?” he asks, seriously confused. He also has more than a little humor (misaimed as it is) and seems to fit right in on the London stock exchange, even if he’s socially maladjusted. Sim’s Scrooge finds the person between the lines of the book–a man who doesn’t hate the poor, he just has no sympathy for them. He’s Darwinian, but not a monster, and the overlap between those two is for us to see, not him. The buried theme here, that the Scrooges of the world are in plain sight and don’t call attention to themselves, is well taken.

We all know the story of A Christmas Carol. How Scrooge is a cruel man, scornful of his relations, mean to his clerk Bob Cratchit (Mervyn Johns). Then he is visited by the spirit of his former partner Jacob Marley (Michael Hordern), now suffering a purgatory of depression and punishment. What makes Marley so effective here is its odd and unsettling tone: the transparent spirit speaks sometimes in a disaffected monotone, and there is an ironic undercurrent to their conversation that gets lost in other adaptations. Most Scrooges simply play this scene as frightened, by Sim finds the right moments to inject incredulous laughter, which is very human. When Marley gives Scrooge the chance to reform and then escapes out the window to a plethora of other ghosts wandering the Earth, we get one (1) shot: the specters, frozen on a different plane of reality, wailing and gnashing as they circle a homeless woman on the street. It’s eerie, and then it’s over before it outstays its welcome. Less is more.

Marley is, of course, a curtain-raiser for additional ghosts that trouble the mind of Scrooge, and the Ghost of Christmas Past (who does, today, look a little silly) opens up the longest stretch of the movie, as Scrooge is given a tour of his history: kinship with his sister Fan, apprenticeship to old Fezziwig, and his romance with a girl who leaves under a cloud of disillusionment (here named Alice instead of the traditionally held “Belle”). And this film also expands on Dickens’ story to show Scrooge’s rise to power as he enlists the young Marley as an associate, seizes opportunities and muscles Fezziwig out, which offers a more layered explanation for Scrooge’s personality than the typical, facile sentiment of “a girl dumped him and his sister died.” For poor Fan, we actually see her die in this version, in childbirth, which is more effective than having the characters discuss it abstractly. And Marley dies on-screen as well, which is a chilling moment that Scrooge treats cynically (his attitude matched by a pragmatic undertaker who is both funny and unsettling). The additional beats here provide a more nuanced examination of Scrooge, and provide a clearer indictment of the society that enables him, which I suspect Dickens would have liked.

There’s also a visit from the Ghost of Christmas Present, who brings joy and laughter, but also wisdom and reverence (he is, by my reckoning, the only version of such that actually mentions Christ by name, which is nice). They visit a clan of miners and Scrooge’s optimistic nephew Fred, and stop by the Cratchit household, where Tiny Tim (Glyn Dearman) seems like a real sweet kid with an infirmity, and not a talisman the story holds to enforce your sympathy. And also present is the sequence where the Ghost of Christmas Present explains the metaphorical nature of two children under his robe, evoking Dickens’ larger social criticism, which is usually ejected in order to focus on the parable. The film preserves the elements of the original story that stress (however unsubtly) that this story is bigger than Scrooge, which enhances its universality for the rest of us.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is a disturbing phantom, like they always are, and shows the future for the Cratchits in a way that is tender but not maudlin. A later scene as Scrooge stands appalled as someone’s bedcurtains and burial clothes are sold on the black market (his own, as it turns out) is milked for every troubling second it’s worth. And this version wisely downplays Scrooge’s cluelessness about the master man who’s death brings happiness to all—in other version, the evidence builds so high that Scrooge’s inability to decode it makes him look foolish. When he finally learns the truth by seeing his name on a headstone, the effect is creepy and, devoid of gratuitous special effects and simply lingering on the despair. (Scrooge’s chilling wail of despair, by the way, is missing depending upon which print you see, sadly.) Many versions of the story end with a special effects light show, and I grow less and less convinced that is the right approach.

And then we get to the ending, which is so wonderfully conveyed perhaps because it also doesn’t overplay its hand. Scrooge has become a good person, but he has not gone mad. Yes, he torments his charwoman Mrs. Dilber (Kathleen Harrison), but it’s because it’s the first real fun he’s had in a long while. He sends the Cratchits a beautiful Christmas turkey, but does not visit them; the class system must be maintained. He instead goes to his nephew Fred (Brian Worth), which is enhanced by a little, seldom-remarked upon moment: Scrooge hesitates at the door, but the smile of Fred’s housekeeper urges him to continue. So much is communicated: shame, hope, the clarity of someone who has finally awoken from a terrible sleep, as the folk song “Barbara Allen” plays touchingly. When Scrooge asks forgiveness and then dances with Fred’s wife after a lifetime of shunning her, it is lovely and heartfelt.

And the temperance with which Scrooge’s newfound joy is perfectly delivered in the closing scene with Bob Cratchit. Here he has the self-awareness to know he looks silly, and then when alone has a quick flash of his old self: “I don’t deserve to be so happy…but I just can’t help it.” Then he dissolves into new chuckles. In this version, Scrooge’s change feels believable, and so we don’t become concerned about how quickly he may suffer a relapse, which other renditions of the story unknowingly suggest.

The themes on display here have been discussed by men wiser than I, for over 150 years. There’s a reason why A Christmas Carol is one of the most-told stories ever written, one of the staples of Christmas, and that is because despite its specific trappings of 1840s London, it deals with omnipresent issues: how we deal with the poor, how we treat our family, the question of whether Christmas is a useless celebration of consumption or a chance to renew our love and happiness. Certainly the cynicism of Ebeneezer Scrooge has never gone away, not in a world where times are tough, jobs are lost, and the unfeeling so often seem to be rewarded with wealth and fame. It’s sometimes a bleak world. It’s easy and instinctive to be cynical.

That must be why A Christmas Carol is so cherished by so many at this time of year—it provides an antidote to our doubts, and helps tear down the barrier we might place between ourselves and Christmas—a time of year where so many renew their necessary supplies of positivity and delight. Even if there was no logical reason for humankind to invent Christmas (or Chanukah, or whatever you like), we probably still would, because it so necessary for us to remember during the longest, coldest nights that we are only Earth for a short while, and it is not such a terrible thing to be loved. And that, despite our past, it is never too late to start again, and be better than what you were. Redemption is possible, no matter the age, and that’s a comforting thought.

Certainly, this film’s history even bears that out. It was a scrappy picture, a British production made for little money, filmed in black and white when so many films were upgrading to color. Its lead, Sim, was known for comedies, not serious drama. It embraced the gloomy moments of despair intrinsic in Dickens’ work, a tricky sell for audiences seeking holiday cheer. It had a good run in England, but lost its American engagement at Radio City Music Hall because it wasn’t family-friendly, and opened to small business before fading away. And then it slowly gained stature through television airings. Now, much like It’s a Wonderful Life, it is a perennial, and to me so tied to childhood that I cannot imagine a universe without it.

And that, again, is though the strength of Sim’s performance. He really is so very good in the role: bringing no baggage, finding little grace notes that make dramatic sense of Dickens’ character. Little throwaway bits help bring the part into sharp relief, like his attempt to leave in embarrassment from the Cratchits’ dinnertable when his name comes up, or the light in his eyes when he sees the shadow of his young sister. Sim’s Scrooge is so iconic that he was even asked to play him again in Chuck Jones’ 1971 animated version of the story, which is a mark of how thoroughly he signed his name to the role, perhaps forever. Note how careful and winning he is as he signals Scrooge’s evolution into a better man: his eyes are more expressive and open than any other version of the tale.

But it’s not just the role. The film itself has permanently evolved our understanding of Dickens’ story, which originally was slim and full of blanks to be filled in. Even Robert Zemeckis, director of the 2009 animated version, cited this one as an influence, and there are several moments in that film that are borrowed from here, not the novella. And look at how the film has even influenced the way the story is forever told: later films agree with the concept that Scrooge’s girlfriend (Alice or Belle) was at Fezziwig’s party. Why is this notable? Because it’s not in the book. Nor is the charwoman named Mrs. Dilber, nor is the scene where Tiny Tim enjoys the view of a shop window (used again in the 1970 musical). And ever since 1951, Scrooge’s counting house pretty much always looks the same. There was an Hollywood version in 1938 with Reginald Owen that is a footnote at best, but here the story is gotten right, and it stayed right for future tellings.

As I grow older and more experienced, I think it becomes easier to grasp the idea that an entertainment need not be the sum of its parts. Certainly other films have left their own, glitzier stamps on Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol. Ones that are slicker, more refined, more commercial. They have their place. But stories are retold so that we can have our own favorite, and this one’s mine, despite its flaws. There’s something true and uncomplicated about its approach that connects with me every time, despite the crudity of its craft. In a way, A Christmas Carol is my very own ghost of Christmas – it reminds me of the past, reconnects me with loved ones in the present, and inspires a path towards a future of hope, not despair. Tiny Tim famously says “God bless us everyone,” and that is indeed what A Christmas Carol is all about, and what we feel as we watch it. We feel warm, we feel a part of something greater, we feel blessed. And that’s no humbug.

GRADE: A+

NOTES: Today, December 19, apparently marks the anniversary of “A Christmas Carol” being printed, all the way back in 1843. Here’s to coincidence, friends.

PREVIOUS TIME PERIOD: 1980 – The Empire Strikes Back

Happy Christmas, gentle reader. Next week is the holiday weekend itself, and I’ll be taking the week off. My rule for The Time-Traveling Film Critic has been to never do a film from the current year, so the year 2010 has been, up till now, off-limits. But in two weeks, it’ll no longer be 2010, will it? So join me on January 9, 2011 for the first film review from the year 2010: Darren Aranofsky’s Black Swan.

NEXT TIME PERIOD: 2010 – Black Swan

PREVIOUS TIME PERIOD: 1980 – The Empire Strikes Back

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