Chestnuts over an open fire, stringing popcorn for the tree covered in Shiny Brite ornaments and angel's hair, hot chocolate after an afternoon of ice skating: it's time for another classic movie Christmas. Cozy up with Adam and Samantha this week as we discuss Scrooge, AKA A Christmas Carol.
ADAM WILLIAMS: Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is so deeply entrenched in our culture that it’s hard to pinpoint the definitive adaptation. The fact that scrooge is a commonly used word indicates how deep its influence runs. I think I’ve seen at least one movie version; I know I’ve seen it performed on stage, and I’ve endured dozens of takeoffs, parodies, and commercials with references to it. Maybe it’s a case of over-saturation, but I don’t feel any sentimentality towards this old chestnut. Despite that, and in the spirit of the season, I approached this movie, which I had not seen before, with a fresh set of eyes.
SAMANTHA GLASSER: A Christmas Carol has always been part of my Christmas experience. When I was young, A Muppet Christmas Carol was released, and my sister, cousins and I watched it over and over again. I have a specific memory of staying the night at my grandma's house in December so my parents could have time to shop for gifts and watching that iteration in the guest bedroom before we fell asleep. In elementary school, our class would routinely trek downtown to see the stage production at one of the theaters. However, it was the Alastair Sim version that was my dad's favorite, and his dad's favorite too, so it was the version most watched in my house. My childhood reaction to it was different than mine now. Then, it was a scary, dark movie with too much bleakness to wade through to get to the unmitigated joy at the end.
Let's talk about the brilliance of the story. I've read the Dickens book, and unlike some of his long-winded novels, it is tightly written without wasted words. The concept of ghosts is slightly eerie, but not threatening. In fact, the second ghost is downright jolly. The current Scrooge is explained by the heartaches of his past in a way that makes us feel sympathy for a decidedly unsympathetic character. He learns foundational moral lessons by explaining how they affect his own life through showing, not preaching. This story is a part of our communal fabric, so it was startling to me when I had to explain it to my son, who has never heard of Scrooge before.
AW: There are some moments of brilliance, little flashes of inspiration that caught me off guard. The first appearance of the ghost of Marley is truly eerie—the echoing voice, the clattering chains, and the pained screaming pull no punches. This is counterbalanced by Scrooge’s rationalizing of the ghost as a product of indigestion. I love the way Alastair Sims enunciates the line, “A piece of cheese…a fragment of an undone potato. There’s more of gravy than a grave in you…”
SG: This scene is most impressively depicted in this film compared to any other. Marley is downright scary, and the ghastly apparitions in the street moaning under their chains are horrifying. The weight of this sequence is vital for the journey through the rest of it because it represents the fate that Scrooge has earned up to this point. Even a man as stubborn and miserable as he would not willingly wish that upon himself.
AW: The Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge to his old school. The snow-covered scene is a thing of beauty, like an intricately detailed drawing. In fact, I think it is an intricate matte painting composited with the actors in the lower half. Ebenezer’s sister arrives to fetch her brother from the loneliness of the boarding school. George Cole plays the young Ebenezer. To add a touch of tenderness to this scene, in real life Cole was adopted as a teenager by Alastair Sim, his acting mentor.
SG: Cole had a jaw like Jay Leno.
AW: Then there is the scene where Scrooge visits Marley on his death bed—of course, only after the office is closed at 7:00 in order not to disturb his work. He ascends the stairs of the dimly lit home as a bizarre looking old man rises from a chair on the second-floor landing. It’s the undertaker. Scrooge smugly asks him, “You don’t believe in letting the grass grow under your feet, do you?” The undertaker grins, “Ours is a highly competitive profession, sir.” This odd, over-eager undertaker is played by the great Ernest Thesiger of The Bride of Frankenstein and The Old Dark House fame. This blackly comic scene extends into the bedroom. The indifference that Scrooge extends to Marley is so utterly bleak.
SG: That's the running theme of the movie, bleakness. The warmest parts are Scrooge's nephew and his comrades. Even Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim are depressing, with the elder's eagerness not to offend his boss, Tim's weakness, and the family's poverty. You can feel the cold in this film, the misery and the defeat. It plays like a PBS movie with a focus on the language of the historical novel without too much embellishment.
AW: There are some parts of the movie that just feel silly. Scrooge flying around with The Ghost of Christmas Present is a chintzy superimposition effect. The Christmas Yet-to-Come scene with the paupers going through Scrooge’s possessions felt interminable. But there is one part of the movie that made me want to turn it off and take a walk: Scrooge’s manic awakening after visiting the three spirits. Alastair Sims’ skipping, prancing, and headstands along with his maid’s screaming killed any mood that had been established. It was just annoying.
SG: I didn't find it to be so off-putting, but I did find it to be too abrupt. The nostalgia pains for Scrooge's past weren't strong enough to elicit such a huge perspective shift, and the threat of an unlamented death doesn't seem to be enough to scare such an unfeeling, detached man. The journey has been done better in other versions of the story.
Leonard Maltin provided an introduction for the VCI blu-ray edition of the film and talked about how much he loved this movie, and how impressive it was that Alastair Sim, who was primarily a comic actor, pulled off such a heavy, iconic dramatic part. It is in his dancing that we get a glimpse of what he must have been like in comedy, though I only know him from dramas.
AW: The Cinema Correspondent of The Irish Times positively beamed about Alastair Sims’ Scrooge, “Mr. Sim turns him into an utterly delightful grotesque—an intensively active character who dominates the screen and, in the initial phases (as they say in the war communiqués), cannot quite contrive to dim the twinkle in those soulfully humourous eyes.” B.R. Crisler of The Christian Science Monitor published an equally glowing review singling out Mr. Sim’s performance as, “…a figure of ghastly reserve in its earlier phases of emotional blight, and of even ghastlier sprightliness and communicativeness in its belated blossoming under the spell of the Christmas spirit.” Other than minor complaints of Tiny Tim not being tiny enough and “…some rather cumbersome contrivances in the supernatural department,” Crisler reprimands those not swept up in the emotion. He writes, “…any dry eye remaining in the house would do well not to flaunt its shameful condition.” Perhaps Mae Tinee of the Chicago Daily Tribune was one of those shameful stoics. Her brief review praises the performances but says the film is “often awkward” and there is “too much howling and clanking of chains” for children.
I didn’t go entirely Scrooge-mode, but the film failed to conjure up the spirit as intended. While I did enjoy the atmosphere and found several scenes touching, by the film’s finale I was getting restless from the familiarity. Three stars but I’m sure your mileage will vary. Here’s to a warm Christmas to all!
SG: Although a bleak film isn't always what people want during the holiday season, I think this one does a fantastic job of conveying the morality tale. If you're looking for a light, colorful movie for your fill of a reformed miser, The Grinch will serve you better, but if you like history and realistic takes on science fiction, this is one of the best filmed versions of Dickens' classic. (Lionel Barrymore played Scrooge on the radio every year, and what a tantalizing prospect it would have been to have him in a film version, but it never came to be. Mr. Potter is the closest we will get.) I've never warmed to the 1938 version, the animated Jim Carrey version offers a creative rendition of the Ghost of Christmas Past, and I have strong nostalgic love for the Muppet version, but Alastair Sim's Scrooge feels most loyal to the novel. Four stars.