One of the holiday’s best known tales, Charles Dickens “A Christmas Carol,” has been reproduced, adapted over the years many times in various formats from animation to TV, film and stage. From Charlie Brown to Mickey Mouse to “The Odd Couple” and multiple screen versions performed by a diverse host of actors including George C. Scott, Reginald Owen, Seymour Hicks, John Carradine, Patrick Stewart, Walter Matthau, Jim Carrey, Albert Finney, Vanessa Williams ( you are reading this right. Ms. Williams played Ebony Scrooge in a TV movie called “A Diva’s Christmas”) and of course the great Alastair Sim in what is considered by many, including myself, the best adaptation ever, the 1951 version, originally titled “Scrooge” in the U.K. but generally now known by Dicken’s original title.
Unlike most versions, this British production follows fairly close the Dickens novel, though there are some changes, and also unlike most versions this is a dark, bleaker account of the world’s best known miser. Recently I watched, for the first time, the Reginald Owen version from 1938, released by MGM, and while decent, the many needless changes to the plot along with a surplus dose of sentiment makes this a soft hearted second rate, if still entertaining, adaptation.
I won’t go over the plot since this is one of the world’s best known stories and anyone unaware of the storyline must be living in a sealed vacuum cut off from civilization. What I will say is right from the opening scenes, as we watch old Ebenezer walk down the snow covered streets, Sim’s captures the miserly, nasty crust of a man who has lost his heart and his humanity. For example, in a very early scene he chases away three young kids singing a holiday carol on a street corner. This scene and a couple of others set the atmosphere for his upcoming encounter with the ghost of his former partner Jacob Marley who appears on Christmas Eve warning Scrooge to change his ways before it is too late or face the same chained afterlife as he does. But it’s all humbug to Ebenezer whose only gift was reluctantly giving Bob Cratchit Christmas Day off, though he was sure to emphasize he best be in early the morning after.
Sim’s Scrooge is hateful, he has no regrets nor remorse, feeling no guilt for his extremely selfish ways, and it is only after he is finally forced to see the way his actions have caused such despair does he realize that in order to save himself, and all those lives he touched, he must embrace a more kind and generous way of living.
But what made Scrooge so mean? Apparently, a lonely childhood, a mean father who blamed him for his mother’s death, abused him and sent him off to boarding school. The death of his sister, Fan, his nephew Fred’s mother, was also crucial as she was the only person in his young life who truly cared about him.
Scrooge’s turnaround at the end of the film is not so much a change in personality as it is a reawakening of his goodness. It was there all the time only buried under many years of pain and resentment.
Alastair Sim is the embodiment of Scrooge. He brings both danger and fiendishness to the character. He eventually becomes a pitiful, shattered man as he is exposed to the love he has lost and the friendships he left behind. He is strongly touched by the warm heart of Bob Cratchit and family, especially young Tiny Tim. You believe him when the Ghost of Christmas future forces him to come face to face with his sad, lonely destiny. Finally, you see the change that takes hold of him, the redemption, and the good heart, long buried underneath the outer cold shell. It’s an extremely strong performance worthy of note.
The film was originally scheduled to play at Radio City Music Hall upon its American release, as did the earlier Reginald Owen interpretation from 1938. But after the management of the Music Hall viewed the film they decided this was not a cheery, happy holiday film but a dark, grim tale of man’s greed and eventual redemption. Instead of Radio City the film made its U.S. premiere at the Guild Theater, a much smaller venue located near the Music Hall. It was released in late October, and the film did only moderate business.
For years, the Reginald Owen version of “A Christmas Carol” was the most popular until sometime in the 1970’s when the Sim version began to appear regularly on TV, particularly on WOR-TV in New York City and, on many PBS stations across the country. Since then, the 1951 version has gained in status and today, as mentioned previously, is considered by many to be the best version of the Dicken’s classic.
The cast includes Patrick NcNee, as young Jacob Marley, who later in the 1960’s played John Steed in “The Avengers.” Also in the cast is Hermione Baddeley, best known for her role in “Mary Poppins” as well as for her role as Nell Nagatuck in the 1970’s sit-com, “Maude.”