Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Holiday Flicks #4 – “Scrooge”

I’m ending up the Christmas portion of our Holiday Flicks series (there will be a New Year’s film next week) with an obvious choice, but one that’s a pleasure to watch: Scrooge from 1951—marketed these days as “A Christmas Carol starring Alistair Sim as Scrooge,” or other titles closely related to this.

There are any number of reasons to like this British film, directed by Brian Desmond Hurst, with a screenplay by Noel Langley: the story moves at a crisp pace, the ensemble cast distinguishes itself without exception, the cinematography is gorgeous, with a number of memorable shots, & Langley’s screenplay stays quite true to the original—there are some cuts (not having read Dickens’ novella for several years, I believe these are mostly in the Spirit of Christmas Present section—I recall there’s an episode that takes place on board a ship that’s not in the film); also the role of the housekeeper has been expanded, providing a wonderful showcase for Kathleen Harrison. The score is understated & interesting; even the 1950s special effects (particularly involving Marley’s ghost) are well executed (remember, tho—yours truly is someone who prefers Ray Harryhausen to contemporary computer effects).

But the film in many ways belongs to Alistair Sim, the titular Scrooge. Sim paints his portrait of Scrooge with a full palette—we can see his mean-spiritedness, his studied callousness, & we see the deep cynicism & misery beneath this. We see his terror when confronted by Marley’s ghost—a truly memorable scene with a powerful performance also by Michael Hordern as Marley. We see the regret in his face when he confronts his past, the pain when he confronts his present circumstances & the circumstances of those around him; & we again see his terror & despair (believing now that he’s incapable of redemption) when he confronts a possible future. I should mention that George Cole, who plays the younger Scrooge, also provides a strong characterization— a background, as it were, for Sim to play against, & a youthful character that’s completely in line with Sim’s older Scrooge. Cole shows the young Scrooge as hapless & impressionable; a loner who’s given to few but intense relationships, & capable of great bitterness in reaction to pain. It does seem that the character of Scrooge can lend itself to caricature—does anyone else (to mention an extreme example) recall the Mr Magoo version of A Christmas Carol from the early 60s? Sim avoids this admirably. His transformation & redemption, too, are portrayed in transports that seem (to quote Kathleen Harrison’s Mrs Dilber) “in keeping with the situation.”

There are any number of memorable moments in the film; as I mentioned, the scene with Marley’s ghost is really first-rate, & completely delineates Scrooge’s dilemma—because Scrooge’s sin isn’t so much miserliness with money (as we may think of the character now), but a miserliness of spirit & feeling. This is what Marley means when he screams in agony: “Mankind was my business,” in response to Scrooge’s observation that they were simply men of business. A truly memorable scene comes at the conclusion of the Spirit of Christmas Present episode, when the jolly spirit draws aside his robe to reveal the two children, Ignorance & Want, who cling to him. When Scrooge asks if there can be no help for these children, the Spirit replies, “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?” echoing Scrooge’s own words when he rebuffed solicitors for a Christmas charity early in the story.

There have been a number of film versions of A Christmas Carol, & this is my favorite—one of the few times I’d prefer a 1950s film over a 1930s one, but I do prefer this to the 1938 adaptation with Reginald Owen as Scrooge. I didn’t realize this until doing a spot of research for this post, but film versions of A Christmas Carol date back to the very beginnings of silent film—there's a 1901 version, a 1908 version by Edison, & a lost 1928 version. There was the George C. Scott TV movie in the 80s, which has its fans, but doesn’t stay with me like the Sim version; more recently there was the 1999 TV adaptation starring Patrick Stewart. I must say this one left Eberle & I cold, even tho we’re both fans of Stewart as Captain Jean-Luc Picard (or perhaps we couldn’t make the leap from the 24th century to Victorian England—but Stewart’s performance really seemed to be only one of the problems—e.g., Joel Grey as the Spirit of Christmas Past just to name one other). I also ran across a fascinating site, the Charles Dickens Christmas Carol & Scrooge CED Web Page, which shows comparative images from 13 different film versions of the story (dating from 1935 to the 1999 version just mentioned)—on this page you can compare 40 different characteristic images from all the films (for instance, all the versions of the haunted door knocker, or all the versions of the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come).

As delightful as the film Scrooge is, everyone should take the time at some point to read the original novella. These days, thanks to Project Gutenberg, you can do this online here—with original illustrations!

I was surprised to notice that TCM isn’t showing Scrooge this December, as it seems to be an annual event with them. The film is widely available, however, including Netflix. If you haven’t seen this film, you really should make an opportunity to do so.

Christmas is almost upon us—“And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!”


  1. There's a bit near the end that I've always found affecting, when Scrooge goes to Fred's house. A housemaid who is the picture of beautiful innocence lets him in. As Scrooge removes his gloves and scarf, he hears the sounds merriment within. The camera catches a marvelous expression of regret and hesitation. He looks back at the maid who waves him in. It never fails to move me, and I bet I've seen it 25 times now.

  2. You're absolutely right! Both Eberle & I always comment on that moment. It's just a beautiful film.


  3. Even the credits, with the choir singing "Hark, The Herald Angels Sing" while the credits roll over the book fit right in.

    BTW, I saw Patrick Stewart on stage earlier this year in Macbeth. He was superb and the production -- set in Stalinist Russia -- was inspired.

  4. Yeah, I think Stewart is a good actor-- I also think having Jean-Luc Picard in one's mind is a hard thing to shuffle off when seeing him in another role. I just thought the 99 TV film with him as Scrooge was ill-conceived overall. As I understand, he used to do "A Christmas Carol" as a one-man show-- that might have been interesting on stage.

  5. We've got the cassette tape of the reading. It's very solid -- better than his film. I do like the George C. Scott interpretation, but the trouble with all of them is that they pale compared to Alistair Sim.


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