Dracula with music by Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet at Arlene Schnitzer Center, Portland, OR

Friday, December 27, 2013

A Christmas Carol (1951)

My fondness for Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol hearkens back to 4th grade when my class performed A Christmas Carol as a play and I played the role of the Ghost of Christmas Future. I wore my father's blue terrycloth robe which hung loosely on me and I had no lines of dialogue. All I had to do was point as my classmate who played Scrooge had all the dialogue.  Since I was a fan of horror films, playing the part of a ghost was right up my alley. I remember I liked the story so much that I asked my aunt for the book for Christmas.

As much as I love Dickens story, the film and television versions of his tale have never quite satisfied me. I've seen the television version A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1984) with George C. Scott.  Albert Finney starred in a musical version called SCROOGE in 1970.  Cartoon characters Mr. Magoo and Donald Duck have done animated versions and even the Muppets took a stab at it in THE MUPPETS CHRISTMAS CAROL (1992).  Director Richard Donner made a modern take on the story with SCROOGED (1988) starring Bill Murray and Karen Allen. Most recently, director Robert Zemeckis tried to strike gold for a second time with his animated A CHRISTMAS CAROL (2009) with Jim Carrey as Scrooge using the same animation style as his more successful THE POLAR EXPRESS (2004). I don't know if I haven't liked some of these CHRISTMAS CAROL versions because they've been in color or because the actors playing Scrooge haven't won me over.  But I think I just found the version that I like the best.

Most critics and movie goers alike seem to agree that the 1951 A CHRISTMAS CAROL (originally titled SCROOGE), shot in black and white, made in England with an English cast is the most well acclaimed version.  Having just watched it before Christmas, I would agree. What makes this CHRISTMAS CAROL a winner is the performance of Alistair Sim as the pivotal Ebenezer Scrooge. Tall and thin with expressive eyes and wild white hair, Sim is excellent as the Christmas hating miser. His voice, his mannerisms, and his transformation from grumpy, frugal curmudgeon to likable, good-hearted uncle and employer is magnificent.

This A CHRISTMAS CAROL, directed by Brian Desmond-Hurst and adapted by Noel Langley from Charles Dickens 1843 novella, moves at a very fast clip. We are introduced to Ebenezer Scrooge (Alistair Sim) who we very quickly learn is not in the holiday spirit. Scrooge won't extend a loan to a customer. He 'Bah Humbugs' his underpaid employee Bob Cratchit (Mervyn Johns) who wishes him a Merry Christmas. He rebuffs solicitors collecting for the poor and destitute. And Scrooge sends away some kids singing Christmas carols on a street corner near his home.

Scrooge wants nothing to do with Christmas and all its warmth and kindness and family. But as he prepares for bed on Christmas Eve, Scrooge has a terrifying nightmare. He is visited by the ghost of his deceased business partner Jacob Marley (Michael Hordern). Marley is a wailing, noisy spirit who warns Scrooge that he will be visited by three ghostly apparitions this night. The first to arrive is the Spirit of  Christmas Past (Michael Dolan). He takes Scrooge on a journey to visit his past life. We see Young Ebenezer Scrooge (George Cole) at college, full of life. Scrooge's sister Fan (Carol Marsh) arrives to bring him home for the holidays. Young Scrooge is even in love with a pretty young woman named Alice (Rona Anderson).  But Scrooge's happiness unravels as Fay, while giving birth to a son Fred, dies during childbirth. Scrooge begins working for a man named Fezziwig (Roddy Hughes) as a clerk. Another employer Mr. Jorkin (Jack Warner) later steals Scrooge away from Fezziwig. His co-worker is a young accountant named Jacob Marley (Patrick MacNee from THE AVENGERS television show).

Next, Scrooge is visited by the Spirit of Christmas Present (Francis de Wolff), looking like Henry the VIII in robes, thick beard, and a crown. He shows Scrooge the Cratchit family, gathered together for Christmas, their young lame son Tiny Tim (Glyn Dearman) ailing. Bob Cratchit defends Scrooge even as Mrs. Cratchit (Hermionne Baddeley) vilifies her husband's penny pinching boss. Scrooge and the Spirit of Christmas Present move on to the home of Scrooge's nephew Fred (Brian Worth).  Hosting a Christmas Eve party, Fred also defends his cynical uncle who he had invited to Christmas dinner earlier in the day but was turned down. Scrooge blames Fred for the death of his mother during childbirth and has cut himself off emotionally from his relatives.

The last ghost to visit Scrooge is the terrifying Spirit of Christmas Future, a variation of the grim reaper, hooded and faceless. This spectre reveals that Tiny Tim will die, his crutch alone in the corner of the Cratchit home. Scrooge witnesses his own funeral. The few mourners that attend lament that because Scrooge was so stingy, he had no one to leave his fortune to. "I'm not the man I was," Scrooge says as he awakens on Christmas Day a changed man. He dances and sings with his maid Mrs. Dilber (Kathleen Harrison), scaring the daylights out of her. Scrooge pays a young boy to buy the biggest turkey in the shop for the Cratchit family and pledges to help support Cratchit's children in the future.  Scrooge arrives at  his nephew Fred's home for dinner, becoming a part of his family again. Because of the previous nights events, Scrooge will make a difference in the community and families close to him.

A CHRISTMAS CAROL'S story of Scrooge's redemption is always a powerful tale during the holiday season and this version does it in such an entertaining way. The film shows us Scrooge's nasty side but doesn't overdo it like some versions have and moves quickly into the fantasy section (my favorite part of the story). Interestingly, this film version adds some background to Scrooge's back story that isn't in the Dickens book. Flashbacks showing Scrooge's sister's death and young Scrooge's first meeting with young Marley aren't in the book. The character of Mr. Jorkin is created just for the film. These scenes as well as other in the Christmas Past sequence paint a sympathetic picture of Scrooge and make us care for him a little earlier in the story as we discover how he went from idealistic young man to grumpy, lonely businessman.

Author Charles Dickens lived and wrote in the bleak Victorian Era of the 19th Century and his stories dealt with dark subjects like poverty and social injustice so it's only appropriate that this 1951 version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL (as well as the 1938 version) is shot in black and white. It adds to Scrooge's melancholy mood and the grim times many of the citizens London dealt with. Black and white conveys the two moods of the story.  Black for Scrooge's dark period, his foul mood, and the supernatural journey he takes to discover the joys of not just Christmas but helping mankind.  White as daylight breaks on Christmas morning, a new beginning. Scrooge discovers he's not dead but alive and that he can make a difference in the lives of not just one person (Mrs. Dilber, Tiny Tim) but a community. As much as we love color, Dickens stories belong in black and white.

The key to this A CHRISTMAS CAROL'S success is actor Alistair Sim who plays Scrooge. Sim is not a household name, a famous celebrity. Although Sim would have a successful career as an actor (he worked with Alfred Hitchcock in the 1950 film STAGE FRIGHT), Scrooge would become Sim's signature performance. He would perform as Scrooge a few other times in his career, even provide his voice for Scrooge for a 1971 animated short A CHRISTMAS CAROL.

All the acting in A CHRISTMAS CAROL is uniformly good. The actors all get the story and play their parts, whether large or small, splendidly. Dickens stories always have plenty of characters. In many filmed versions, Bob Cratchit is often the handsome supporting character but in this one, Scrooge's nephew Fred played by Brian Worth has that distinction. Cratchit played by Mervyn Johns is a more doting, parental figure. The Tiny Tim character can often be a bit excessively sweet or over the top but in this film he's just a normal kid struggling with a handicap as best as he can as played by Glyn Dearman. This British version just feels like an authentic Dickens adaption as it was filmed in Britain with English actors.

Although most of the cast is unknown to me in this A CHRISTMAS CAROL, a few familiar faces pop up. I spotted Ernest Thesiger (Dr. Pretorious in THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN) as the Undertaker, Peter Bull (the Russian ambassador in DR. STRANGELOVE) as a Businessman, and Patrick MacNee (TV's Jonathan Steed in THE AVENGERS) as the young Jacob Marley.

One character I learned more about watching this version was Scrooge's business partner Jacob Marley. As young men, they are similar in their ambitions to become businessmen, taking over Scrooge's former employer Fezziwig's business, renaming it Scrooge & Marley, Enquirers. But both will be consumed with the all mighty pound and lose sight of giving back to the community or seeing the good will in men. They will also lose sight of their friendship. As Marley lies on his deathbed, Scrooge refuses to visit his partner until the day's work is done. Scrooge takes over Marley's estate but hoards it. When Marley returns as a ghost, he warns his old friend to take a different path than he did.

Another important piece to A CHRISTMAS CAROL are the fantasy elements. In this version, the special effects are understated yet effective. Computer Generated Images (CGI) are still decades away. The most important effect is the first one involving the ghost of Jacob Marley. We need to be able to see through him and the filmmakers achieve it. It's not fancy or spectacular but Marley's ghost is ethereal, floating around the room or his face appearing on a door knocker. Some of the effects are just old fashioned slight of hand. The Spirit of Christmas Future using his cloak to cover up the screen and transition us from one scene to another. Or The Spirit of Christmas Present's dramatic reveal when he lifts his robes and two children - Want and Ignorance - clutch at his feet works because of a powerful music cue. But the special effects and tricks never take away from the story.

Throw in a few actual Christmas carols sung throughout the film and this A CHRISTMAS CAROL is a perfect movie for children and adults alike to watch again and again during the holidays.  I dare anyone to 'Bah Humbug' me for making such a declaration.

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