Retro-Review “A Christmas Carol” (1951)

by Robert Gillis 1/2012

There have been countless adaptations of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” over the last century. One of my annual Christmas traditions is to watch several of them. This is one of my very favorites…

Version: 1951 (VCI Entertainment)

Note: The film was released in Great Britain under the title, “Scrooge.” United Artists released the film in the States as “A Christmas Carol.”

Scrooge: Alastair Sim

Cast: Kathleen Harrison (Mrs. Dilber), Mervyn Johns (Bob Cratchit), Hermione Baddeley (Mrs. Cratchit), Michael Hordern (Jacob Marley), Francis De Wolff (Spirit of Christmas Present, Rona Anderson (Alice), Carol Marsh (Fan Scrooge), Brian Worth (Fred), Miles Malleson (Old Joe), Ernest Thesiger (The Undertaker), Glyn Dearman (Tiny Tim), Michael Dolan (Spirit of Christmas Past), Olga Edwardes (Fred’s Wife), Roddy Hughes (Fezziwig), Hattie Jacques (Mrs. Fezziwig), C. Konarski (Spirit of Christmas Yet To Come) Jack Warner (Mr. Jorkin)

The star: Scottish character actor Alastair George Bell Sim appeared on stage and in a string of classic British films. He is best remembered in the role of Ebenezer Scrooge in the 1951 film Scrooge, (In 1971, he voiced an Academy Award-winning animated film version of Dickens’s story).

“I’m too old! I’m beyond hope!” — Ebenezer Scrooge

As Ebenezer Scrooge, Sim is simply perfect. He isn’t a typical leading man, and because he was not as well known here in the States, the viewer can easily think of him as Scrooge, and not as, say, George C. Scott, or Reginald Owen playing Scrooge.

Sim, known for comedies, not serious drama, was a celebrated and terrific actor and conveys so much by gesture, hand motions, and little looks that he succeeds brilliantly as — to many — the quintessential embodiment of Ebenezer Scrooge.

His Scrooge seems so real because he’s not a cartoon character. He doesn’t HATE the poor; he just doesn’t pity them. He’s simply a hardened old man, indifferent to the need and poverty around him. Even as a successful businessman, he’s a bit of an oddball, not even quite fitting in with his peers at the stock exchange. His fellow businessmen respect him, but don’t necessarily like him and even make fun of his “I don’t make merry at Christmas” comments.

Sim acts the part so well. When Marley first arrives, he shows true fear. There are also countless little things he does to make his Scrooge real — like the fact that whenever he puts on or takes off a hat or coat, someone gets hit with it — he doesn’t even look to see if anyone is standing there.

And as we get to know Scrooge, he feels more and more real. For me, that realism is most apparent when Sim (as Scrooge) cries out to the Spirit of Christmas Yet To Come: “I’m too old!” He is explaining it’s not that he’s unrepentant, he’s just too old to change. With a lesser actor, the character of Scrooge can descend into caricature. With Sim, you believe this hardened old man is in his own world, conducting in his own business, and everyone around him is an annoyance or distraction. He knows who and what he is, and he doesn’t believe he can change. Alastair Sim IS Scrooge.

The Cast and Characters:

Michael Hordern (Jacob Marley) has a much expanded role in this version; not only do we see him as traditional, melancholy, listless spirit, but also as his younger, greedy, hungry self. Both aspects of the role are well acted. I really like the way he plays deceased Marley as “not quite with it.” It helps sell that this man is, well, dead.

Every time I watch this film I remark how much I like Michael Dolan (Spirit of Christmas Past). He just looks the part. He’s kindly, almost a benevolent angel who just wants to help. Also, I think this is one of the few versions where this spirit is portrayed as a male.

Kathleen Harrison (Mrs. Dilber) receives second billing after Sim and steals many of her scenes. This old cockney gal is absolutely believable. She’s funny, opinionated, world-weary, and just a delight.

The actors playing the Cratchits, Mervyn Johns (Bob Cratchit), Hermione Baddeley (Mrs. Cratchit) do a fine job but never really steal the show. The actors play the Cratchits as you’d expect them, no more nor less. They do have their nice moments, though. Johns plays Bob as a meek and mild clark to Scrooge and a very loving father and husband with believability. And there is a wonderful moment when Bob tells his wife that he feels Tiny Tim is getting stronger and Hermione Baddeley (Mrs. Cratchit)’s face goes through a range of emotion — she knows her husband is trying to be upbeat, she knows their son is dying, but she has to put on a brave face. Great acting.

Comments about the Cratchit actors noted, I particularly like the actor who plays Tiny Tim, Glyn Dearman. So many adaptations of this story show Tim as sickly, but Dearman is smiling — a real, full of life happy kid smile — in every scene he’s in. I really like him. Just a nice kid, despite his ailments, enjoying his life and family with an optimism that feels real and never sugary.

The film itself:

While not too well received when it was first released, for the last 40 years, the film has been hailed as a classic and the DEFINITIVE version of the story and is generally hailed as the best of all the versions made. While the 1938 version is dearest to my heart for family reasons, and I like many aspects of the George C. Scott version better, if one had to pick a “definitive” film version, this is THE version of a Christmas Carol.

The entire film is EXTREMELY faithful to the original story.

Made in England, like the novel, the dialogue is pitch perfect. “Your servant sir,” the men greet each other. The British formality and the poetic speech of the story have been carefully preserved and brought to vivid life.

The foggy, dreary London described in the Dickens story is very well created here, although a few of the backdrops are obviously backdrops.

As I said, although I love the Reginald Own version from 1938 (and it probably ranks as my heart’s favorite) one of its valid critiques is that the family-friendly tone of the 1938 film made everyone in the film — especially the Cratchit children — act as though they were on a sugar high. The over-the-top enthusiasm and giddiness throughout the film detracts in the Owen version is never present in this film — make no mistake, the Sim film is dark in many ways and isn’t always a “feel good” experience — and that’s the point of Dickens’ story.

The majority of the special effects are simple and well done for the era. The “faded spirit” effects work very nicely. I like that even in the past visions; the Spirit of Christmas Past appears as see-through specters and speaks in echo. I really like when Marley shows Scrooge all the spirits desperately trying (and failing) to help the young homeless woman with the baby.

Throughout the film, the attention to detail — and the added touches — is well done. As a small example, the soup Scrooge eats actually steams. It’s a little thing, but think of all the TV shows today where characters are clearly drinking from an (obviously) empty cup of coffee. Something little like that cracks the suspension of disbelief. When you watch this film, this is certainly a required suspension of disbelief, but the film stays true to the “rules” set up in its universe and recreates it faithfully.

The sets are well designed and detailed. Scrooge’s house looks old and untidy without descending into cob-webby haunted house parody. Little details add to the realism — it’s snowing outside the windows on Christmas Day. It costs people and money to create that effect, but really adds to the scene.

This film may have been made on a low budget but the film doesn’t suffer for the budget at all.

Liberties with the Dickens story (all good):

Let’s start with great lines (and there are MANY)!

When Scrooge offers to help Cratchit and his family, he calls him “Bob” for the first time ever and says, “I haven’t taken leave of my sense Bob…” [Not Mister Cratchit] “…I’ve found them. I want to help… If you’ll let me. ”

Perhaps the greatest line in any version of a Christmas Carol: On Christmas morning, a changed Scrooge gives Mrs. Dilber a Guiney as a Christmas present.

Scrooge: “Do you know what this is for?”

Mrs. Dilber: “To keep me mouth shut?”

God, I challenge you not to laugh when she asks that. And when she realizes Scrooge is sincere, she is STUNNED. You BELIEVE these people are real. You BELIEVE Scrooge has changed.

I love when Scrooge says, “I must stand on my head!” and then does it.

Another great line after Scrooge’s redemption: “I don’t deserve to be this happy.”

And the greatest “line” is actually a speech, by the Spirit of Christmas Present, the reference to Jesus: “…So it is with the child born in Bethlehem. He does not live in men’s hearts once day in the year but in all the days of the year. You have chosen not to seek him in your heart, therefore, you shall come with me and seek him the hearts of men of goodwill.” (Even a specific quote from the Gospel of Luke!) To my knowledge, this is the only version of “A Christmas Carol” where the Baby Jesus is specifically referenced. LOVE IT.

I really like how both the spirits of Christmas Past and Present are never mean to Scrooge. Other versions of the film have the spirits treating Scrooge with contempt. In this version, both of these spirits clearly have a mission, but are gentle (and even kind) as they endeavor to get their message across. It’s very refreshing. It’s like they are rooting for Scrooge to change.

I like that Tiny Tim is presented not as sickly and dying but as a cripple with an enthusiastic smile. At the top of the film, the scene with him “window shopping” at the toy store, looking at the beautifully intricate mechanized toys is absolutely charming and adds incredible depth and realism and scope to the film. I also love that Tiny Tim says he knows Scrooge sent the turkey, and gives the reason as, “Christmas” with a smile.

This film is very aware of its historical settings and actually talks about it — the world is changing, machines are replacing working men, a new age is starting. Even Fezziwig acknowledges this but is unwilling to change because he believes the work is more than work — he is helping people learn a skill, helping people be better.

We see more scenes and dialogue of how the “old world” is fading away, and how Fezziwig loses his favorite clark, Scrooge, (to Mr. Jorkin) and his business, in a hostile takeover. Again, characters so familiar seem so much more fleshed out that they seem real. As Fezziwig watches his business sign being taken down, there is such sadness in his face. It’s not the money — he was building something in people.

Mr. Jorkin (played by Jack Warner) is a new character who does not appear at all in Dickens’s original story. He lured Scrooge away from the benevolent Mr. Fezziwig. When Jorkin is discovered to be an embezzler, the opportunistic Scrooge and Marley offer to compensate the company’s losses on the condition that they receive control of the company for which they work – and so, Scrooge and Marley is born. LOVE IT. This makes the characters so much more three dimensional.

Speaking of his former employer, that it is Ebenezer Scrooge that ultimately helps put Fezziwig out of business is brilliant. And as young Scrooge wishes he could have a word with Fezziwig but doesn’t, it makes him seem more real.

We see Jacob Marley’s death in this version. Scrooge is all business as his friend is dying — “Seen to last rites and all that?” he asks in the same tone you’d ask if it’s still raining outside, and is annoyed with Marley because he can’t understand the words the dying man is gasping out. “Save yourself.”

A few minutes earlier, as Scrooge is on his way to visit dying Marley, Scrooge and Cratchit have the familiar conversation about having Christmas off, and Scrooge mocks the “If it’s quite convenient” comment by stating, “You say that every year.”

I like how the Spirit of Christmas past asks Scrooge is he felt anything when Marley died and he inherited his worldly goods.

As in the 1984 George C. Scott version, Scrooge’s mother died giving birth to him, which is why his father holds such a grudge against him.

We also see Fan’s death in this version. Ebenezer’s hardness — and rejection of his humanity — comes quite slowly. It is only when his beloved Fan dies from complications giving birth to Fred that Ebenezer’s heart closes. Ebenezer referred to Fan as the only person who ever loved him, and earlier said she must live forever.

It is only years after her death, reliving it the moment with the spirits, that Scrooge learns that after he (his younger self) left the bedside of his (presumably dead) sister, she was still alive enough to gasp out a request that Scrooge take care of her son (Fred). Scrooge is devastated to learn this so many years later. He never knew.

Scrooge’s great romantic love, called Alice in this version, is not married but working as a caretaker at what appears to be a refuge or hospital for the homeless. It’s touching when one of the patients tells Alice, “This is the “Happiest Christmas I ever had.”

The secondary and even tertiary characters — such as the undertaker — are fleshed out so the story feels larger than it actually is. Everyone has a moment or two. When Scrooge observes that the undertaker is waiting in the hall for Marley to die, the undertaker explains, “Ours is a competitive business.” It’s a scene that’s not needed but expands this universe into something real.

It’s just a moment, but when the two men seeking donations visit Scrooge at the beginning of the film, there is a small look of compassion as one of them notices Bob Cratchit warming his hands around the candle. There are a hundred moments like this — no exposition, just a glace, a light in the face changing, a look in the eyes, a gesture that you might not even notice.

Interestingly, the Spirit of Christmas Future is not a skeleton but clearly a pale human male. You can sometimes make out the face beneath the veil.

And on a personal note, I have a vivid memory of watching this version with my father one Christmas Eve, and remember the iconic scene where Scrooge runs away as the Spirit of Christmas Present has vanished, only to be stopped by the outstretched hand of the Spirit of Christmas Yet To Come. The composition of this scene is brilliant. No special effects, no flashes of light, just a hand raised into the scene, stopping Scrooge’s flight. Awesome.

The end scene where Scrooge visits his nephew is incredibly touching. While I like the George C. Scott version of this scene better, Sim does a lovely job conveying his apprehension. Also, it’s a very small thing, but when he takes off his coat and scarf, he is gentle, and gives then GENTLY to the maid. And it is to her encouraging nod that he gets the courage to enter the parlor and talk to his family. And the end dance with Fred’s wife to the folk song “Barbara Allen” is lovely. When Scrooge asks forgiveness, you believe he means it. This is all Sim’s outstanding acting.

One final note: The team that restored this film did a brilliant job. Whether you like the original black and white or colorized version, the team, working with the original film elements, did an incredible job restoring this sixty year old film to pristine quality.

The Not-So-Good:

It’s not fair to judge the special effects of over a half century ago with today’s standards, but the effect where young Fan passes through older Scrooge is particularly poor and should have been reshot or cut. But — I am happy that the restoration team did not cut it — no matter what its flaws, a film is the product of its time. Cleaning a film to its original condition is wonderful, changing or editing it would be wrong. See also: George Lucas.

The character of Fred is rather subdued and his appearance in Scrooge’s office, inviting him to dinner, is all too brief. He doesn’t even give the powerful “I say God Bless it” Christmas speech, and his visit is so brief that Scrooge never even makes the “go into parliament” comment.

Not so much a complaint, but there is so much rich detail in the “past” spirit scenes (and also the present) but the future seems perfunctory. There is the scene at the Cratchits, the scene where Scrooge’s businesses associates speak of his death, and an extended seen with the housekeeper, undertaker and laundress pawn Scrooge’s goods, and suddenly we’re in the cemetery. It seems a little rushed.

Summary:

Considered by the majority of critics to be THE epitome of  “A Christmas Carol,” I could not agree more. Charming with its quaint special effects and succeeding brilliantly in fleshing out all-too familiar characters into believable human people and a compelling story, and showcasing the undisputed epitome of Ebenezer Scrooge by Allistor Sim, this is THE version of the story if you only choose one. Like, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the film may not have been a commercial success when first released, but has become a very beloved Christmas film, and to many, including myself, the definitive take on Dickens’ classic. I urge you to see this film and discover its magic for yourself.

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