Retro-Review: A Christmas Carol (1938) starring Reginald Owen
by Robert Gillis6-27940-reginald-owen-in-a-christmas-carol-1354930160
Published in the Boston City Paper, 12/2006

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

Version: 1938 (MGM)
Scrooge: Reginald Owen

Cast: Gene Lockhart (Bob Cratchit), Kathleen Lockhart (Mrs. Cratchit), Terry Kilburn (Tiny Tim Cratchit), Barry MacKay (Fred), Lynne Carver (Bess), Leo G. Carroll (Jacob Marley’s ghost), Lionel Braham (Spirit of Christmas Present), Ann Rutherford (Spirit of Christmas Past), D’Arcy Corrigan (Spirit of Christmas Future), Ronald Sinclair (Young Ebenezer Scrooge)

Trivia: Reginald Owen was a last-minute replacement for the ailing Lionel Barrymore.

The Good: The cast is terrific. Owen is a perfect Scrooge. Barry Mackie’s Fred is probably the best interpretation of the Fred Holywell character and he exudes a joie de vie that can barely be contained. And there’s real chemistry between Mackie and Carver (Bess). The Cratchit family gets a lot more screen time and you see how happy the family really is, and how much they love each other. For 1938, the special effects are good, and you need to squint to see the wires when Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Past are flying. Start to finish, this is a sweet, likeable film and frankly underrated, as it’s one of the better adaptations of the Dickens classic.

Liberties with the story (all good): The idea that Scrooge would fire Cratchit (and on Christmas Eve) isn’t in the original story (or any other adaptation) but really shows how mean old Scrooge can be. Despite his sacking, Bob still finds his Christmas spirit. I LOVE the church scene on Christmas day with the characters singing “O come all ye faithful,” and the sliding on the ice outside the church. The snowball fights are cute. The scene where Fred takes Tiny Tim on his back so he can slide on the ice like the other kids shows Fred’s kindness and is heartwarming. I like the scene where Scrooge is so enjoying watching the Cratchit’s and Fred’s Christmas gatherings that he smiles and tells the Ghost of Christmas present, “I won’t go with you! I’m going to stay! I love Christmas!”

A-Christmas-Carol-1938-christmas-movies-27945849-1067-800On repeated viewings, I did notice another departure from other films – this is very much Fred’s story as well, and also MUCH more about the Cratchits. This is the only version of the story where Fred is not already married – he is engaged to the love of his life but cannot marry until he’s making enough money. The scenes in the church with Fred and Bess singing joyfully, sliding in front of the church, hiding to kiss behind the curtain, all show Fred’s joie de vivre. And in a touching moment, Scrooge, watching Fred and Bess sing and church, refutes the Ghost of Christmas Present’s statements that Fred and Bess’ love for each other will wither away – Scrooge says their love will grow and adds, “They SHOULD be married!”  And at the end of the film, Scrooge doesn’t just visit Fred and Bess, but brings them along to get the shopping done to bring the gifts and turkey to the Cratchits. “He made me his partner. We’re to be married!” Fred exclaims. Scrooge not only made it possible for Fred to secure a future for he and Bess, but imagine how much better Scrooge and Marley will be with Fred working there.

Also, watching the Cratchit family Christmas during the Ghost of Christmas present scene, this part of the film becomes so much about the family – seeing Bob sing “On Come All Ye Faithful” and looking so lovingly at Tim as the boy joins in the song, the preparation for dinner, Bob Cratchit worried about losing his job, the exuberant dinner, the pudding, the story telling, that when the scene cuts away to Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present watching from the window, it’s almost jarring — we’ve seen so much the Cratchit’s holiday that you almost forget the movie is about Scrooge. The Cratchit family be over-exuberant and on a sugar-high, but you DO feel the strong sense of love and connection in the Cratchit family.

As a “family” or “happy” holiday movie, it works fine. This interpretation of the story is clearly never meant to be dark and mean. Perhaps that’s why we never do see the scenes where Scrooge is in love and loses that love to greed, or his descent. It would have killed the joy the film tries to sustain.    That said…

The Not-So-Good. To be honest, the enthusiasm and cheer throughout the film (except in the possible future) are a bit too much — everyone in the cast except Scrooge is on a sugar-high. The Cratchit children are so enthusiastic and happy that the acting goes wayyyyyyy over the top. We get that they’re poor — we get that they don’t have goose too often — but the exuberance is too much. Another example of this is Bob Cratchit shouting, “Merry Christmas” in the streets just moments after lamenting being fired — the over-the-top happinessA-Christmas-Carol-1938-christmas-movies-27945825-1067-800s take away a little from the “haunting ghost story” the film is supposed to be. But again, perhaps that was the director and producer’s intention, to keep the mood light. This version of the classic is not at all a “dark” film.

And despite the additional scenes not in the novel, production feels rushed because other scenes were cut or not filmed. Scrooge’s transformation feels just a little bit forced.  As I mentioned earlier, there’s no exposition as to how Scrooge became so mean (the Ghost of Christmas Past mentions that she has yet to show Scrooge his descent into greed and his darker years, and then Scrooge basically says, “No more, I can’t stand it,” and that’s it, he’s back in his bedroom). Again, that may have been to keep the film “light.”    Unlike other versions of the story, we never really get the WHY of how Scrooge became so miserly and mean.

Also, in Christmas future, there’s no scene where people are selling Scrooge’s personal items right after he died (recall the famous line about the housekeeper tearing down the bed curtains while Scrooge lay dead) but on Christmas morning Scrooge still looks up at the bed curtains, noting they have not been torn down.

To me, the ending still feels a bit rushed and wraps up everything in a few moments at the Cratchit house.

Summary: My dad’s very favorite version (and the only version that holds a true place in my heart for that reason). I remember when I was a kid, Dad and I would stay up late to watch this version on TV (no VCRs or DVDs back then). None of the “not-so-good” moments I cited detract from the story too much, and the liberties and additions are for the most part refreshing and welcome. Despite minor shortcomings; and a few liberties (most of them good) with the story, this is one of the best adaptations of the oft-filmed Dickens Yuletide classic and one I love.

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