Picking up where we left off yesterday ... Following MGM's good looking if somewhat heartless "A Christmas Carol," leave it to English filmmakers to deliver what many consider to be the very best movie version of Charles Dickens' holiday tale.
Copyright 1999 United Home
What is it exactly about "Scrooge" that makes it one of the best, if not the best "Christmas Carol" ? Two words: Alistair Sim.
You wouldn't think that Sim (Who -- prior to this 1951 release -- had probably been best known for his work in light English comedies) would be the appropriate performer to play Dickens' miserable miser. But "Scrooge" director Brian Desmond-Hurst clearly thought that this comic was capable of greatness. Which is why he cast Alistair to play Ebenezer.
And -- in the end -- Desmond-Hurst's gamble paid off. For Sim does a very brave thing with his portrayal of Scrooge. In that his take on this memorable character is caricature-free. Meaning that Alistair plays Ebenezer as if he were a real human being.
Oh, sure. Scrooge is still one tough old bird. At the very start of the film, he's still cold-hearted enough to off-handedly reject a debtor's plea for a bit more time even though it's Christmas Eve.
But back at his office, Ebenezer doesn't snarl at those two gentlemen who are seeking his contribution to the poor. Nor does he needlessly berate his clerk, Bob Crachit. He's just a businessman who's lost sight of what's really important in life.
That's the beauty of Noel Langley's "Scrooge" screenplay. By first grounding Dickens' characters in reality, it makes the later, more supernatural aspects of this holiday tale seem that much more fantastic.
Of course, what really helps here is that Sim is surrounded by actors who play things just as naturalistic as he does. From Tiny Tim (Glyn Dearman) on up, the cast of "Scrooge" is top-notch.
FYI for all you Disney fans out there: Does Mrs. Crachit (pictured below) look familiar? She should. That's Hermione Baddeley. Who appeared in such Walt Disney Productions as "Mary Poppins," "The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin" and "The Happiest Millionaire" as well as providing the voice for Madame Bonfamille in "The Aristocats" & Auntie Shrew in Don Bluth's "The Secret of NIMH."
Anyway, getting back to the script that Langley wrote for "Scrooge" ... What helps here is that Noel made an effort to steer clear of the aspects of Dickens' holiday tale that were (even in 1951) already becoming clichés. Take -- for example -- Scrooge's encounter with Jacob Marley.
Most movie versions of "A Christmas Carol" are content to have Ebenezer have an eerie if somewhat brief encounter with his former business partner. But Langley & Desmond-Hurst are smarter than that. They actually let this scene run a little longer than usual.
Using a piece of Dickens' text that talks how truly tormented those who are condemned to walk the earth forever are, the filmmakers construct this heart-wrenching scene. Which shows dozens of restless spirits surrounding this poor homeless woman who's out in the cold with her child. Unseen by most mortals, they (quoting directly from the book now) " ... sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, (but) had lost the power for ever."
Copyright 1999 United Home
Another fine aspect of this particular version of "A Christmas Carol" is that it actually gives Scrooge motivations for his various behaviors. Take -- for example -- Ebenezer's initially hostile attitude toward his nephew, Fred. In this take on Dickens' holiday tale, we learn that Scrooge resents his nephew because Ebenezer's beloved sister, Fan, dies after giving birth to Fred.
Copyright 1999 United Home
Of course, what Scrooge doesn't realize (because he rushed out of the room just before his sister passes away) is that -- with her dying breath -- Fan asked Ebenezer to look after Fred, to care for her boy.
The look of shame, horror & regret that plays over Sim's face as Scrooge & the Ghost of Christmas Past stand beside Fan's deathbed, and Ebenezer finally learns what his sister's last wishes were ... You just can't help but feel sorry for Scrooge and the many ways that he's wasted his life.
Another thing that's great about this particular version of "A Christmas Carol" is the attention to detail. The little touches that make it clear that this story is set in 1840s London. Take -- for example -- the poor wretched children who work in the Rag & Bone Man's shop, picking through these enormous piles of discarded clothing.
These kids (just like the poor woman with her baby that we see earlier in the film) are there to remind us that this truly was a brutal time to live in. That the gulf between rich and poor was so enormous back then that even the smallest of gestures, a simple show of charity, could really save a life.
But -- of course -- the life that gets saved in "A Christmas Carol" is Scrooge's. Which is why the scenes where Sim celebrates his second chance are such a joy to behold. The obvious happiness that's bubbling up inside of this man as he dances around his bed chamber (Scaring the hell out of his charwoman in the process) just make this sequence in the film so much fun to watch.
"So how good is the Alistair Sim version of 'A Christmas Carol' really?," you ask. It's so good that -- when Richard Williams was creating a half-hour-long animated version of Dickens' classic holiday tale in the 1970s -- the only actor that he'd consider to do the voice the role of Scrooge was Sim.
Copyright 1998 Anchor Bay
Truth to be told, though, Williams did hire one other 1951 alumnus to work on his animated version of "A Christmas Carol." Michael Hordern -- who had played Jacob Marley to Alistair Sim's Scrooge -- agreed to provide vocals for Ebenezer's old partner.
The end result was an animated film that was so well received that it actually won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short in 1972. We'll discuss that particular version of "A Christmas Carol" on Thursday of this week.
Anyway ... Getting back to the 1951 version of "A Christmas Carol." What else is there to say? This particular production really is the best of the bunch. So if you're looking for a top notch film version of Dickens' classic tale to watch over the holiday season, this is probably the one you want to snag.
Tomorrow, we talk about of the very first TV versions of "A Christmas Carol" that was ever produced.
First, I want to say thank you for doing these articles on the many film versions of "Christmas Carol". It's nice to learn a little more about some of the lesser known productions -- especially the various ways filmmakers have gone about telling the same story.
I've yet to see this 1951 version of "Scrooge" in full. Last year, I caught a little bit of it on AMC, but the quality of the print and sound was tremendously poor. However, a restored movie palace in Stanford will be showing "Scrooge" on a double-bill with "Shop Around the Corner" at the end of next month. I looked forward to catching it before -- now, thanks to your article, even more so!
Right on, Jim. Sim was THE best Scrooge, bar none, and you gave an excellent analysis as to why that is so. His version of "A Christmas Carol" is the only version I will bother to watch when the inevitable Christmas specials and movies air on the tube this time of year. Great series, Jim, thanks for the early Xmas gift.
I must say that although I still love the Sim version, the George C. Scott version has been slowly but surely inching its way ahead in recent years! Hope your series covers it so I can post some comments on it.
Ever notice how the best Scrooges (Sim and Scott, among others) play Scrooge not just as a one-dimensional miser but as a BUSINESSMAN, who sees the world in Darwinistic terms long before Darwin?
And you can usually tell the greatness of a Christmas Carol adaptation by whether or not it includes the Spirits of Ignorance and Want. (Not that the ones without them aren't good, too, but they tend to be a bit more on the fluffy side.) To Dickens, these two "ragged, bare, wolfish" children were the impetus behind the book.
>>"Another fine aspect of this particular version of 'A Christmas Carol' is that it actually gives Scrooge motivations for his various behaviors"<<
And although writer Noel (MGM's "Wizard of Oz") Langley puts in a bit too much of his own, one event he inserts for young-Scrooge's backstory is a scene where the now shrewd grown-up Scrooge and Marley take over the business, after their old owner was caught in shady dealings--It's not in the book, but Langley's ear for inventing Dickens' own dialogue and puffy Victorian buffoons is perfectly on the mark. :)
Jim Hill continues JHM's new series with a look at yet another version of "A Christmas Carol." This time around, Jim talks about Richard Williams' Academy Award-winning animated version from 1971
Sorry, I don't really care much for this version. Sim is a good Scrooge, but the rest of the film feels longer than it actually is, pompous and boring. Sure, the scene with Fan's death had the tears welling up, but they evaporated when the past WOULDN'T STOP. Ah well, my opinion, your opinion.