Dir. Henry Edwards; writ. H. Fowler Mear; featuring Seymour Hicks, Donald Calthrop, Oscar Asche
A Christmas Carol
Dir. Edwin L. Marin; writ. Hugo Butler; featuring Reginald Owen, Gene Lockhart, Kathleen Lockhart, Ann Rutherford, Leo G. Carroll
Also called A Christmas Carol
Dir. Brian Desmond Hurst; writ. Noel Langley; featuring Alastair Sim, Mervyn Johns, Michael Hordern
Dir. Ronald Neame Hurst; writ Leslie Bricusse; featuring Albert Finney, Edith Adams, Kenneth Moore, David Collings, Alec Guinness
The Stingiest Man in Town
Dir. Jules Bass, Arthur Rankin Jr.; writ. Romeo Muller; voices Walter Matthau, Tom Bosley, Theodore Bikel, Dennis Day
A Christmas Carol
Dir. Richard Boden; writ. Richard Curtis, Ben Elton; featuring George C. Scott, David Warner, Roger Rees, Edward Woodward
Dir. Richard Donner; writ. Mitch Glazer, Michael O'Donoghue; featuring Bill Murray, Karen Allen, Robert Mitchum
Blackadder's Christmas Carol
Dir. Clive Donner; writ. Roger O. Hirson; featuring Rowan Atkinson, Tony Robinson, Hugh Laurie, Miranda Richardson, Stephen Fry, Robbie Coltrane
A Christmas Carol
Dir. San Phillips; writ. Jymn Magon; voices Tim Curry, Whoopie Goldberg, Michael York, Ed Asner
Video versions of Dickens's A Christmas Carol are so ubiquitous today, especially on television around the holiday season, that it may be surprising to learn that film studios at first resisted making any.
Throughout the silent era, several shorts—mainly 15 minutes or less—were based on Dickens's beloved story. Even in the early sound years when classic adaptations were being cranked out, the seasonal theme of A Christmas Carol was a hard sell, due to the slow distribution system then, which would allow such a film to be shown in only a few major cities before the season passed.
Bucking the trend however was prominent British stage actor Seymour Hicks, who from a young age practically made a career of playing the old miser Ebenezer Scrooge. In addition to theatre adaptations, he is credited with writing and starring in a 40-minute silent film in 1913 when he was little older than forty.
Birth of a classic crank
Over two decades later, when he was closer to the character's age Hicks finally got his fellow Brits to commit to a full-length, big-screen production of the story. Though actually based on a stage play by H. Fowler Mear, Scrooge (1935) adheres closely to Dickens's vision, except for a few extraneous religious and sentimental touches.
Although it's usually overlooked, this film laid down a pattern for all future cinematic Christmas Carols. You can especially see the seeds of Alistair Sim's popular 1951 rendition of Scrooge in Hicks's portrayal of the lead character, a rumpled old man with fly-away white hair and a constricted body language. Before our eyes, he grows gradually from cruelly arrogant misanthropy to meek generosity teetering on self-conscious giddiness. Some have argued Hicks makes the best Scrooge ever.
The story is still somewhat compressed however, so in the Christmas Past section we don't get to see the childhood that shaped Scrooge or his early adult life as business partner with Morley.
When Morley's ghost appears to Scrooge, he's invisible to us, leaving sound effects and Hicks's estimable acting to create the desired impression. Of the three Christmas spirits, only Christmas Present, in the memorable person of Shakespearean actor Oscar Asche, is shown clearly, the other two being indicated by lights and shadows.
For modern viewers, the film experience may also be hampered by the scratchy and chopped up quality of the copies that occasionally show up on television. But recently restored and colorized versions are now available on DVD, hopefully bringing this seminal Scrooge back into the limelight it deserves.
Whatever copy you find though, its dark depiction of Victorian England, the even darker depiction of a tortured soul, and the excellent acting all-round bring this Scrooge alive as a more-than-worthwhile early example of the genre.
That first big North American production was MGM's 1938 A Christmas Carol, made in trepidation that it wouldn't have legs. But it turned out to be a big hit and, ever since, producers have been making holiday-themed fare every year.
MGM made the story as palatable as possible to the general public. It's lighter and more cheerful than most later takes. Veteran character actor Reginald Owen (see his earlier Sherlock Homes) stepped in to replace a sick Lionel Barrymore in the Ebenezer Scrooge role—and he is very good in a stately and restrained manner, overcoming his corny old-man makeup with its obvious bald wig and pasted-on eyebrows.
The script however never really lets us see what turned the neglected little boy into the archetypical cynic. The Spirit of Christmas Past (18-year-old Ann Rutherford on her way to becoming a major Hollywood star) never shows Scrooge's early money grubbing nor his ill-fated romance as a young man. With the film running barely 70 minutes, his initial conversion to crank and later to good fellow are both too quick.
A pathos-enhancing plot innovation though is to have Bob Cratchit actually fired for unintentionally knocking Scrooge's hat off with a snowball. Cratchit, portrayed by Gene Lockhart, is afraid to spoil Christmas by telling his wife, played by real-life spouse Kathleen Lockhart. (The acting family is completed with a Cratchit daughter played without credit by their real-life child June Lockhart, in her debut before going on to become a movie and television mainstay, starring in the Lassie and Lost in Space series.)
Child actor Terry Kilburn drew praise for his cheery Tiny Tim back then but today he seems too precious, even creepy. And Scrooge's nephew Fred (Barry MacKay) is just too good-natured—why does he bother keeping up with the insufferably rotten Scrooge?
Even the shade of Scrooge's long-dead partner, Marley, is not so scary. He's on screen for a only a few moments and the stalwart Leo G. Carroll plays him as if about to fall asleep forever (although the special effects are pretty good for the time).
The religious aspect, not a big part of Dickens' work, is also played up wherever possible.
The biggest disappointment for Christmas Carol lovers though may be that the morning-after scene in the office, when Scrooge surprises Cratchit with his new disposition, is dispensed with. Instead the former miser delivers the turkey himself to the Cratchit family for the big revelation at their house. But then we need this scene, don't we? Since he'd previously fired Cratchit, there could be no at-work reconciliation. In my view it works well here, though some disagree.
Overall the film is brighter than later versions. Although the setting is still pre-Victorian London, many aspects seem characteristic of American costume films in the 1930s—the sets, like Scrooge's mansion or his boyhood school are bright, airy and grandiose. But still A Christmas Carol is an honest and entertaining first effort.
It took the Brits to really get it right. The 1951 adaptation, Scrooge (called A Christmas Carol in the United States), is the beloved version we've all seen countless times.
It also made former academic Alastair Sim into a beloved figure for his wonderfully lively, moving and hilarious performance. It is hard to describe the depth of his performance that allows us to accept without question the transitions from cruelty to fear to recalcitrance to repentance to joyful silliness. Few could watch the last few minutes of Scrooge without tearing up and giggling at the same time.
The film gives him and the other actors time (about an hour and a half) to develop their characters more. We see Scrooge grow into the monster he becomes in business alongside Marley (the also great Michael Hordern in a beefed-up role) and with his long-suffering fiancée in private life.
The Cratchits are still sentimentally portrayed but not cloyingly so—led by character actor Mervyn Johns as a sincere, but deeply feeling, Bob Cratchit.
The cinematography is brilliant. Black and white has seldom been used so effectively in filmmaking outside the American film-noir crime classics. London is dark and cramped and Scrooge's home is dingy and full of shadows. Camera angles accentuate the feeling of doom in the early and middle going and then open up for the joyous finale.
(Beware the colourized version of this film. Why oh why would they ruin such a masterpiece in this way? Presumably to curry favour with youngsters who won't watch anything so old that it's black and white. But the pastel backgrounds, the colourful clothes, the overall bright lighting of the coloured film—they just wash the drama from this classic.)
This is the Christmas Carol—and the Scrooge—that all since have measured themselves against.
Do we really need a musical version of essentially the same endearing and enduring film? Not much. Yet the 1970 singing-dancing Scrooge is affecting nonetheless. It's in colour but of sombre tones and the superb acting lifts it into the top rank of Christmas Carol films.
Albert Finney, then only 34 years old by my calculation, is an effective old miser in the title role. (He's seen playing his real age only in the Christmas Past flashbacks.) And, thank goodness, he doesn't often break into song. The big productions mainly feature other members of the cast while Scrooge either mumbles along or, when he's alone, generally speaks the lyrics Rex Harrison-style. In fact, Finney is a rather quiet Scrooge for much of the film, relying on his classic acting skills to get across his inner torment without a lot of histrionics.
The supporting cast is a Who's Who of English theatrical talent, with Dame Edith Evans as a classy Christmas Past, Kenneth More as the expansive Christmas Present and Alec Guinness as a Marley who, strangely, borders on comic, even as he's introducing Scrooge to hell in the Christmas Future segment.
Yes, that's one of the few wholesale additions to the Christmas Carol story by this movie treatment: Ebenezer goes beyond the famous graveyard scene into his own afterlife. Oddly, it's literally also one of the brighter scenes in this Scrooge. Hell shines with 1970s Day-Glo colours as muscular henchmen chain Scrooge to his office as Lucifer's eternal clerk.
The conclusion departs also somewhat from the usual script, as for once Scrooge plays a central role in a big production number, this one seemingly involving the entire city of London. Everyone shares the joy of Scrooge's conversion, together singing and dancing to "I Love Life" and "Thank You". The movies aims to end on a high note and send you out humming the songs. And sure enough it works. This may not be the most realistic or most dramatic Christmas Carol, but it could be the best feel-good movie of the group.
A human Scrooge
George C. Scott is probably the finest actor to essay the role of Ebenezer Scrooge and he brings an entirely different dimension to the character.
The 1984 adaptation of A Christmas Carol was shot in England for TV, directed by Clive Donner, who had worked as a young editor on the 1951 Scrooge. The special effects are nothing special—the ghostly apparitions are no more sophisticated than those in films decades earlier—but 19th-century London is evoked realistically in sombre colour.
However, it is the subtle acting of the American Scott that makes this version unusual. I'm not saying he makes the best Scrooge or he makes this film the best—but he makes it one of the most interesting.
The most unsettling even. For this Scrooge is not a caricature. He's a real man, and that can be upsetting. For the most part Scott is low key. He plays the old miser as a regular person set in his ways would respond to what's happening about him. We can see in his face and small gestures that he's considering what he's shown, giving in on some points, dismissing others, being seduced by some scenes of jollity or hardship, closing his mind against others—without saying much at all. And when he does speak, it's offhand, as we all speak in real life. This may be annoying to viewers who await the declamation of famous lines only to have them tossed off as if unthinkingly. But it humanizes Scrooge, so that we sympathize with him long before his reformation. And when the fireworks do come, they are all the more forceful because of the calm before. Scott is an actor who always comes across as containing a deep fury within himself and it works here to create a volatile Scrooge.
One of the oddest scenes is actually the reconciliation with nephew Fred (Roger Rees) and his wife (Caroline Langrishe). It occurs not at a party, as in most other films, but with the three characters only. After Scrooge makes his apologies for past behaviour, they all profess happiness at their new-found togetherness. But the actors play the scene so realistically, with the awkwardness that would naturally ensue, that we don't get the anticipated release. That comes only with the final at-work scene with Scrooge and Cratchit, when Scott lets his barely containable joy show through.
Cratchit however is miscast. The worthy David Warner is too big and too hard (and perhaps too well-known for his villainous roles in other movies) to be believable as the meek and loving family man.
An interesting bit of casting though is Edward Woodward as Christmas Present. This spirit is usually the image of joviality, close to the modern icon of Santa Claus, until he takes a turn for seriousness near the end of his reign and turns Scrooge over to the doom-saying ghost of Christmas Yet To Come. But Woodward, made to appear gigantic, has a sharp edge and engages in a gibing battle of wits with Scrooge almost from the beginning.
Also this is the only version of A Christmas Carol I can think of in which we get to meet Scrooge's father, who turns out—contrary to most renditions and Dickens' own text—to have remained harsh towards young Ebenezer. This makes more sense in explaining Scrooge's development into such a harsh figure himself.
All in all, this is a film adaptation of A Christmas Carol to watch after seeing one of more of the earlier versions in order to appreciate the different twists.
More Scrooges than you can shake a shtick at
Many other adaptations of Dickens' story have been made—I can count over 50—and more are probably being made as we speak. There's even one that features nothing but dogs. And every figure in popular culture seems to offer a twist on the story: The Muppet Christmas Carol, The Flintstones'..., Mr. Magoo's....
But here's a small selection from among the more noteworthy video presentations:
• The animated 1997 version of A Christmas Carol isn't as bad as you might expect after watching for a few minutes. Yes, it uses a rather flat cartoon style, reminiscent of old Saturday-morning TV, and it wastes time with some cartoonish episodes, such as Scrooge interacting with a comical bulldog, added as his constant companion, and a ridiculous bit involving a mouse in Scrooge's office. And there are three or four goofy songs—the most over-the-top and catchy being "Santa's Sooty Suit". But the story is told as well and as completely as in some of the live-action flicks and the actors providing the voices are first-rate: Tim Curry as Scrooge, Michael York as Bob Cratchit and Ed Asner as Marley. Whoopi Goldberg does a weird, unrecognizable turn as the voice of Christmas Present—a black woman with a put-on British accent who ages before our eyes. The film works despite some of the above caveats. The reformation scene at the end is especially effective. Nothing spectacular but I imagine young kids would appreciate this animated film while adults could certainly manage to sit through it.
• The same can't be said for the 1978 made-for-TV cartoon The Stingiest Man in Town. It's notable only for its impressive cast, starting with Walter Matthau as Scrooge's voice. It tells the familiar Christmas Carol story largely through the character of B.A.H. Humbug, a cheery, comical insect (humBUG, get it?), added to the story as Scrooge's unnoticed sidekick—a patent rip-off of Disney's Jiminy Cricket. The animation is flat and clichéd. The musical numbers pretty well stop the story and, perhaps to appeal to present-day American tastes, manage to bring in both Christ's nativity and Santa Claus, which I don't recall in Dickens. The Stingiest Man in Town is actually based on a musical of the same name by Janice Torrey. It played live on television in 1956 (with Basil Rathbone as Scrooge!) and is remembered fondly by those who saw it, though it appears not to be available today.
• Scrooged (1988) is said to be "suggested" by the Dickens story. If anything, it's an updating—from early nineteenth-century British to late twentieth-century American. Comic actor Bill Murray is TV executive Frank Cross whose station is producing a live version of A Christmas Carol. He's a cynical bastard himself and, in a parallel characterization to Scrooge's, he doesn't get the Christmas spirit. That is, until he's visited by them—though they aren't quite the spirits Dickens envisioned. All the characters are funny, while behaving quite normally for the situation. And, although the film is a take-off on A Christmas Carol, it follows the same storyline and concludes with the same uplifting message.
• When you've had enough uplifting Dickens, you may need a dose of the misanthropic antidote: Blackadder's Christmas Carol (1988). It's only forty-eight minutes and made for TV, but it's a hoot. British comic actor Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean) revives his cult-favourite series Blackadder about the the similarlys-named cynics who span the centuries. This time he focuses on Ebenezer Blackadder in 19th-century London. But the twist on Dickens is that this Ebenezer is the opposite of Scrooge. He starts out on Christmas Eve as a kindly man who gives generously to all, until visiting spirits, showing him the lives of his family members past and future, convince him he'll have a better life if he turns evil. Most of the Blackadder characters, including Tony Robinson as Baldrick, Hugh Laurie as the Prince Regent George, Stephen Fry as Lord Melchett, and Miranda Richardson as Queen Elizabeth I are back for the fun.