A Christmas Carol (1938) Starring: Reginald Owen, Gene Lockhart, Kathleen Lockhart, Terry Kilburn, Barry MacKay. Directed by Edwin L. Marin. Screenplay by Hugo Butler Based on the novella: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Produced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz Run Time 69 minutes. USA Black and White Drama, Christmas
Outside of the stories in the Bible, there may be no story that has been remade more often on film than Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. First published on December 19, 1843, the story tells of the redemption and transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge from an uptight, uncaring rich man into a kinder, gentler, more loving one. While you might not think much about the book, the next time you wish someone a “Merry Christmas” remember that it was popularized in the novel. Since its first publication, and it has never gone out of print, the book has been made countless times as an opera, a ballet, a Broadway musical, animation, a BBC mime production starring Marcel Marceau and numerous films.
There have been about twenty film and twenty-seven television adaptations of the book, proving once again how much producers love titles in the public domain. The earliest was Scrooge, or, Marley's Ghost (1901), a short British film and the most recent is a direct-to-DVD re-imagining: The Smurfs: A Christmas Carol (2013). I have not seen nor do I plan to see either of these, especially the latter.
In addition to film and television, radio has also gotten into the act. Lionel Barrymore starred as Scrooge in a dramatization that first aired in 1934. As a tradition, Barrymore would repeat this on various networks every Christmas until 1953. That tradition was the basis for MGM wanting to make a film of the story in 1938, with the hope of starring Barrymore in the role. Sadly, 1938 is when Barrymore’s arthritis got the better of him and after breaking his hip twice was from then on wheelchair bound.
With their intended star out, MGM turned to Reginald Owen, at Barrymore’s suggestion. Owen, a British-born actor had previously appeared on stage and in films since Henry VIII (1911). In the 1920s, Owen moved to the U.S., ending up in Hollywood, where he became a staple in MGM films. It is reported to have taken Owen two hours to be made up for the role. (For Beatles fans, Owen rented out his Bel-Air mansion to the group when they were in town to play the Hollywood Bowl in August 1964, after no hotel would book them.)
The film, originally intended for 1939, went into production on October 5, 1938, and wrapped in early November. It was released on December 16, 1938, opening at New York’s Radio City Music Hall. At the time, it did moderately well and received numerous theatrical revivals by MGM.
The story is fairly true to the original story. This one opens on Christmas Eve, following Fred (Barry MacKay), Scrooge’s nephew, who is on his way to his Uncle’s business establishment. On the way, Fred, who is a big kid at heart, notices children sliding on the ice and decides to join them. Two of the children are Peter (John O'Day) and Tim Cratchit (Terry Kilburn), who happen to be sons of his uncle’s lone employee, Bob. Fred even takes the handicapped Tim on his back for a slide down the ice, before Peter knocks him into a bank of snow. When he tells the children who he is, they initially retreat in horror, but when they realize he’s nothing like their father’s boss, they warm up to him. Peter even asks him to take a message to their father so they don’t have to meet up with Scrooge. Fred is only happy to oblige.
At Scrooge’s office, Bob Cratchit (Gene Lockhart) is trying to look extra busy when he thinks his boss, Scrooge, is coming in but relaxes when he sees that it’s Fred. The two are obviously on friendly terms. Fred complains about the cold in the office, but Bob is reticent about putting more coal on the fire. Fred produces a bottle of port and Bob retrieves the only glass in the place, one Scrooge uses for cough syrup. Fred pours Bob a glass and Bob, feeling courageous, goes to get more coal for the fire. It’s about this point that Ebenezer Scrooge (Reginald Owen) returns.
He is obviously displeased that the room is warm and is very nonplused to see his nephew there. Fred wants to invite his Uncle over for Christmas dinner, but Scrooge feels that the holiday is Bah Humbug. When Fred tells him that he’s engaged, Scrooge immediately thinks he wants money, but Fred tries to assure him he’s not. Unable to convince him to come over, Fred leaves.
Later, a couple of businessmen come in looking for Scrooge’s partner, Marley, who has been dead for seven years now. The two gentlemen want to raise money for charity for the poor, but Scrooge refuses. There are places for the poor: prison and workhouses. And if they’re going to die from lack of food and from exposure, they might as well hurry up and relieve the surplus in the population. It is no surprise the men leave empty-handed.
|Scrooge turns down two businessmen trying to collect for charity.|
Scrooge grudgingly gives Bob Christmas Day off but demands he come in early the following day. He is also not happy to have to pay Bob his due wages. Soon after leaving work, Bob is assaulted with a snowball by some kids playing in the streets. Determined to join the fun, he readies a snowball to throw at the next top hat that comes around the corner. Unfortunately for Bob, the head under that hat belongs to Scrooge.
|Scrooge grudingly gives Bob Cratchit (Gene Lockhart) Christmas Day off.|
Unlike Bob, Scrooge sees no humor in it. Apologetically, Bob hurries to retrieve Scrooge’s hat but is too late and a horse-drawn carriage drives over the hat, rendering it unwearable. Scrooge fires Bob on the spot and even demands money back to help pay for his hat. Bob pays and the children apologize to him for getting him fired.
Bob could let this put a damper on the holiday but doesn’t. Instead, he goes about buying the things on his wife’s list, even buying the best he can, including Chestnuts from a street vendor. When he gets home he doesn’t tell his wife (Kathleen Lockhart, his real-life wife as well) about getting sacked. Instead, he tries to have the most fun he can with his several children.
Scrooge goes out for dinner and leaves without tipping. When he gets home, he sees the face of his former partner, Marley (Leo G. Carroll), on one of the door knockers. Thinking it’s indigestion, he goes to his room and gets ready for bed. But that’s not going to happen. First, Marley’s ghost pays him a visit. Scrooge tries to get the neighborhood watch to chase the spirit away, but they don’t see Marley and, after being turned down for a drink, leave.
|Scrooge's dead partner, Marley (Leo G. Carroll), appears on the door knocker.|
But Marley’s ghost hasn’t gone anywhere and tells Scrooge a cautionary tale about getting your just rewards, or in his case penance, in the afterworld for one’s actions in life. He tells Scrooge that this is his chance to change his life around and that he will be visited by three ghosts that night, the ghost of Christmas past at one, the ghost of Christmas present at two and the ghost of Christmas future at three.
Scrooge has a hard time getting to sleep anticipating the first ghost. The Ghost of Christmas Past (Ann Rutherford) has to be the prettiest ghost ever on the screen. She takes Scrooge back to his life as a schoolboy. Scrooge remembers everything but has apparently blocked out his sadness at having to spend the Christmas holiday at boarding school while all the other boys go home.
|The Ghost of Christmas Past (Ann Rutherford) takes Scrooge back to his own past.|
But young Scrooge’s (Ronald Sinclair) tears are dried when he learns his sister (Elvira Stevens) has been dispatched by their father to be brought home for the holidays and to stay after.
|Scrooge's sister, Fan (Elvira Stevens), fetches him home from school at Christmas.|
Instead of going back to school, Scrooge is placed in an apprenticeship working for Mr. Fezzing (Forrester Harvey). It’s Christmas time again and Scrooge and his fellow apprentice are given not only Christmas day off, but the day after as well. They are then invited to dinner with their boss and given a bonus before he leaves. Scrooge soon finds himself back in bed with his pillow replacing the spirit of Christmas past.
|Mr. Fezzing (Forrester Harvey) is young Ebenezer's (Ronald Sinclair) first boss.|
Unlike the spirit of Christmas past, the Ghost of Christmas Present (Lionel Braham) is a large and jolly man with a great bushy beard. He takes Scrooge around so that he can see how others celebrate the day, from strangers on the street who nearly get into a fight until the spirit of the day is sprinkled on them, to how people he knows keep Christmas with them.
|The Ghost of Christmas Present (Lionel Braham) takes Scrooge on|
a tour of London to see how others celebrate the holiday.
He observes Fred and his fiancée, Bess (Lynne Carver) at church, along with Bob and Tim. The spirit tells Scrooge that even though Fred and Bess are in very much in love, Fred’s current financial status does allow him to marry her. He goes further saying that the two may never marry, something similar to Scrooge’s experience when his own marriage never happened for the same reason. They listen as the choir (St. Luke's Choristers) sings the hymn “Adeste Fidelis," but the spirit makes them leave even though Scrooge wants to hear them sing.
|Fred and his fiancee Bess (Lynne Carver) greet Bob and |
Tim (Terry Kilburn) after church on Christmas morning.
Next, they go to the Cratchits’ home, where they observe the large and loving family making the most of their time together. Bob, though, is worried about something and confides in his daughter, Martha (Bunny Beatty), that he has lost his job; he makes her promise not to say anything. The family goes about eating dinner with the roasted goose, a flaming pudding topped by a punch Bob has concocted. When asked about Tim, the spirit tells Scrooge that without medical help, Tim will not see the next Christmas. That is unless things change. The spirit makes Scrooge leave even though he wants to hear the story Bob is telling his children as their treat after dinner.
|Bob's wife (Kathleen Lockhart) brings out a flaming pudding as dessert.|
Scrooge remembers how much he loves Christmas, but that’s not enough to spare him his third visit that night. The cloaked and mute Spirit of Christmas Future (D'Arcy Corrigan) leads Scrooge to the future, where at the next Christmas, the Cratchits celebrate without Tim, who has died. He is then taken to a scene on the street, where three men discuss the death of a businessman they all know who has recently died himself. Rich and lonely, as they describe him, they agree to go to his funeral more out of pity than of friendship. No one is left to mourn the man’s passing. Scrooge is shown the dead man’s body, lying under a white sheet, but he knows not to look under it. The spirit takes him to a graveyard, where he is shown the marker of the lonely man who died; it is his name engraved on it. Scrooge promises to repent and begs to know if the things he’s been shown are going to happen or if something can be done to change the course of time.
|The Ghost of Christmas Future (D'Arcy Corrigan) shows Scrooge a future that doesn't have to happen.|
Before Scrooge can get his answer, he awakes in his bed on Christmas morning. The spirit of the day is not lost on him and he takes this opportunity to change his life. Dispatching a boy on the street to fetch him a large turkey in the butcher’s window, he readies himself for the day. First, he runs into the same two businessmen he had practically thrown out of the office the day before and makes a donation to their charity. Then he goes to visit Fred, where he finally meets Bess and whispers to her his offer to pay for their wedding. Next, the three go to Bob’s house, where he delivers the turkey as well as toys for the kids. Fred and Bess come in later and Fred informs Bob that Scrooge has made him his partner. Scrooge also offers Bob his job back with a raise. They end the celebration with punch and Scrooge wishing everyone a “Merry Christmas.”
The film is not one hundred percent faithful to the book it’s based on. For example, except for an oblique mention, Scrooge’s youthful engagement to Belle has been excised, but it’s not really missed here. Scrooge’s transformation seems to come very quickly when he’s with only the second angel; I don’t know if that’s how it goes in the novel or not.
Overall, the acting is pretty good. Reginald Owen strikes the right chord as Scrooge, a man who goes through a transformation more than any other character. In fact, he’s really the only three-dimensional character in the story. The only one I think overacts is Terry Kilburn playing Tim. It’s a role that would be hard to be subtle with and Kilburn is not subtle. One note about the acting, the Cratchit family is a real-life family affair. Not only were the actors playing Mr. and Mrs. really married, but their own daughter, June, also plays one of their daughters, Belinda. June would go on to have her own successes, especially on TV with shows like Lassie, Lost in Space and Petticoat Junction.
|Terry Kilburn plays Tim in the film.|
For a film made in the 1930s, the special effects are really pretty good. The Marley ghost effect is no doubt a fairly straight forward double exposure. Still, it is executed well, as are the other scenes with the spirits, including the flying sequence when the Ghost of Christmas Past flies with Scrooge. Again, nothing probably out of the ordinary, but I’ve seen more modern films, where it doesn’t look as good.
|Scrooge goes flying with the Ghost of Christmas Past.|
While this is may not be considered the definitive film version of the story, it is still a well-made film and one that can be enjoyed by one and all at this festive time of the year.
To read reviews of other Christmas films, please see our Christmas Review Hub.
To read reviews of other Christmas films, please see our Christmas Review Hub.