Saturday, December 10, 2016

Stubs - A Christmas Carol (1951)

A Christmas Carol (aka Scrooge) (1951) Starring Alastair Sim, Mervyn Johns, Hermione Baddeley, Jack Warner, Kathleen Harrison, Michael Hordern, George Cole Directed by Brian Desmond Hurst, Screenplay by Noel Langley. Based on A Christmas Carol (1843 novella) by Charles Dickens. Produced by Brian Desmond Hurst Run Time 86 minutes. United Kingdom Black and White. Christmas, Drama

Thirteen years after MGM released their version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the British Renown Pictures Corporation released what many consider to be the definitive version. Released as Scrooge in England, the film was renamed A Christmas Carol when it was released in the U.S. by United Artists.

While the part of Ebenezer Scrooge may be the role Alastair Sim is best known for, it is far from the only role he played. An accomplished stage actor, Sim began acting in films in 1935. Since British films generally did not get a wide release in the U.S., he may not be a household name in this country.  I have only seen a couple of other films that Sim was starred in, Green for Danger (1946), an excellent British home front war film; and The Ruling Class (1972). While I remember his performance in the former, I will admit I don’t remember him in the latter; nor do I remember much about The Ruling Class except for Peter O’Toole’s over-the-top performance as a paranoid schizophrenic British nobleman.

The film opens with the book version of A Christmas Carol being taken off a shelf and narrator Peter Bull reading the last sentence of the first paragraph of Dickens’ novel: "Old Marley was as dead as a doornail” before the action starts at the London Stock Exchange.

It’s Christmas Eve 1843 and Ebenezer Scrooge (Alastair Sim), on his way out of the Exchange, is accosted by a debtor who owes Scrooge 20 pounds and needs more time to pay him back. But Scrooge will hear none of his excuses and returns to his office.

He is visited by two businessmen (Noel Howlett and Fred Johnson) who are trying to collect money for the poor and disadvantaged at this time of the year. Scrooge asks about the poor houses and work houses and when he finds out they’re still in operation, he tells them he’s relieved. When they tell him that some can’t go and that some would rather die than go, Scrooge tells them that they should go ahead and die and relieve the population.

When he gets there, his nephew Fred (Brian Worth) comes by to invite him to Christmas dinner at his house. But Scrooge tells Fred that he disapproves of his marriage and wants no part of his celebration, finding Christmas as he does to be a humbug. Fred leaves, but not before wishing his Uncle a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Fred (Brian Worth) invites his Uncle Ebenezer (Alastair Sim) to Christmas dinner.

On his way out, Fred runs into Bob Cratchit (Mervyn Johns) and enquires about his family, especially his disabled son, Tiny Tim. Bob says that his son is getting stronger, a sentiment we find out later that his wife does not share.

When Scrooge leaves later, he offers grudgingly to give Bob Christmas Day off, comparing it to robbing him for his wage. Bob, though, is still happy to have the day off.

Scrooge then leaves and goes to have dinner where we see his cheapness in action, asking for and then turning down more bread with his meal because he would be charged an extra half-penny.

Ebenezer sees a vision of his deceased partner Marley on his front door knocker.

When he gets home, Scrooge sees the vision of his dead partner, Jacob Marley (Michael Hordern), in one of the knockers on his front door. Upstairs in his private quarters, while trying to eat a hot bowl of gruel, he hears bells ringing, but looking around he sees none moving. He tries to go back to his eating, but the locked door to his room flies open and the apparition of Marley comes into the room. His body is wrapped in chains he "forged in life" as the results of how he treated his fellow man. While Marley is trapped, forced to walk the earth for eternity, he tells Scrooge that he is there to try to save him from his fate.

Marley (Michael Hordern) comes to warn Ebenezer of what could await him.

Marley tells Scrooge that three spirits will visit him: first The Ghost of Christmas Past, second The Ghost of Christmas Present and third and last, The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. After that, Marley leaves to join the other ghosts, who are forced to suffer the same torment.

Marley shows Scrooge other ghosts who suffer the same torment he does.

Scrooge is obviously shaken up and takes refuge in his bed before he is visited by The Ghost of Christmas Past (Michael J. Dolan).

The Ghost Of Christmas Past (Michael J. Dolan) is first to visit Scrooge.

A good part of the film involves The Ghost of Christmas Past, who first takes Scrooge back to a holiday at school, when a young Scrooge (George Cole) thinks he’s been left once again by an unloving father. But his sister, Fan (Carol Marsh), has been sent to bring him home by their father, whom she says has changed his ways.

Sister Fan (Carol Marsh) comes to bring Ebenezer home for the holidays.

Next, the Ghost takes Scrooge to the holiday party thrown by his first employer old Fezziwig (Roddy Hughes). While they are watching the party, the Ghost points out Scrooge’s younger self proposing to his girlfriend, Alice (Rona Anderson).

Young Ebenezer (George Cole) has a girlfriend, Alice (Rona Anderson).

But there is also the appearance of Mr. Jorkin (Jack Warner), who tries to convince Fezziwig to sell his company, but Fezziwig refuses. But Mr. Jorkin does manage to seduce Scrooge away with the promise of better pay and more advancement. It is at Jorkin’s company that he meets a young Jacob Marley (Patrick Macnee).

Scrooge relives the death of his sister Fan, who died after giving birth to her only child, Frank. Scrooge begs her not to die, but when he thinks she’s dead he leaves the room. But with her last breath, she asks Scrooge to take care of Fred.

Later, together Scrooge and Marley buy out Fezziwig’s warehouse and shipping company and turn it into a counting house (an accounting firm).

Feeling that money is more important to Scrooge than her love, Alice breaks off their engagement. She breaks down crying as soon as he leaves.

Still later, when Jorkin is found to have embezzled monies from his own firm, Scrooge and Marley offer to make up the difference, avoiding scandal for the company and its shareholders, but for 51 % of the stock, adding Jorkin’s company to their own.

Fast forward to Christmas Eve seven years ago. Marley lies dying at home and sends a messenger to bring him. But when Bob Cratchit informs his boss of his partner’s condition, Scrooge informs him that he won’t be visiting him during business hours. When Scrooge does arrive, Marley tries to warn Scrooge to change his avarice ways, but in the end Scrooge takes Marley’s house and money.

The Ghost of Christmas Present (Francis de Wolff).

Next, Scrooge is visited by The Ghost of Christmas Present (Francis de Wolff ), who shows him how others spend the holiday. They observe the Cratchit family who, though poor, still celebrate the holiday with a small dinner. When Bob and Tiny Tim come home from church, it becomes obvious that Tim is not doing as well as Bob likes to think. Scrooge queries the Ghost about Tim’s future and it appears to be bleak. The spirit tells that without medical care, Tim will not live to see the next Christmas.

The Cratchit family gathers around when Bob (Mervyn Johns) and Tiny Tim (Glyn Dearman) return from Church.

Next, Scrooge is taken to the Christmas party being thrown by Fred and his bride (Olga Edwardes).  Despite Scrooge’s refusal to attend, Fred still insists on drinking a toast to his Uncle, a man he feels sorry for.

The Spirit takes Scrooge to observe Alice as she is now, selflessly nursing impoverished women in a workhouse in another part of London.

The Ghost of Christmas Present shows two children symbolizing the ignorance and want in the world.

Finally, the Spirit reveals two scrawny children cowering under his robes, a boy and a girl, symbolizing ignorance and want, problems that face many in the World.

Scrooge goes almost immediately from one spirit’s guidance to another as the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come (Czeslaw Kornaski), who's dressed in a black hooded gown and never speaks. He sets about showing him the future if Scrooge doesn’t change.

The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come (Czeslaw Kornaski).

The first stop is the Cratchits’ house, where the family is still in mourning at the loss of Tim, who’s crutch leans against the fireplace as a constant reminder of his passing.

Next Scrooge is taken to a seedy junk dealer, where an undertaker (Ernest Thesiger), his maid Mrs. Dilber (Kathleen Harrison) and a laundress meet to sell items they have pilfered from a dead man’s house.

At the Stock Exchange, a couple of businessmen laugh about the sudden passing of a man no one will mourn. Scrooge begins to wonder who has died and is taken to the cemetery by the spirit. When Scrooge presses the spirit to know who has died, the Ghost silently points to a headstone. Carved on it, Scrooge sees his name. Falling to his knees, Scrooge promises to repent.

Scrooge wakes up in bed, awakened by the knocking of Mrs. Dilber on his door. She is scared by Scrooge’s enthusiasm, screaming as she tries to flee the house. Scrooge manages to catch her on the stairs trying to convince her that he has not gone crazy. He manages to change her attitude by giving her a Christmas present, raising her salary and giving her the rest of the day off.

Scrooge's childish antics scare his maid, Mrs. Dilber (Kathleen Harrison).

Next, Scrooge goes to the window and offers to give a boy passing on the snowy street below to fetch the butcher from the shop a couple of streets up. He then has the butcher deliver the large turkey from his window to the Cratchits.

Ebenezer, at the window, is pleased to not have missed Christmas day.

The Cratchits are surprised by the anonymous gift of the bird and laugh at Tim’s suggestion that it is a gift from Scrooge.

Next, Scrooge goes to Fred’s house where he gets Fred’s maid (Theresa Derrington) to let him enter unannounced. His presence comes as a pleasant surprise to Fred and his wife.

Ebenezer surprises everyone when he shows up at Fred's Christmas party.

The next day, Scrooge makes it to work early before Cratchit arrives. Bob is late and is expecting the worst, when Scrooge calls him into his office. Expecting the worst, Bob is pleasantly surprised when Scrooge is not really angry and offers him a hefty raise. Scrooge tells Bob that he’s come to his senses and that he wants to help him raise his family, taking special interest in Tim.

Late for work the day after Christmas, Bob Cratchit is surprised to get a raise.

The narrator then recounts that Ebenezer Scrooge became "as good a man as the old city ever knew", and becomes like a second father to Tiny Tim. We see that not only did Tim live, but he also learned to walk without a crutch. At the end, Scrooge and Tim walk off together between the buildings, into the distance in a snowy London town.

The film did well in the United Kingdom, but was considered too grim and not family friendly to open at Radio City Music Hall, considered one of the premiere theaters in the U.S., so it opened at a nearby one that was less prestigious. Perhaps unfortunately, the opening took place on another holiday, Halloween, which couldn’t have helped. Back then, people were not in the Christmas mood since Labor Day, like we seem to be now, so a Christmas-movie opening then would have had the cards stacked against it. Mixed reviews did not help either and the film was a box-office disappointment in the U.S.

After having watched the earlier MGM version of the story, I found this British production to be a much more visceral experience. As an example, Marley’s ghost doesn’t just moan the way Leo G. Carroll did in the MGM film, rather he screams. You better sense the terror Scrooge must be feeling at that moment.

The film is a little more involving, delving a little deeper into the story, even making up details that are not in the original novella. As an example, in order to show Scrooge’s corruption for money, the film invents Mr. Jorkin. The film also shows Alice, named Belle in the novel, treating the less fortunate at a workhouse; again, this is something not in the book. Another tearful scene is when Scrooge’s sister dies in childbirth; something the novel doesn’t state. We’re also told that Ebenezer’s mother also died giving birth to him, but that again is not in the original story. While made up for the film, these serve to give Scrooge a stronger tie to his nephew Fred.

But these additives serve to enrich the story, sort of the way Peter Jackson’s inferior King Kong remake added backstory to the Ann Darrow and Carl Denham characters, as well as more gore than was necessary.

Like the 1938 film, this one, too, has its share of special effects. Nothing really spectacular, but well-done nonetheless and were no doubt well received in their day. Sometimes simpler is better and they work fine for the story.

The acting is really good, on par with, if not better than, MGM’s version of the story. There is something about a completely British cast performing a perennial like Dickens' A Christmas Carol. It’s hard to better Alastair Sim’s performance. He is much subtler in the beginning than Reginald Owen was and his Scrooge’s transformation comes a little harder and is more effective as a result.

Alastair Sim is Ebenezer Scrooge.

Glyn Dearman is also subtler as Tiny Tim than was his American film counterpart, Terry Kilburn. Tim is one of the most sad and pathetic figures to grace a printed page and it has to be difficult not to give in to the temptation to play it for tears or overplay it the other way. Dearman does fine with the part.

Glyn Dearman is more subtle as Tiny Tim than was this MGM counterpart, Terry Kilburn.

The Cratchits take a bit of a backseat in this production, as it concentrates more on the main character. We don’t get the scene that we may have come accustomed to, of Scrooge bringing the fatted goose or turkey himself to the Cratchit family as a surprise on Christmas morning. Frankly, this film handles it better than the American one, since in that film Bob already had bought a big bird for the family feast and Scrooge’s gift, while generous, doesn’t quite have the same impact that it does here. In this film, the Cratchits don’t have the money for the big bird to start with.

One of the things that is a little disappointing, is that the film brings us up to date with Alice, but doesn’t go so far as to reunite Scrooge with his former fiancĂ©e. Maybe I’m rooting too much for a Hollywood happy ending, but it’s not meant to be in these films and I’ll have to deal with that.

While maybe not as family friendly as MGM’s 1938 filmed version, the 1951 British Scrooge is still a little truer to the story, at least in the spirit it was intended.

To read reviews of other Christmas films, please see our Christmas Review Hub.

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