A Christmas Carol (Blu-ray/DVD Combo) (Two Discs) (Four Stars)
U.K.: Brian Desmond Hurst, 1951 (VCI Entertainment)
Almost everyone’s favorite nominee for best of all the many film adaptations of Charles Dickens‘ Yuletide evergreen A Christmas Carol, is this 1951 cinematic gem, sometimes called Scrooge, sometimes called A Christmas Carol, directed by the underrated Brian Desmond Hurst, and scripted by the underrated Noel Langley.
The 1951 A Christmas Carol stars juicily eloquent comic actor Alastair Sim as the pathologically stingy Ebenezer Scrooge — the mean, miserly London businessman who considers Christmas a humbug. And Sim is supported by an excellent cast: the fantastic Michael Hordern as Jacob Marley, the touching Mervyn Johns and Hermione Baddeley as Mr. and Mrs. Bob Cratchit, George Cole as young Ebenezer, Patrick Macnee as the young Marley; Brian Worth as Scrooge’s ebullient nephew Fred, and Peter Bull (who played the Russian ambassador DeSadesky in Dr. Strangelove) as both the film‘s narrator and one of the nastier businessman in a film full of them. In fact, Scrooge’s cold-blooded anti-poverty program (“Are there no jails? Are there no workhouses?”) suggests he might be a popular candidate on the fringes of this year’s Presidential sweepstakes, might even win some caucuses, get some important endorsements. Maybe, if Scrooge got enough ad money (and a makeover and a new name), he could go all the way.
Why, though, is this film so well-loved — especially since it’s a story we all know, and have seen or heard or maybe even dreamed up from the gut after “an indigestible piece of meat” ourselves? For one thing, this is a “Christmas Carol” made by first-rate filmmakers who obviously loved doing it, loved both Dickens and his work. Hurst and his screenwriter, Noel Langley truly respect their source, and they capture a lot of Dickens‘ comic-dramatic-fantastic virtuosity, his unrivalled flair for character and his storytelling genius, with skill and relish. Both these filmmakers were highly literate: Hurst closed his career with a splendid 1962 adaptation of J. M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, shot in Ireland, and Langley, besides supplying witty lines for the Judy Garland Wizard of Oz, wrote and directed another (more neglected) classic Dickens film, 1953’s The Pickwick Papers.
Both that Playboy and that Pickwick are undervalued, and they deserve revivals. But neither will ever be as loved as this Carol. I’ve never met any movie buff who didn’t treasure or admire this film, and I never expect to.
Perhaps critics and movie lovers like it so much because they can see how deftly Hurst and Langley have resisted the obvious temptations of the material. This is the one of the most faithful of all Carol adaptations and also one of the least sentimental, one of the most stylishly crafted and one of the more psychologically acute. It’s beyond question a film for adults more than for children, which is almost never how “A Christmas Carol” is played. When the Ghosts of Christmas Past (Michael Dolan) and Christmas Present (Francis De Wolff, decked out like a plum pudding) show up on a horrific, dark Christmas Eve (it’s black as pitch outside even when it should be afternoon) to escort Scrooge though his sad, frustrated past and his greedy, cheerless present, they’re almost like a team of Freudian (Jungian? Scroogian?) psychiatrists covered with mistletoe, digging into the roots of Scrooge’s neuroses and compulsions. (That’s always been the modus operandi of Scrooge’s Ghosts, never more so though than here.)
The movie is shot by the neglected near-genius cinematographer (later a prolific director), C. M. Pennington-Richards, whose other great photographic job was for documentarian Humphrey Jennings in his WW2 masterpiece Fires Were Started. Pennington-Richards’ crystalline blacks and whites and his chilling angles often remind you irresistibly of Gregg Toland‘s deep focus marvels in Citizen Kane or the gorgeous monochromes of the ‘40s David Lean Dickens adaptations Great Expectations and Oliver Twist). A Christmas Carol looks stunning throughout, and it also has a stunning, sometimes near symphonic score by Richard Addinsell, who wrote the famous “Warsaw Concerto” for another Hurst film (Dangerous Moonlight) and who here makes great, emotion-drenching use of the poignant Christmas hymn “Silent Night” and the dark blood-chilling folk ballad “Barbara Allen.” (If Scrooge could have listened to his own sound track, he would have known immediately that his hard, cold heart didn’t stand a chance.)
A Christmas Carol, shot at the very height of the prime film noir period, looks like noir and feels like noir. (So, at the end, does that other great Christmas movie inspired by “A Christmas Carol,” Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life.) And it has what are usually film noir politics: unabashedly Labor Party and New Deal (as Dickens probably would have been had he lived in our time). The acting is expert, deliciously British and delightfully (but never annoyingly) exaggerated. The good and morally decent characters, like the Cratchits, or the youthful Scrooge’s big-gearted boss, Fezziwig (Jack Warner) are mild or jovial but never saccharine. (Not even Tiny Tim, as played by the frighteningly named child actor Glyn Tearman.)
The bad characters, like Sim‘s Scrooge (giggling and sneering and casting baleful looks), Hordern as Marley (with his doleful warnings and his magnificently agonized and deranged wails) and narrator Bull (an even colder-blooded financier than Scrooge) are devilish, mean, icy, keenly melodramatic and sometimes deservedly tormented. Indeed both Sim and Hordern became so identified with the parts of Scrooge and Marley that they both repeated them as voice actors for the Oscar-winning1971 cartoon Christmas Carol by Richard Williams.
Alastair Sim was an academic and an elocution exert, who had melancholy eyes and an evil smile and a gift for playing men who know too much and are rather annoyed at the silliness of the world. His diction was shatteringly perfect, and it’s the foundation of his comic style, along with those baleful eyes. (I’ve always thought Alec Guinness, who won Sim’s spot in the early ‘50s as Britain’s leading comic movie actor — Peter Sellers later replaced Guinness — was sending Sim up a little as the Professor in The Ladykillers.)
As Scrooge, Sim seems at first to be the smartest man in any room, even when he’s putting down and insulting good people, even in his awful cynicism and his sickening greediness. That intelligence and some hints of humanity are among the reasons the movie affects us so deeply, especially after we see the young Scrooge, who loved good, selfless women — like his sister Fan (Carol Marsh) and his fiancée Alice (Rona Anderson) — and appreciated kind bosses, like the eventually ruined Fezziwig, but who decided that the world was itself so mean and grasping that it would screw him unless he screwed it first.
When Sim’s Scrooge wakes up on Christmas morning to discover that he still has a chance, that he can still be a good human being and help instead of hurt people, he dissolves into wild capering jigs and cascades of loony giggles that are the exact opposite of the cold money-grubbing snake of a man we saw at first who thought Christmas and Christmas-lovers were humbugs. And this new man is, the movie is clear in telling us, the true Scrooge, who has been buried under false creeds of greed and exploitation all these years. (They were his dreams after all.) The fact that Hurst and Langley’s and Sim’s Christmas Carol so successfully avoids the usual sentimentality and the sugar plum visions and candy cane philosophy, while telling us this story that a lot of us want so much to believe, the fact that it’s so scary and smart as well as sweet, is part of what makes the 1951 Christmas Carol so powerful, and so much a classic.
Sim’s transcendence in this role, and the movies transcendence in the Dickens cinema canon, are not without irony. Lionel Barrymore, in many ways, owned the part of Scrooge for all his many years of annual radio performances of “A Christmas Carol.” (They went on through the ‘50s, and I heard them as a child.) But he missed out on MGM‘s mediocre movie version because, in 1938, Barrymore’s legs had already given out on him, and he needed a wheelchair. (Reginald Owen played the film part, decently but not memorably.)
So it was Sim, otherwise best known for the WW2 home front thriller Green for Danger, and various comedies (from The Belles of St. Trinian’s to The Ruling Class) who became the Scrooge of all Scrooges, just as the film is deservedly ranked as the Christmas Carol of all Christmas Carols. If you‘ve never seen it on Christmas, it’s a bit like never having seen It’s a Wonderful Life or Meet Me In St. Louis. But this time the eggnog is a little spiked, the tale a little darker. And more truthful, more penetrating. It‘s amazing, in fact, how modern this story and its message, and particularly Scrooge’s philosophy, now seem. Greed? Business? Save the rich? Eat the poor? Are there no jails? Are there no workhouses? Bah, humbug!
Extras: Both Blu-ray and DVD versions, in 4 x 3 and 16 x 9; Commentary by George Cole; English and American release trailers.