By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com
Wilmington on DVDs: A Christmas Carol (1951); It’s a Wonderful Life
CO- PICK OF THE SEASON:A CHRISTMAS CAROL (Blu-ray/DVD Combo) (Two Discs) (Four Stars)
U.K.: Brian Desmond Hurst, 1951 (VCI Entertainment)
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 those times). 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-winning 1971 cartoon Christmas Carol by Richard Williams.
Alastair Sim was an academic and an elocution exert, and he 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, the cynic 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. (The Christmas visitations were were his dreams after all.) The fact that Hurst and Langley 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 such 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 tart 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 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.
Co-PICK OF THE SEASON:
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (Also Blu-ray) (2 Disc Collector‘s Set) Four Stars
U.S.; Frank Capra, 1946 (Paramount)
It’s a Wonderful Life is Frank Capra’s Yuletide masterpiece about George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), a small-town guy on the edge of self-destruction, who is shown by a pixilated guardian angel named Clarence (Henry Travers) what would have happened if he’d never lived, what a difference his life really made and why it is truly (sometimes) more blessed to give than to receive.
It’s one of those movies that almost all moviegoers know, many love and a few (the unhappy few) pooh-pooh. But Capra‘s populist gem deserves its primal place in our Christmas memories. It‘s a stirring, exhilarating mix of Norman Rockwell and film noir, of angelic fantasy and small town comedy, of heart-rending drama and sharp political fable — the wonderful tale of a man who sacrifices himself all his life to help his family and neighbors, and then finds himself on the brink of suicide when disaster strikes and his bread seems to sink into the waters. Embodying that man, small town savings and loan owner and cock-eyed idealist George Bailey, is the finest performance of one of America’s all-time premier movie actors: the great James Stewart as George Bailey, who, one Christmas Eve, plunges into Hell and then comes back.
In many ways, It’s a Wonderful Life is Charles Dickens‘ A Christmas Carol done in reverse. Here, on a magical Chistmas Eve, a good man is made to understand the meaning of his life, and the consequences of selflessness, just as Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge is made to understand the consequences of selfishness. (Scrooge was, probably not coincidentally, a regular Christmas season radio role for Lionel Barrymore, who plays George’s main nemesis, Wonderful Life‘s banker-villain Old Man Potter). Dickens knew his audience, and so did Capra — maybe not right away but eventually, in the long view of movie and pop culture history. It’s a Wonderful Life, at first a box-office disppointment, eventually ascended to the heights it deserved.
Capra had a raft of wonderful writers working on his movie’s witty, setimental script : Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich (who wrote the urbane “Thin Man” mystery comedies) among the credited and Jo Swerling, Michael Wilson, Dalton Trumbo, Clifford Odets and the famously acerbic Dorothy Parker among the scribes who, according to some, remained anonymous. (The script source was a Christmas card story by Philip Van Doren Stern.) These writers were mostly left-wingers except for Republican Myles Connolly (and Capra himself) and they all helped fashion a wondrous tribute to America and its “small-d” democratic values, a paean to good citizenship and honest-to-God family values that has never been surpassed or matched.
The movie also boasts another great, wonderful, Capra acting ensemble, probably his greatest. You couldn’t find anywhere, anyway, anyhow, any better actors for the parts Goodrich, Hackett and the others wrote, than the talents assembled here: Donna Reed as George’s truly good and beautiful wife Mary, Lionel Barrymore as evil banker Potter (a staunch right-winger in real life joyously trashing some of his fellow Republicans), Beulah Bondi (Hollywood’s champion Golden Age mother) as George’s mom, Ma Bailey, Gloria Grahame as the town vamp Violet, Ward Bond and Frank Faylen as the nearly inseparable cop and cabbie team of Bert and Ernie, Thomas Mitchell as half-mad, kindly Uncle Billy, H. B. Warner as the near- tragic drunken pharmacist Mr. Gower, Frank Albertson as George’s rival (for Mary), Sheldon Leonard as Nick, the tough bartender who “passes out wings.” and Henry Travers as Clarence, the whimsical angel who wins them.
Most of all, “Life” has Frank Capra, the Italian-American directorial magician from Palermo, Sicily (which he left at 6), who could mix and match comedy and drama with intoxicating expertise, and who could move audiences and make them laugh (and cry) like almost no one else in Hollywood history. Capra thought this was his best movie, even though the original 1946 reviews from audiences and critics were mixed, and the film’s receipts failed to support the new company, Liberty Films, Capra was trying to set up with his friends and colleagues George Stevens and William Wyler. (The Best Years of Our Lives, Wyler’s more serious take on many of the same themes in Capra’s movie, was released that same year, and became the box-office smash that Wonderful Life should have been but wasn’t.)
Yet Capra was right. It was his best movie. Every Christmas, it always makes me laugh, always makes me cry. I love it madly. Hey, if you’ve never been moved, even slightly, when George’s younger WW2 hero vet sibling Harry (Todd Karns) toasts his big brother, as “the richest man in town” and George hears the bell and says “Atta boy, Clarence” and everybody breaks into “Auld Lang Syne” — well, as Jimmy Stewart would say, the…the…the…heck with you.
And by the way, Merry Christmas.
Extras: “Making of” documentary; Frank Capra Jr. tribute; Trailer.