Christmas Carol Movies, Stave I: Scrooge (1935)

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If “A Christmas Carol” movies have become part of a worldwide seasonal ritual these days, the first “talkie” version of the Dickens book is an inauspicious beginning. Watching it today, it’s hard to imagine that movie versions of the story would ever become much of a big deal. The 1935 adaptation – setting a bit of a precedent by being called simply “Scrooge” – is hands-down the funniest of all the various versions of the movie we’ll review here. Unfortunately, all of that comedy is unintentional.

After the Jump, the Plan 9 From Outer Space of Christmas Carols

Scrooge was the brainchild of Julius Hagen, head of Twickenham Film Studios in London. Twickenham’s claim to fame in the 1920s and ‘30s was the so-called “Quota quickie”. These were cheaply made low-quality films that could be cranked out and licensed to American film distributors. Those distributors would show them in UK cinemas to meet the quotas required by British law to exhibit at least some domestically produced movies. The ambitious Hagen had the idea of expanding out from the cheapie films business, and Scrooge represented one of Twickenham’s first attempts to do so.

Twickenham and Hagen seemed to find themselves a good Scrooge, too, in 64-year old actor Sir Seymour Hicks. Hicks had played Scrooge many times, including in a 1913 silent film short called “Old Scrooge”. Director Henry Edwards also had enough credits to suggest at least a competent foundation for his adaptation. 

Unfortunately, when you know how to make a certain kind of film, making any other sort of movie can be a mountain too tall to climb. Hagen and Twickenham may have wanted their adaptation of the Dickens classic to be a more expensive and lavish production than they typically released, but what they got was essentially a more expensive Quota Quickie. Scrooge is a chaotic, slapdash effort from start to finish; it is essentially the Plan 9 From Outer Space of all Christmas Carol movie adaptations. As released, the film ran barely over an hour, at 63 minutes.  In recent years, 15 minutes that were clumsily chopped from that original release print were restored for DVD, and at least make this mess a bit more watchable. Barely.

The cheap, thrown-together nature of  Scrooge is apparent from the outset. Because while age has certainly marred the original print, it’s still immediately apparent that Twickenham was using camera gear that was at least a decade older than any Hollywood studio would have allowed near a set. The film is thus marred by that kind of “tunnel” view that was so common in silents from the teens and early 1920s, and it isn’t helped by dodgy lighting that gives the film an unnecessarily dark and claustrophobic tone. That darkness isn’t so much spooky as it is distracting and unpleasant to watch.

Perhaps the most vivid illustration of just what Scrooge has on offer happens about 21 minutes in on the full and uncut version of the film. Old Ebenezer, having been spooked by Jacob Marley’s face on his door knocker, goes traipsing around his home, presumably looking for anything to explain the ghost he may have seen. At this point in the film, he opens a door, and white plastic workman’s bucket falls from the set rafters, nearly conking poor Sir Seymour in the head. Seymour kicks it aside and waves his cane at it, and the scene continues on, even though – and I repeat – a white, obviously plastic bucket from a 20th century stagehand or set designer has fallen and rattled about the center of the shot. No one said “Cut!”. No one thought to reshoot things. Nope. Print it, and move along! That’s the ethos of this entire endeavor, unfortunately, so let’s get down to a review of sorts.

Spooky factor: 2 Marleys out of 10. 

Because even “restored” prints of Scrooge are in rough shape, and because no one at Twickenham had grasped that even in 1935 most mainstream directors had sorted the whole lighting thing, this version is oppressively gloomy and dark, so I suppose a few bonus points for that. Unfortunately, most of those points are surrendered by the appearance – or should we say, non-appearances – of the various Christmas spirits. The good folks at Twickenham either couldn’t figure out how to shoot a double exposure onto moving film, or lacked the budget or time to try. Thus, when it’s time for Jacob Marley to arrive, he’s, uh, invisible. Yes, that’s right. Can’t figure out how to do the ghost special effect? No problem. Make him invisible. “Look well upon me Ebenezer Scrooge” Marley’s disembodied voice from stage right says, “For only you can see me.”  Convenient, that. It allows the ghost to be played by a stagehand using a wire to open and close a door and raise a window as needed. And poor Seymour Hicks. He’s forced to stand there and argue with his bedroom furniture. I mean, how do you not at least put some dude in white pancake makeup and an olde tymey costume and just sort of try to finesse it?

The ghosts don’t get any better as things progress in the movie either. The spookiest of the three ghosts in the story is traditionally the Spirit of Christmas Yet To Come. In Scrooge, that ghost  is reduced to a single hand that comes jabbing out of from off camera in shadow only. The Ghost of Christmas Past is this weird glowy thing that appears to have single handedly drained the production budget. Unfortunately, these effects are pretty much the opposite of special.

Canonical Factor: 3 Dickenses out of 10. But only for the restored, 78-minute version. Non-restored version is a 0 out of 10.

This was a score difficult to arrive at, because first we have to consider that, until fairly recently, Scrooge was a 63-minute movie, with over 15 minutes of filmed material clumsily hacked out of it. What ended up on the cutting room floor from that original theatrical release, you ask? Oh, just some minor scenes that are fairly unimportant to the story, such as:
–the two men who seek donations from Scrooge in his office at the beginning

–Most of the dinner with the Cratchits during the Ghost of Christmas Present. This includes missing Tiny Tim saying “God bless us, every one.” Which for this story is like cutting all the cars out of a Fast & Furious movie. 

–The party at Fred’s with the Ghost Of Christmas Present. Yeah, that’s no big deal. 

–Scrooge having the boy fetch the poulterer towards the end.  

The edited version that was commonly shown also nixes some footage of the visit to the lighthouse and the sailors at sea from the original book. But the new-ish version restores these 15 minutes, and so we get all those important bits back. We also get Scrooge going to a pub to eat after work on Christmas Eve, which is missing from most every other version but is indeed canonical. And that lighthouse and ship section shown in the full version of Scrooge tends to be absent from all but a few other adaptations. So kudos there, 1935 Sir Seymour Hicks version. You’ve earned yourself a few marks for all that after all.

Non Canonical Factor (How good is the stuff they added that isn’t in the original story?): 1 Muppet out of 10.

Scrooge betrays its worldwide economic depression-era roots by meandering aimlessly through its first 10-15 minutes, making points to show the divide between the poor and the rich in early Victorian London. That’s certainly a sentiment that resonates in these times, too, and one I can fully get behind. But somehow we end up focused on chefs at work in a fancy castle kitchen preparing a dinner for the Queen, while hungry kids watch from outside. (Robert Zemeckis would issue a callback to this scene at the beginning of his 2009 version, by the way.) Then, inexplicably, we get two minutes of “God Save The Queen” being sung. And realize that either Producer Julius Hagen or Director Henry Edwards elected to leave this nonsense in the film, while cutting out most of dinner with the Cratchits. 

Scrooge Factor: 3 Bah Humbugs out of 10.

Sir Seymour Hicks had begun playing Scrooge on stage as early as 1900 or 1901, and as mentioned, was in one of the earliest silent film treatments of “A Christmas Carol.” Apparently that was good enough to get you a knighthood back in the day, so good on Sir Seymour. Unfortunately here, he’s not quite up to the task. His pre-conversion Scrooge is menacing enough, and he argues with his bedroom armoire like a champion…but the post-conversion Scrooge comes off as almost demented, rather than saved. To make things worse, Sir Seymour is expected to play the Young Adult Scrooge in the scene where Belle dumps him, and it took me a few minutes to figure out that this wasn’t just some random scene thrown into the movie. Sir Seymour was 64 years old when this movie was made, and here he’s (poorly) playing a 25-year-old Scrooge, with only the benefit of a silly shoe-black wig to sell it. (Notably, this is the only filmed adaptation where the actor playing old Scrooge also has to play his younger version as well.) Hicks isn’t completely terrible, but this is a star-making role and you just don’t hear a lot of folks mentioning Seymour Hicks in the pantheon of past Scrooges much. There’s a reason for that.

Unintentionally Creepy Tiny Tim Factor: 5 crutches out of 10.

(Note: for whatever reason, apparently it’s impossible to see Tiny Tim portrayed in a filmed version of “A Christmas Carol” and not think that maybe some horror movie has lost an extra somewhere. This is how we’ll rate the various creepy Tiny Tims in the films we review here.)

This one’s a slow burn at first. The wee tyke playing Tiny Tim in Scrooge is a cute enough kid actor named Philip Frost, who isn’t given any makeup to force him to look either sickly or zombified, though they do give him a completely awesome 1988 Britpop haircut that kind of rules. And so as you watch, you think “This is a very un-creepy Tiny Tim.” But then they force him to sing after dinner, and suddenly there’s a whole Children of the Corn vibe that sets in as he chirps away tunelessly at “Hark The Herald” behind vacant eyes. And then during the Spirit of Christmas Yet To Come sequence – brace yourselves – WE SEE TINY TIM’S DEAD BODY. What in the actual hell? I’m looking for Diversionary Holiday Entertainment ™, dammit. I don’t need to see dead children on a morgue slab, thanks. Yeesh.

Final thoughts:

There’s a tendency to romanticize early attempts at adapting an IP from another source, especially when it involves a fairly ancient black and white movie. Don’t make that mistake here. Scrooge is a dreadful mess. There’s a reason that despite being in the public domain, this version is usually not shown even on local tv stations. Give this a pass and wait for the Spirits of Better Adaptations Yet To Come.

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