Christmas Carol Movies, Stave III: A Christmas Carol (1951)

, | Movie reviews

Charles Dickens is something of a national treasure in the UK, an artist with words whose prose manages who manages the neat trick of being respected academically while remaining popular with the public; “A Christmas Carol” is one of his most admired and beloved works. So in post-war Britain, it was a bit galling that the 1938 movie adaptation of the novella was a hit and accepted as somewhat definitive. That Reginald Owen version was a distinctly Hollywood thing, a blazingly professional production of the treasured story, but one that captured little of the heart and grit and soul that Dickens had poured into his original writing. 16 years after the first UK attempt at A Christmas Carol and slightly more than a decade after the MGM version, British studio Renown Pictures was ready to reclaim Scrooge back to his merrie olde roots.

After the jump, the definitive version?

Cycling forward through the various movie incarnations of “A Christmas Carol”, it feels like each new film adaptation of the book acts as a direct response to the production that most recently preceded it. If 1935’s Scrooge was a murky, amateur affair, then 1938’s Christmas Carol is a fiercely, relentlessly professional — if overly cheerful — take on things. 

Thus the relatively deep pockets of Renown Pictures were set to clap back on MGM and Reginald Owen. Renown enlisted veteran director Brian Desmond-Hurst and appropriately named screenwriter Noel Langley (who’d been the lead adapter and writer on The Wizard Of Oz, among other impressive credits), both of whom set out to make a movie version of Christmas Carol that would finally hew close to the original spirit and flavor of Dickens’s original work.  The company was also able to secure the services of much-respected Scots actor Alastair Sim to play the lead role. Sim, a noted veteran of many Shakespearean stage productions in London and a burgeoning film star besides, would help provide a more grounded and truer take on Old Ebenezer. 

Spooky factor: 5 Marleys out of 10. 

Not only do we get perfectly serviceable ghost effects for the era in this 1951 production, we also get a pretty great Jacob Marley as well. Michael Hordern (who’d have a long and successful career performing in acting and voice work) makes for a far more desperate and angry Marley’s ghost than we’ve seen so far. In the book, when Scrooge’s ghostly former partner has had about enough of Ebenezer’s crap about being more gravy than grave, we’re told his scream shakes the house to its foundations. So yeah, it needs to be a big, big scream (not like the muted wimper from 1938), as it has to scare Scrooge into weepy compliance; Hordern gives us that kind of blood-curdling shriek in a performance that sets the bar on all future Marleys.

1951’s Christmas Carol does get penalized a few marks though for a ridiculous attempt to try to portray the phantoms howling through the streets of London that are revealed in the book as Marley departs. Desmond-Hurst tries to use a sort of kaleidoscoping lens thing for this, and the end result is a weird and distracting camera effect that just looks bad.

Canonical Factor: 5 Dickenses out of 10. 

Quiz time, and no checking IMDB for the answer. Alastair Sim’s services were secured to play the role of Scrooge in 1951’s Christmas Carol, and he’s obviously top-billed in the credits. Now, without looking, tell me what character (or actor playing that character) is second-billed, given that credits placement here was based on number of lines and time on screen.

Bob Cratchit? Great guess. Wrong.

Nephew Fred? Sorry. 

Jacob Marley? Nope. 

And just like that, we’ve shown the main issue with this incarnation of the Scrooge story, the thing that probably prevents this from being THE definitive filmed version of the book.  The second-billed actor in the credits based on screen time and lines is Kathleen Harrison, who plays Mrs. Dilber. Who’s Mrs. Dilber, you’re asking? She has a small bit in the book as the charwoman or laundress in the final stave, selling off Scrooge’s personal belongings.

How does that happen, exactly, that a bit character in the final third of the book gets more screen time than Bob Cratchit? Apparently one of the goals for screenwriter Langley was to fill in some color about the story’s main character. And so we’re given what almost amounts to an Ebenezer Scrooge biopic for the first two-thirds of the movie, which includes all sorts of stuff that stretches far beyond anything that Dickens had originally written. It’s absolutely true that in the novella, Dickens only hints at some of the events in Scrooge’s past that may have shaped the wretched old man he becomes. Langley builds that all out and then some, in what essentially amounts to Ebenezer Scrooge fanfic at times. Some of all this is rather well done, but for a film with a 90 minute run time, it comes with sacrificing almost anything at all to do with Fred and his wife, and even cuts into some good old fashioned holiday time at the Cratchit home. 

It also forces the movie into the same kind of perfunctory, too-quick finish that publishing deadlines forced Dickens into when he wrote the original book. Though for some reason on Christmas morning we’re still treated/subjected to even more of an extended sequence with Mrs. Dilber. Anytime you can detour your story into extended sequences with characters the audience doesn’t care about, you should totally do that. Not.

(With all that kvetching aside, the movie does far more accurately convey the tone and feel of Dickens’ original work. And unlike the 1938 Christmas Carol, it manages to hit most of the main plot points with aplomb, rather than chopping them out from fear for audience reactions.)

Non Canonical Factor (How good is the stuff they added that isn’t in the original story?): 6 Muppets out of 10.

With all the Scrooge back-story stuff added to this adaptation, there’s obviously a lot of material here that was never part of Dickens’ book.  And viewers should be rightfully skeptical of all the rewriting going on here. But some of it not only works, but also (and keep this under your hat) actually improves on the master.

Specifically, 1951’s Christmas Carol makes Fan – who is the younger sibling in the book – an older sister here. That allows the movie to set the reason for Scrooge’s estrangement from family as being due to the mother dying in childbirth with baby Ebenezer. The father unfairly blames the baby boy for that, and so when the child is  old enough, he’s shipped off to boarding school and a hard life, having never experienced the love of a parent. It’s great stuff, completely Dickensian in nature, and if Charles himself had been around to have that idea pitched to him he’d have likely realized that indeed, that was the way to arrange the familial relationship here. (It’s such a good idea, in fact, that a couple of future movie versions of the story would steal that as well.)

Scrooge Factor: 7 Bah Humbugs out of 10.

Alastair Sim makes for a fine, fine Scrooge. He’s easily the best actor thus far to have played the role in a major screen adaptation, and he gives his Scrooge gravitas when it’s called for and just the right amount of outrageous villainy it requires when that’s needed. Most of all, Sim knows when to be subtle and underplay things; when he rages at his nephew or the charity collectors, he’s not waving his arms around like a cartoon, but instead conveying the conviction and dismissive authority of a darkly powerful little man who is very used to having his way with things.  

If there’s any weakness to this portrayal, it’s that Sim’s Scrooge appears ready to break down and rethink his life as early as the scene when Old Fezziwig has put up the shutters and started the Christmas party. At times it almost feels cruel that this movie is forcing poor, repentant Scrooge to still be dragged around by the spirits anyway. He’s changed already. Let the old guy sleep!

Unintentionally Creepy Tiny Tim Factor: 2 crutches out of 10.

The 1951 Christmas Carol probably features the least-creepy of all Tiny Tims in the pantheon.  Glyn Dearman plays the role this time, and he can almost act a bit, in a little kid sort of way. The spookiest thing about him is that the he has this glassy-eyed adoration to bring to play which can be just a bit off-putting. It’s a portrayal style that becomes the template for lots of future Tiny Tims who are going to rocket the creepy-ness factor of the character in movies to come into the stratosphere.

Final thoughts:

Upon release, the 1951 incarnation of A Christmas Carol drew decent, but not great reviews, with the darker tone of this version (as compared to the Reginald Owen sunshine and rainbows adaptation from 1938) often cited in more unfavorable notices. But the folks involved in the production and distribution did a smart thing: they made this version readily available to syndicated TV stations across the US and before too long it was Alastair Sim’s Scrooge – more than any other – who became the staple of holiday viewing to baby boomers and their parents in the Fifties and Sixties.

That sort of boomer nostalgia helps to fuel a lasting conception that this iteration of the book on film is the definitive version, the one that rules over all others. Frankly, it’s a case that’s a bit overstated. There are some major flaws in this narrative, and as good as Sim is at playing Scrooge, there will be better Ebenezers to come.

(Click here to return to Christmas Carol central.)