Wednesday, December 25, 2013

A Christmas Carol (1951): A Review


From Miser To Merry In One Night...

I don't know this for certain, but A Christmas Carol has to be one of the most filmed stories in cinema.  It's a story so embedded in English-speaking culture that there have been musical versions, animated versions, versions where the gender/race of the main characters have been changed, versions that stick close to the setting of the Charles Dickens story and those that are updated to be more contemporary. 

As a result, how to sort through all the cacophony of Carols?  Well, out of the plethora of adaptations, for me the best is the 1951 version (titled Scrooge in the UK, A Christmas Carol in the US). There is something so unique and special about this version.  It has a simply excellent performance by the main character and the story moves so swiftly one truly believes it could all take place in a single night.

We can get through the plot.  Ebenezer Scrooge (Alastair Sim) is beyond a miser.  Foul-tempered, unpleasant, and cruel, he goes about his life dismissing Christmas.  He is curt with his nephew Fred (Brian Worth) and harsh with his employee, Bob Cratchit (Mervin Johns).  On Christmas Eve seven years ago, his business partner Jacob Marley died, and now Marley's Ghost (Michael Hordern) has come to him, warning Scrooge that he too is condemned to walk the Earth with bitter chains.  Marley also tells him that he will be visited by three Spirits, and from here Scrooge takes up the bulk of its 86 minute running time.

Most of that time is spent with The Ghost of Christmas Past (Michael Dolan), who takes Ebenezer to see how he came to be this way.  We see Ebenezer's sister Fan (Carol Marsh), whom he loved but who died in childbirth.  There is his romance with Alice (Rona Anderson), whom he loved but whom he eventually turned away from when his wealth grew.  We also see how he left the kind and loving Mr. Fezziwig (Roddy Hughes) to the greedy Mr. Jorkin (Jack Warner) and his equally unscrupulous clerk, the young Marley (Patrick MacNee in an early film role).

There are briefer meetings with the Ghost of Christmas Present (Francis de Wolff) and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.  We see how Fred and the Cratchits spend Christmas, and focus on Tiny Tim (Glyn Dearman).  Will Scrooge learn his lesson and transform himself from a man of hate to a man of love and good cheer?

What do YOU think?

If we look at A Christmas Carol, the message of the story is simple: goodness, kindness, and generosity are more important than the temporary gain of money.  "Mankind WAS my business!" Marley's Ghost intones to Scrooge, and both Dickens' story and this film version show us that joy, love, and 'good will to all men' is what makes one truly wealthy.

We believe that a man can change in A Christmas Carol, and the primary reason is Sim's performance.  He so completely changes depending on what is required.  When he is the skinflint in the beginning we hate him.  When he sees the error of his way Sim breaks your heart.  When he comes alive and realizes that he hasn't missed Christmas Day we not only cheer for him (and us, for he has been our metaphorical stand-in), but laugh at the comedy Sim brings to the revived Scrooge.  His scene with his housekeeper Mrs. Dilbur (Kathleen Harrison) as she screams in terror at how giddy this formerly monstrous man has become has you both laughing and celebrating Scrooge's redemption.

Sim simply gives the best interpretation of Ebenezer Scrooge that I know of simply because he is fully committed to the wide variation of his character in this one night.  When he is cruel, he is cruel.  When he is kind, he is kind.  When he is repentant or frightened, Sim gives the totality of Scrooge a thoroughly believable frame.  We believe in his change, in his fear, in his regret.  Alastair Sim gives a thoroughly magnificent performance.

Everyone else is so delightful, from Johns' halting Bob Cratchit to Warner's malevolent Jorkin down to the appropriately named Dearman as the kindly and sweet Tiny Tim.  This is a hard role to play because you can make him so horribly endearing, but here he was delightful.  Also I should note how fun Harrison was as Mrs. Dilbur, who lent menace in the Future sequence and comedy when Scrooge ends his dark night of the soul.

The film is also helped by Noel Langley's wonderful adaptation which allows Scrooge to be human.  While it may deviate from the source material, seeing that he became that way due to a slow, corrupting force and the bitterness of losing Fan, it isn't time wasted.  It is surprising that so much time was spent with The Ghost of Christmas Past, but I found it enriched the story.  Compliment should also be given to Richard Addinsell's score, which went from light to spooky to dark and joyful with equal grace and smooth transition.  Finally, Brian Desmond-Hurst's strong and capable direction made A Christmas Carol feel so much richer and deeper, as if it were an epic film on a grand scale.

I truly can't find fault in A Christmas Carol save perhaps for a voice-over (done by Peter Bull, who has a small role as one of Scrooge's colleagues).  However, that is saved mainly for the beginning and end of the film, so it wasn't a big bother.

I can't see how any Christmas could go by without the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol, which is beautifully done in every way. 

God Bless Us, Every One.     


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