A Christmas Carol (1935-1954) – Versions 1-5 of 20 – reviewed by George

1. Scrooge (1935 -1:00)

Scrooge = Sir Seymour Hicks, Cratchit = Donald Calthrop, Tiny Tim = Philip Frost, Directed by Henry Edwards

The film opens with Cratchit trying to sneak some coal. Scrooge catches him, demands an explanation, and Cratchit says, ”Why, I beg your pardon, sir, but the outer office is intensely cold, and my fire…” Scrooge interrupts loudly, “YOUR fire?”

There is a nice contrast about 11 minutes in with Fred arriving home laden with presents, Bob arriving home with a smallish goose and a bouquet of what looks like holly, and a group of wealthy Londoners arriving at a grand banquet observed by a small group of regular folk – sort of like the crowd in the bleachers at Oscar night, but much better behaved (but then these people don’t flirt with the crowd). Next we see a larger number gathered at the basement-kitchen’s windows, where a profligate amount of food is being prepared with what appears to be little concern for wastefulness. However, one of the cooks takes a tray of what could be bread loaves or pieces if meat (but is probably bread) to the windows and starts tossing the pieces through to the people outside. Back at the banquet the Lord Mayor of London is introduced and he toasts the Queen, and all revelers rise and sing God Save the Queen. I got a catch in my throat when perspective shifted to the less fortunate outside to find them singing as well.

Most versions of A Christmas Carol contain the regular chain of events which we have come to expect, but many versions have some unique passages, and this early version is no exception: in addition to the arrival sequence and banquet sequence mentioned above, here Marley is invisible, so his line, “Look to see me no more!” is somewhat strange. Belle enters the office and overhears Scrooge denying extra time to a couple and knowingly ruining them in the process, which leads to her rather feisty breaking of their engagement. The Ghost of Christmas Past then shows Scrooge a scene of Belle with a loving husband and a crowd of children.

The two stars, Hicks and Calthrop, both do well as Scrooge and Cratchit, though Scrooge’s transformation suffers a little because of the very short length of the film. One very nice thing: everyone, but especially the composer, recognizes that this is after all a ghost story. Actors who became better-known later: Maurice Evans plays the man ruined by Scrooge, and Athene Seyler plays Scrooge’s charwoman.

This is the earliest version I could find to view, and the DVD has a colorized version under Play Movie and then the original black-and-white under Special Features.

 

  1. A Christmas Carol (1938 – 1:09)

Scrooge = Reginald Owen, Cratchit = Gene Lockhart, Tiny Tim = Terry Kilburn,   Directed by Edwin L. Marin

The film opens with Fred having a slide down an icy street and then at the bottom meeting Tiny Tim. Touched by the lad’s lameness Fred puts Tim on his shoulders and has another slide so that Tim can experience the rush. When Fred reaches the office his uncle is away, and he shares a bottle of port he has brought with Cratchit. About 9 minutes in the two gentlemen collecting for the poor enter, and I welcomed their inclusion because a large part of Scrooge’s transformation is shown in his second meeting with these guys.

Unique to this version: Scrooge tells Bob Cratchit, “Don’t work overtime! You might make something of yourself!” Then Bob leaves and is attacked by a number of boys with snowballs. He is very good-natured about this and in fact stops to show them how to make better snowballs. Then the boys goad him into taking a shot at an approaching “topper” (top hat), which he expertly knocks off the head of – SCROOGE, who then FIRES HIM IN THE STREET! Marley is visible in this version, played by Leo G. Carroll, and Scrooge yells out the window to the Neighborhood Watch that there is an intruder in his room. He tosses down the key with an admonition to hurry, but when they get upstairs their conclusion is, “Your intruder seems to have EXtruded, sir.” The Ghost of Christmas Present has a sort of horn with a light inside which he waves about to dispense Christmas Feelings of Good Will. Fred and Bess are shown in church with a pan over to Bob and Tim, but Bob does not go on to tell Mrs. Cratchit about Tim’s statement that seeing a lame boy might make people think of Christ and His healing power. Scrooge makes Fred his partner, and Cratchit gets a raise.

Reginald Owen is a perfectly adequate Scrooge, but his scenes don’t flow as well as they should; he seems to have played what was on the filming schedule without thought to how adjacent scenes would hang together. So Gene Lockhart who does a really good job as Bob Cratchit is the real star of this version. And it can’t have hurt to have his real-life wife Kathleen play Mrs. Cratchit, and his daughter June play one of the Cratchit girls. Actors who became better-known later: June Lockhart, of course (Lassie and Lost in Space), and Ann Rutherford who played the Ghost of Christmas Past.

 

3. The Christmas Carol (1949 – 0:25)

Scrooge = Taylor Holmes, Cratchit = Pat White, Tiny Tim = Bobby Hyatt,              Directed by Arthur Pierson and Narrated by Vincent Price

An early television version so short that cohesion is precluded as we zip from one ghost to the next. This is the type of production that is usually tarred with adjectives that only insult amateur theater. I’ve never seen an amateur production this bad. The acting ranges from flat (George James as the Ghost of Christmas Present) to slightly hysterical (Taylor Holmes as Scrooge). Vincent Price comes off best, but then all he has to do is sit on a couch and read aloud. Taylor Holmes was good in the thirties as various fussy and/or flustered bankers and businessmen, but the range demanded even by this stripped-down script was clearly beyond him. There is one good effect as Marley enters (or oozes) through a solid door, unfortunately it is not duplicated as he exits.

A relic that only the most obsessive completist need bother watching.

 

  1. A Christmas Carol (1951- 1:28)

Scrooge = Alistair Sim, Cratchit = Mervyn Johns, Tiny Tim = Glyn Dearman,         Directed by Brian Desmond-Hurst. The marvelous screenplay is by Noel Langley.         The film is black-and-white, but is preceded by a new (at the time of the DVD release) color introduction with Patrick McNee, who plays Young Marley. The film carries the title “Scrooge”, but the DVD packaging and the DVD itself are both labelled “A Christmas Carol”.

Many critics consider this the Gold Standard of Christmas Carol interpretations, and I am in that number. Alistair Sim’s performance is nothing short of wondrous: the way he chokes on a word at being shown Fezziwig’s party, the way he pretends to be angry at Cratchit when he visits him at his house on Christams Day but can’t keep it up. In the beginning he is abrupt and greedy, even to his own detriment, but the ripostes to those who love Christmas or request charitable donations are given by a man who, though rude of manner, knows that he is smart and clever. In the middle section he is totally convincing as a man changing, softening before our eyes, and in the end the relief, the joyfulness, and the youthful playfulness he exhibits at finding himself with time to correct his missteps is truly touching and a fine demonstration of  why we love Christmas – a fresh start, a rediscovered generosity, the pleasure we take in the company of others. Scrooge then remains dedicated to these virtues for the rest of his life, while I and many others tend to become like early-Scrooge in mid-January and stay impatient and unkind for 11 months until the season touches us again.

Of course this is also the version most likely to touch your heart and bring a wetness to your eye. The direction is excellent: every actor in the cast is thinking while talking or listening or simply reacting. Tiny Tim, alone at a Toy Shop window display, is looking wistfully at the toys, then laughing at the antics of a wind-up laughing doll. Then he sees a toy ship being removed because it has been sold, and his regret is palpable, but he quickly recovers by looking at the laughing doll again. Disappointment will be felt at least occasionally, but it can be turned into, not just acceptance, but real pleasure, by rejoicing in what we do have rather than dwelling on what we do not.

The score is wonderful as well, composed by Richard Addinsell, who has included a good number of folk tunes appropriate to 1843. Special effects are pretty much limited to superimposition, or printing one shot over another, but it is so well done here that it ends up rivaling today’s CGI. Kathleen Harrison deserves  a very special note: she plays Mrs. Dilber, who is Scrooge’s charwoman and who sells his bed curtains in the Old Joe’s second-hand place sequence. Her reactions to Scrooge’s glee on Christmas morning are hilarious and touching, since she thinks him mad. Even when he gives her a guinea (for Christmas), she asks, “What for?” And when he urges her to guess, she says, “To keep me mouth shut.”

Actors who became better known later: Hermione Baddeley, who plays Mrs. Cratchit, would later be Mrs. Naugatuck, Bea Arthur’s maid on “Maude”. And of course Patrick McNee, Young Marley, would go on to be John Steed on “The Avengers”.

 

5. A Christmas Carol (1954 – 0:52)

Scrooge = Fredric March, Cratchit = Bob Sweeney, Tiny Tim = Christopher Cook, Marley’s Ghost = Basil Rathbone, Fred AND The Ghost of Christmas Present = Ray Middleton, Young Scrooge = Craig Hill, Belle AND The Ghost of Christmas Past = Sally Fraser. Directed by Ralph Levy, with Adaptation and Lyrics by Maxwell Anderson and Music by Bernard Herrman.

After 4 dramatic retellings we have this musical version, which was Episode 4 in the first season of Shower of Stars, a weekly TV program of plays hosted by William Lundigan. It opens with carolers singing in the street accompanied by a flute. Then we see the two charitable gentlemen collect a donation (which the donor voluntarily enlarges from last year) and head for the office of Scrooge and Marley. Fredric March is a very good Scrooge at first, and intermittently after that, but is given little to do in the musical numbers, and this seems to me to weaken his position in the story, which should be at the center of it all, though he certainly takes advantage of the opportunities he is given. For instance, he keeps his back turned to the charitable gentlemen and is calm but firm with them, and when he comes up with the phrase “decrease the surplus population” he likes the phrase so much that he smiles broadly and seems almost to be tasting the words. He also jumps as if scalded when Fred blares in yelling, “Merry Christmas!” As Fred, Ray Middleton is a bit of a gawp, too big for the room and louder than he needs to be, but as The Ghost of Christmas Present he is wonderful. As Cratchit starts home, the carolers sing a song about Santa Claus! Startling for a play set in 1843, but the lyrics do alternate the name with St. Nicholas, so I suppose this was just a nod to an American audience. When Scrooge meets Marley’s Ghost, superimposition is used and is pretty well-done. Marley (played by a very good Basil Rathbone) is visible through the door before he comes in, but his exit is managed well, as is the transition from having Marley in a separate overlaid shot to being actually in the room with Scrooge. Apparently working for Fezziwig was profitable, because Belle breaks up with Scrooge at the party, chiding him for loving gold. The story is hurried toward the end as follows: the “remarkable boy” in the street is only asked what day it is; there is no trip to the butcher’s. Scrooge goes to Fred’s first, but only to say he will return in a few hours. Then he heads to the Cratchits’ home, but without food or presents. He sits at table listening happily to Tiny Tim singing as the singing is gradually taken over by the Roger Wagner Chorale, and that’s a wrap. As a first musical version this is good, but better ones are “yet to come”

An interesting note: Queenie Leonard, British character actress with a long career in Hollywood, played Mrs. Cratchit here, as she also had done in the Taylor Holmes version of 1949. Actors who became better know later: Bonnie Franklin, of “One Day at a Time” fame, plays Susan Cratchit.

 

 

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