This 1938 production is probably the first good film adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Although slightly corn-ball and even treacly, it features lovely black-and-white photography and solid production values – artificial but appropriate for the story – all in the service of good-natured, uplifting entertainment, which should appeal to fans of old-fashioned Hollywood-style film-making.
Although the short running time (69 minutes) would seem to preclude much extrapolation on Dickens’ familiar text, screenwriter Hugo Butler makes several additions and revisions. The film begins with a new scene of Scrooge’s nephew Fred meeting Bob Cratchit’s crippled son Tiny Tim (who looks more effeminate than chronically ill here). Fred is only engaged, not married, to Bess. While playing in the snow, Scrooge’s put-upon employee Bob Cratchit accidentally hits Scrooge with a snowball, prompting the old miser to fire him. Cratchit keeps the bad news to himself while spending his final wages on the Cratchit family feast, but his daughter eventually realizes the truth. When Marley manifests, Scrooge calls for police officers to help with an intruder, but of course they see nothing. When Marley leaves, there is no glimpse outside Scrooge’s window, showing other ghosts in similar straits. The conclusion has Scrooge making his newphew – instead of Bob Cratchit – a partner in his firm; this enables Fred to marry Bess. Then Scrooge pays a visit to the Cratchit home to spread good cheer.
Some of the screenplay’s additions feel awkwardly spliced in. For example, Fred does meet Tiny Tim in this version, but when the subject arises in a seen of Christmas Future, Bob Cratchit stills makes reference to Fred acting “as if” he had known Tim. And it is hard to believe that Mrs. Cratchit would volunteer a toast for her husband’s miserly employer.
There are also a few deletions that weaken the story. The scenes of Christmas Past feel truncated: there is no Christmas party with Scrooge’s former employer Fezziwig, nor do we see the young Scrooge in love; likewise, in the Christmas Future sequence, we do not see the selling of Scrooge’s stolen goods by those who robbed his dead body. In general, there is little of Scrooge watching the scenes shown him by the three Spirits of Christmas, and the action plays out with little opportunity to see old Ebenezer learning any lessons from these events.
The acting style of A CHRISTMAS CAROL is a bit melodramatic throughout: this is not a film that strives for realistic performances; everything is larger than life. Reginald Owen, wearing a somewhat unconvincing old-age makeup, offers a rather actory turn as Scrooge, but he certainly fits our conception of the character, and he does offer some good moments (as when he spits while denouncing Christmas to Bob Cratchit).
There are fewer Christmas carols than in other film versions of the story, but the film suffers from its over-insistent original score, which includes angelic music underlining Fred’s speech about the spirit of Christmas to his cynical uncle.
A CHRISTMAS CAROL’s presentation of the Ghosts is an improvement over the earlier SCROOGE (1935). Seen mostly as a transparent superimposition, Leo G. Carroll makes a baleful Marley, in greasepaint makeup. Ann Rutherford’s Ghost of Christmas Past resembles Glinda the Good Witch of the North. Contrasting with other filmic depictions, the Ghost of Christmas Future resembles a monk more than the Grim Reaper; his outstretched hand is skinny rather than skeletal, but his scenes are nicely staged in front of a cyclorama painting of the sky, which looks like something out of Frankenstein (1931).
There are some good miniatures for the scenes of spirits flying Scrooge through the air, although the process shots combining live actors with miniatures are hit and miss.
A CHRISTMAS CAROL may not be a great film, but it is a good adaptation.Whatever its weaknesses, it translates the essence of the immortal Dickens tale to the screen with a professional sheen that brings the story to entertaining life: the horror of Marley’s ghost, the warmth of Christmas Past and Present, the ominous foreboding of Christmas Future, the redemption of hard-hearted old Scrooge – all play out glossy Hollywood terms that make this a fine film to revisit during the Yuletide season.
A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1938). Directed by Edwin L. Marin. Screenplay by Hugo Butler, based on the novella by Charles Dickens. Cast: Reginald Owen, Gene Lockhart, Kathleen Lockhart, Terry Kilburn, Barry MacKay, Lynne Carver, Leo G. Carroll, Lionel Braham, Ann Rutherford, D’Arcy Corrigan, Ronald Sinclair.
This early sound adaptation of Charles Dickens’ immortal A Christmas Carol (1843) is slow in pace, static in execution, and sometimes shoddy in its productions values (or at least it looks that way in the run-down prints usually available – a recently restored version on DVD and VOD looks somewhat better). There are a few nice visual interpretations of the written text; otherwise, the film is of mostly historical interest, and only completists, film historians, and fans of the story are advised to seek it out.
There had been several short, silent versions of the story (including one with Seymour Hicks, who recreates his starring role here) and at least two feature length adaptation, including one directed by Rupert Julian, who went on to helm THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925) with Lon Chaney. The 1935 screenplay is reasonably faithful to Dickens, but it does takes a few liberties with the text that prefigure later adaptations. For example, a maid is added, rather pointlessly for the scene of Scrooge’s awakening on Christmas morning. Over fifteen years later, a similar addition would appear in SCROOGE (1951), starring Alistair Sim, but the scene between Ebenezer and the maid is handled much more memorable gusto and humor.
Other changes include a scene of Scrooge chasing carolers away from his business being replaced with a scene of him eating out and telling a waitress in a dusty apron to silence carolers outside. In the flashback of Scrooge losing his fiance, the tone is overwrought and melodramatic, unlike the book, which emphasized the young woman’s wistful disappointment that the man she loved has changed into a cold-hearted stranger; there is also an added scene of her at a later date, married and enjoying Christmas with her family. Finally, Scrooge himself is given Tiny Tim’s closing line: “God bless us, everyone!”
Cinematically, SCROOGE comes up short, although there are a few worthwhile touches. Some effective miniatures are used to depict air-born point of view as the Spirits whisk Ebenezer to different locations. The camera occasionally moves, but overall the action feels stage-bound, with actors filmed in profile as if through a proscenium arch.
For some reason, Scrooge’s visit to the past is shot like a flashback, glimpsed through a gauzy frame, rather than a trip through time; there is no interaction between the old Scrooge and the scenes of his younger self. This lack of interaction repeats in the future, when Scrooge is seen framed in his own shadow, watching the events but not walking among them. When Scrooge’s ultimate demise is revealed, the camera shows evil, cackling faces silhouetted in darkness as the charwoman sells items stolen from Scrooge’s deathbed – an interesting visual experiment that yields only awkward results. Later, when Scrooge struggles with the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come, trying to rub out his name on the gravestone, we see only hand-shadows. The overall impression is of an awkward attempt at style, when a more straight-forward approach would have worked better.
SCROOGE also suffers from an overemphasis on background music to punch up the drama, along with some unnecessary songs. An early scene shows an assembled throng singing “God Save the Queen.” Later, Tiny Tim – who gives little visible evidence of chronic illness – sings, and our only reaction is “Oh brother!”
In the title role, Seymour Hicks offers an indifferent version of Scrooge who comes across more like a grumpy old neighbor yelling “Get off my lawn” than a symbol of greed depressing the human spirit. Perhaps the performance has simply not aged well: Hicks was apparently a success in the part on stage, but to modern eyes, he seems too much a one-dimensional cliche, without the subtle hints of loneliness or humanity that other actors would use to foreshadow the character’s eventual redemption.
The depictions of the Spirits of Christmas is eccentric. Christmas Past is a bright outline with a voice. Christmas present is a rotund beardless figure. The Ghost of Christmas Future is a shadow that Scrooge confronts in his bedroom, like the previous ghosts – but unlike the book and other film adaptations, which have him encounter the ominous spirit outdoors.
There are a few creepy moments. The atmosphere inside Scrooge’s dark house nicely sets up Marley’s “appearance,” which is foreshadowed by a nicely done ghost face on the knocker of the front door – the subtle disappearance suggests an optical illusion, making it easy to believe that Scrooge would shrug off this first supernatural manifestation. Curiously, when Marley does arrive for his chat with Scrooge, he is entirely invisible, his presence revealed only by objects that appear to be moving themselves and by his voice – which in a further irony, resembles that of Claude Rains, who starred as THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933) two years earlier.
ALTERNATE VERSIONS ON DVD
The 1935 SCROOGE has long been available only in a severely truncated form, with large chunks of the story cut out, such as flashbacks of Scrooge’s sister and Scrooge’s acid-tongue comment to a charity collector about descreasing “the surpluss population. The later is a particularly glaring omission, considering that this cut retains the later scene wherein the Ghost of Christmas Present disparagingly quotes Scrooge’s words back to him!
Care should be exercised when renting or purchasing the film on DVD. Discs tend to list the complete 78-minute running time, whether or not the print contained is in fact complete.
A good example is the dollar-discount disc from EastWestDVD.com, which lists the 78-minute running time even though the actual length is closer to one hour. The print is watchable but speckled and soft. The presentation is barebones, without trailers or even a scene selection menu; the transfer has been chaptered-stopped; you just have to go through it one step at a time to reach the desired scene.
However, it is not quite right to say there are no bonus features; the disc contains one surprise that seems like an accident. After SCROOGE fades out, there is another Christmas title: a 1955 television version of THE MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET, made for the 20TH CENTURY FOX HOUR and starring Macdonald Carey, Hans Conreid, and Thomas Mitchell as Kris Kringle. The title is not listed on the disc’s cover art, nor is is accessible through the DVD menu; you simply have to wait for SCROOGE to end (or advance through all the chapter-stops). It is as if EastWest ran off a bunch of discs with both films on them and labeled some SCROOGE and some THE MIRACLE ON 24TH STREET.
Another eccentricity of the East West disc is that the cover bills it as a “John Brahm Film” even though it was directed by Henry Edwards. This is an apparent attempt to earn some cache by associating the film with production supervisor Brahm, who went on to direct a few wonderful thrillers in the 1940s: THE UNDYING MONSTER (1942), THE LODGER (1944), and HANGOVER SQUARE (1945)
A colorized version of SCROOGE is available from Legend Films (a company that specializes in such releases). The Legend DVD also contains a transfer of the film in it soriginal black-and-white. Although billed as “beautifully restored,” the running time is listed as 60 minutes. The B&W print looks sharper and cleaner than the East West transfer (the speckling and scratches have been erased), but the image registration is still a little wobbly, and dimly lit scenes look a bit washed out. This black-and-white version is available for rental through our Video on Demand service (powered by Amazon.com).
Whichever version you see – on television, DVD, or VOD – you would be well advised to lower your expectations. Although Legend Films’s product description claims that SCROOGE is “considered the best adaptation of A Christmas Carol ever made,” they do not specify who considers it so, and it is difficult to imagine many viewers who would agree, in light of the many entertaining adaptations that have followed.
If you are afraid of wasting your money on the rental of the incomplete version, you can see the complete cut of SCROOGE on YouTube here, with a different opening credits sequence.
SCROOGE (1935). Directed by Henry Edwards. Screenplay by H. Fowler Mear, based on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Cast: Seymour Hicks, Donald Calthrop, Robert Cochran, Mary Glynne, Garry Marsh Oscar Asche, Marie Ney, C.V. France, Athene Seyler, Barbara Everest, Philip Frost.
Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
With Disney’s new 3-D computer-animated A CHRISTMAS CAROL leading the weekend box office, and with the holiday season rapidly approaching, now seems like a good time to take a look back on the previous screen incarnations of Ebeneze Scrooge. Rubber-faced comic star Jimy Carrey is far from the first actor to embody the cold-hearted old sinner conceived and created by author Charles Dickens in his 1843 novel, A Christmas Carol (sometimes known by the longer title A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas). Dozens of actors (and at least a few actresses, including Susan Lucci in the 1995 TV movie EBBIE) have played variations of the role on stage, screen, and radio. Everybody from Alistair Sim to Albert Finney, from George C. Scott to Patrick Stewart, has taken a turn as old Ebenezer, and such is the strength of the source material that almost all of them are interesting in their own way.
But what of that original material? Thanks to Hollywood, novels, stories, and fiction in general have come to seem almost like nothing more than fodder for adaptations; in fact, a book almost isn’t a success in its own right — it’s merely a rough draft for the filmic treatment, and if Hollywood doesn’t think it’s worth filming, then — hey, it must not have been worth reading in the first place. And sometimes it’s not worth reading even if there is a film version. There have been more than a few cases where the film has almost completely supplanted the novel in the public consciousness, and this is certainly true in the realms of horror, fantasy, and science fiction. A brief list might include Phantom of the Opera, Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wizard of Oz, Psycho, and even The Exorcist. Let’s face it: a big part of the reason that Stephen King is so well known (besides the fact that he’s a bestseller) is that so many movies have been made from his books that you don’t have to read at all to hear and know his name.
All of which returns us to our point about A Christmas Carol: Charles Dickens original literary version of the story is a genuine classic in its own right that deserves to be read. In fact, instead of running out to see the new Jim Carrey film, it would probably be a better investment of your time and money if you were to pick up a copy of the novel at your local library or bookstore, then read it, at least to yourself and preferably aloud to those you love, be it family, friends, spouses, or lovers. The novelette runs only five chapters (or “staves,” as they are called), so it is hardly an overwhelming investment of time; the returns will be greater than you can imagine.
Of course, being so short, it’s not as if the Dickens tale is filled with plot details that had to be excised for the movie and television adaptations. You’re not going to find all sorts of sophisticated ideas that had to be toned down to make a mass-appeal movie. The truth, of course, is that Dickens was writing a popular tale, so it’s not as if the filmmakers had to move it any further in that direction.
No, what you will derive from reading this story is the richness of the language, the magic of a prose style perfectly calculated to tell the tale at hand. The brief excerpt at the top of this page should give you some clue as the amusement that awaits you: the overemphatic stress on a point that could have been made in a single sentence, the attempt to convince the reader as if overcoming some sort of resistance to the idea being stated — this points to a joy at the use of words as tools of entertainment. By the time Dickens moves into the second paragraph of the story, featuring his doubts regarding what is particularly dead about a doornail (as opposed to a coffin nail), you will know beyond any doubt on your part that you are indeed in for a fine evening’s entertainment. (Oh, did I say this story is best read around an open fire in the quiet hours of the evening? Well, there now.)
Your tongue will occasionally stumble across a Victorian colloquialism, but you should be able to figure out the gist from the context. (I myself am still not sure what “good upon ‘Change” means, except that it seems to imply Scrooge’s name was the equivalent of legal tender [i.e., money]; therefore, it had some intrinsic value or validity for whatever it was applied to.) Whatever the stumbling blocks, they won’t be enough to impede you from enjoying a rich piece of fiction that will delight you, no matter how many times you’ve seen the story acted out.
Depending on which adaptation is most familiar, you will encounter a few surprises. For example:
- In the various flashbacks depicting Scrooge’s younger self, Dickens does not chart his rise as a successful businessman – a fact given closer scrutiny in the 1951 film starring Alistair Sim.
- The Ghost of Christmas Past, often portrayed by a woman on film, is described as a “strange figure – like a child; yet not so like a child as like an old man viewed through some supernatural medium, which gave him the apperance of having receded from the view, and being diminished to a child’s proportions.”
- Perhaps most interesting, despite the numerous dramatic depictions of Scrooge as a gray-haired old man, Dickens never specifies his age, beyond calling him a “squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner” – which seems to be intended as more metaphorical than literal. From the details given in the story (Scrooge has a young nephew, married but without children), we would infer that Ebenezer is middle-aged.
It is also worth noting that, for an author not associated with the horror genre, Dickens well knew how to manipulate his literary elements to produce a shuddery effect. A Christmas Carol may be best remembered for its sweetness of spirit, embodied in The Ghosts of Christmas Past and Christmas Present, but Marley’s apparation – bound in chains, jaw dropping open when he unties the handerchief holding it in place – is an effectively ghoulish one. And the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come – shrouded in a black robe, face unseen beneath a hood, voiceless – eerily evokes the figure of Death (imagery put to good grim use in film versions, even the comic spoofs). With these sublimely spooky moments – along with a ghostly carraige and the bizarre moment when Marley’s face replaces the knocker on Scrooge’s door – the novelette easily lives up to its subtitle A Ghost Story of Christmas
Dickens’ ultimate triumph is that he sells Scrooge’s transformation. As greedy and avaricious as the character is, somehow the seeds of redemption have been planted, so that we believe whole-heartedly his change of heart at the conclusion. Confronted by the ghostly visitations on Christmas Eve, anyone might proclaim themselves a changed man; Dickens convinces us that Scrooge will follow through in the days and years to come. And not merely out of self-interest (he wants to avoid the lonely death shown him by the Ghost of Christmas Future) but out of a new – or, more precisely, renewed – connection with humanity.
I won’t belabor my point any further, except to say that I try to revist this enchanting story every Christmas season. This is not meant to dissuade you from watching the many wonderful film and television adaptations; rather it is a suggestion that you visit the wonderful source material. Instead of watching a particular version of A Christmas Carol for the umpteenth time, why not take those two hours and read it? You will be glad you did.
And then, after emmersing yourself in Dickens’ fanciful world of Yuletide spirits and ghostly visitations, you may find yourself with a whole new appreciation of the adaptations that followed.
[NOTE: This article is the first in a series. Subsequent installments will examine some of the more notable film and television adaptations of Dickens’ story.]