All three movies were box-office disappointments when first released, but thanks in part to annual broadcasts, they've become widely beloved classics. In recent years, A Christmas Story
(the one about Ralphie and the Red Ryder BB Gun) seems to have taken over as everybody's favourite of the three – mainly, I think, because it's the one in colour – and there's nothing wrong with that. Bob Clark's 1983 comedy, based on a childhood memoir by Jean Shepherd, is charming, very funny and even moving in its unsentimental way. It makes sense that the people behind The Wonder Years
found A Christmas Story
such a strong inspiration
But for movie lovers of a few distinct generations, the old man's Leg Lamp can't hold a lightbulb to the image of Alastair Sim nervously carrying a candle up a dark, shadowy staircase and hearing a ghostly “Scrooooooooge!
” For it's Scrooge
– released in North America under the original title of Charles Dickens' novella, A Christmas Carol
– that holds up the best of all Christmas films.
Since the silent days, there have been many film adaptations, not to mention parodies, of Dickens' immortal 1843 story about grumpy miser Ebenezer Scrooge and his supernatural transformation into a good man during Christmas Eve. (I'm going to assume that everybody's familiar with the basic story.) More than six decades after it was made, director Brian Desmond-Hurst's British version is still arguably the most famous one. So much has already been written and said about Sim's incredible performance as Scrooge, but the film as a whole is full of brilliant cinematography, music and atmosphere.
At the same time, it's understandable why some younger viewers, accustomed to the realism, seamless editing and digitized special effects of today's movies, might laugh at the corny “floating hourglass through the tunnel” effect between flashbacks, or at Michael Hordern's hammy overacting as Jacob Marley's ghost. As someone who grew up with the film – I first saw it on TV as a child in the early 1980s, when Marley's floating ghost face gave me nightmares – I can't help having a winking affection for the movie's little campy charms. And all the great moments simply override the flaws.
Although a hit in the U.K., Scrooge
initially received mixed reviews and did little business in America. Time
compared it unfavourably to David Lean's Great Expectations
, calling Desmond-Hurst's direction “too often heavy” and noted that “the picture at times may tax a moviegoer's seasonal good will.” A Christmas engagement at Radio City Music Hall was cancelled
because the theatre's managers thought the movie's tone too dark and gloomy for their holiday programming.
Yet that dark tone is exactly what makes it stand out so boldly among Christmas Carol
adaptations. Desmond-Hurst and cinematographer C. Pennington-Richards rightly remembered that Dickens' original novella is, to a large degree, a ghost story
. That's why so many scenes have such a creepy, moody, Gothic feel, from the shadowy interiors of Scrooge's mansion to the insistent minor keys of Richard Addinsell's score.
The late Toronto film critic John Harkness called Scrooge
“a horror film in disguise” when he wrote about the movie upon its 2005 DVD re-release. “With its ghost-driven plot and big revelations – the children hiding beneath the robes of the Ghost of Christmas Present and Scrooge's confrontation with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come – are chilling moments... One wonders if the parents who blithely approve it for children to watch remember just how frightening this story can be.”
As faithful as the movie is to Dickens' original spooky intentions (and to his traditional theme of greed vs. poverty during the Industrial Revolution), Noel Langley's script is also full of changes and additions to the story that work amazingly well, because of the way they widen its emotional scope. We get to see Marley give a creepy deathbed warning to Scrooge, a chilling sequence balanced by the black comedy of the presence of an over-eager undertaker (“Ours is a highly competitive profession”). We also learn that Scrooge's sister, Fan (Carol Marsh), died while giving birth to his nephew, Fred (Brian Worth), much in the same way Scrooge's own mother had died during his birth. Scooge's maid, Mrs. Dilber (played by prolific British character actress Kathleen Harrison), has an expanded role in the movie, serving as his comic foil in the final reel.
And in one devastating scene, Scrooge learns that his one-time fiancée (Rona Anderson) is now a spinster who works at a shelter for the homeless. “Alice?” Scrooge calls out to her, his face full of naked yearning and regret, but no one can hear him. The only reply he gets is cold, hard truth from the Ghost of Christmas Present (Francis de Wolff): “Did you not cut yourself off from your fellow man when you lost the love of that delicate creature?”
Sim, of course, carries the film, with an amazing interpretation of Ebenezer Scrooge as a fully three-dimensional human being. We're used to thinking of Scrooge as a capitalist caricature, à la Mr. Burns from The Simpsons
, but Sim helps you see bits of yourself inside the character rather than the usual Dickensian grotesque to look down upon and judge. His Scrooge is alternately mean, cranky, pitiful, cowardly, wonderful, terrible, funny, cruel and just an all-round Everyman. The performance is rife with little gestures and expressions that are so beautifully real and human. I sometimes laugh out loud at the sincerely puzzled expression on Scrooge's face as he asks, “Why?” when the charity workers ask him for a donation. And the moment when he first sees the Ghost of Christmas Present, emits an eternally weary “Oh, what now
?”-type groan and turns back towards his bedroom also makes me chuckle.
The closing scenes, in which Scrooge explodes into interminable laughter while offering raises to Mrs. Dilber and Mervyn Johns' Bob Cratchit (both of whom, understandably, think he's gone right loony), are just masterful pieces of acting. It's not that he's so happy that he wants
to laugh – he's so happy that he can't stop
laughing. “I don't deserve to be so happy. But I can't help it!” Sim must have really put himself “in the zone” when preparing for these scenes; it's a Method performance when Method acting in film was barely even a thing yet. If you don't see what I mean, compare it to Patrick Stewart's forced, phony laughs near the end of the awful 1999 A Christmas Carol
(in which, for some reason, the Spirit of Christmas Future seems to be played by a very tall Jawa.)
For me, the emotional highlight of the movie comes near the end, when the reformed Scrooge goes to his nephew's party. It's so perfectly paced and performed. As “Barbara Allan” (a recurring romantic musical theme throughout the film) plays on the soundtrack, Scrooge enters the house on a snowy night, and a small, meek maid takes his coat and scarf. With an apprehensive expression, Scrooge approaches the door to the party room, but stops, afraid. He looks at the maid, who smiles with a nod of encouragement. Scrooge enters the room cautiously, surprises the guests, and with a humble, loving smile, asks Fred's wife (Olga Edwardes): “Can you forgive a pigheaded old fool, for having no eyes to see with, no ears to hear with, all these years?”
It's a sequence that might have come off as clichéd and overly sentimental with any other actors, but both Sim and the uncredited actress playing the maid sell it so brilliantly, with their restraint and sincerity, that it becomes one of the rare “tear-jerking” movie moments that actually earn the tears.
These days, Desmond-Hurst
isn't one of the better-known British directors from the classic era. Although he honed his skills in Hollywood under John Ford, he never achieved the reputation of Lean, Carol Reed or Alfred Hitchcock. Langley (who, coincidentally, was born on Christmas Day) is better known today as a co-screenwriter of The Wizard of Oz
. Sim, meanwhile, always carried with him a reputation as a reliable character comedian, particularly in two Belles of St. Trinian's
films. How lucky we are today that these three artists collaborated this one time to create a masterpiece.
So while 'tis definitely the season to watch It's a Wonderful Life
, The Grinch
and many others, it's always wise to make time for Scrooge
. It's the Christmas movie that's so good, you can enjoy it any
time of the year.