January 2, 2019

A Christmas Carol (1951)
Grade: 82/100

Director: Brian Desmond-Hurst
Stars: Alastair Sim, Mervyn Johns, Hermione Baddeley

How others will see it. The famous 1843 Charles Dickens novella has been adapted to film on a great many occasions. There is even a 1970 musical starring Albert Finney, and a 1992 Muppet movie with Michael Caine as Scrooge. The present film precedes those, but is by no means the first. A British silent short, Scrooge, or Marley's Ghost, was made a full half-century earlier, and portions have miraculously survived.

But classic film fans generally believe that the 1951 version is best. Made in England by Renown Pictures, it was released in the U.S. by United Artists. The movie stars veteran character actors instead of household names, and is all the better for it. True, it was ignored by film festivals, since at the time the 1938 MGM version was considered definitive. The 1951 effort was deemed yet another screen adaptation, by an obscure studio.

The director, Brian Desmond Hurst, was little regarded. One his best known prior movies was Bucket of Blood (1934), with a plot described by imdb.com as "a young man is driven mad by his obsession with the repulsive diseased eye of the old man who cares for him."

Praise for the 1951 adaptation tends to be concentrated on Alastair Sim, the actor blessed with the lead role of Scrooge. Instead, credit surely belongs to Noel Langley, who crafted the Dickens work into a nifty screenplay. Langley was the principal writer for The Wizard of Oz (1939), They Made Me a Fugitive (1947), and The Pickwick Papers (1952), which suggests his best results came from adaptations of novels written by others.

Today, the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol has a respectable 18K user votes at imdb.com, and an extremely high user rating of 8.1 out of 10. The rating rises with the age of the viewer, to 8.4 among those over 45. User reviews fawn over the adaptation, with one calling it "the most affecting of all the filmed versions."

What it's about. The plot is familiar to most adults. Set in London circa-1840. Elderly miser Scrooge (Alastair Sim) is a wealthy financier with a clerk, Bob Cratchit (Mervyn Johns), and a housekeeper (Kathleen Harrison), with whom he is curt and frugal. Scrooge is without friends, and his family consists of a gregarious nephew (Brian Worth) to whom Scrooge gives the brush-off.

On Christmas Eve, at home and alone, Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his former partner, Jacob Marley (Michael Hordern), who is condemned to walk the Earth in chains. Marley warns Scrooge that he is on the wrong path. But Scrooge is a hard nut, and must endure visits from three additional spirits, the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future (respectively Michael Dolan, Francis De Wolff, and Czeslaw Konarski), before he decides it is better to be kind and generous than dead and unmourned.

Cratchit has a considerable family. His wife is Hermione Baddeley, and his lame son is Tiny Tim (Glyn Dearman). Flashbacks of Scrooge's early life reveal he once had an ideal wife (Rona Anderson) who dumped him for his humbug ways.

How I felt about it. Sim got the most mileage from the movie. His character has a humanity (before the Great Transformation) lacking in most versions, which stridently depict Scrooge as a man seemingly without any hope of redemption. Here, even while delivering lines about the useful purpose of workhouses, he seems less like Satan incarnate than a man misguided about economics. It's not about accumulation, the Republican way, than about distribution, the Democratic way.

In terms of money, Scrooge is wealthy, and his clerk Cratchit is poor. But Scrooge is friendless and nearly without family, while Cratchit has a loving wife and a slew of kindly and adorable children. If forced to live life as one character or the other, most would rather be the beloved Cratchit despite his financial worries, than the loveless and embittered Scrooge.

Like "Oliver Twist", "A Christmas Carol" is social advocacy by Charles Dickens in the guise of a novel. While governments may treat the poor severely, even in an enlightened democracy such as England, that does not give the wealthy a pass to hoard income at the expense of those less fortunate. Better to be an Andrew Carnegie, who gave it all away, than a Jay Gould, who kept it all.