Director: Edwin L. Marin
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Of the many screen adaptations of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, to my mind, the best and most definitive version is the 1951 production starring Alistair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge. Filled with wonderful performances, evocative settings, and a fully fleshed story, this is the movie that has imprinted my mind’s eye with how the story goes.
So when the hubby said that his favorite Carol was the 1938 version starring Reginald Owen, I suggested we watch it. I was sure I had seen it before, but after a full viewing of this short, 73-minute film, I can say I had only seen clips, not the entire thing. So different was it in so many respects from my cherished version, I found the entire experience a revelation.
First a word of thanks to the good people of Turner Classic Movies who dig up all those interesting facts for their various movie hosts to drop at the beginning and end of each screening. Robert Osborne, the indispensable main host on TCM, introduced the film by saying that to radio audiences of the 1930s, the audio version of “A Christmas Carol” with Lionel Barrymore as Scrooge was as ubiquitous and popular as A Christmas Story and It’s a Wonderful Life are today. To capitalize on the popular radio special, MGM decided to produce a filmed version with Barrymore leading the cast. Shortly before filming was to begin, Barrymore had a crippling fall that, added to an earlier injury, would cost him the use of his legs. Because so much was already invested in the film, MGM decided to forge on. Barrymore suggested Owen as his replacement and did a promotional trailer for the film. This background helped me enormously in understanding the very different choices director Marin and screenwriter Hugo Butler made in telling this familiar story.
The film opens not on the offices of Scrooge & Marley, but rather in the street near the accountancy, where Scrooge’s nephew Fred (Barry MacKay) is sliding on the icy sidewalk with some youngsters. This scene goes on for quite some time, setting up Fred as a handsome and likable lead; this image is further reinforced when he enters his uncle’s place of business and encourages Bob Cratchit (Gene Lockhart) to put more coal on the fire and have some wine Fred has brought as a gift for Scrooge. This scene of good cheer and camaraderie really is delightful. Bob retrieves a glass from his boss’ office and hands it to Fred. “What’s that smell?” Fred inquires. “Cough syrup,” says Bob. They both grimace and chuckle as Fred fills the glass for Bob. It is then that Scrooge makes his entrance. Cratchit hurriedly puts down the glass and runs to the fireplace to remove some unignited coal briquettes.
The scene then progresses as Dickens wrote it, with Fred and Scrooge declaring their opposite philosophies of Christmas and life in general. When Scrooge dismisses some men collecting for charity with the famous line “If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population,” it comes as the shock it always does, no matter how often it has been repeated.
The story deviates again from the original by having Bob take off after collecting his week’s wages and getting involved in throwing snowballs with some neighborhood boys. He ends up throwing a snowball at Scrooge and knocking his top hat into the street where a coach tramples it. Scrooge fires him. Bob blows his entire wages on food for Christmas dinner and chestnut treats for his children.
From this point on, the story proceeds in pretty much the traditional manner, with light sprinklings of sugar here and there. Leo G. Carroll ably acquits himself as Marley’s ghost. The Spirit of Christmas Past, played by Andy Hardy regular Ann Rutherford, is the strangest casting in the film. She is far too glamorous and sounds like a scold as she preaches to Scrooge of his failings. D’Arcy Corrigan as the Spirit of Christmas Future looks like a fugitive from an Ed Wood film. But the brilliant performance and costuming of Lionel Braham as the Spirit of Christmas Present make him my favorite of all those who have played the part.
The hubby thinks Terry Kilburn is a creepy-looking Tiny Tim, a sort of Peter Lorre in training, but he’s still endearing and manages to toss off “God bless us, every one,” without too much syrup coating the screen. Lynn Carver as Fred’s fiancée Bess takes the romantic lead other versions of the story properly reserve for Ebenezer’s lost love Belle, whose story is never told. Old Fezziwig (Forrester Harvey), a great favorite of mine, is barely a walk-on in this movie. So much is left out of this A Christmas Carol, it seems like a Cliff’s Notes version. Additions leave other moments hanging; for example, Bob Cratchit’s splurge on Christmas dinner makes Scrooge’s purchase of the prize goose on Christmas day rather beside the point. And Owen’s bald wig and roaming eyebrows are atrocious.
What then are we to make of this movie? I think the key is the radio drama it was supposed to emulate and the conventions of the time that demanded an attractive ingénue couple, moving Fred and Bess to center stage. This shorter version, which I’m convinced must have tracked closely with the radio play, certainly fits the restrictions of radio and simplifies some plot twists that might have been confusing to listen to. The film is filled with sounds, from the clock in Ebenezer’s bedroom striking the hour to the pop of Scrooge’s hat under some carriage wheels. These sounds certainly would have brought the tale alive for a radio audience. The omniscient voiceover is omitted to keep the narrative moving, but its absence leads to some heavy-handed moralizing by the Spirits. There is, however, one shocking image that the radio could not deliver—Scrooge reading his own tombstone. That scene still has a lot of power and was well handled in this telling.
And how does Reginald Owen stack up as Ebenezer Scrooge? He had less to work with than Sim or other screen Scrooges, and yet, I think he set a standard that others followed. His gestures and carriage are perfect, and his transformation from a miserly humbug, though a bit too swift, is heart-warming nonetheless. This A Christmas Carol delivers the sentiments we all crave at this time of year. I’m glad to have welcomed it into my home.