29 November 2009

CHRISTMAS CAROLS: THE CLASSIC

There have been literally dozens of adaptations of Charles Dickens's 1843 novella A Christmas Carol for stage, screen, and television, making it rather shocking that one version in all that glut should be cited with some unanimity as the best of them all: that being Brian Desmond-Hurst's 1951 film Scrooge, released in the United States under the story's original title (by that point, both names had been used a number of times for a number of different movies). Customarily, the reason given for this uncommonly uniform praise is that of all the many, many actors to play the miserly financier Ebenezer Scrooge or some variant upon that character, none were so great in the role as this film's Alastair Sim, a character actor who made some very fine movies in the years before and after, although this one performance dominates his career like few other starring roles ever have.

Far be it from me to disagree with conventional wisdom, at least when convention gets it right: though I haven't seen nearly all of the theatrical versions of the story, to say nothing of the seemingly uncountable number of TV adaptations, I can still very confidently say that Sim's take on Scrooge is by far the most perfect of all the ones I am familiar with: not only the interpretation that keeps the most part of the author's concept of the character intact, but perhaps richer and more psychologically well-defined than even Dickens might have imagined (I should at this point mention that one of the many versions I haven't seen is the 1984 telefilm starring George C. Scott, in a performance nearly as praised as Sim's).

For a character as apparently straightforward as Mr. Scrooge, there are actually a great many different ways he could be played, depending on what the actor and director want to say about human nature and greed. It is commonest, I thing, because it is the most fun to play and to watch, for Scrooge to be a proper monster, snarling out Dickens's famous misanthropic barbs - "If they are going to die, they had better do it, and reduce the surplus population" - until those ghosts come along and show him the true meaning of Christmas. Only in Sim's depiction do I see every inch of the character from the book: this Scrooge is an utterly broken man, who is not so much angry at the world as he is desperately sad. It just so happens that his sadness manifests itself as hostility. The difference is all in how he means it when he calls Christmas a "humbug" - the meaning of that word in Dickens, somewhat lost to history, is that Scrooge believes above all else that Christmas is a time for hypocrisy, the one day out of 365 when people act nice, against their natures and inclination. All the cheer and goodwill are contemptible fakery. For Sim's Scrooge, that is a profoundly upsetting thought, and when he says "Humbug!" it is not spat out like an invective, but wrung out of his body like a tearful cry from an angry child.

Later, on, when Scrooge is confronted with the darkest moments of his life, we see the usual moment when he begs the Spirit of Christmas Past (Michael Dolan) not to show him any more visions; usually, this is played as shame and self-loathing, and both of these are present in Sim's performance, but he adds to this a feeling of real and considerable pain, as though these memories were carefully and deliberately hidden away, and reliving them is causing him much more severe emotional distress than just normal humiliation at recognising one's great failures. Everything in Sim's performance here and throughout, especially his baggy, sorrowful eyes, suggests suffering and anguish that makes Scrooge seem like a wholly-rounded human being even in the earliest part of the story, when he is at his nastiest, and this makes his ultimate redemption all the sweeter and happier.

It is the usual thing for most considerations of the film to focus on Sim's extraordinary performance (including mine), enough so that sometimes one almost forgets to notice how very good the rest of the film is outside of that man. Director and producer Desmond-Hurst's mounting of the story is quite handsome in all regards, most especially in its excellent rendering of 19th Century England: though it seems likely that the film was not produced with much of a budget (it is quite set-bound), the details of what we see are very precise and evocative, and C. Pennington-Richards's black-and-white cinematography captures those details with a beautiful, film noir palette of light and dark that gives the film a darker, moodier feeling than most Christmas Carol movies; particularly in the sequence where Scrooge meets the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come (C. Konarski), where this film manages the oft-ignored feat of recalling that to Dickens, this was a scary story as much as a heart-warming fable (in this, though, the film still cannot compete with the 2009 Robert Zemeckis adaptation, which turns into a full-on horror picture in its last third). For the standards of British cinema in 1951, Scrooge exhibits some remarkable visual effects in its depiction of the various ghosts; these show their age in some shots, but are mainly quite effective and otherworldly, even today.

Noel Langley's screenplay wins points for being an unusually faithful treatment of both the letter and spirit of Dickens, but there are a few key changes made, mostly in the flashbacks to Christmases past, and these changes serve always to increase our sense of Scrooge as victim. The first of these is the invention of a subplot in which young Scrooge (George Cole) and his friend, Mr. Marley (Patrick Macnee, played as an older man and a ghost by Michael Hordern) start to learn of fiscal theory, and eventually use their new skills to take over their old employer; this serves to answer one of the great holes in most tellings (including Dickens's), of how it was that the young romantic turned into a conniving miser. The second major change is that Scrooge is made to be younger than his sister (Carol Marsh), so that his mother could have died giving birth to him. This of course explains much better why it is that Scrooge and his father had a falling-out, and gives some more reason to pity the loveless young man, and to understand why he grew up to be so dysfunctional. All told, the changes make Scrooge, if I dare to say it, a more dramatically successful work than Dickens's novella; something that I do not believe true of any other adaptation of a Dickens work.

It's a fairly top-notch mixture of narrative, style, and performance (even though it's a one-man sort of thing, the ensemble cast is all quite good, especially Hermione Baddeley as Mrs. Cratchit), and by being more than just an illustration of famous scenes and lines, it makes an argument for its own merits in a way that few of the other equally faithful Christmas Carols have managed.

3 comments:

Minzo said...

Hey man, just want to say Im absolutely loving your reviews. I stumbled on your site a few weeks ago, and since then Ive been reading through your archives and loving every second. We dont always agree (I thought you were way too harsh on 'My bloody valentine' and 'The uninvited') but you always give me something to think about. Keep up the good work

dfantico said...

While I even love Scrooged, my favorite is Mickey's Christmas Carol, starring Scrooge McDuck (Alan Young), probably because I saw it as a child.

Rick said...

I also love Mickey's Christmas Carol and it too brings back wonderful memories, though I don't remember seeing it at the theater. I have only one question about A Christmas Carol(the title I know it by): where is Criterion?