**½/**** Image A Sound A- Extras C+
starring Alastair Sim, Jack Warner, Kathleen Harrison, Mervyn Johns
screenplay by Noel Langley, based on the book by Charles Dickens
directed by Brian Desmond Hurst
by Alex Jackson Would you believe that my enthusiasm towards Brian Desmond Hurst's A Christmas Carol is significantly tempered by my familiarity with Scrooged, the 1988 partial retelling of the classic novella? That Richard Donner film is a bit of a perennial favourite, having come out the perfect year (1988) for it to enter my consciousness. (For our third grade Christmas pageant, we even led the audience in a sing-along to Tina Turner's "Put a Little Love in Your Heart"!) While I never quite thought it good enough to add to my collection, I do feel genuinely disappointed that few cable stations appear to be re-running it. Scrooged does the obvious thing by putting Ebenezer Scrooge in charge of a television network, but the update actually works and the film feels particularly relevant to contemporary viewers.
Scrooged has three moments of astonishing brutality I just can't get out of my system. The first finds Bill Murray's Scrooge surrogate, Frank Cross, in a sewer with the frozen, smiling corpse of a homeless man he blew off earlier. Cross predictably berates him for not staying in the homeless shelter his ex-girlfriend Claire (Karen Allen) runs, where he would at least be warm. But the corpse's beatific expression doesn't change. When Cross goes into the future, he sees his assistant's son, a mute who is the film's Tiny Tim character, grown into a teenager and sitting in the padded cell of an asylum or a detention centre. "Tim"'s mother comes to see him, but he barely acknowledges her presence. Then Cross notices Claire, in white pancake makeup, eating lunch with friends and sneering at some street kids banging on the window. She tells her friends that she used to waste her life helping people like that until a friend (Cross) said to her, "Scrape 'em off. If you want to save somebody, save yourself." It's perhaps a little bit over-the-top and an implausible development for the character besides, but I bought the sentiment. Never before has the concept of cold being the absence of heat been so lucidly communicated as in these scenes.
Cross is producing a live broadcast of A Christmas Carol, and the film gets a lot of mileage out of his tasteless attempts to pander to his viewing public. We see a clip where his Tiny Tim (played by gymnast Mary Lou Retton) throws away his crutches and does a backflip to demonstrate his newfound health, as well as Cross arguing with a prop man over putting reindeer antlers on a mouse. (The prop man says he can't glue them; Cross tells him to staple them on.) He also debates the network censor about showing nipples on one of the chorus girls. ("I want to see her nipples. I'm pretty sure Charles Dickens would want to see her nipples.") Cross wants his production to be heavy on the sex and kitsch. The satire here is fairly mild in "meta," though, and serves mainly to show how irrelevant the Dickens tale has become, consequently accentuating its impact when they then take it deathly seriously.
I guess where I'm going with this is that Hurst's A Christmas Carol has an unhealthy lot in common with Frank Cross's in-film production. It's a very good realization of the Dickens novella, yet as an adaptation, it's found wanting. Hurst doesn't seem to have much of a take on A Christmas Carol. I can't see any reason for the film to have been made other than to give us a first-rate retelling of the story. All there is to recommend it is craft and that's a deadly thing to say about art. It doesn't really get to the soul of the material like the less literal Scrooged did. For all the acclaim it has received, I can't imagine it putting anybody in the Christmas spirit.
Hurst and cinematographer C. Pennington-Richards's images are often a little flat and stagy, although there are enough stylish touches to push the film's craftsmanship into "above average" territory. I liked how the transitions in the Past segment are conveyed by an hourglass floating in a tunnel--an ambitious visual that harks back to the silent era. Faithful to the source novel, the three ghosts each have their own unique look: the Ghost of Christmas Past is genteel; the Ghost of Christmas Present is jolly and corpulent; and the Ghost of Christmas Future is a wraith. Hurst further differentiates them cinematically by making the Ghost of Christmas Past semi-translucent, the Ghost of Christmas Present a tangible entity sharing the same metaphysical plane as Scrooge, and the Ghost of Christmas Future a mysterious creature barely glimpsed on-screen.
I don't take particular offense to the notion that Alastair Sim's is the finest of all Scrooges. George C. Scott* had a three-pronged test to evaluate a performance:
1. Is the character dominating?
2. Is the actor using fresh choices in depicting the common acting emotions (love, anger, fear, pity, et cetera)?
3. Is there a "joy of performing" quality in their work?
Sim meets these criteria. He goes through much of the film with his mouth agape, lending his Scrooge a rat-like appearance. Only after he awakens on Christmas morning does he resemble a man. (It's as though we aren't even looking at the same actor.) Of course, the performance is very pleasure-filled, too, especially when the new, born-again Scrooge laughs at himself, saying, "I don't deserve to be so happy, but I can't help myself." It's hard not to smile at this point. Watching him, you get a pretty good idea of why the film is considered a classic.
If A Christmas Carol has any real flaw, it may be that it's too short. There's not enough space between visits from the ghosts--they don't have a chance to sink in. This is possibly an artifact of being overly faithful to the text. The film might have benefited from doing as Scrooged did by treating the book as merely the basis for the screenplay instead of as raw material to be translated directly into film form. The faithfulness to the text also diminishes the significance of a somewhat minor but particularly fascinating aspect of Scrooge's past, i.e., his abusive father, who put him in a boarding school and refused to let him come home for Christmas.
I found the Past section greatly effective in establishing Scrooge as a mean, downright evil son of a bitch. (He refuses to see his dying partner until business hours are over, then buys up everything he had to put in his collection the moment he dies.) George Cole is also fantastic as young Scrooge, imbuing the character with some much-needed complexity and thus saving him from cartoon oblivion. There's a great bit where he buys up an old friend's business and tentatively and with a subtly confused look watches him ride away. You can see the last remnants of his soul slip away. Still, I wish they could have explored more of Scrooge's childhood--not just because I'm a closet Freudian, but because the one thing I've never felt for the character is a sense of pity. So if somebody hadn't already done it, that's my suggestion for the next version of A Christmas Carol.
VCI Entertainment's two-disc Ultimate Collector's Edition of A Christmas Carol will go down in the books as one of the strangest DVDs ever produced. Viewing options include the original full-frame 1.37:1 version and a "special tilt-and-scan" version for 16x9 televisions. I swear to God, the phrase "tilt and scan" is in the liner notes to describe this cropped and recomposed bastardization. It's a selling point! For blind viewers, meanwhile, there is an optional narration where a woman explains what is happening in the film. Disc 2 features, that's right, a colorized version of A Christmas Carol! Preceded by a hilarious introduction from Patrick Macnee, who plays a young Jacob Marley in the film, the colorized version is blissfully a direct port of the 1989 incarnation and no effort has gone into restoring it. VCI presents it more as an extra than as a viewing option, saved for posterity, I guess. (Previous VCI editions offered both on the same disc or sold them separately.) In short, the company seems to have used every single tacky idea they can think of, plus a handful I don't think anybody had ever thought of: for instance, the optional subtitles are bright red!
The 1.37:1 transfer has received a good scrubbing by the VCI team: virtually all traces of dirt and print damage are gone. They've brightened it up as well, maybe a little too much for my taste--the title sequence looks particularly washed-out, though this is a minor complaint. Contrast is excellent; sequences shot out in the snow leave a lasting impression. Audio is offered in Dolby Digital 2.0 monaural and 5.1 Surround. The latter is much louder but fails to utilize the side channels while the former is a bit noisier and unbalanced. Either is a fairly solid track that exhibits almost no signs of age.
The lone extra on Disc 1 is a commentary teaming film historian Marcus Hearn and actor George Cole. As with his track for The Devil's Rain, we again have the scholarly Hearn interviewing a Cockney filmmaker, emphasizing the inherent absurdity of academia taking such a shine to such a hopelessly populist artform. There's a funny moment where Hearn asks Cole why the film has grown in popularity over the years, to which Cole pragmatically answers, "Because it was on television." Implying of course that it would have become popular whether or not it was any good. Generally, though, Hearn has better chemistry with Cole than he did with The Devil's Rain director Robert Fuest, and the two men serve their purposes well, with Hearn rattling off his encyclopedic knowledge of film history and Cole going into detail about his relationship with Alastair Sim. Cast bios round things off here.
Disc 2 contains the aforementioned colorized version, the 1935 version (Scrooge (see sidebar)--also the British title of the 1951 A Christmas Carol), and the bulk of the special features. "Spirit of Christmas Past- George Cole Remembers Alastair Slim" (15 mins.) is a retread of Hearn's interviews with Cole about Sim that's noteworthy only to see how wonderfully the 80-year-old Cole has aged. "Richard Gordon Remembers George Minter & Renown Pictures" (20 mins.) finds my main man Tom Weaver interviewing Gordon, who was in charge of distributing the British Renown Pictures' releases in the United States. They cover a lot of ground outside of A Christmas Carol, such as a lengthy but not uninteresting history of 1954's Svengali and how Robert Newton had to be replaced as the lead. We do get a story of how A Christmas Carol bombed terribly in the United States because critics and distributors thought it too scary for family audiences. Gordon mentions that he wanted to get into Radio City Music Hall but settled for an arthouse nearby, hoping those waiting to get into the better theatre would tire of standing around and go see his movie. The strategy failed.
"Charles Dickens - His Life and Times" (6 mins.) is a cheapoid short biography of the author with an unnamed narrator talking over drawings of Dickens and from his work. As a Dickens neophyte, I found much of it rather interesting, but all the same, I think we deserve something more substantial. "Before & After Restoration Comparison" (2 mins.) pimps VCI's restoration and shines more light on the amount of work that had to be done to bring the film up to its current condition. A photo and press book gallery in addition to American and British trailers for A Christmas Carol and one for the '35 Scrooge round out the set.
***/**** Image C Sound D+
starring Sir Seymour Hicks, Donald Calthrop, Robert Cochran, Mary Glynne
screenplay by H. Fowler Mear, based on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
directed by Henry Edwards
I love rooting for the little guy, but rarely do I get to do it--which is why I'm excited to report that Henry Edwards's 1935 version of A Christmas Carol (simply titled Scrooge), having wallowed in obscurity for years only to surface on as a supplement on VCI's Ultimate edition of A Christmas Carol, is actually better than the 1951 Hurst version. Yes, the special effects are less impressive, not simple so much as simplistic. Edwards tries to get away with portraying Ghost of Christmas Future as simply a shadow and the ghost of Jacob Marley isn't even on-screen at all. As a result, none of the spirits make much of an impression. Yes, the dialogue is a bit overwritten. (When Scrooge expresses sorrow about Tiny Tim dying, the Ghost of Christmas Present repeats his mantra that his death would merely decrease the surplus population. "My own words!" Scrooge needlessly responds.) And yes, Seymour Hicks demonstrates far less range than Sim. But the film is both funnier and darker than the Hurst version. It has a somewhat original take on A Christmas Carol: Scrooge isn't a monster but a fool for not getting into the Christmas spirit. He's missing out on happiness and should learn to love his fellow man not out of responsibility, but out of pure hedonistic selfishness. A horrorshow vision of bums sorting through the deceased Scrooge's things borders on hypocritical classism, but then we realize that Scrooge shares their rotten teeth and that the petty pleasures these bums get from stealing mirrors the diminished sense of pleasure in Scrooge's own life. I also dug how Tiny Tim sings a song, has no talent whatsoever, and the movie loves his music anyway. The film has a wonderfully sweet and grungy tinge to it. Alas, VCI has done practically nothing to revitalize Scrooge: the full-frame transfer is scratched, filthy, and missing entire frames. I'm somewhat forgiving, as the poor condition adds some appeal to the film. Can't say that about the DD 2.0 audio track, however, which is damn near incomprehensible.
86 minutes; NR; 1.33:1, 1.78:1 (16x9-enhanced); English DD 5.1, English DD 2.0 (Mono); English, Spanish subtitles; 2 DVD-9s; Region One; VCI
*From the bits I've seen of Scott's own performance as Scrooge (in the 1984 TV movie A Christmas Carol), he comes off as curiously reserved and naturalistic for the actor who played Buck Turgidson and George S. Patton. It's as though he felt all he had to do to play the part was be "George C. Scott." return