A Christmas Carol (1938)

Synopsis: Four Ghosts. One Miracle. Oh Glorious, Glorious Day!

“May it haunt [my readers’] houses pleasantly,” Charles Dickens wrote in the preface to his A Christmas Carol. This 1938 version offers one of that timeless work’s most pleasant screen hauntings, bustling with a lavish backlot re-creation of Victorian London. Reginald Owen portrays holiday humbug Ebenezer Scrooge, the miser’s miser who has a huge change of heart after spirits whisk him into the past, present and future.

Gene Lockhart, who like Owen would appear in well over 100 films, plays dutiful Bob Cratchit. There’s a genuine air of family in the Cratchit household scenes, in part because Lockhart’s real-life wife Kathleen plays Mrs. Cratchit. From sets to stars to story, this triumphant adaptation adds a glow to the season. Like Tiny Tim’s benediction, it blesses us – every one.

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A Christmas Carol (1938) 7.75

eyelights: Charles Dickens’ classic tale. the set designs.
eyesores: its dated style. its dated performances.

“A fine night for spirits – of one form or another, sir!”

There have been countless adaptations of Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ brought to the screen, big and small. While ‘Scrooge‘ is the perennial favourite, and is arguably the best of the lot, there are many successful iterations of the classic tale – some of which take grand liberties with the source material (ex: ‘Scrooged’).

1938’s MGM adaptation, however, is one of the more faithful ones – though it tones down some of its bleaker and spookier aspects to make it a family film, develops Fred and Elizabeth’s relationship further for that romantic touch, and transforms the Ghost of Christmas Past into a gorgeous angelic creature to add a little spice.

It’s a nice production. While it’s clear that the film was shot on sets, not on location, the designs are excellent and it all looks very professional. The costuming and casting also seems appropriate, and Reginald Owen’s Scrooge made enough of an impact that he may have inspired Uncle Scrooge McDuck – despite a fairly poor bald cap.

(I’m also of the mind that he may have inspired Robert Zemeckis in the conception of Old Biff in ‘Back to the Future Part II‘. But that’s another story…)

Though hardly anyone can hold a candle to Alistair Sim’s version of Ebenezer Scrooge, Owen’s performance is very convincing. The rest of the cast are all decent but perform in the theatrical fashion of the time – with the notable exception of Terry Kilburn, who is absolutely insufferable as Tiny Tim, mugging and overacting like crazy.

That, to me, was the picture’s biggest misstep, because I spent much time wondering who the human Muppet was instead of getting (or remaining) involved with the story. The second worst aspect of the picture is that Scrooge converts far too early on; I’ve never read the original, but my impression is that he’s more reticent.

In this version, he suddenly asserts his love for Christmas at about the halfway mark; it not only feels a wee disingenuous on his part, but it’s premature from a plot standpoint since the Ghosts aren’t quite done with him. By the time they’re here, he’s so filled with the Christmas spirit that he’s chuckling to himself while shaving.

The artificial sentiment is what makes this version of ‘A Christmas Carol’ less compelling than the 1951 one: Watch Fred slide across the ice with the kids. Haha. Watch him get his fiancé and a priest involved in playing. Haha. Watch Scrooge and the whole Crachit family having Christmas dinner together and laughing gaily like mad people. Haha.

The storytelling is generally heavy-handed, but I suspect that this has nothing to do with Dickens.

For instance, whereas in the original Scrooge only threatens Crachit’s employment on Christmas Eve, here he actually fires him after the latter pecks him off with a snowball. The whole staging is forced, with Crachit letting the kids goad him into throwing a snowball at a passerby, and then not even noticing that this “stranger” is Scrooge.

It would be easy to turn ‘A Christmas Carol’ into overly sentimental fluff if only because its core tale is already an optimist’s delight: a deeply cynical curmudgeon is transformed by the Spirit of Christmas. This version crosses the line slightly but it thankfully never becomes nauseating; it just isn’t nearly as convincing and sincere.

This and the fact that Alistair Sim is irreplaceable are why this 1938 adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic pales in comparison to the 1951 one. But it remains that the source material is a timeless tale that’s original, and well thought out. So, on the strength of the story alone, it’s hard to fully dismiss this imperfect iteration.

It’s still a pretty darn enjoyable Christmas movie.

Date of viewing: December 21, 2016

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