By John H. Foote
Let me state before I venture into this revisit review, that my colleague Nick Maylor believes this story the greatest in the history of literature, created by the master storyteller Charles Dickens. It is a tough argument because I too think it is among the finest stories ever told. At its heart is a message, corny as it might be, yet relevant in this Trumpian society… Love thy neighbour.
Watching this classic version of the Dickens novel is like picking up a dusty old copy of the book, cracking it open and watching the characters, the locations, and the mood leaps off the pages. The snow-swept streets of London have a life all their own as the townsfolk teem into the streets to do their business. In the first few shots, we are swept back in time, beautifully so by the language and the visuals of the cinema.
Desmond Hurst was a journeyman British director, but this once he elevated his art to an astonishing level and created a superb version of the book by Dickens, better than any previous, and certainly surpassing anything since. It might be the finest adaptation of a Charles Dickens novel adapted to the screen. I will never understand why the studios do not remake many of the great literary classics.
This version of A Christmas Carol began with the casting of elocution master speaking Alastair Sim, a character actor who had mastered the art of diction to a perfection rarely heard. With his huge expressive eyes, he was a perfect Scrooge, staring balefully at anyone wishing him a Merry Christmas, quick to counter with a humbug, and staring at those coming to help like a predator, seeing in them only a way for further gain. He barely sees his clerk Bob Cratchit as a human being, condescending to him for the size of his family, his brood of children on his meager wage, which Scrooge controls. The old man worships money, nothing has come to matter more to him, governing his every move.
A Christmas Carol is at heart a ghost story, and Hurst understands that, giving the film a gothic feel, sending to a petrified Scrooge his long-dead partner Jacob Marley, his entrance foretold by the dragging of the chains he drags and the wails he exhales of torment, his body transparent, his apparition weighed down by the chains he forged in life, the manifestation of his contempt, his greed for his fellow man in life. He has comes to warn Scrooge that he will be visited by three spirits over the course of the night, each bringing to him a warning, a chance not to end up in torment as Marley has.
Sure enough the first arrives as predicted, a ghost who is neither man nor woman, asexual, ancient, naming himself as the ghost of Christmas past, the past of Scrooge. We move through his life, seeing what hardened him, permitted to see things he did not know. He never heard his dying sister ask him to look after her son, as she died in childbirth, storming out of the room, forever blaming her husband and his nephew for her death. He would have had he heard, so great was his love for Fan. He sees himself in love, growing more and more obsessed with earning, breaking off his engagement, taking over his wonderful old employers business with Marley, until the death of Marley, his only friend, whose home and possessions he takes over as his own. No mourning the loss of a friend, only a look of triumph at what he has gained.
The next ghost is a huge jolly fellow looking for all the world like Santa Claus himself, the ghost of Christmas present. He is massive in size, jolly, filled with the magical spirit of the season. It is here Scrooge learns of the problems with Bob Cratchit and his sick child Tiny Tim, whom Cratchit adores. Though the Cratchit family knows Tim is dying, their smiles throughout the holiday season never cease, so filled with love is their small home. His one-time lady love is found caring for the sick and poor, a true kind woman Scrooge was a fool to let go. He sees suffering all around him, those without money, which he has in the millions, always unwilling to share, only to add to it. Yet in that suffering he finds the joy of Christmas, a goodness in others he lacks. In the Cratchit home, despite their poverty, he sees joy, such genuine love, and happiness as Tiny Tim toasts “God bless us, everyone”. A smile actually begins on his own face at the child’s toast.
With the final spirit, dressed in a black robe like death itself, the non-speaking ghost Scrooge fears most of all, he learns how his death will matter to no one. Not a soul mourns him. His maid tears down the sheets off his bed, and his bedclothes to sell them for a quick dollar, while doing so she is met by the undertaker who is making some money on the side as well selling off his watch and items. What staggers him the most though is the death of Tiny Tim and the realization of the pain it has caused his clerk Bob Cratchit, who breaks down weeping thinking of his poor son. The empty chair the spirit of Christmas present spoke of has come true, and aged poor Cratchit twenty years, gutting the poor man. Seeing his clerk so emotionally devastated with the loss of his child, moves the old man, and it is here I think his icy soul begins its thaw. Scrooge finds he is absent at the daily lunch of the businessman in London, important men, talk of his funeral circulates among the other men of business who mock him and make fun of his personality. Drawing ever closer to his grave, a lonely, place in the graveyard sends Scrooge screaming to the ground, not wanting to die despised, believing he can change.
He wakes up the next morning, Christmas morning and the change in him is immediate, visible in his step, his face, movements, his voice. He listens to the bells sounding over London, inhales the morning air and welcomes his housekeeper with a smile and constant chatter. He cannot stay still, bouncing around the room like a giddy schoolboy, near dancing, impossibly light on his feet, eventually sending his housekeeper screaming from the room when he attempts to stand on his head. He catches up to her on the staircase has she bolts for the door, terrified, hands her money as a present, hugs and kisses her cheek, and raises her meager salary five times the amount.
Next, he is to the window where the quiet of London except the glorious bells brings him peace and a smile, he asks a young boy (remarkable boy, intelligent boy) to bring the butcher to his home with the prized turkey, which he sends to Bob Cratchit anonymously, though Tiny Tim guesses who it is from. He visits his long-suffering nephew, apologizes to the man’s wife, long neglected by Scrooge, accepts his invitation to dine with him, even dancing the polka, kicking up his heels. The two men he refused to help the night before, raising money for the poor, encounter him on the street, and he calls them to make a substantial contribution to their cause earning their friendship and respect. The next morning he arrives early to his office, beating Cratchit on purpose, knowing his clerk will be late, having made merry the day before. Pretending outrage at his tardiness, he begins to roar at the man before spouting he is going to raise his salary and begins a fit of uncontrollable giggles. Settling, he tells the astonished Bob he wants to try and help that family of his, and they can discuss it over a bowl of hot punch. A friendship is forged and Scrooge becomes the grand old man of the city, and Uncle to Tim who lives, and friend to everyone on the streets of London. It was said he knew how to keep Christmas…indeed. In Scrooge is indeed the spirit of Christmas, and he spreads the spirit to everyone he encounters, not just one day of the year, but year-round.
One hopes that poor Marley was redeemed when Scrooge was and released from the hell he was in. I hope that Scrooge sought out his lady love and rekindled their romance, I hope.
Mervyn Johns was a superb Cratchit, his big cartoon eyes beautifully inhabiting this character. You can feel how much he dislikes Scrooge, though it is Bob who toasts the founder of the feast on Christmas morning. And the look of astonishment on his face as Scrooge sputters and speaks about raising his salary is a brilliant reaction to a great actor in his element. Later there is a magnificent scene in which Scrooge is walking down the snowy streets of old London and a voice calls to him, Uncle Scrooge. Seen running towards him at top speed is Tim, his lame leg healed, filled with energy and a glow of life. Scrooge lifts the boy into his arm, and checks the leg for himself, hugging the child in a tight embrace. Though Scrooge was going one way, the boy takes his hand and leads the elderly man away, with him, as one of the family.
The film belongs to Sim. It seems to me the character quite stepped off the pages of the Dickens’ book to take life as Scrooge, quite an achievement. Many great actors have portrayed the role since Albert Finney in the popular musical Scrooge (1970) won a Golden Globe for his performance, Happy Days star Henry Winkler, best known as the Fonze, portrayed a version of the character in An American Christmas Carol (1977) a strangely muted retelling in New England at the turn of the century, George C. Scott was magnificent in the TV movie A Christmas Carol (1984), Patrick Stewart did a fine job in the 2007 film and Jim Carrey portrayed Scrooge and several other roles, including all the ghosts in the Robert Zemeckis motion-capture version of the book, filled with fast-moving action though Carrey manages to create an interesting Scrooge. Michael Caine also portrayed the role in The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), a surprisingly faithful adaptation. As good as many of them are, were, no one holds a candle to Sim, he inhabited the role in every way, making it his forevermore.
He is, simply put, magnificent as Scrooge, frightening us with his miserly ways in the beginning but bringing tears of joy when he cannot stop the joy he feels Christmas morning knowing already the good he is planning to do. Stalking the early scenes in anger, with disgust for mankind, he truly is an appalling man, but the change in him is remarkable, you might not believe it is the same actor. His huge, expressive eyes pop with joy, with disbelief that he is smiling, that he is laughing from the very bottom of his soul and it is a wonder to behold. I have seen the film every year for more than forty-five years and still laugh out loud (and weep) each time I watch the film.
Hurst makes sure we are aware it is a Christmas film with carols on the track throughout and many examples of various Christmas parties in the Victorian age which gave way to the Industrial Revolution. He is very wisely makes SCrooge the singular focus of the film, with Cratchit, Tiny Tim and the ghosts the major supporting characters. Throughout his visits to his past we see the goodness that existed in Scrooge, through little moments, but his fear of the world, of being penniless drives and hardens his heart. Only after the visits from the ghosts does his heart soften and open up for love, to give and accept.
With the maniac occupying the White House, with the hatred and racism he believes in and supports, a film like this is more necessary than ever. Oh that Trump could be visited by three ghosts, the third showing him how he will fade from history and become irrelevant. Scrooge changed, but I doubt Trump could. Some magic is only in the movies.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.