The Many Faces of A Christmas Carol

carol1There are more than a few films considered to be traditional, or even required, viewing every year at Christmas time. There’s A Christmas Story, It’s a Wonderful Life, one of the many versions of Miracle on 34th Street (though I prefer the original 1947 one myself), The Santa Clause, Home Alone, Die Hard, and for the more twisted folks like me, there’s also the 1959 Mexican classic Santa Claus. There’s also Elf, Holiday Inn, The Bishop’s Wife, and another of my favorites, Love Actually.

Yeah, those are all good, but really none of them really holds a candle to the all time classic story of the Christmas spirit – Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, specifically the 1951 version, Scrooge. We’ll take a look at why that’s at the top of the heap and the king of the Christmas movies, in my opinion at least, after the jump.

Alistair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge

I think we all know that “A Christmas Carol” was written by author Charles Dickens, but there’s a lot more to it than that. The novella (yep, that’s right, it’s not a very long book at all, especially compared to the author’s other works) was published in 1843, at a time when there was a resurgence in Victorian England for a return to Christmas traditions. Dickens also used it as a precautionary tale against industrialization and a soulless uncaring society.

What y’all might not know about “A Christmas Carol” is that it’s not the first time Dickens wrote the story. One could say he wrote a prototype, or a pilot, for “A Christmas Carol” in “The Pickwick Papers” in which he outlined the tale of Gabriel Grub who undergoes a positive transformation after a visit from goblins who show him visions of Christmas past and future.

Dickens returned to the story every year with a new publication with additions and corrections and tweaks, and would read it to a live audience. He did this until his death in 1870.

Mervyn Johns as Bob Cratchit with Sim

We all know the story, we see it every year, sometimes in several different versions – from movies to TV adaptations to episodes of “Happy Days” or “WKRP in Cincinnati,” and even “The Flintstones” (though it has always bothered me how cavemen could even celebrate Christmas). We know it so well, that like a favorite song, or a midnight showing of Rocky Horror, we even know the dialogue by heart.

It is the story of bitter old miser Ebenezer Scrooge, who cares more for himself and his wealth than his family, friends, Christmas, or even the welfare of mankind. His soul is doomed, but his seven years dead best friend comes back from beyond with a plan to save him on Christmas Eve. He’s visited by three ghosts, the spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future, and the experience turns him into a good caring man.

Along the way, we meet Tiny Tim and the Cratchit family, whose patriarch works for Scrooge, we meet Scrooge’s family both past and present, and in the story’s most chilling moment, we are shown the man’s grave, a warning of Christmas yet to come. In the end, and I hope I’m not spoiling it, he is saved. It is literally a tale of hope and good will towards men.

The Ghost of Christmas Future leads the way

“A Christmas Carol” has been filmed nearly three dozen times, seven times in the silent era alone. That’s how popular it is. The first talkie version in 1935 starred Sir Seymour Hicks, reprising the role from the 1913 film, and it was quickly followed in 1938 with Reginald Owen in the Scrooge role. These are worth mentioning as they are my second and third favorite live action versions. Hicks and Owen are both able to play both mean and bitter, and frightened, and happy equally well.

In 1970, Albert Finney plays Ebenezer in a full scale musical version also called Scrooge, more recently Jim Carrey in a 3-D CGI tour de force (which I didn’t care much for) plays not only Scrooge, but also all three ghosts in Disney’s A Christmas Carol. Vincent Price, Basil Rathbone, Fredric March, Rich Little (playing all the roles of course), Kelsey Grammer, Patrick Stewart, and George C. Scott have all taken a turn as Scrooge as well.

Michael Holdern as Marley’s Ghost with Sim

The story has also been transferred to different locales or done by specific casts to much acclaim. Among these would be The Muppet Christmas Carol with Michael Caine and the Muppets, a Disney character version in Mickey’s Christmas Carol, one with Mr. Magoo, as well as one with Bugs Bunny, and then there’s the underrated but well done TV movie An American Christmas Carol with Henry Winkler in the lead role, Fonzie, late of the aforementioned “Happy Days.”

Alistair Sim Is Scrooge

By far however, my favorite version of “A Christmas Carol” is the 1951 version, originally titled Scrooge and starring Alistair Sim. Scottish actor Sim has all of the qualities I mentioned above with Hicks and Owen, but most of all, he embodies the character. You believe him at every moment that he is Scrooge. When he is mean, you cringe, when he’s scared, you’re scared, sad when he is sad, and you rejoice when he is finally transformed. He plays Scrooge in a cornucopia of emotions and you experience them all with him. I dare anyone to have a dry eye when Sim asks forgiveness of his nephew at the end of the film.

Sim with Francis De Wolff as the Ghost of Christmas Present

The rest of the cast is a lot of fun as well. Mervyn Johns is just right for Bob Cratchit, and Glyn Dearman is equally set for Tiny Tim. Look for a young Patrick Macnee, Steed from “The Avengers,” as young Jacob Marley, and Ernest Thesiger, Doctor Pretorius from The Bride of Frankenstein, as the undertaker.

The special effects, while dated by today’s standards, are still stunningly effective for the story. Marley’s ghost, visually and aurally, still scares the crap out of me. The movie is also highlighted by a wonderful score and terrific music throughout. Notably, Alistair Sim also provides the voice of Scrooge in the best animated version of the tale, made in 1971 for television.

The 1951 A Christmas Carol is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray with a variety of extras, and a very clean beautiful print. A wonderful gift for yourself or someone else around the holidays. And much like Santa Claus, Love Actually and It’s a Wonderful Life, it is required viewing around here every December.

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