In last Sunday's New York Times Book Review, there is a review by Kathryn Harrison of a new book by Les Standiford called The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol" Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits. Standiford traces much of our Yuletide sentiment and rituals to Dickens' 1843 story, including traditional turkey dinners and the desire to help those less fortunate. Dickens had been planning this story for a long time - one might argue from the time his father was imprisoned for debt and he himself was sent to work in a blacking factory (vividly recounted in David Copperfield) at the age of twelve. Much of his fiction deals with the plight of the starving, the underprivileged, the forgotten, whose relevance and humanity were often ignored in the soot-choked tumult of the Industrial Revolution. As Harrison reminds us, "Dickens intended to make the sufferings of the most vulnerable of the underclass so pungently real to his readers that they could not continue to ignore their need... [but] the deeper truth is that even genius of the magnitude of Dickens can't free an artist from his demons; it can only offer him an arena for engaging them."
Frontispiece to the first edition of "A Christmas Carol," 1843
"A Christmas Carol" was a smash hit -- and has stayed a smash for over 160 years. At the turn of the 20th century, it was second in sales only to the Bible. Almost immediately after its publication, it was dramatized for the stage. The Internet Movie Database lists at least 20 productions, the earliest a 15-minute short from 1908; the most recent a film due out in 2010, starring Christopher Lloyd. We have seen Scrooge portrayed by Reginald Owen, George C. Scott, Henry Winkler, Albert Finney, Bill Murray, Donald Duck's uncle, and Mr. Magoo. I would argue, however, that the best version, and the one truest to Dickens' intentions and original work, is the 1951 British version starring Alistair Sim.
The character of Ebenezer Scrooge has morphed into a kind of comedic miser -- a man in love with profit and money who is happily reformed into generosity by the end of the movie. But Dickens' Scrooge, and Sim's incarnation of him, is much more layered and sinister than this. For this Scrooge, money is a means to an end -- it buys him power and it buys him isolation. Dickens created a man twisted completely out of recognition by abandonment and grief; his bitterness does not make him colorful - it makes him cruel ("if they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population"). He is not just a cranky curmudgeon who thinks Christmas is a humbug; he is a man so isolated from his fellow human beings that not one person would mourn or even much notice his death. Unlike that other cinematic icon of Christmas, George Bailey, Scrooge's death won't leave even a pinprick-sized hole in the lives of the people who knew him.
There is something profoundly terrible in this. But this is what makes his redemption by the Spirits so sweet -- and why, perhaps, we keep returning to this now hackneyed and overtold story. What the Spirits show him, after all, is what good he himself is capable of -- Scrooge in the end is redeemed by the light within his own psyche.
The 1951 version stays remarkably true to Dickens' own words -- the characters' dialogue is lifted almost verbatim from the book, and the narrator uses more of Dickens language to provide background and connect scenes. This might not be as effective with another author, but Dickens' prose sounds - it almost demands to be read aloud, and utilizing it as much as possible not only maintains the Victorian flavor of the story, it gives a musical underpinning to the narrative that is not diminished by the film's low budget (in some places, the actors' voices echo in what must have been a largely-empty soundstage).
The performances are magnificent. The cast, all English stage actors of exceptional experience and range, bring an authenticity to the film that is difficult to articulate.Perhaps this authenticity comes from the fact that so many of them were Victorians: the oldest cast member was born in 1879. Besides Sim, whose Scrooge is like a man frozen in his own misery, there is the wonderful Hermione Baddeley as Mrs. Cratchit; Ernest Thesiger as the Undertaker (known to American horror aficionados as Dr. Pretorius in "The Bride of Frankenstein"); and the absolutely amazing Kathleen Harrison (not to be confused with reviewer quoted in the first paragraph) as Mrs. Dilber, Scrooge's long-suffering housekeeper. It also features, in his first role on film, a very youthful Patrick MacNee (remember him as Mr. Steed in "The Avengers?") as the young Jacob Marley.
This clip, from the beginning of the movie, sets up the unreachable coldness of Scrooge's character. (The clips I'm using are fairly long - I am interested in particular in the first few scenes in each one, but feel free to watch the whole thing. It's Christmas, after all.) Unfortunately, the embedding feature has been disabled by YouTube, so I have to provide just the links instead.
This second clip shows Scrooge watching as Mrs. Dilber, the laundress and the undertaker divvy up Scrooge's belongings with the rag man after Scrooge's death. The performances are a delight - ghoulish and funny at the same time; the actors are, in Spencer Tracy's words, "just being" in the best tradition of the craft. Notice, too, the squalor of the setting - the grim underworld of those living on society's margins.
Finally, this clip shows what I think is my favorite scene of the movie - Scrooge waking up and realizing that he has a second chance to redeem himself. Talk about timing - look at how beautifully Harrison and Sim play this scene together. You almost take off at the end.
Some social history - Scrooge gives Mrs. Dilber a guinea; that is, a gold coin worth one pound. This has significance beyond the enormous monetary value to her -- guineas and paper pounds, while technically worth same amount, were used for different kinds of transactions in Victorian England. Guineas were given by the gentry to those providing professional services and highly-skilled labor; paper money, and silver and copper coin were used for everyday transactions. You would pay in guineas the architect who designed your home; the artist who painted your wife's portrait; the barrister who defended your lawsuit. The construction laborer, the fellow who hung the painting, and the office boy in the barrister's office would get the other kind of cash. For Scrooge to give Mrs. Dilber a guinea is not just generosity - it emphasizes the barriers that have fallen between Scrooge and the rest of the world.
"A Christmas Carol," directed by Brian Desmond Hurst. Starring Alistair Sim. George Minter Productions, UK. 1951. Readily available on DVD and VHS.