"A Christmas Carol" 1938, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, Christmas, Gene Lockhart, Ghost of Christmas Future, Ghost of Christmas Past, Ghost of Christmas Present, Kathleen Lockhart, MGM, Reginald Owen
I HAVE endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.
I love Christmas.
To anyone who knows me, that’s probably the understatement of 2014. But I do. First and foremost, it’s a celebration of my Lord Jesus. And I like the pretty decorations and friendly attitude that most people are willing to adopt this time of year. People can yap off about consumerism and the like, but if your disdain for early décor, gifts and spirit make you enjoy Christmas less? Then I think maybe you’re just a Scrooge who doesn’t understand why Christmas is special. Time to stop letting other people rain on your parade. Take the good, leave the bad. End of story.
A lot of people have a Christmas tradition. Mine is watching “A Christmas Carol” on Christmas Eve. Now, I don’t always manage to see it on December 24th, but give or take a couple of days in either direction and I’m satisfied.
Charles Dickens’s holiday masterpiece was first published on December 19, 1843. It’s a beautiful tale of love, kindness and redemption. I’ll admit, it took me a long time to finally read this book. In fact, I picked it up for the very first time only about 5 years ago. Like most people, I’ve seen a number of film incarnations, and I was surprised by the length of the original story. Not long by Dickens’s standards, to be sure! Still, a 90-minute film can’t illustrate the entire book. But it’s a beautiful narration on life, no matter how you’re exposed to it.
My preferred version of “A Christmas Carol” is the superb Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film from 1938, starring actor Reginald Owen as the crotchety old miser, Ebenezer Scrooge. Did I say “preferred”? Sorry, what I actually meant is that this is the only version worth watching. EVER. I have never liked the 1951 movie with Alastair Sim. If it’s your favourite? Well… okay. I guess there’s no accounting for some people’s lack of taste. ;P No, but honestly, I don’t like it. I found his over-acting to be terribly obnoxious and I also didn’t enjoy the choice of scenes when compared to the 1938 version. As I said, the original story turned out to be longer than I ever realized from watching the films. There’s much more to “A Christmas Carol” than can be crammed into a single 90 minutes, so each film has to pick and choose which scenes to include and which to leave out. The 1951 film has the bedroom scene, where everyone is snatching up Scrooge’s belongings as he lies stiff and cold in his bed. It’s really rather boring. It’s missing from MGM’s film, where they focused on scenes that give the film a very different, much less dreary feeling.
The casting couldn’t be more perfect. Reginald Owen IS Scrooge, from the first scene to the last. He was 51 at the time he took on this iconic character.
Originally, Lionel Barrymore was cast as the lead. He’d been playing Scrooge on the radio for years and MGM wanted to cash in on the show’s popularity. There had been a number of silent films, but this was the first sound movie version of “A Christmas Carol” made in America. (The first-ever sound version of Dickens’s tale was the 1935 British film “Scrooge” starring Seymour Hicks in the title role.) But just before shooting started, Barrymore took a bad fall on the set of another film he was making, aggravating an old leg and hip injury. Doctors said there was no telling when or if he’d ever walk again. MGM was out their famous Scrooge.
The studio had sunk a significant amount of money into the film and the sets had already been built, so they asked Barrymore’s advice on who he thought should replace him. He picked Reginald Owen, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Real-life husband and wife Gene and Kathleen Lockhart are a pure delight as Bob and Mrs. Crachit. Just look at this picture — those smiles are so beautifully genuine.
And in her film debut, their real-life daughter, June Lockhart, plays the Cratchit’s middle daughter, Belinda!
Ann Rutherford brings to glittery life The Spirit of Christmas Past.
She’s so kind and ethereal, but when Scrooge’s softening heart becomes hard again, she quickly stiffens and coldly goads him.
My time grows short. I have yet to show you the black years of your life. Your gradual enslavement to greed. Your ruthlessness. Your ingratitude. Your wretched thirst for gold!
I always liked how they let her get a little angry at him. Because really, at this point who wouldn’t love to slap some sense into the man?
Lionel Braham makes a wonderfully loud, wide-eyed, larger-than-life Spirit of Christmas Present.
But for me, it’s D’Arcy Corrigan’s Spirit of Christmas Future that’s so special.
This is the scene that I remember from when I was only about 4 years old. It’s haunted my dreams (in a good way!) for more than 20 years. Scrooge on the craggy rocks with this unbelievably frightening grim reaper ghost beckoning him to follow. It made such an impression on me that this has become one of my favourite films of all time. In short, the scene scared me half to death and I loved every second of it.
For many people, I think the Christmas Spirits are the heart and soul of “A Christmas Carol”. But not for me. My favourite thing about this film is how much time they devote to the very much in love couple, Fred and Bess.
Fred is Scrooge’s nephew, son of his beloved sister Fan. He’s played brilliantly by Barry MacKay, who is the picture of a young, dapper gentleman.
MacKay is eloquent, charming and his performance is very compelling. Take this speech he delivers with such conviction to Scrooge about the good of Christmas:
Uncle, there are many things which have made me happy. Things which have never fattened my purse by even that much. [he flicks his fingers] Christmas is one of these. I’ve always looked on Christmas as a good time, a kind, charitable, forgiving, pleasant time. It’s the only time when people open their hearts freely. The only time when men and women seem to realize that all human beings are really members of the same family. And that being members of the same family, they owe each other some measure of warmth and solace. And therefore, Uncle, though it’s never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pockets, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good. And I say, God bless it!
To which dear old Bob Cratchit, bless his heart, starts applauding, while the most heart-warming, infectious smile you can imagine spreads across his face. See? I just watched that scene to transcribe the quote and I’m already all teary-eyed!
Playing Fred’s fiancée Bess is Lynne Carver. The two have unmistakeable chemistry. Whether they’re sliding in front of the church, or singing inside it, they are the perfect illustration of true love.
This scene in the church has me in tears immediately. They’re just so incredibly sweet together. I mean, whispering behind the hymn book in the middle of “O, Come All Ye Faithful”? Is it any wonder that a hopeless romantic like me breaks down in tears every time?
Even though I can be found blubbering before the opening credits have even finished, it’s this church scene that is truly the most magical part of the film. The shot shifts from Fred and Bess to Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim.
I can’t sufficiently describe Gene Lockhart’s performance. There are no words for it. The love Bob has for his son just pours out of him as they sing together. And I love how MGM wrapped the scene by ending with a full shot of the congregation as the carol comes to a close.
And as the last notes of the “Amen” play, and the scene fades to black… I’m done. I’m just done. Sobbing, bawling, wondering how the hell a single human body can produce so many tears in such a short period of time… *wipes cheek, sighs*
In my opinion, what makes this film better than any other is the focus on love. When you strip it down to bare bones, Dickens’s tale is one of love for your fellow man, forgiveness and redemption. And MGM in 1938, moreso than any other, cherry-picked the best portions of “A Christmas Carol” to illustrate this message with the greatest impact. And the way they adapted Dickens’s words into the script is remarkable.
If you’ve never seen this film, please, PLEASE find a copy and watch it this year. I promise you won’t be disappointed. And the DVD is only $5 from Amazon! It’s even available on Blu-ray now. It’s an old film, but the quality is amazing and the content is superb. Even the special effects with Bob Marley’s ghost are nothing to sneeze at!
The key to a good adaptation of the written word to the screen is maintaining the integrity of the original while trimming and streamlining in a tasteful way. As I said, MGM focused on the love/redemption theme in Dickens’s story, and they stayed true to that in every creative decision they made. They created a rich atmosphere and tone that’s not found in any other version, and that complements Dickens’s words perfectly.
This is Dickens’s original ending in the book:
Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.
He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!
As with the original, this wonderful film comes to a close in Bob Cratchit’s house. Scrooge, Fred and Bess have arrived with a feast and gifts. Fred’s been made a partner, Bob is rehired and gets a raise, and Scrooge assures Bob’s sons that they all have jobs awaiting them too.
Everyone gathers round, Tiny Tim hands Scrooge a glass, and he begins his toast, which is very short but so lovely that I want to end this post with it. So I wish you all a Merry Christmas. May your lives be filled with peace and hope and endless joy. Love one another always and keep the Christmas Spirit all the year. And please don’t forget our Lord Jesus and the gift He gave to us. God bless, my friends.
I’m a little rusty at this. I’ve never done it before, but may I? [all the others respond “Yes, please do.”] To all of us, everywhere. A merry Christmas to us all, my dears.” Tiny Tim: “God bless us, every one.