There have been countless versions of Charles Dickens holiday classic, A Christmas Carol. Actors as diverse as George C. Scott, Patrick Stewart, Albert Finney, Michael Caine and Scrooge McDuck have portrayed the old humbug Ebenezer. Yet the definitive version remains the 1951 edition, newly restored for its 50th anniversary by VCI Home Entertainment.
While its fallen somewhat out of style, there was a time when ghost stories were thought the perfect way to spend Christmas Eve. After all, the shortest days of the year are during winter, and it is, by far, the bleakest time of year. This was especially true of Victorian England, teaming with the consequences of the industrial revolution: polluted air, paupers prisons, and ill and abandoned children. Dickens story is as much about the condition of the working poor in this newly industrialized city as it is about a miserly old man who learns the errors of his ways.
Veteran stage actor Alistair Sim is perfectly cast as Ebenezer, who is less a selfish old man than a sensitive young man made hard by loss and sorrow. When his sister Fan dies, he loses his connection to humanity, blaming everyoneespecially her young son, whose birth resulted in his mothers deathfor his loss.
While screenwriter Noel Langley, who also worked on The Wizard of Oz, deserves credit for making Scrooge such a sympathetic character, lending depth and feeling to the script, it is really Sim himself who carries off this most remarkable character transformation. Sims Scrooge is a thoroughly dislikeable, wrinkled old prune of a man when the film opens, telling a debtor that hed rather see him in prison than extend his loan a few more days, even if it is Christmas. Later, he is frightened by the appearance of his old partner, “dead these past seven years.” It is the ghost of Jacob Marley who portends of things to come, of the wandering lament he has suffered and that Scrooge, too, will suffer if he does not mend his ways. Thus he introduces the three ghosts who will visit Scrooge this Christmas Eve, the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future.
He is confronted with the turning points of his life: the times when he showed a great capacity for love and compassion, and how this kind, loving young gentleman became hardened and embittered. The ghosts show him scenes of his turning on those who loved him most as he became more and more obsessed with making money. Sims Scrooge is visibly moved by the experience, feeling the pain he has inflicted on others as though it had been himself.
But the most remarkable and delightful performance is the giddy Mr. Scrooge, laughing and dancing and ready to do a handstand on the glorious Christmas morning of his awakening. His spirit is so light, his laughter so infectious, its hard not to be uplifted as Scrooge learns to celebrate the spirit of the season.
Sim is not the only actor who shines in this gem. Kathleen Harrison is wonderful as Scrooges old housekeeper, the woman who goes as far as to remove Scrooges bed curtains for the money they might bring. Harrison has more than a little of Una OConnor about her as she runs screeching through the house, a playful Scrooge chasing her all the way. Young Ebenezer is portrayed by George Cole (who would later portray Roger Morton in The Vampire Lovers), lending the young man a shy charm. And last but not least is the well-cast but under-utilized Ernest Thesiger as Mr. Stretch, the Undertaker.
Theres plenty to recommend this Christmas movie to the fan of classic horror, not the least of which is Brian Desmond Hursts fine direction. Desmond Hurst, it is worth noting, cut his teeth on a 1934 film adaptation of Edgar Allan Poes A Tell-Tale Heart,” entitled Bucket of Blood. In one scene early in the film, when Scrooge is eating his dinner at a restaurant, he asks for the waiter for more bread. “Ha penny extra,” is the waiters reply. With a look of disdain, Scrooge replies, “No bread,” leaving me thinking about the wonderful exchanges from The Old Dark House, including “Have a potato” and “No Beds!” While A Christmas Carol is not as darkly humorous as The Old Dark House, fans of one will certainly find things to like in the other.
And what better way to celebrate the holidays than with a good, old-fashioned ghost story?