VCI Home Video // 1951 // 86 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // November 24th, 2011
"God bless us, every one!" -- Tiny Tim
Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol is one of the most cherished works of art from the past 300 years. Rarely has a story written so long ago been adapted so often for stage, screen, and song. Dickens' classic story of an old man who learns the value of life, community, and love is so engrained in our minds that it's hard to imagine there was a time when it part of the public consciousness. VCI offers up a high def version of the classic 1951 A Christmas Carol, one of the best and closest adaptations of Dickens' work.
Penny pinching Ebenezer Scrooge (Alastair Sim, Stage Fright) is a man of little pity or compassion. Running his business like a prison and associates like prisoners, Scrooge is one of the least liked citizens in his community. Ebenezer's life is about to be turned upside down when the ghost of his old business partner, Jacob Marley (Michael Hordern), warns him that if he doesn't change his ways he will be doomed to an afterlife of regret, toil, and misery. Scrooge is sent on a journey with three mysterious ghosts into his past, present, and future, all of who force him to re-evaluate the way he's been treating the people in his life. With the help of a little holiday magic Ebenezer, will soon learn what the true meaning of Christmas is really all about.
The 1951 version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol is one of my father's favorite holiday movies. Actually, considering he doesn't have a lot of favorite movies -- Pretty Woman is his all time favorite, which makes me think I may be the milkman's kid -- A Christmas Carol may be his second favorite movie of all time. His third favorite movie is probably a TV test pattern. Anyhow, I admit that I'd never seen this version before and was excited about sitting down to watch one of my dad's favorite films. Many people consider the Alastair Sim version to be the THE quintessential adaptation. In fact, I have a friend who has vowed never to see another version of A Christmas Carol again because this one hits perfection (and his theory is, why mess with that?). Passions tend to run that deep.
While I don't think this 1951 version is the end-all-be-all of Dickens' source material, I was immensely entertained and even moved by director Brian Desmond Hurst's take on what has to be the most popular holiday story of all time (right behind, you know...Jesus Christ's birth). The simplistic nature of Dickens' themes and the black and white photography makes Hurst's A Christmas Carol an understandable annual favorite for many holiday movie fanatics.
I love the fact that Dickens' story touches a lot of different bases. The character of Ebenezer Scrooge is a wonderful gateway for the audience to understand why the holidays are so important and the ripple effect we can have on one another. Like Scrooge, many of us have learned that while we may act like selfish cads, it doesn't mean we have to leave the world that way.
At the heart of A Christmas Carol is Alastair Sim's masterful portrayal of the miserly Scrooge. So good is Sim that you can see echoes of his performance in many other versions down through the years, most notably in Robert Zemeckis' animated Disney's A Christmas Carol and Jim Carrey's motion capture performance (there were moments where Sim and Carrey's Scrooge are one in the same). Although this performance sometimes suffers from some stiff acting inherent with classic films, Sim offers a remarkable transformation from cantankerous old grouch to giddy schoolboy in an elderly body. As Scrooge walks through his life, Sim makes a concerted effort to show these changes gradually and believably. By the time the Ghost of Christmas Future shows up (looking like something out of an Bergman film), there are no issues believing that Scrooge has seen the error of his ways.
Sim gets outstanding support from some of the best character actors of their day, most notably sad sack Mervyn Johns as Bob Cratchit, Francis De Wolff as the Sprit of Christmas Past (an imposing presence, to say the least), and Glyn Dearman as the least annoying Tiny Tim in all cinematic history. Although their time on screen can be counted in minutes, the actors leave an indelible impression on the audience partially because they are that good, but also because we know characters like Fezziwig, Tiny Tim, and Jacob Marley so well.
This English version benefits from Brian Desmond Hurst's straight forward direction. There isn't any attempt to be flashy or overly sentimental; Hurst sticks to Dickens' text and lets the dialogue and characters tell the story without the hindrance of too much of effects work (which is what has sometimes bogged down other versions). While there are some special effects, they tend to fade into the background; the ghost of Jacob Marley is the most prominent illusion (and is executed well for the early 1950s).
A Christmas Carol (1951) (Blu-ray) is presented in its original 1.33:1 full frame aspect ratio. Sourced from a 35mm negative print, this 1080p transfer looks excellent considering its age. While there are still some moments of grain and blemishes, they are few and far between making for a very pleasing picture. The black and white image sports many dark shadows and corridors, all of which possesses a greater depth in high definition. I never saw the previous format incarnations, but I can safely say that VCI has created a very attractive, polished looking transfer that should please fans.
The soundtrack is presented in LPCM mono as well as a LPCM 5.1 mix. Not surprisingly, the 5.1 mix isn't very impressive; a film sixty years old is not going to garner much benefit from a soundtrack with half a dozen speakers. That being said, the dialogue is easily heard and the music/effects are all front and center without being overpowering. There are some flaws in the mix (it's clear this is an old sound recording and some minor mishaps take place throughout), but overall this is a descent track that supports the film well. Also included on this disc are English and Spanish subtitles.
VCI has included some nicely produced extra features. A five minute introduction from film critic/historian Leonard Maltin, a commentary track from Marcus Hearn and George Cole, a few featurettes ("Dead to Begin With: The Darker Side of a Classic," "Distributing A Christmas Carol," "Life and Times of Brian Desmond Hurst") that look at the impact the film has had (with a notable interview with Sir Christopher Frayling) and some backstory on how the production got to the silver screen, two silent versions of A Christmas Carol (Bleak House and Scrooge, both from 1922) that aren't half as good as the main feature, an original British trailer for the film, a short look at the locations used for the movie ("Scrooge Revisited"), an American trailer for the film, and a reproduction of the original pressbook (added as an insert to the case). Finally there's a standard definition DVD copy.
I'm not going to go on record saying this is my favorite version of A Christmas Carol, but I most definitely enjoyed it and am happy to add it to my holiday library along with the Bill Murray comedy Scrooged (my personal favorite) and Disney's A Christmas Carol. VCI has gone to great lengths to release this 60th anniversary on Blu-ray, and for around ten dollars it's no lump of coal.
Recommended for anyone looking to brighten up their holiday season!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: VCI Home Video
* Full Frame (1080p)
* PCM 5.1 Surround (English)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 86 Minutes
Release Year: 1951
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Films
* DVD Copy