Judge Paul Corupe wants you all to know that he turned in this review well before Christmas 2005. A slacker he is not.
Our reviews of A Christmas Carol (1951) (Blu-ray) (published November 24th, 2011), A Christmas Carol (1951) Deluxe Edition (published September 24th, 2004), and Disney's A Christmas Carol (Blu-ray) (published November 14th, 2010) are also available.
"Couldn't I take all of them at once and have it over with?"—Scrooge (Reginald Owen)
Short on pages but long on holiday cheer, Charles Dickens' popular and enduring 1843 novel A Christmas Carol has become one of our most recognized and powerful Christmas myths—a plea for charitable goodwill in the guise of a striking tale of redemption. No less than eight stage versions were produced within two months of the book's publication, and even today, it seems like at least one new film or television adaptation is ushered in every yuletide season. Despite this barrage of competition, the 1938 Hollywood adaptation of A Christmas Carol still remains a certified favorite, and many families have made an annual holiday tradition out of watching Reginald Owen portray Scrooge's struggle through a sleepless night of ghostly encounters. There's no question that this film is a solid addition to any decent holiday DVD collection, but is this brand new release of the film by Warner Brothers a holiday miracle, or a piece of coal?
Facts of the Case
Rich old coot Ebenezer Scrooge (Reginald Owen, Mary Poppins) is no fan of goodwill or peace on earth, so it's not surprising that he shuns the festive holiday season entirely. After a busy Christmas Eve exposing the yuletide swindle to his nephew Fred (Barry MacKay, The Pickwick Papers) and sacking his clerk, Bob Cratchit (Gene Lockhart, Blackmail), Scrooge returns home where he receives a visit from his former business partner Jacob Marley (Leo G. Carroll,Spellbound). Problem is, Marley has been dead for seven years, and his stopover is not for pleasure—the ghostly spirit pleads with Scrooge to change his ways before he too is encumbered with heavy chains of retribution in the afterlife. To help him reform, Marley arranges further visits from three more ghosts, who show the old miser visions of his Christmases past, present, and future, including a heart-wrenching peek into the home life of Bob Cratchit, who is struggling to raise and support his lame son, Tiny Tim (Terry Kilburn, Fiend Without a Face).
Out of the dozens of film adaptations of A Christmas Carol made over the years, only a few have become truly worth annual repeat viewings: Reginald Owen's portrayal of Scrooge in the 1938 version, Alastair Sim's 1951 turn as the miser, and George C. Scott's appearance in the spooky 1984 telefilm. Although viewers more than likely have differing opinions on which adaptation of the Dickens classic is the "best"—a determination that usually depends on the installment one grew up watching—most would agree that these contenders are the three definitive screen visions of Dickens' immortal A Christmas Carol. Produced by MGM in 1938, this quick-paced adaptation of A Christmas Carol was the undisputed definitive edition of Dickens' parable for more than a decade, and even though it's since been overshadowed by more recent versions, there's still plenty to recommend it—a lush Victorian world, a strong focus on redemption, and several fine performances.
Productions of A Christmas Carol are largely made or broken on the abilities of the actor who plays Scrooge, and Owen does a pretty commendable job. I'm not sure if he ever surpasses Sim's droll interpretation on the infamous old miser, but he certainly looks the part, and does have several exceptional scenes scattered throughout the film. His early anti-holiday tirades in his counting house are appropriately menacing—much more so than in the 1951 version—and when Owen gets to his graveyard speech, proclaiming "I'm not the man I was," he's truly hit his stride, rendering Scrooge's reclamation as an emotional, entirely believable plot twist, perhaps the most convincing of all versions. Also quite good is Barry MacKay's incredibly good-natured Fred, who really does love Christmas with all his heart, and Gene Lockhart takes a pretty fair stab at Bob Cratchit as well, accompanied by his real life wife Kathleen as Mrs. Cratchit. Terry Kilburn's Tiny Tim is the only character who doesn't feel right, and that's because he's miscast—at 12, Kilburn is too old for the role, and he's distractingly effeminate. Worse, his Tim doesn't look sick or dying, but rather more like a precocious kid who broke his leg.
The look and feel of any screen adaptation of A Christmas Carol has always been extremely important as well, and this is where MGM's production really excels. More than any other of the films, this version really transports the viewer to a bustling London of the 1840s, full of commerce, social customs and old-fashioned Christmas cheer. Virtually every scene is stuffed full of detailed shop storefronts, holiday decorations, crowds of laughing children, giddy merchants, and merry onlookers. This celebratory atmosphere is a marked improvement over the bare, slightly low-rent feel of the Sim adaptation, Scrooge, but it does have a weakness—the film is so thoroughly jolly that it downplays the spookiness of the film's ghostly visits. We do get to revel in a few still-believable special effects, but it's obvious from pretty early on that director Edwin Marin isn't interested in the supernatural aspects of the film, and his ghosts, even the foreboding Ghost of Christmas Future, are decidedly tame.
As is often the case, there are several changes to Dicken's original text here, though not quite as many as seen in some later adaptations. Most superfluous is a scene in which Scrooge actually fires Cratchit on Christmas Eve for toppling his hat with an accidental snowball barrage, pretty much only for the purpose of re-hiring him later. One nice addition is more screen time for Scrooge's nephew Fred, who is recast by screenwriter Hugo Butler as a budding businessman seeking a small nest egg to marry his sweetheart, and there's also a well-staged Christmas morning scene where Scrooge and the Ghost spy Fred, his fiancée, and the Cratchits making merry during the church service. Because the film is just a scant 69 minutes, however, other chunks of the story have been excised, including much of Scrooge's past—we don't get to see his dalliance with his young sweetheart Belle, nor his eventual renunciation of love for the almighty dollar. Even Mr. Fezziwig's raucous Christmas Eve party is merely mentioned rather than seen. Although many of these segments provide an important contrast to Scrooge's later, solitary life, the film actually works okay without them, and probably won't be missed by viewers who weren't familiar with the original short novel.
Here's some holiday cheer: Warner Brothers has put a commendable effort into this release of A Christmas Carol, and fans of the film will definitely be toasting the results. Presented in the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, A Christmas Carol sports a clean, vibrant transfer. Contrast is quite good, with solid blacks and an excellent level of detail. The audio is also bright and clear with no artifacts or hiss to speak of. You'll have no trouble at all hearing any of the clearly enunciated dialogue. Three season-appropriate extras have also been wrapped up in this package, starting off with 1931's Jackie Cooper's Christmas Party, a seven-minute short with the child star holding a giant holiday feast for his pint-sized friends, all serviced by big name MGM stars like Clark Gable and Marion Davis. Peace on Earth, an Oscar-nominated anti-war cartoon from 1939 is also included, which involves anthropomorphic woodland creatures taking over the world after non-stop military combat has made humans extinct. It's well animated, but a little heavy-handed for my tastes—not surprisingly, it was produced by George Pal. Finally, "Judy Garland Sings Silent Night" is a self-explanatory two minutes of caroling. Oh, and don't forget to watch the trailer, it's narrated by Lionel Barrymore, who was originally slated to play Scrooge.
Despite any shortcomings, there's no denying that this adaptation of A Christmas Carol is a true classic; a film that not only stands up to annual viewings, but demands them. Warner Brother's long-overdue release of the 1938 version of Dickens' time-traveling Christmas adventure is a fine reason to raise your glass of eggnog to the spirit of DVD, as Owen finally joins the digital triumvirate of immortal screen Scrooges.
This Court hereby places Warner Brothers on the Nice list.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Jackie Cooper's Christmas Party
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