Writing this review, Judge Paul Corupe was visited by three ghosts: Ghost of Betamax Past, Ghost of DVD Present, and Ghost of Holodisc Future.
Our reviews of A Christmas Carol (1938) (published January 10th, 2006), A Christmas Carol (1951) (Blu-ray) (published November 24th, 2011), and Disney's A Christmas Carol (Blu-ray) (published November 14th, 2010) are also available.
"And god bless us, every one."—Tiny Tim (Glyn Dearman)
Short on pages but long on holiday cheer, Charles Dickens's 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 modern competition, the 1951 British film version of A Christmas Carol still remains a favorite, and many families have made an annual holiday tradition out of watching Alastair Sim portray Scrooge's struggle through a sleepless night of ghostly encounters. There's no question that this film is the cornerstone of any decent holiday DVD collection, but as with all public domain titles, a quality presentation can be rarer than a flying reindeer. VCI, who have already put out this film twice before, once again offer A Christmas Carol in a new edition for our holiday consumption, but is this release of the classic film a holiday miracle, or a piece of coal?
Facts of the Case
Rich old coot Ebenezer Scrooge (Alastair Sim, Stage Fright (1950)) 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 refusing to give to charity, rebuking his nephew's invitations to dinner, and exposing the yuletide swindle to his hard-done by clerk, Bob Cratchit (Mervyn Johns,The Sundowners), Scrooge returns home where he receives a visit from his former business partner Jacob Marley (Michael Hordern,Theatre of Blood). 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 (Glyn Dearman, The Four Sided Triangle).
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 lush 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's immortal A Christmas Carol. Although 1951's A Christmas Carol takes a few liberties with Dickens's original text, it's easy to see why this version has endeared itself to so many over the years with above-average performances, a sharp visual identity, and an ability to maintain a cheery holiday disposition even in scenes which have Scrooge at his most vicious.
Productions of A Christmas Carol are largely made or broken on the abilities of the actor who plays Scrooge, and Sim handily proves himself more than capable in this role, playing up Scrooge's more absurd side. Sim was primarily a comedic performer, and accordingly, it often seems as though the actor is privately amused at Scrooge's unending anti-Christmas tirades. While this reading of Scrooge works to keep the tone of the film light and festive even in potentially gloomy scenes, it also tends to lessen the impact of Scrooge's final salvation. When the Ghost of Christmas Present offers hard love to Scrooge by revealing "Ignorance" and "Want" beneath his coat and answering his inquiries about Tiny Tim by recycling his own words that the child's death would "decrease the surplus population," Sim still maintains a slightly comical demeanor, more or less unaffected. Only in the final graveyard scene does Scrooge seem convincingly distressed enough to give up his money-grubbing ways, but the film does not build to this climactic moment, and until this point it doesn't appear that he's been through anything particularly trying in his time-traveling Christmas adventure. While the redemption isn't quite as powerful as it is in other versions, Sim's droll interpretation gives the character a unique charm, well-supported by appealing performances across the board the rest of the fine British cast.
The look and feel of any screen adaptation of A Christmas Carol has always been extremely important, for Dickens's book is, at heart, a ghost story. Although the sets sport a bare, slightly low-rent feeling, enough spooky lighting and camerawork are employed to offset some of Scrooge's goofiness. A few shudders are provided by the excellent black and white cinematography, which gives the film that dark, shadowy look. Unlike many films of the same vintage, the mid-budget special effects have held up remarkably well, with some simple but extremely effective optical tricks. The "time tunnel" transitions used in the film to jump from flashback to flashback may seem a little silly and dated these days, but the scene in which Marley's ghost throws open the window to reveal a world of suffering specters to Scrooge's unbelieving eyes is an extremely haunting image, and one of this film's most memorable moments.
If there's anything that might constitute a grubby little thumbprint in this film's figgy pudding, it would have to be the unorthodox adaptation, which has been embellished slightly by screenwriter Noel Langley (The Wizard of Oz). In the original book and most film versions, Scrooge's turn to the dark side is accomplished by two simple scenes from his past—one which shows the young clerk talking about building his fortune so that he can one day marry a young girl named Belle, and a later Christmas Eve in which the pursuit of a nest egg in the name of love has been perverted into sheer greed to the exclusion of everyone and everything, including Belle. Langley, however, attempts to flesh out Scrooge's character and offer a more backstabbing back story. Many supplementary scenes, including Scrooge's first meeting with Marley and how the pair fall under the influence of an unscrupulous businessman named Mr. Jorkin, are added to explain how the miser amassed his horded fortune. Although these additions work fine within the film, they don't really enhance the story in any way, and ultimately become problematic by shortchanging Dickens's own scenes. Mr. Fezziwig's raucous Christmas Eve party, which is an important contrast to Scrooge's later, solitary life, is all but forgotten here, reduced to just a few seconds of dancing and fiddle music.
This DVD, released by VCI as a "deluxe special" edition, replaces a few earlier versions of A Christmas Carol. Previously, the film was available as a double-sided disc, collecting the colorized film on one side, and the original, black and white presentation on the other. Then, VCI put out a newly "remastered" version of the film with the colorized and black and white versions getting their own discs, each sold separately. Now, the two versions "restored and re-mastered from the original 35mm negative" have been reunited on the same side of a single disc. Despite the boastful claim about the film's restoration, this is far from a pristine transfer—but it's not at all bad. Scratches, specks, and other artifacts are present in pretty much every scene, although they aren't terribly distracting. Black levels are reasonably solid, although contrast isn't the best I've ever seen, as white levels seem a shade too dark. Detail is generally good, though. The colorized version, should you deign to check it out, features the same imperfect print with some washed-out tinting. The sound, presented in mono, is understandably thin. Dialogue is consistently clear, but the music score is shortchanged slightly. Cracks, pops, and an underlying hiss also mar the audio presentation. Certainly this film could look and sound better than it does here, but for a public domain film, this DVD exceeded my expectations and I haven't-yet-seen a better looking digital presentation of A Christmas Carol.
Calling this release "deluxe" is a bit of a stretch, as the extras aren't really enough to have you overflowing with Christmas cheer. In fact, they're simply recycled from the previous release. Because nothing says Christmas like The Avengers, the film is "hosted" by Patrick Macnee, who rambles on about his family's tradition of reading A Christmas Carol before and after the film. It's not really all that surprising, since Macnee has a bit role in the film, playing "Young Jacob Marley." These short video segments feature very poorly rendered video—far too soft and generally hard on the eyes. I wouldn't blame you for skipping both. Also on the disc is Max Fleischer's original 1944 Technicolor "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" cartoon, something to show the kids before they go off to bed. Neither really add much to the experience of watching the film.
Despite any minor 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. VCI's latest release of the film on DVD isn't a definitive version in any sense of the term, but it does look good enough for the price, and therefore comes recommended.
Although no strangers to the Naughty list, this Court hereby places VCI is on the Nice list. at least for this year.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: VCI Home Video
• "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" Cartoon
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