Friday, December 30, 2011

The Holiday Picture Of All Time! Charles Dickens' Joyous Classic!

A Christmas Carol(1951)
Director: Brain Desmond Hurst
Cast: Alistair Sim, Michael Hordern, Kathleen Harrison, Jack Warner, Mervyn Johns

Every family has there own Christmas traditions and being raised as a film fanatic, certainly there are several cinematic neccesities during the season. Besides the holiday perennials of It's a Wonderful Life(1947), A Christmas Story(1983) and the various animated films, i've always held the tradition of watching as many versions of Charles Dicken's classic story, A Christmas Carol, as possible. And it just wouldn't be Christmas if that didn't include at least one viewing of the definitive version from 1951, starring Alistair Sim as the immortal miser.

Rather than offering my usual plot synopsis, i'd rather reflect on what makes this version so different. Earlier adaptions of the story, notably the 1935 and 1938 versions, focused on just simply telling the story very plainly, depicting Scrooge as something of a cariacture. It was difficult to find any real insight into his character and save for the performance of the lead actor that would perform in the role, it was decidely one note. Sadly, most adaptions take this simpler route and rarely explore the character. What makes the 1951 version so special is that it chooses to do just that, while boldly expanding Dicken's text. Uusally such liberties can be atrocious when handled by filmmakers, but the sensitivity afforded here actually improves on the characters and makes for a larger impact.
Alistair Sim's Scrooge is definitive because he is not just a greedy miser, but a lonely, hurt man who is forced to hide his emotions as means of defense against a cruel world. Sim's character is at once cold and calculating early on, but there are definite shades of pain as he is reminded of his past, however subtly, by his nephew(Brian Worth), whom he tells off with his trademark, 'humbug!"
His cool disattachment during the scene with the moneylenders is genuinely eerie and coupled with the opening bit on the steps of the loan house, where Scrooge encounters one of his lenders, really sets the stage like no other Scrooge before or since.

At it's heart, A Christmas Carol is still a ghost story, so the supernatural and horror elements are utilized to the hilt. Beyond the peaceful atmosphere represented by yuletide celebration, evidenced by Bob Cratchit's merry nature or Tiny Tim staring in at all the wonders of an old toy shop, there's a brooding menace that lurks around the corners, which manifest themselves as soon as Scrooge goes home and encounters Marley's ghost(Michael Holdern) on the doorknocker. Hurst builds this first meeting up quite suspensefully, with quick cutting and a great use of sound, as Scrooge believes he hears bells ringing, signalling the arrival of the spirit.
Holdern is a brilliant Jacob Marley, and as all enthusiasts of this story know, a good Marley ensures a good story. His portrayal of Marley, verges between the subtle and the violent, as his wails of pain and anguish are both terrifying and heartbreaking. He may be the most frightening version of this famous specter on film, only Frank Finlay's performance in the 1984 production, coming as close.
This adaption also includes the disturbing bit where Scrooge looks out of his window and witnesses the wandering spirits, which Marley is one of and despite advances in technology, I believe this is the creepiest on film.

The largest departure in this version is however in the depiction of Scrooge's past. Where most other adaptions neatly skim over his life, focusing only on his early apprenticeship and failed engagement, this version shows many more sides of his character. We learn that Scrooge was a lonely outcast from childhood, only comforted by his sister, Fan(Carol Marsh) who died giving birth to his nephew, which Scrooge never forgives his nephew for, even though Scrooge's own mother died the very same way, giving him life. This is not in the book, but it adds immeasurably to the understanding of the character and makes his past that much more bitter and even creates a method to his madness.
Scrooge witnesses his engagement to Alice(Rona Anderson) while he was still young and idealistic and it pains him greatly. He is forever changed after his sister's death, which is not just the turning point for the young Scrooge, but the old as well, as he is forced to witness his sister asking for Scrooge to take care of her boy with her dying breath, forcing him to break down as he did not follow her promise.It's a great moment and possibly the most emotional in the entire picture.

Scrooge becomes a harder man and is corrupted and influenced by Mr. Jorkin(Jack Warner) who essentially plays Mephistopoles to Scrooge's Faust. Eventually, Scrooge's company buys out his old employer, Fezziwigs, company and Scrooge breaks up with Alice. He also meets a young Jacob Marley("I'm sure you two will get on famously"), who is portrayed by a young Patrick Macnee, years before The Avengers.
Mr. Jorkin turns out to be an embezzler of his company's capital, and this leads to Scrooge and Marley buying up shares and becoming the company, leading to future infamy.
The final bit shows one of the only times on film that we actually witness Marley's death. Filmed with an obvious expressionistic influence, complete with Ernest Thesiger as the undertaker(!), this scene is both chilling and moving. Marley, possibly foresseing his own fate, attempts to warn Scrooge of his own, while on his deathbed, but expires before he can get his point across. It's a credit to Sim for allowing sympathy slip into his character, even then, as he attempts to encourage his old friend. None of these scenes are in the book, but they all feel as if they should have been.

The Ghost of Christmas Present(Franics De Wolff) is just right, with his imposing presence and booming voice. This segment is less gutwrenching than the visions of the past, but still fairly heartbreaking. Witness Sim's reaction at his "toast" at the Cratchit household or the sharp pain he registers at the prophecy of Tiny Tim's death. This is great acting and the atmosphere and world created within make it all come to life so beautifully. It's also a pleasant touch that in this version, Alice does not marry, but works for the poor and needy, literally the opposite of Scrooge. This suggests that unlike other versions, there may be hope in the future for Scrooge yet.
Of course, the best moment in this interlude is the most macabre, as the Ghost reveals the children of Ignorance and Want. Most adaptions delete this moment, but I don't know why. It's one of the best moments in the original story and is still relevant today.
That line, "Beware them both, but most of all, beware this boy!", still sends shivers down my spine, I confess.

The Ghost of Christmas Future is genuinely frightening, yet simply presented. He is a literal figure of death, offering little movement and remaining silent. His introduction is probably the bets on film, as a bell chimes and a pale hand enters the frame. It's one of the screen's bets supernatural moments.
While this segment is always rather harrowing, it's nice that some black humor was inserted in during the pawn scene with Old Joe(Miles Malleson), which plays like a scene from a James Whale film.
Scrooge's discovery of his own grave by conclusion of this visit is superbly handled, with Sim's character breaking down emotionally and realistically pleading for his life and vowing that he will be a better man.

Of course, what follows is easily the most infectious and humorous of all of Scrooge's "awakenings" as Sim really lets loose, dancing about the room and portraying Scrooge, less as a madman, than a man who has just been set free from a lieflong nightmare. It's a joyous scene, both funny and poignant and it's doubtful anyone could have done it better than Sim. It was also a nice touch to include Kathleen Harrison's laundry woman as witness, adding further to the humor of the moment, and judging from her screams, was she channeling Uno O Connor?

One of the film's most poignant moments arrives when Scrooge goes to nephew's house and apologizes to Fred's wife "for having no eyes to see with, no ears to hear with all these years." It's beautifully spoken and it's doubtful anyone would turn out such sincerity. Brian Worth is a very likeable Fred, as he should be, but little credit is given to Olga Edwardes as Fred's wife, who really makes the most of this scene. The resulting polka is just the right capper to transition into Scrooge arriving at his office the next day, ready to inform Cratchit of his raise in salary. Also of note, for added poignancy, listen to the music used for this scene, the song being played by his friends at the party as Scrooge arrives. It's "Barbara Allen", the same theme used for Scrooge's sister, Fan, earlier.
I absolutely love Mervyn John's silent reaction here as it builds from complete astonishment and shock to a full smile, the man verging on tears. It's so hard to screw this bit up really, but like so much in this classic, it's handled with sensitivity and subtlety. Scrooge is less a man who learns to be "nice", than a man who has regained his soul. He even admits at the end, that he dosen't deserve to be so happy, but keeps on laughing, declaring he can't help it! This Scrooge is content to have found life again and is happy to start anew and make right his wrongs he's done his fellow man, and we know he will.

There's no way around it. This is the definitive Scrooge adaption, likely forevermore. With it's intellgent, more adult script, gritty quality and first class production, few have ever captured the world of Dickens better than this adaption, which still knows no peers. Sim's portrayal stands atop as one of the truly great performances in the history of the cinema, among many other fine and unforgettable performances in an unforgettable film.
Christmas is often known for the spirit of goodwill and pleasantry that pervades throughout the holiday, yet the best films about the holiday are often steeped in darkness. It's A Wonderful Life(1947), for example, is one of the darkest movies ever made, a reflection of the realities of the American middle class like no other. Dicken's story is no different, providing a literal black and white view into the holiday, revealing how we all might be a little like Scrooge deep down, but the spirit of humanity may yet remind us of our better natures if we allow it to do so. It's lesson is not so much about the holiday, than it is about how we all should consider our own lives. It's no small feat that this is probably the best ghost story ever made, but to carry such a timeless moral is akin to a leap. If any can profit by it's lesson, let it truly be said of him, as Tiny Tim and we have observed in this classic film, "God bless us, everyone."

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

An Animated Scrooge

A Christmas Carol(1982)
Director: Jean Tych
Cast: Ron Haddrick, Robin Stewart, Barbara Frawley

Several versions of Charles Dicken's A Christmas Carol have been adapted to animated form, from the celebrated(though sadly unavailable) Chuck Jones version of 1971 to comical tales with Fred Flinstone and Mr. Magoo. My personal favorite of the bunch is this 1982 made for television adaption, which was created in Australia. Obviously done on a limited budget with mediocre animation, this version actually manages to follow the novel closer than most other adaptions out there.

This version begins with an unitentionally comic intro of Scrooge walking down a street and shaking a loaf of bread out of a poor boy, with little to no explanation. After that, it's more or less the usual format with Scrooge telling off the money-lenders, as well as his nephew and Bob Cratchit. Some of the dialouge is simplified, while alot of it is curiously intact. For example, Scrooge uses the term "job" rather than "dituation" in regards to Cratchit, but most of the prose from Dicken's story are there.
The Marley segment is very well handled with the minimalist animation serving the picture well to build a creepy atmosphere that more expensive productions would miss. This depiction of Marley's ghost is of a  frightening, raspy-voiced specter, complete with a face resembling a kabuki actor!
Most of the scene is the usual business, save for a moment where Marley askes Scrooge if he is cold, and ends up tossing one of his former partner's chairs into the fireplace! This cartoon is also notable for being one of only two versions(that I recall) that contains Marley's onscreen death, his face becoming a skull and his spirit lifting away. It's rather ghoulish for a supposed family film!
The Ghost of Christmas Past is presented as a child, looking like a character from a Roman play. The flashbacks aren't monstrously in-depth, but there's a decent amount of exposition. This even contains a young Scrooge believing that Ali Baba is waiting outside, but realizes it was a flight of fancy. This is directly from the story and was also used in A Christmas Carol(1984) with George C. Scott.

The Ghost of Christmas Present retains white hair throughout, looking much like Santa Claus. His visit is expanded upon throughout the city of London, as he shows Scrooge the importance of Christmas. There's an amusing segment involving the Ghost sprinkling cheer onto the poor's turkey dinners, with Scrooge declaring he prefers cold toast and coffee! Happily, this version also contains the children, Ignorance and Want, which are far too often ignored from other versions, depsite the symbolic importance that they represent.
By the time, the Ghost of Christmas Future arrives, the cartoon has swung into full on horror mood, with the black draped ghost resembling a floating shroud. All the major moments are included here in all there ghoulish glory. I was surprised to see the image of Scrooge discovering his own corpse in this version, but it's here as well.
The graveyard towards the end of the travels is one of the best depicted in any version, with it's bare trees, black sky and forelorn graves straight out of Edgar Allan Poe. Scrooge's plead for redemption provides a beautiful payoff and his ensuing reformation is still touching, as he joins his nephew on Christmas, purchases the turkey for the Cratchit family and raises his employee's salary. It ends quickly, but leaves a pleasant aftertaste, as this has been a most delightful Christmas treat.

I often find myself watching quite a few versions of this story during the holidays, and this one has quickly become a perennial favorite, for whatever reason. I think it has to do with the era it was made, perhaps serving as a nostalgic link to my own childhood, when these low budget, low-tech cartoons were commonplace. It may also be that this is a surprisingly accurate, yet easily digestible adaption and can be enjoyed by all ages.
There are many Chrsitmas Carol adaptions to reccomend, but if you are willing to try out something different, or wish to expose the younger crowd to this timeless story, this may serve as an adequate primer.

Monday, December 12, 2011

He Haunts My Thoughts Like A Dreadful Ghost!

Mystery of Edwin Drood(1935)
Director: Stuart Walker
Cast: Claude Rains, David Manners, Douglass Montgomery

Charles Dicken's final story written was The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which was never given a proper ending, allowing generations of writers to concoct there own. Various interpretations have emerged throughout the years, including this film version from Universal's golden age of horror. A relatively obscure and forgotten film, this was one of the only Universal thrillers of the period that I didn't see. TCM has been playing adaptions of Dicken's work all this month, and lo and behold, they played Mystery of Edwin Drood!
Far from being a horror film, as many including the authors of Universal Horrors have labelled it, Mystery of Edwin Drood is an intriguing thriller worthy of analysis.

The film begins with Claude Rains(in a role originally intended for Boris Karloff) awakening in an opium den, where he has a fever dream. He rushes from this nightmarish place to perform in a church choir! It's a wonderful opening and kind of sets up what the rest of this film is gonna be like. Rains is clearly a pretty tormented guy. He's considered a pillar of society, respectable and such, but also is a wild opium addict, a daring ploy in pre-code Hollywood. He also has a secret lust for his nephew's fiance(Heather Angel), whom are both part of an arranged marriage. Neither of the two young people love each other, and eventually decide to forgoe the marriage. However, madness slowly seeps into Rain's mind, and when a hot tempered young man(Douglass Montgomery) arrives in town and falls for the girl, Rains devises a plot to murder his nephew(David Manners) and blame it on the young man. Luckily, the young man escapes and wears a disguise of an old man, where he is able to track Rains and eventually make him reveal the crime. When Rains' character is found out, he jumps to his death from atop a steeple.

Mystery of Edwin Drood is a slight disapointment for the horror fan expecting more chilling action, but has enough macabre elements to sustain interest. Rains is excellent as John Jasper, the brooding uncle who hides some really twisted secrets. Rains was virtually always excellent, and is perfectly at home in Dicken's London. The supporting cast are delightful, but the film belongs to Rains.
David Manners, who had appeared in Dracula(1931), The Mummy(1932) and The Black Cat(1934), is better than usual as the doomed young man of the title, providing more diversity in his portrayal than his other horror vehicles allowed for. Zeffie Tilbury is a delight as the mysterious opium woman, who knows more than she should and eventually gets snuffed out by Rains' character. Douglass Montgomery is likewise adequate as the young man, wrongfully accused of the murder.
Heather Angel is merely decorative as the leading lady and object of multiple affections, while Valerie Hobson, as Montgomery's sister, is likewise in the same position. Both are very lovely, but hardly escape they're wallflower roles.
Stuart Walker directs the film efficiently, particularly in an excellent, moody Christmas Eve storm, that manages to generate some genuine chills. His use of shadows and atmosphere, especially evident in the crypt segments where Edwin Drood rests, and which are straight from Dracula(and possibly The Bride of Frankenstein(1935) are also creepy and effective. The director later made Werewolf of London(1935), but seemed more at home in this gothic territory and it would have been nice had he explored this area further.

This was initially released as part of the Universal Horror Classics collection on VHS, which probably confused quite a few horror fans, expecting something a tad more sinister. It's at best a curio-piece, offering some macabre elements, a few genre stars and sets borrowed from familiar horror classics. Mystery of Edwin Drood may be of interest to Dickens fans and literary aficionados, though it's doubtful that many readers of Dicken's work will enjoy the ending. Existing notes and original titles, like the The Flight of Edwin Drood, suggest that the young man actually escapes death, rather than falling prey to it. Nonetheless, this is a film beautifully evocative of the period, with some interesting performances, and is fairly enjoyable on the whole, even if some may be thrown off by it's faux-horror reputation.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

"Look Well, Ebenezer Scrooge, For Only You Can See Me."

Director: Henry Edwards
Cast: Sir Seymour Hicks, Donald Calthrop, Robert Cochran

Charles Dicken's A Christmas Carol has been one of the most frequently adapted stories of all time. The story offers a timeless moral lesson, as well as some truly outstanding characters that has made it consistently popular among actors and filmmakers to explore. Several versions were made before the talkie era, few are terribly memorable. This version from 1935 is the first sound version and the most widely available, due to it's frequent releases on public domain DVDs. It's a creaky and very different version in many respects, and is particularly pale in comparsion to the 1951 and 1984 versions. However, it also is a fascinating adaption that set in place many of the cliches associated with the character and offering an expressionistic flair that readers of this blog will thoroughly relish.

Sir Seymour Hicks, who had previously portrayed Scrooge in Old Scrooge(1913), returns as the beloved curmudgeon, offering a particularly nasty turn as the bitter miser. It's not a subtle performance, a far cry from Alistair Sim, but effective nonetheless. The introductory scenes are virtually identical in most versions, involving Scrooge reprimanding his long-suffering clerk, Bob Cratchit(Doanld Calthrop) and turning down a request to visit his nephew, Fred(Robert Cochran) on Christmas.
What is different is afterwards, as the camera lingers about 1840s London, exploring all the Christmas Eve festivities from all angles, rich and poor. The setting is really well utilized here and sets the mood for the disparity between the classes that was so crucial to Dicken's text. The juxtposition between the elaborate feast of the wealthy and Scrooge's meager meal at a small tavern are nicely set. Scrooge's journey home is fairly atmospheric and spooky, culminating in the ghostly visage of Marley on Scrooge's door knocker. It's here, however, that the film gets a tad bizarre.

Scrooge's home is one shabby, creepy place, looking very much like the haunt of a ghost. The build-up to Marley's ghost is well-handled and fairly frightening, though the pay-off is most peculiar. I've often believed that all versions of this story depend on the effectiveness of the portrayal of Jacob Marley. The more frightening and tragic the Marley, the more effective the reformation of Scrooge. Marley is one of the best roles in the story and it's truly strange that the filmmakers decide to keep him invisible!
It's an alright scene, but I remember really disliking this choice as a kid. Having grown up on so many versions of the story, it felt disapointing and I feel that quite a few filmgoers would think the same. I've come to overlook it in the ensuing years, but it does hurt the film somewhat. What makes the scene even more odd is the vocal choice for Marley, who sounds much like Claude Rains in The Invisible Man(1933)!
Marley isn't the only ghost given short thrift. The pivotal Ghost of Christmas Past is nothing more than a bright light and the segment, so crucial to understanding Scrooge, is compromised by offering only one facet into his past. The scene involves the break-up of his engagement to his fiance, Belle, but it's not well handled, as Hicks is also cast as his younger self, not too convincingly. Scrooge's sister, Fan and his former employer, Fezziwig, are much missed here.
The Ghost of Christmas Present is very somber and without his beard. He's certainly not the jolly, Santa Claus like character of other versions, though this scene is far better handled than the previous. The scenes at Cratchit's home are warm and effective and the exploration of London's Christmas celebrating is upbeat and infectious(though I got a good laugh out of the drunk sailor, perched atop a mast, laughing in a storm!)
The Ghost of Christmas Present does not show Scrooge the children, Ignorance and Want, which is a great pity, and leaves pretty abruptly. What follows is something reminiscent of Nosferatu(1922), where instead of meeting Scrooge on London's streets, the Ghost of Christmas Future appears as a shadow creeping over Scrooge's bed.
The expressionist influence really kicks into high gear here, and is fairly effective. The scene with Old Joe and the trading of Scrooge's goods is shot with lots of shadows and stark lighting. The most memorable moment of this visitation, however, is the return to Cratchit's home, where Bob Cratchit is found weeping over the body of Tiny Tim, who has passed on. Few versions have ever included this scene and it makes the film that much more powerful.
Scrooge sees his own grave(and sounds really comical when he repeats his name) and good when he bargains for his life(though he seems embarassed to say the word, "intercourse"!) and he fights with the shadow, finding himself in his own bed. Hick's morning revelation is extraordinary and works wonders, feeling so very genuine. The addition of including Scrooge's housekeeper seems to have inspired the 1951 version as well, since it was not in the novel. Scrooge visits the poulterer and has a comical shaving bit, before going to Fred's house and shedding a tear when gazing at the Christmas tree. Hicks really brings the whole film together here, and his ensuing goodwill towards Cratchit is touching. Many scenes were missing when this was re-edited for American consumption, and sadly, the finale with Scrooge joining Bob Cratchit in church, makes for a nice conclusion.

Scrooge is not a perfect adaption, but is more interesting than the saccharin version produced by MGM in 1938. The focus on the dark side of Dicken's London is empathized a bit more than in some versions and adds to the effectiveness of the presentation. However, the film creaks badly at times and is fairly melodramatic, without building the crucial steps neccesary to make this a classic. It was unwise to sidestep Scrooge's past, since it makes identification with the character that much more difficult. It's also more than a little strange that the filmmakers would skip the ghostly effects, making these specters among the least effective in any version of the story. An invisible Jacob Marley was a dumb idea and that lingers a bit over the picture.
As florid as some of the dramatics can be, there is effective moments within the cast, notably from Sir Seymour. While, he can be a bit much in the beginning and the flashback with his fiance, complete with melodramatic music, is unintentionally funny, he's actually pretty good on the whole. His sad expressions gazing at all the affection and love brought upon by the season are moving, and he reads his lines eloquently. His reformation is grin-inducing and is able to save the picture, itself. That moment when he awakes in his bed and by the tree are his best moments in the picture, and I wish there had been more of them.
Of the supporting cast, Donald Calthrop makes for a memorable Cratchit. He looks appopiately underfed and depressed, while still retaining a warmth and likeability that is so crucial to the character. His standout scene with his dead son, is one of the best scenes in any adaption of the story. Calthrop was recognized by me, for his appearance in The Man Who Changed His Mind(1936) with Boris Karloff, where he played a really nasty character. His sensitive, sympathetic performance here is certainly a testament to the actor's versatility and is a treasure.

Scrooge is workman-like in it's direction, though the expressionist flourishes are welcome and add immeasurably to the atmosphere of the production. The set designs are wonderfully evocative of the period and are the best overall aspect of the film. While, the film pales in comparsion to several later versions, this is still a Christmas essential and has grown on me considerably over the years. It's not a definitive adaption, but the terror moments, coupled with the emotion throughout, makes this a contender and places it firmly within the top ten versions of the novel ever filmed. Don't raise your expectations too high and most likely, you may find much to enjoy, if you can get past invisible ghosts.