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.

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