It's pretty hard to make a bad movie out of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," the story has such wonderful characters, settings, themes, and sentiment. How perennial a favorite is it? The Internet Movie Database lists forty-eight different versions (big screen, television, cartoon, musical, etc.) of the classic from 1910 through 2005. Has any other single work of fiction been brought to the screen more often?
Anyway, this one from MGM in 1938 is among the most famous. It's not my favorite, mind you; that would be the 1951 English version, technically titled "Scrooge," with Alastair Sim, which is one of the most faithful adaptations of Dickens' short novel. But MGM's "A Christmas Carol" with Reginald Owen holds up pretty well, too, despite some liberties with the plot and characters, and its infectious Christmas spirit remains hard to resist.
In the unlikely event you've forgotten, the story deals with a miserly old grump named Ebenezer Scrooge (Owen), who is visited on Christmas Eve by four spirits: the ghost of his long-dead partner, Jacob Marley (Leo G. Carroll), and the spirits of Christmas Past (Ann Rutherford), Christmas Present (Lionel Braham), and Christmas Future (D'Arcy Corrigan). The spirits persuade him to turn away from greed and ill temper for a life of love and sharing. It's a sweet moral lesson that economically conveys the meaning of Christmas in a few short minutes.
Yet, apparently, the powers that be at MGM were not convinced that a solitary, irritable old man could carry an entire picture, even one so brief as this (it's only sixty-nine minutes long). As a result, we see the characters of Scrooge's nephew Fred and Scrooge's clerk Bob Cratchit getting a lot more screen time than the Dickens story would admit. Barry Mackay ably plays Fred as an irrepressibly happy chap who is engaged to a lovely young woman and enjoys merrily sliding and playing in the snow like a schoolboy. Never mind that Dickens has him already married and showing up for only a moment at the beginning and end of the narrative. As for Bob Cratchit, played by Gene Lockhart, he's practically the star of the show. We see almost as much of him and his wife (played by Lockhart's real-life wife, Kathleen Lockhart) and family as we do of Scrooge. And as if Cratchet's being kept poor by his employer and having a crippled and dying child, Tiny Tim (Terry Kilburn), weren't bad enough, the screenwriters add to Dickens by making Cratchet's situation even worse: Scrooge fires him on Christmas Eve!
Oddly, while the script expands the Fred and Cratchit roles, it excludes a number of characters and scenes from Scrooge's past, like his ex-fiancée, who is never mentioned at all, and old Fezziwig's party, which is bypassed. Oh, well. I was also slightly troubled by the Spirit of Christmas Past, played by the comely Ann Rutherford. In the book, this is a male ghost, neither young nor old but both at once, who radiates a glow from within. Mr. Rutherford is merely beautiful.
But I quibble. The Ghosts of Christmas Present and Future are properly traditional and Dickens-like, and director Edwin L. Marin ("A Study in Scarlet," "Christmas Eve") well conveys the essence of the Dickens story. It may be a lightweight "Christmas Carol," but MGM and Marin got the general mood right. I especially like Leo G. Carroll, whose hangdog countenance is perfect for the woebegone Marley, as well as liking some of the Dickens humor. When Marley tells Scrooge he's going to be visited by three more apparitions, Scrooge replies, "Couldn't I take all of them at once and have it over?"
Scrooge's conversion to sweetness and light still comes as a splendidly moving scene in a moment to be cherished. The movie is nothing if not sincere, which goes a long way in a sentimental tale like this one.
The 1.33:1 standard-screen image shows up as strongly as most of MGM's and WB's old black-and-white films, largely, I'm sure, because the studio found a good print, cleaned it up, and transferred it to disc at a high bit rate. The B&W contrasts are not as vivid as some I've seen, and there is a touch of film grain in evidence, but otherwise, the picture looks fine. There are very few age marks, a few specks here and there is all, and no scratches or no deterioration whatever. Things hold up nicely and make viewing a pleasure.
Warner Bros. have reproduced the sound as well as might be expected. Their Dolby Digital rendering of the 1.0 monaural sonics reveals almost no background noise (unless turned up to the threshold of pain), a clear midrange, and an expectedly limited bass and dynamic impact. Nothing to complain about.
Warner Bros. have included several old Christmas items with the main movie. The first is a nine-minute MGM short subject from 1931 called "The Christmas Party," featuring child star Jackie Cooper. In it, young Jackie decides he wants to invite his pals to a party on Christmas, but the guest list keeps growing and soon he has to get Norma Shearer to ask Mr. Mayer if he can use one of the studio sound stages for the event. Serving as waiters and waitresses to Jackie's guests are such MGM luminaries of the day as Ms. Shearer, Jimmy Durante, Wallace Berry, Clark Gable, Lionel Barrymore, Bette Davis, Ramon Navarro, Marion Davies, and Reginald Denny, among others.
The next bonus items are a brief, two-minute snippet of a young Judy Garland singing "Silent Night," followed by the eight-minute, 1939, Oscar-nominated cartoon, "Peace on Earth," still an effective antiwar fable. Finally, there's a theatrical trailer for "A Christmas Carol" that is introduced and narrated by actor Lionel Barrymore, who was originally set to star as Scrooge until illness forced him to cancel. Too bad; he would have made a wonderfully grumpy Ebenezer, just as he made a wonderfully grumpy Mr. Potter in "It's a Wonderful Life" a few years later. The disc has eighteen scene selections, but no chapter insert; English as the only spoken language; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
Take your pick of Scrooges, from Reginald Owen to John Carradine to George C. Scott to Albert Finney to Michael Caine to Tim Curry to Rich Little to Scrooge McDuck to Patrick Stewart, with many dozens of others in between; but my favorite continues to be, as I've said, Alastair Sim, who is the meanest skinflint in the world at the beginning of the story and the wackiest, silliest, most deliriously happy man imaginable by the end. Reginald Owen fits somewhere in between, not quite as convincing as he should be at either extreme. And, anyhow, as I've said, the film is as much about Bob Cratchit and nephew Fred as about Scrooge, a curious turn of events. Nevertheless, the movie is a pleasant trifle to warm the Christmas season.
Warner Bros. have made "A Christmas Carol" available on its own or in a box set with two other holiday favorites, "Boys Town" (1938), which also includes "Men of Boys Town" (1941) on the same disc, and "Christmas in Connecticut" (1945).
"God bless Us, Every One."