When I reviewed VCI Entertainment's previous release of "A Christmas Carol" about four years earlier, I said "Good things just keep getting better." That bears repeating for their new and even better restoration and remastering. Good things do just keep getting better and better.
Of the many film versions of Charles Dickens's "A Christmas Carol," this one from 1951 with Alastair Sim as Scrooge is the most faithful to the spirit of the book. It is, indeed, THE Christmas classic. I first saw it when my father took me to a Moose Lodge Christmas party in 1953, and I am sure I have seen it every year since. The movie is a pleasure to watch, especially now in its best incarnation yet on DVD, a treat I hope to continue for a very long time.
I doubt there is anyone reading this review who does not know the story of the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, his Christmas Eve visit by the ghosts of Christmas Past (Michael Dolan), Present (Francis De Wolff), and Yet To Come (C. Konarski), and his subsequent conversion to the true meaning of charity and love. All of the familiar Dickens characters come to life in this delightful screen adaptation, but it is Alastair Sim in particular whom the movie most perfectly casts. He makes a fine, curmudgeonly skinflint as Scrooge, and his changeover at the end of the story is a joy to behold. Sim's Scrooge becomes truly a man reborn, a man who had lost his way along the paths of life and finds an exuberant return to a course of redemption.
Then, one cannot forget Scrooge's underpaid clerk, Bob Cratchit (Mervyn Johns), whose relationship with the old man is really at the heart of the story. Or the little crippled boy, Tiny Tim (Glyn Dearman), who helps Scrooge to learn the value of kindness; or Scrooge's old partner, Jacob Marley (Michael Hordern), returned from the dead shackled in ledgers and cash boxes; or Scrooge's first employer, dear old Mr. Fezziwig (Roddy Hughes); or Scrooge's nephew, Fred (Brian Worth), and his family; or the great loves of Scrooge's youth, his sister Fan (Carol Marsh) and his fiancée Alice (Rona Anderson); or young Marley (Patrick Macnee); or young Scrooge himself (George Cole).
Brian Desmond Hurst ("Dangerous Moonlight," "Tom Brown's Schooldays") produced and directed this all-British film, and Richard Addinsell (whose most enduring composition was the "Warsaw Concerto") composed the music. "A Christmas Carol" is not a particularly extravagant production, to be sure, but it captures perfectly the flavor of Dickens's London, no doubt due to its being shot partly on location in very Dickens-like areas of the city.
Incidentally, the movie's producers released the film in England under the title "Scrooge" and in the U.S. under its alternative Dickens title of "A Christmas Carol." The print used for this DVD transfer is the restored English version, and, thus, we see the movie here announced in the opening credits by its original British title, "Scrooge"; fortunately, the keep-case cover continues to call it by its inspiration, "A Christmas Carol." A rose by any other name, it's still a great motion picture.
VCI Home Entertainment had earlier offered the original black-and-white version of the film and a colorized version. Now, they include not only a completely restored and remastered black-and-white version of the film in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio, but a widescreen, 1.78:1 version as well. Furthermore, we get the colorized version on a separate disc, along with a completely different screen adaption of the story, "Scrooge," from 1935 (though not restored or colorized). Naturally, the purist will opt for the 1.37:1 B&W rendering, since the 1.78:1 edition, as nice as it is, does sacrifice some material cut from the top and bottom of the screen in order to fit the center portion onto a 16x9 screen.
VCI's last remastering was pretty good, but in comparison this new restoration displays even sharper definition, brighter contrasts, and, most important, less dirt, film grain, and video noise. (Note that by blowing up the picture to a small degree in the 16x9 version, we get proportionately less good definition.) Also, when I say the contrasts are brighter, in some cases they may almost be too intense, the blacks so deep and the whites so white they can at times stand out glaringly. But it sure is pretty. And being able to watch the movie without those annoying specks, flecks, and lines occasionally making their presence known is also a joy.
The VCI restoration engineers remastered the sound as well, this time providing Dolby Digital 2.0 monaural and 5.1 as well. In DD 5.1 we get a reasonably wide sonic spread across the front speakers, although I did not notice a lot happening in the surrounds beyond some minor musical ambience reinforcement and perhaps a moan or groan or two from Marley's ghost. The shortcomings, as I heard them, were that the frequency and dynamic ranges remain understandably limited, the background is a little noisy, and the overall tonal balance is a trifle forward, making the dialogue seem slightly pinched and edgy. In DD 2.0 the sound is a bit smoother, if also a bit noisier. The fact is, the new audio reproduction does not quite match the quality of the new video. I would liked to have seen VCI apply a little more noise reduction to the sound, which might have even helped, subjectively, to iron out the midrange; I don't know. Nevertheless, the audio will not disappoint listeners, assuming they do not turn up the volume too very loud.
Disc one of this two-disc Ultimate Collector's Edition contains the two black-and-white renderings of the movie: the restored 1951 version in its original 4x3 size and the 1951 version in 16x9. In addition, we get an audio commentary by Marcus Hearn, film historian and journalist, and George Cole, who played Young Scrooge in the picture. With Hearn asking the questions and Cole responding, they provide a charming bundle of observations and reminiscences about the movie. Then there are text biographies for some of the cast and crew; eighteen scene selections; English as the only spoken language; an optional narrative track for the blind; and English and Spanish subtitles.
Disc two contains two more films: This time they are the colorized 1951 version of "A Christmas Carol" in 4x3 standard screen, with introductory and concluding remarks by actor Patrick Macnee (young Jacob Marley); and the 1935 British version, "Scrooge," with Sir Seymour Hicks, Donald Calthrop, and Philip Frost. The older film is about an hour long, and VCI have divided it into twelve chapters. However, VCI did not restore the 1935 "Scrooge" as they did "A Christmas Carol," so be prepared for the usual age marks we associate with vintage, black-and-white movie. After the two movies, we have a series of featurettes, the first of which is "Spirit of Christmas Past," about fifteen minutes, with our old friends Marcus Hearn and George Cole in conversation about the film and related matters. Following this is "Richard Gordon Remembers George Minter and Renown Pictures," around twenty minutes long. Next are three more, shorter featurettes: "Charles Dickens: His Life & Times," a six-minute biography; "Before and After Restoration," several minutes showing how Point 360 in Burbank, California, did most of the restoration work from original 35mm film elements; and a photo gallery, five minutes. Finally, we get two theatrical trailers for the main movie, one under the title "A Christmas Carol" and the other as "Scrooge." As I say, a rose by any other name....
The double keep case is enclosed in a handsome slipcover with a foldout front cover, furnishing further information and illustrations. It is an attractive presentation all the way around.
"A Christmas Carol" is a holiday tradition. If viewed each season along with "It's a Wonderful Life," "Miracle on 34th Street" (1947), and "A Christmas Story," I guarantee there won't be a dry eye in the house afterwards or a bad vibe for the rest of the year. I could hardly recommend a film more highly. "And so, as Tiny Tim observed, 'God bless Us, Every One!'"