“Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that…. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”
It must be the Christmas season. How can we tell? It’s time for yet another edition of “A Christmas Carol” from our friends at VCI Entertainment, who this year give us a “Special 60th Anniversary,” two-disc, Blu-ray set filled with bonus items we’ve never seen before. If you don’t already own this holiday classic in high definition, now is as good a time as any to get it. Even if you have to buy an entire new home theater to play it.
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 around 1953, and I am sure I have seen it every year since. The movie is a pleasure to watch, especially on Blu-ray, a treat I hope to continue for a very long time.
I doubt there is anyone reading this review who doesn’t 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 choice as the curmudgeonly skinflint Ebenezer Scrooge (“Bah, humbug!”), whose changeover at the end of the story is a joy to behold. Indeed, every moment of Sim’s portrayal is a joy; it’s an amazingly nuanced realization that impresses more every time I watch it. By the time it’s over, Sim’s Scrooge has become 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 learn the value of kindness; or Scrooge’s old partner, Jacob Marley (Michael Hordern in a wonderfully melodramatic, over-the-top performance), 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 original Dickens title, “A Christmas Carol.” The print used for this Blu-ray transfer is the restored English version, and, thus, we see the movie here announced in the opening titles by its British designation, “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, made all the better by its crisp new transfer.
This year VCI Home Entertainment have a new transfer, using a dual-layer BD50 and a VC-1 codec to reproduce the black-and-white film on Blu-ray disc in its aspect ratio, 1.37:1. I have to admit that every time I see a B&W film transferred to disc in high definition, it amazes me how good it looks. Black-and-white can often look better than color, with a crystalline clarity and dimensionality that can be downright astonishing.
This newest edition, which the folks at VCI say they “digitally restored from a new 1080p, 24fps high-definition transfer master produced from the 35mm negative and fine grain” displays sharp object delineation, strong contrasts, and an absolute minimum of dirt, flecks, specks, and video noise, with only the print’s inherent grain present to give it a natural, film-like look. Black levels are remarkably deep and whites are so white they practically gleam. The film never looked better.
In this new remastering, VCI provide the soundtrack in lossless LPCM 2.0 mono and LPCM 5.1. Errors on the keep case and in the disc menu indicate Dolby Digital, but it isn’t. It’s lossless LPCM.
Anyway, in 5.1 we get a reasonably wide sonic spread across the front speakers, although I did not notice much happening in the surrounds beyond some minor musical ambience reinforcement and perhaps a moan or groan or two from Marley’s ghost. The shortcomings of the 5.1 track are that the frequency and dynamic ranges remain limited, which is understandable for so old a film, and the overall tonal balance is a bit forward and hollow, making dialogue on occasion seem very slightly artificial. I preferred listening in the movie’s original monaural because I found it smoother and, ultimately, more realistic.
Disc one of this “Special 60th Anniversary” two-disc edition is a Blu-ray containing the high-definition feature film and a number of worthy bonus items. First up is an introduction to the movie by film historian and critic Leonard Maltin. After that, we get an audio commentary by film historian and journalist Marcus Hearn and one of the film’s co-stars, 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.
Next up is the featurette “Dead to Begin With: The Darker Side of a Classic,” twenty-six minutes, with writer Sir Christopher Frayling hosting and narrating a behind-the-scenes look at the filmmaking. That’s followed by “Scrooge by Another Name: Distributing a Christmas Carol,” about ten minutes, with film distributor Richard Gordon discussing his work with the film’s distribution company, Renown Pictures. Then, there’s “The Human Blarney Stone: Life and Films of Brian Desmond Hurst,” about forty-one minutes, which discusses the filmography of the director; and “Alastair Sim Version: Too Good to be Shown Only at Christmas,” thirty-two minutes, with critic and writer Richard Guida providing more background on the film’s adaptation. And if that’s not enough, there are two, short “Silent Dickens”: “Scrooge” (1922) and “Bleak House” (1922), about ten minutes each. Still not enough? How about an American and a British theatrical trailer, and “Scrooge Revisited,” about two-and-a-half minutes on the actual London locations used in the film. Whew!
In addition, we get eighteen scene selections; English as the only spoken language; and English and Spanish subtitles.
Disc two is a regular DVD containing the movie in standard-definition and several more bonuses. “Campbell Playhouse: A Christmas Carol” is a sixty-minute radio dramatization of the story produced and hosted by Orson Welles and starring Lionel Barrymore. Then, there’s a fifteen-minute “Bibliographic Essay,” written and narrated by Fred Guida.
Finally, enclosed with the two discs you’ll find an abridged American press book filled with lots more information about the movie.
“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 than “A Christmas Carol,” especially with its beautiful Blu-ray picture.
“And so, as Tiny Tim observed, ‘God bless Us, Every One!'”