Discover more from Resting Norwegian Face
The Only Scrooge You Need
Or, The Making of Christmas Movies is a Highly Competitive Profession
Consider that England in 1951 was only a half century away from the death of Queen Victoria and the end of the Victorian era – as close to that time as we are to Watergate and Vietnam. England in 1951 was also only six years away from the end of the war, and still struggling economically. Germany in the 1950s was fast becoming more prosperous than England at the time, the perpetrators having benefitted enormously from the Marshall Plan. And despite the loss of so many sons, husbands and brothers in the war, despite the enormous pressure put on it by the Cold War, the United States in the 1950s was in full boom, powerful and optimistic.
This might explain why the Alastair Sim version of A Christmas Carol – called Scrooge in the UK – was a huge box office success in England and decidedly the opposite in the US, the film’s grim countenance, its austerity, perhaps not attractive to people with an eye to the future. It did, of course, eventually become hugely appreciated and popular in North America, along with It’s a Wonderful Life, thanks to repeated seasonal television broadcasts.
And thank goodness for that, because there can be no other Ebenezer Scrooge. There is no other version. Or rather, there is no other version with which you should bother. And there aren’t many other Christmas movies that come close to it. (Interestingly, two Christmas movies that I think come close are both English: the post-war The Holly and the Ivy and 1961’s Whistle Down the Wind.) There is something stern about it, though, while it is full of wit, comedy and moments that make your heart grow three sizes.
What sets it so far apart?
Black and white film helps. I’m generally not a purist about these things but if you’ve ever watched the colourized version you know that it takes away some of the appeal. But it’s more than that. The mood here is dark, and darkly funny. The astonishing and hilarious redemption scene – where Scrooge wakes up on Christmas morning and terrifies his maid with his delight - requires no colour to make it any more meaningful. It’s all there. There is much wit in this version, too many moments to list. The best, for my money, is when the undertaker, waiting patiently outside the dying Jacob Marley’s room, explains his presence by stating, “ours is a highly competitive profession.” Coming in a close second is the moment when the Irish lady in the shelter says to Scrooge’s ex, Alice, in gratitude for her kindness, “Cut me throat, rip me liver if I’m tellin’ a lie, this is the happiest Christmas I ever had.” It occurs to me that I should start thanking people like that. The language and pacing throughout are exceptional, perfectly chosen.
Fittingly, alongside his acting career, Sim was a drama teacher with a particular passion for elocution. He was even made Rector of Edinburgh University. Speaking of, choice of words makes a difference. Recent real-life example: I attended a family event at a church and the Reverend, during her sermon, read from Matthew, saying, “Come follow me and I will show you how to fish for people.” Seriously? Not, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” No art. No beauty. You can bet that when Cratchit’s son is reading from Psalms after Tiny Tim dies, it is from the King James Bible.
The Victorians were good at ghost stories, and this version of Dickens’ classic reflects the tradition well, starting with Peter Bull’s sonorous narration and moving along to Jacob Marley’s appearance on the doorknocker (something that terrified me as a child), his lamentations and rattling chains, his doleful warning to his former business partner, to the souls of the damned outside Scrooge’s window, all the way to the forbidding Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come. Some of this is present in other versions, but nowhere else is it as effective. This film is a perfect example of chemistry, that mysterious mix of things that, separately, might be unexceptional, but combined morph into something unimaginably inspiring. (Side note about the souls of the damned: my partner bought a white noise machine to help us sleep. One night he had it on a setting that, to me, sounded like the souls of the damned outside Scrooge’s window. When I mentioned this my partner said, “That’s what the setting is called.”)
The Victorians also gave us our traditional Christmas, our sense of what Christmas should look and sound like: gentle snowfalls, optimism, a great feast, a cup (or more) of cheer and carolers. The use of music in the 1951 version is simply sublime. From Christmas carols, to the recurring use of Barbara Allen – if that song does not make you weep, you have no soul – to the celebratory clanging of Oranges and Lemons when we first see the regal Spirit of Christmas Present, to the fiddlers at Fezziwig’s party, to the traditional My Love’s an Arbutus which accompanies Scrooge’s visions of Alice, his lost love. It is seamless.
The cast is extraordinary. No room to list them all, but it is a measure of how well-selected each actor was that a most poignant moment takes place with no words: when Scrooge visits his nephew Fred on Christmas Day, Fred’s maid answers the door. The small nod of encouragement she gives a hesitant Scrooge is all of us.
[The actress, Teresa Darrington, went on to become an art teacher, and said that Sim and Brian Hurst, the director, were both a bit cranky with her.]
Of course, Sim’s performance as a weary man who feels “too old to change,” brings everything together. It is a role he inhabits, though he had a full career before and after: in fact, he was a top box office draw in England in 1950 and continued in many other roles until his death in 1976. Far from rejecting his association with Ebenezer Scrooge, he provided the voice for the character in an animated A Christmas Carol. My favourite pre-Scrooge Sim role is in Green for Danger, where he plays a Scotland Yard inspector. He turned down a role in Whisky Galore, a terrific film without him, and I’m certain would also have been with him.
Yes, I know, the 1951 A Christmas Carol isn’t true to the novella. Phooey! You can insist till the figgy pudding is ready that whatever version you prefer – the one with the Muppets, or Reginald Owen, or Fonzie, or Bill Murray, or the one where Scrooge is a woman – is the best. But you’ll be wrong. I will still, however - as Mrs. Dilber says on Christmas morning - wish you a Merry Christmas, in keeping with the situation.