The 1935 British film Scrooge, directed by Henry Edwards and starring Seymour Hicks in the title role, was the first sound version, but has tended to be overshadowed by Hollywood productions. However, I’ve just watched this version and really enjoyed it – Hicks was a celebrated actor, who was well-known for his portrayal of Scrooge on stage and had already played the character in an early silent movie, Scrooge (1913), later rereleased in 1926 as Old Scrooge. In the 1935 talkie version, he goes slightly over the top at times, especially towards the end of the film when he dances with glee. But, when playing such a larger-than-life character, there is nothing wrong with that. And this version does create the dark, cold atmosphere of Victorian London very convincingly, with a strong focus on the social message of Dickens’ novella.
Unfortunately, the film has fallen into the public domain – which means it is difficult to find a watchable print. There are many DVDs available of an abridged version, which are said to be of poor quality, and there are also many copies of the film on Youtube, but all those I found are very faint and grainy. However, it is also available at archive.org and I have just watched it there by streaming – it is also available to download at various degrees of resolution.I found it quite watchable and it is a complete print. I understand that there is also now a region 1 DVD available which includes a complete remastered version of the original black-and-while film, together with a colorised version.
This version of the tale feels very dark and eerie, with an especially ghostly atmosphere in some of its early scenes. Oddly, however, it has few special effects compared to other versions, and less emphasis on the supernatural. Marley’s ghost is not even seen, with only his voice being heard, so that the film really relies on the audience having read the book to be able to visualise the links of chain. The first ghost is also unseen, with the third just appearing as a shadow – and, although the Ghost of Christmas Present does appear, looking just like John Leech’s illustrations to the book, he does not have the spectral children emerging from his robe, so the famous line ‘This Boy is Ignorance; This Girl is Want’ is lost. I don’t know why these decisions were made, but it has the effect of making the ambiguity of the story especially strong, so that it seems highly likely Scrooge is having a dream.
The most horrifying part of the film is not one of the supernatural scenes such as Marley’s appearance, but the dark vision shown by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come of the laundress, char-woman and undertaker stealing from the dead Scrooge and gloating over the things they have taken from his bedroom. This scene has all the black humour in the film that it also has in the original story, and made me wonder if Dickens was thinking here of the witches in Macbeth.
Also lost, along with much of the supernatural apparatus, is most of Scrooge’s past. His childhood and youthful romance are not featured in this version, where Hicks, who was 64, plays both the older and younger Scrooge. So all that is seen of his relationship with Belle is the break-up. It is a great pity to lose most of the events which have made Scrooge what he is – but, even if we lose sight of his own lonely childhood, there is still a focus on neglected children, with many glimpses of poor and hungry youngsters in the streets, while a grandly clad Lord Mayor addresses richly-dressed people at a banquet.
This version of the tale seems to be particularly grounded in reality, with lovingly detailed scenes of everyday life. In particular, the Cratchits’ Christmas dinner is superbly done, with every detail of how it is prepared and served. While cutting back on some other aspects of the tale, this version gives a lot of screen time to the Cratchits. Donald Calthorp, playing Bob Cratchit, looks very like Leech’s illustration of the character and is particularly wonderful in an early scene in the counting house where he tries to warm himself over a candle. Philip Frost makes a delicate but lively Tiny Tim, hobbling with his mother out to the copper to fetch in the pudding. Bob is also seen crying over the body of Tim in the vision of the child’s death.
The religious message of the story is rather heavily emphasised at times, and at the end of the film Scrooge and Bob Cratchit go to church together instead of sharing that cup of Smoking Bishop! Anyway, even though a few of the cuts and changes to the story surprised me, I am very glad to have seen this version of the tale, and would recommend anyone interested in different versions of the Carol to give it a look.