As a fan of 1930s films, I was really looking forward to seeing this 1938 version of A Christmas Carol. However, I must admit I was rather disappointed with this very short film (just 69 minutes), which cuts out a great deal of the story, including most of its darker elements. Remarkably, this is a version where nobody really seems to be poor. Instead, there is a lot of MGM glamour, including Ann Rutherford improbably cast as an elegant blonde Ghost of Christmas Past, plus some lavish Hollywood snow scenes thrown in. I can see that this adaptation was aimed at a family audience and this is why it has cut out so many of the scary/disturbing elements, but unfortunately this means it has in effect plucked out the heart of Dickens’s story.
Lionel Barrymore was originally supposed to play Scrooge, a role he had made his own through annual radio adaptations. However, his worsening arthritis and a hip injury made it impossible for him to take the part. He did play the lead role in You Can’t Take It With You on crutches – brilliantly – the same year, but, given the presence of Tiny Tim, you can’t really have Scrooge on crutches. Barrymore recommended British actor Reginald Owen for the part instead, and Barrymore himself did not play Scrooge on the radio that year, possibly to avoid stealing Owen’s thunder. (Orson Welles stepped in instead, in a performance which I posted about the other day.)
Owen is pretty good as Scrooge and looks perfect for the part, but for me he is a bit too gentle and doesn’t have quite the irascible power which the character ought to have and which Barrymore had in such abundance. When you look at Lionel Barrymore’s Scrooge-style baddie in It’s A Wonderful Life, or his performance in You Can’t Take It With You (where his character is rather like the redeemed Scrooge) you can’t help but regret that he didn’t get the chance to play Scrooge on film. I somehow suspect that his very presence would make the film a bit darker, even with all the sugary added plot elements.
So what about all those additions to the plot – and the things that have been taken out? Well, in this version there is a poignant scene from Scrooge’s childhood, showing how he was left at school during the holidays – and there’s a fascinating suggestion that his father might have had Scrooge-like qualities himself, as young “Eb” quotes his father saying that plum pudding and Christmas dinner are just for children and, at the age of 12 or so, he should have grown out of them. (This picks up on the mentions of the father’s unkindness in Dickens’ s story). However, Mr Fezziwig’s party is gone, replaced by a brief scene where he invites his apprentices to dinner and gives them a sovereign.
Worst of all, the whole of Scrooge’s doomed romance has been cut out, replaced by a love story for his nephew Fred (Barry MacKay), who in this version is too poor to marry his fiancee, Bess (Lynne Carver) until Scrooge suddenly makes him a partner at the end so that the young couple can marry. There are some youthful romantic scenes between the couple, including them sliding and kissing in the snow, which are very like other MGM family films of the period, but have nothing to do with this story in particular! The young couple storyline had me wondering if screenwriter Hugo Butler had seen the J Searle Dawley A Christmas Carol short from 1910, as that version also has Scrooge enabling Fred to marry – and the endings of these two films are also very similar, in both cases with Scrooge taking the prize turkey round to the Cratchits’ house in person to celebrate Christmas with them rather than sending it with a boy.
This final scene, where Scrooge gleefully presents the young Cratchits with a selection of toys, would certainly appeal to most young viewers, and helps to put across the childlike enthusiasm of the reborn character. However, the Cratchits really seem much too well-off in this version, with a large middle-class house. Bob (Gene Lockhart) looks rather plump and well-fed, while Tiny Tim (Terry Kilburn) is clearly in the pink of health. On the plus side, the casting of Gene Lockhart opposite his real-life wife, Kathleen Lockhart, does work well, as there is so much warmth between them, and one of their children, June Lockhart, is also cast as one of the young Cratchits.
I do like Leo G Carroll as Marley’s Ghost, even though there is a clunkingly unfunny interruption where Scrooge runs off to get the police to throw him out of the house. The police fail to see the ghost, and, once they have gone, he returns. It says something for Carroll’s performance that this incident doesn’t manage to break the mood. The special effects are spookily good here too, as they also are for the Spirit of Christmas Future (D’Arcy Corrigan), who has relatively little screen time but makes a powerful impression. The Ghost of Christmas Present (Lionel Braham) looks just like the original illustrations and plays the part perfectly, but, sadly, in keeping with the rest of the film, there is little focus here on the story’s social message and none of the glimpses of poverty in the streets seen in the powerful British adaptation of a few years earlier, Scrooge (Henry Edwards, 1935).
All in all, there is plenty to criticise in this version, and I can’t agree with the posters boasting ‘Greater than David Copperfield’! All the same, I did enjoy it and it does have a warm atmosphere which is quite endearing, even if there are many better adaptations.