As promised, here’s my review of the 1951 Scrooge, which was the winner in the Movie Classics poll for people’s favourite adaptation. At heart, A Christmas Carol is a ghost story. Some productions almost lose sight of that, amid all the cosy family scenes and picturesque snowscapes. However, the great 1951 British film starring Alastair Sim – known as Scrooge in the UK and A Christmas Carol in the US – keeps to the spirit of the original text, and gives us all the haunted darkness of the story, as well as the wild happiness of its ending. Screenwriter Noel Langley, who went on to script and direct The Pickwick Papers the following year, clearly had a gift for adapting Dickens.
Sadly, British TV networks always seem to show this film in a dire colourised version, which ironically takes out all the colour and fire from the story. Watching it for the first time in its original black-and-white, I was struck by just how dark and at times almost expressionist many of the scenes are, for instance Scrooge walking up and down the stairs to his home, with Sim’s scared white face standing out amid the surrounding shadows. Also adding to the atmosphere is the music by Richard Addinsell, which includes snatches from folk tunes, in particular the poignant ballad Barbara Allen, which returns whenever Scrooge’s sister Fan features in the story.
The film was made at Nettlefold Studios in Walton-on-Thames, but its narrow London streets look convincing and make me wonder whether there was some filming on location. In any case, director Brian Desmond Hurst and cinematographer CM Pennington-Richards (who were colleagues at the Crown Film Unit during the Second World War) worked together with art director Ralph Brinton to create a vivid Victorian London, drawing on John Leech’s illustrations and on their own knowledge of the city. They built a detailed realistic world, with wonderful scenes like the one where a wistful Tiny Tim (Glyn Dearman) looks in through a window at a toyshop, marvelling at all the things he will never be able to afford. The whole film is full of scenes involving windows – with Scrooge in particular often looking out or in at a world which is out of his reach.
Alastair Sim is best-known as a comic actor, and he brings out all the black comedy of Scrooge’s character in the opening scenes at his counting-house, as he argues with the hapless charity fundraisers, sneers at his nephew, Fred (Brian Worth) and terrorises his clerk, Bob Cratchit (Mervyn Johns). He is also hilarious all through the gleeful ending sequence. However, Sim’s Scrooge is far more than a comic figure. In this version we do get a sense of him as an old man, or at least a middle-aged one (he was 51 but looks older) who struggles to peel away the layers he has built up to harden and protect himself. Being converted by the ghosts isn’t easy – he resists and argues and is gradually worn down.
However, Scrooge is played by two great comic actors in this film, not just one. George Cole, who co-starred with Sim in the St Trinian’s films, takes the role of the younger Scrooge – he doesn’t get much opportunity for comedy in his scenes, but gives the right intensity and loneliness to the young Ebenezer. Although the two actors might not look alike, their voices are extremely similar, making it easy to suspend disbelief.
The film’s major difference from the book is that it adds in several sequences to the glimpses of Christmas past, which gives more understanding of the steps by which Scrooge’s character changed. So, as well as the break-up of Scrooge’s engagement, there is sister Fan’s death scene, and the introduction of a character who isn’t in the book, Mr Jorkin (Jack Warner). He is the one who persuades Scrooge to break with Mr Fezziwig and embrace “modern” cut-throat business methods. He also introduces Scrooge to Marley. I’m not quite sure what I think of this whole section. Maybe it explains Scrooge too much, but it does build on the references to “business” in the story, and the dialogue is all very well-written. Also, it does help to build up Cole’s part, as well as allowing a glimpse of Patrick Macnee (later Steed in The Avengers) as the young Jacob Marley.
Because of the stronger focus on the younger Scrooge in this version, there is perhaps slightly less time given to the Cratchits than in some other adaptations. However, their Christmas dinner is well done, and Mervyn Johns and Hermione Baddeley are both excellent as Bob and his wife. For my money, though, the best character performance in the film might be Kathleen Harrison as the Cockney charwoman, Mrs Dilber, who undergoes her own Scrooge-style transformation – from stealing the shirt off a corpse (in his vision of the future) to happily joining in the closing Christmas celebrations.
All the special effects are eerie and well-done, especially the appearance of Marley’s ghost (played by Michael Hordern, who went on to play Scrooge himself in a TV adaptation in the 1970s). One of the film’s window scenes I mentioned earlier is a horrifying sequence where Scrooge is is forced by Marley to look out at circling ghosts, who are unable to reach out and help the people they see suffering. This scene, with a poverty-stricken young mother crouched in the street holding her baby as the ghosts wail around her, unable to help, reminded me of the torments of the damned in Dante’s Inferno, or of Gretchen in Murnau’s Faust, and I wondered for a moment if it was something added in, but, no, it is all there in Dickens’s story.
Below are some screengrabs of window scenes – I’m sure there are loads more, but I just wanted to give a feeling of how pervasive the windows are. For further reading, here is a link to an article at the TCM site, and also to John Greco’s blog posting about the film.