Scrooge/A Christmas Carol (Brian Desmond Hurst, 1951)

Alastair Sim and Mervyn Johns as Scrooge and Cratchit
Alastair Sim and Mervyn Johns as Scrooge and Cratchit

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.

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‘A Christmas Carol’ poll results

AChristmasCarol1951 2Thanks very much to all those who have been following my Dickens in December season this month – I hope all those celebrating have had a good Christmas, and would like to wish everyone all the best for 2013. I’ve enjoyed posting about Dickens and discussing films of his work with all those who have commented, even though, once the festivities kicked in, I haven’t quite kept  up my original intention to post every day!

Over the month, I’ve been running a poll in the sidebar asking people to vote for their favourite adaptation of A Christmas Carol. There is no doubt at all about the winner – the 1951 version starring Alastair Sim, originally entitled Scrooge in the UK and known as A Christmas Carol in the US. Out of 39 people who voted in the poll, 24 (nearly 62%) went for this version. I’m preparing a review of this great film at the moment – after finally managing to see it in black and white rather than in the horrible colorised versions favoured by TV – and will be posting it in the next couple of days to finish off the month.

The second most popular version in my poll was a long way behind Sim’s performance – Scrooge (1938) starring Reginald Owen, which got 4 votes ( just over 10%). A Christmas Carol (1984) starring George C Scott got just one vote less at 3 votes (nearly 8%)  – I haven’t seen this version as yet but aim to do so next year!

The modern version Scrooged (1988), starring Bill Murray, got 2 votes, while the musical version, Scrooge (1970), starring Albert Finney, the Patrick Stewart version, A Christmas Carol (1999) and the  animation starring Jim Carrey, A Christmas Carol (2009) got 1 vote each. The other versions I listed got no votes, but one person did vote for “a different version – or none of them, just the book!”

I was slightly saddened that the 1935 British Scrooge starring Seymour Hicks got no votes, since for my money this is an excellent adaptation which looks forward to the Sim portrayal. Maybe the problem is that not enough people have seen it – I’d say it is definitely worth looking out next time you feel like an older Carol. Anyway, thanks to all who took part in the poll and who have supported my Dickens season.

Orson Welles as a very young Scrooge, on radio

Orson Welles on radio

I’d heard a lot about Lionel Barrymore’s great performances as Scrooge on radio, and decided today to listen to his most famous audio version of A Christmas Carol, broadcast at Christmas 1939 as part of Orson Welles’ Campbell Playhouse  series.

Via Google, I found a website which claimed to have the show available for streaming. However, after listening for a while, I realised that the website in question (I won’t link to it to avoid further confusion!) had got in a muddle, and the programme labelled as being the 1939 broadcast was in fact the one broadcast the previous year, 1938 – when Barrymore was unable to take part and the 23-year-old Welles stepped in to play Scrooge as well as being the narrator!

It’s an astonishing double voice performance by Welles. He is unmistakably speaking in his own voice for his introduction, which includes him reading out the Nativity story, but sounds convincingly elderly and gruff as Scrooge. Indeed, at first I readily accepted that it was Lionel Barrymore, since he achieves a voice which is quite similar. Possibly even more remarkable, in the flashback sequences where he plays the young Scrooge, Welles sounds not like himself, but like a younger version of the elderly voice he has been doing for Scrooge – and the story’s emotions come across strongly in all his voices. I was interested to find  that Joseph Cotten plays Scrooge’s nephew, Fred – he appeared in many of Welles’ radio productions before starring with him in Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons.

Anyway, I’m glad to have heard this version, which keeps a lot of Dickens’ language and is compelling listening, even though it isn’t the production I set out to hear! I do still hope to listen to the Lionel Barrymore version before too long, and here is a link to The Mercury Theatre on the Air, a site which has both the 1938 and 1939 dramas available  for download, correctly labelled! They are also currently being streamed at Wellesnet, until January 1 2013.

A Christmas Carol has been produced on the radio many times over the years, with Lionel Barrymore playing Scrooge regularly for many years. His brother John stepped in to play Scrooge in 1936 when Lionel’s wife had just died, but sadly there doesn’t seem to be a surviving recording of John’s performance in the role. Laurence Olivier also played Scrooge on radio on one occasion. Here’s a link to the first half of a two-part  article about the various old radio versions, with lots of fascinating illustrations. I’d definitely like to listen to more of these radio productions, and also to more of Welles’ other radio shows – he did adaptations of many classic novels and films, including Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and The Pickwick Papers.

A Christmas Carol (Moira Armstrong, 1977)

Sir Michael Hordern as Scrooge
Sir Michael Hordern as Scrooge

I haven’t had a chance to write anything new today, but this is a posting  which I wrote for my Costume Drama Reviews blog (which I’m not currently updating, although I may return to it if time allows), a couple of years ago, about the 1977 BBC version of A Christmas Carol starring Sir Michael Hordern as Scrooge and John Le Mesurier, best-known as Sergeant Wilson in the much-loved comedy series Dad’s Army, as Marley. I think this is only available on a Dutch DVD or as part of the Charles Dickens BBC Collection.

This is a very small-scale version, packed into just an hour, but I liked it very much – I grew up in the 1970s, and often enjoy adaptations made then. Director Moira Armstrong has made a number of other costume dramas, including some episodes of Lark Rise to Candleford. This short film has a feel of the original illustrations, and also I think all the dialogue in Elaine Morgan’s script is taken from Dickens’ original words. Sir Michael had earlier played Marley in the famous Alastair Sim version (Scrooge, 1951).  I get the feeling Sir Michael has great fun as Scrooge, speaking his most outrageous lines in the early scenes with a gleeful wit, and then also making his gradual transformation believable. Le Mesurier doesn’t have very much screen time but his vagueness works well for a ghost, and the special effects are good for the period, I’d say.

John Le Mesurier as Marley
John Le Mesurier as Marley

There is a fine support cast – June Brown, famous as Dot in EastEnders, has a chilling cameo as Mrs Dilber, the horrible woman who steals the shirt from Scrooge’s corpse in his vision of the future, while others to watch out for include John Salthouse as the young Scrooge, Zoe Wanamaker as Scrooge’s sweetheart Belle, Bernard Lee as the Ghost of Christmas Present, Tracey Childs, who starred in a BBC version of Sense and Sensibility, as Scrooge’s sister, Fan, and Zelah Clarke, who later starred in a version of Jane Eyre, as Martha Cratchit.  I’d recommend this to anyone who gets a chance to watch it.

Scrooge (Henry Edwards, 1935)

Seymour Hicks as Scrooge
Seymour Hicks as Scrooge

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.

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Two Dickens film snippets from 1901

I haven’t got time to write a full posting tonight, but will just give links to a couple of fascinating very early Dickens adaptations, really just fragments, both dating from 1901. The first is thought to be the very earliest Dickens film in existence, and was recently rediscovered in the BFI’s archive in London after having been wrongly labelled in the past. Entitled The Death of Poor Jo, and only a minute long,  it shows the death of the crossing sweeper from Bleak House. Thanks to Gina from Dickensblog for reminding me about this clip!

The second is Scrooge, or Marley’s Ghost, a very early version of A Christmas Carol – only about half of the film survives, making three-and-a-half minutes of footage, but it covers quite a lot of the story through a series of brief scenes. I was impressed to see that even in 1901 the adaptation includes some special effects, such as Marley’s face appearing in the door knocker, and the spirits standing between Scrooge in the foreground and the scenes from Christmas past appearing in the background.

‘A Christmas Carol’ poll – and a 1950s TV version

Basil Rathbone as Scrooge
Basil Rathbone as Scrooge

I’ve finally discovered how to post a poll on my blog, so there is now one in my sidebar asking for people to vote for their favourite film/TV version of  A Christmas Carol. Please do cast your vote and also leave a  comment if you would like to.

Following on from the early silent version I wrote about yesterday, I’ve now also seen a rather obscure TV version featuring two great cinema actors, which is currently available on Youtube. It is an episode from the series Tales from Dickens, hosted by Fredric March for the British-based Towers of London Productions and starring Basil Rathbone as Scrooge, and was originally shown in either 1958 or 1959 – opinions on the exact airdate seem to differ between websites. Possibly it was shown on different dates in the UK and the US.

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