The Only Way (Herbert Wilcox, 1927)

Martin Harvey 1I’ve finally been lucky enough to see The Only Way, the British silent adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities, which sadly isn’t on DVD – but is available to see in BFI mediatheques in the UK, and also via the web for universities and colleges and in some libraries. I’ve written to the BFI asking them to release it on DVD and saying that I’m sure a lot of Dickens fans would be interested to see it, but I won’t hold my breath! I wrote a short posting mentioning this film last December during my Dickens season, and posted a great photo of the star, Sir John Martin-Harvey. Some good discussion about the movie followed on, which made me even more determined to see it.

Now I’ve actually bought two photos of him in the role on Ebay and am posting scans of them here – they are both postcards, and I love the fact that, on one of them, someone has written “In sweet remembrance, JOCD.” (Not entirely sure about those initials.) All that is on the other side of the photo is the address, to a Miss D Dennis in London’s Notting Hill. The romantic in me is now wondering if a spurned lover sent this to his beloved, comparing himself to Sydney – or was it one fan sending it to another in “sweet remembrance” of seeing the  play? Or does the ‘CD’ refer to Dickens? Who knows. Anyway, the postcards are clearly from the stage play, which toured Britain for around 30 years, rather than the film, as Martin-Harvey is much younger and not yet knighted.

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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.

A Christmas Carol (Edwin L Marin, 1938)

Reginald Owen as Scrooge

Reginald Owen as Scrooge

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.

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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 Tale of Two Cities (Ralph Thomas, 1958)

Dirk Bogarde as Sydney Carton

Dirk Bogarde as Sydney Carton

In the UK, the 1958 Rank Organisation adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities, starring  Dirk Bogarde, is probably better-remembered than the 1935 MGM version. The 1950s film is the one that’s widely available here (there’s even a special edition DVD), whereas the 1930s version has never been released on DVD in the UK at all and has to be specially ordered on import. I think it is a pity that the later version seems to have edged out the Ronald Colman film, which to me is by far the greater of the two, with its lavish production values and strong script. But, having said that, the 1950s version is well worth seeing in its own right, and Bogarde makes the role of Carton his own, giving a performance which is perhaps as moving as Colman’s, though very different. I also like Dorothy Tutin as Lucie – I’ve seen her criticised as too sweet, but she does bring some humour to her quiet portrayal of a heroine who has to spend a lot of time waiting in the background.

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Nicholas Nickleby (George Nichols, 1912)

Harry Benham plays Nicholas Nickleby

Harry Benham plays Nicholas Nickleby

After enjoying the 1911 version of A Tale of Two Cities, I was interested to see another early silent adaptation of a Dickens novel made the following year. However, I must say I don’t feel George Nichols’ three-reel version of Nicholas Nickleby, one of  many short films made by the Thanhouser Film Corporation at this time, works nearly as well. The main problem is that the novel is so much longer, with so many different plot elements to include.

The good news is that the Thanhouser company has put the whole film online. In region 2, it is also included on the BFI’s Dickens Before Sound  and as an extra on a newly-restored Studiocanal DVD release of the 1947 Nicholas Nickleby. In region 1, it is as an extra on Thanhouser’s release of the company’s David Copperfield from 1911.

Inevitably, as it tries to cram an enormous book into only around 30 minutes (and some prints are even shorter at 20), this film is really a series of short scenes from the novel and relies on the audience’s knowledge of the book. There are very few intertitles – usually I’m glad if a silent film is sparing on these, as they can break up the flow of the action, but here there are so few that it is hard to follow. Also, any trace of Dickens’ comedy is lost along with his language, and just the melodrama is left.  It all feels far more disjointed than the early ATOTC, as it quickly moves from a quick burst of Dotheboys Hall (I was rather surprised to see that Squeers has two eyes in this version!) to a glimpse of the Crummles theatre company and then the attempt to force Madeline Bray into a marriage to an older man – as well as Sir Mulberry Hawk’s evil pursuit of Kate Nickleby.

Mignon Anderson plays Madeline Bray

Mignon Anderson plays Madeline Bray

Most of the acting is highly melodramatic, with Frances Gibson, in particular, playing Kate in a very stagey way and giving an interesting feeling of how a theatrical melodrama around this period must have looked. Mignon Anderson gives a similar performance as Madeline, swooning to the floor. But Harry Benham, as Nicholas, seems surprisingly relaxed and naturalistic. A robust figure with his hair cut short, he doesn’t look at all how I’ve ever pictured the character, or indeed anything like Phiz’s illustrations, but his acting stands out from that of the rest of the cast.

John Martin-Harvey as Sydney Carton in ‘The Only Way’ (1927)

I’d been hoping to write about the 1927 British silent film The Only Way, based on A Tale of  Two Cities, as part of my series of Dickens postings – but so far I haven’t managed to see this film. The BFI does have it available to watch online but only to registered universities/colleges and libraries – my local libraries are in the process of registering, but this is likely to take a while.

However, though I haven’t managed to see the film as yet, I couldn’t resist sharing this photograph of the film’s star, Sir John Martin-Harvey, as Sydney Carton. He had also played the role on stage many times and there are many striking photos and even paintings of him as Carton online.

the only way

I will hope to write more about this film in future when I finally get a chance to see it!

Oliver Twist (William J. Cowen, 1933)

Oliver Twist 1933 1I must admit that, overall, the 1933 version of Oliver Twist is one of the weakest Dickens films I’ve seen. It is nowhere near the quality of David Lean’s famous adaptation, or even of the 1922 silent film starring Jackie Coogan which I reviewed here recently. I’m glad to have seen it, and think it has one or two powerful sequences, in particular towards the end of the film – but in general it is a disappointment, and I’m only going to write a brief review.

The film was made by a Poverty Row studio, Monogram Pictures, and does not have the production values of Dickens films made by larger studios. Its budget must have been a tiny fraction of the money spent on the great MGM films of 1935, David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities. Despite being only around 70 minutes long and losing much of the novel’s plot, the film, directed by the little-known William J. Cowen, seems painfully slow and stilted much of the time. (It may have originally been longer, as some characters are listed who don’t actually appear in the film.)

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A Tale of Two Cities (Jack Conway, 1935)

A Tale of Two Cities 1935 1“I’d wish you a Merry Christmas,” snaps Miss Pross (Edna May Oliver) as she walks past a drunken Sydney Carton (Ronald Colman), staggering through the falling snow. “But it’s plain to  see you’ve had it already.” However, Lucie Manette (Elizabeth Allan) has compassion, and drags him into a Christmas night church service  – where she whispers that she is lighting a candle for him. Earlier, Carton envied Darnay Lucie’s prayers and pity; now he has them too.  It’s plain to see that she isn’t giving up on the wasted life of the lawyer just yet.

None of this is in Dickens’ novel, which indeed has no mention of Christmas at all. Yet it all adds up to one of the many memorable scenes in the 1935 take on his tale of the French revolution – and helps to build up a touching portrait of the relationship that might have been between Lucie  and Carton, the central doomed romance of both novel and  film.

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