There’s a scene in this film where Tiny Tim (Glyn Dearman) is looking at toys through a shop window. One of them is a mechanized laughing figure. Tim loves it, but I find it utterly creepy. The scene is meant to capture a childlike wonder, but perhaps my reaction is not so wrong. After all, Charles Dickens’s story is full of ghosts and ghoulish visions, as well as heartbreaking depictions of children in poverty. Brian Desmond Hurst’s adaptation, the most famous and beloved of them, understands the importance of taking us down to the depths of human misery before salvation is possible.
Refusing to help a client
London, 1843. On Christmas Eve, Ebenezer Scrooge (Alastair Sim) leaves the stock exchange and heads back to his firm. There he refuses to help a client who owes him money; after that, Scrooge tells two men looking for donations for the poor that since prisons and workhouses are operational there’s no need for him to help them. Scrooge also refuses a Christmas dinner invitation from his nephew, and tells his clerk Bob Cratchit (Mervyn Johns) that he can have Christmas Day off, but without pay.
When the miserable old miser heads home late that night, he has a most unexpected visitor – the chain-rattling ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley (Michael Hordern), who tells him that he will be visited by three other spirits that night…
The most successful adaptation
There were several adaptations of Dickens’s story before this one. Seven of them were silent (the first one made in 1901); there were also British and American releases in 1935 and 1938. The last decades have seen imaginative retellings in the shape of a musical (Scrooge (1970)), an updated comedy (Scrooged (1988)), a performance-capture production (A Christmas Carol (2009)), several animated versions… even the Muppets have taken a (terrific) shot at it. Along with a 1984 TV movie starring George C. Scott, the 1951 adaptation still stands as the most successful.
The recipe is really very simple. Remaining faithful to the original story, Hurst and his collaborators created an influential template for how we view Scrooge and the spiritual awakening he has on that Christmas night. Cinematographer C.M. Pennington-Richards brings the ghosts to life with traditional double exposures and stages a few very effective scenes that illustrate Scrooge’s loneliness in his empty quarters, as well as a chilly, snowy London that can be seen either as cozy for those who are in a Christmassy mood, or, as it must have seemed to the city’s poor at the time, cold and harsh. After witnessing how children suffered in the 1830s and ’40s, Dickens became very concerned for their plight and the original novel’s themes are intact in the film without relying too heavily on Hollywood-like mush.
Sim’s performance as Scrooge is also part of the template. He’s magnificently pathetic and cheerless at first, but equally enjoyable after his night of ghostly visits. Many actors have followed in his footsteps, but the transformation has rarely been as well done. There’s even a charming scene where the ridiculously happy Scrooge tells himself that he doesn’t deserve it, but still can’t help stop chuckling.
Emotionally, the story remains relevant. Every time I see an adaptation of it, my mind wanders to whatever I feel should change in my life. One doesn’t have to sympathize with the almost cartoonishly miserly Scrooge to recognize the patterns that will eventually send you to your grave with bitter regrets about what could have been. We should all be so lucky to wake up on Christmas Day and feel the joy of a new beginning.
Scrooge 1951-Britain. 86 min. B/W. Produced and directed by Brian Desmond Hurst. Screenplay: Noel Langley. Novel: Charles Dickens (“A Christmas Carol”). Cinematography: C.M. Pennington-Richards. Cast: Alastair Sim (Ebenezer Scrooge), Jack Warner (Mr. Jorkin), Kathleen Harrison (Mrs. Dilber), Mervyn Johns, Hermione Baddeley, Clifford Mollison… Michael Hordern, Ernest Thesiger, Patrick Macnee.
Trivia: U.S. title: A Christmas Carol. Sim and Hordern played Scrooge and Marley again in 1971, providing their voices for the animated TV film A Christmas Carol.