Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Traditions of Christmas - Dickens' A Christmas Carol (1951 film version)

A Christmas Carol - FrontpieceCharles Dickens wrote five Christmas books beginning with the best known, and best loved, A Christmas Carol in 1843. I must admit that even in my most fervent Dickens phase I've only read the three most popular: Carol, The Chimes and The Cricket on the Hearth. However the summary of the last book The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain on the fascinating Dickens Christmas Books page on David Perdue's Charles Dickens Page has given me an idea for some new Christmas reading.

According to various sources there have been 30 or more movie versions of Carol - the first by Thomas Edison back in 1908. There are on-going arguments as to which is the best but even though I have always enjoyed the 1938 MGM version with Reginald Owen, I go with the majority in putting the 1951 Alastair Sim version at the top. Sadly I only have the DVD in the colourized version (it was all that was available at the time) which robs it of much of its atmosphere and it appears the excellent VCI release is now out of print. But despite the "technical improvements" the brillance of acting, directing, writing and cinematography still shine through.

Back when I was doing movie reviews for a magazine in Eastern Europe I wrote the following observation:
A powerful performance is at the center of the 1951 British adaptation of Dickens' A Christmas Carol: Alastair Sim's Ebenezer Scrooge. Write Noel Langley has let Dickens' story speak for itself, and the crisp black and white cinematography of C. M. Pennington-Richards captures Dickensian England perfectly. Director Brian Desmond Hurst avoids excess sentimentality and surrounds his lead performer with the cream of British cinemas' supporting players - Ernst Thesinger, Miles Malleson, Hermione Baddeley, Michael Hordern, Mervyn Jones - who bring the familiar characters to life

But the true wonder is Sim: he is Scrooge. Listen to the way he delivers the infamous question about workhouses on Christmas Eve - it gives full meaning to the word heartless. And that long craggy face reveals a man whose heart died long ago. Then watch that same face as he questions the small boy about the goose on Christmas morning - it gives new meaning to the word joy. Sim creates a complex character and gives us a compelling view as to how this once loving man had become a bitter curmudgeon. It is this complexity that allows us to accept Scrooge's overnight conversion. This is film acting at its best
As a sidebar: In 1968 I saw Sim on stage at the Chichester Festival in The Magistrate with a very young Patricia Routledge (sadly only known as Hyacinth Bucket to most of the world.) There was a wonderful scene where after being lead astray on a wild night on the town Mr Poskett (Sim) attempted to clean himself up for court. It was a comic tour-de-force as we watched this already beaten man further defeated by a washbasin, a small towel and a bar of soap in his attempts to regain respectbility . Without a word spoken Sim had us holding our sides with laughter for a good two minutes. In 2002 my dinner table companions on the Trans Canada train travelling from Winnipeg to Vancouver were a charming British couple. During our conversation somehow Chichester and Sim's performance came up. It turned out the lady had been assistant-stage manager for that production 34 years before - it was her first job in the theatre. I recounted my memory of the washing scene and she let me in on a little secret, Pinero's stage directions simply read: Poskett washes his face. The entire scene had been Sim's invention. She said she would time the scene each night and no two performances were ever the same length. He always knew exactly when to cut it off. And apparently Routledge said that she learned how to play comedy watching Sim that summer. Well he had started life as a teacher.

Over at YouTube tgs01 is posting the entire movie in black and white in installments - unfortunately it is not available for embedding.

16 december - IIIa Domenica di Advento


Elizabeth said...

I turn into an indiscriminate pile of sentimental mush at Christmas. I do love the Sim version. George C. Scott also did a good (but a bit virile) Scrooge. But I think, in truth, I love every version I've ever seen. Even "Scrooged," with Bill Murray. Human depravity, holiday spirit, and redemption at the end; it just gets me every time.

But my favorite thing of all is to have it read out loud to me, in the evening, with the Christmas tree lit. Perfect.

Lorraine said...

I have to admit that possibly my favorite version is the Muppet Christmas Carol with Michael Caine. And also, oh, Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol from my youth...goodness, that one really got to me.

More to the point, I read the story to myself every year, starting on Christmas Eve. Used to be I'd read it in it's entirety before I'd let myself go to sleep. Now I take a couple days. But it still resonates and every year I'm so thrilled when Scrouge becomes a new man.

evilganome said...

I love the Sim version of the movie, the novella itself, but I should also mention that I got to hear a recording of Patrick Stewart (yum) reading it, which was just wonderful. Though I could listen to Patrick Stewart read the phone book.

BigAssBelle said...

you've made me wish i could have seen sims in action. what a grand talent.