Wednesday, December 3, 2008

"A Christmas Carol" Film Reviews

(This posting has been updated in 2011 and includes the newest release not listed here. Please click HERE to view it)

I have received a number of e-mails asking about my favorite filmed version of Charles Dickens "A Christmas Carol." I wrote a blog about the different versions last year ( A Christmas Carol ) and I thought I covered it quite well.
Obviously I either picked up new readers who haven't scanned back to last year or maybe those that read it might have just forgotten.
Anyhow, what I thought I'd do is copy and paste my reviews here and you can judge for yourself in greater detail my opinion of the various filmed versions. Not that my opinion means squat - it's just my opinion.

So, here they are, in no particular order:

The one with Alastair Sim as Scrooge - 1951:
This is the version that so many feel is the definitive Christmas Carol. It really is an excellent version. Alastair Sim plays Ebenezer Scrooge like no one else can. The believability factor here for both, the 'old mean Scrooge' and the 'newly transformed Scrooge' is very high, with the transformation itself coming about slowly. And that's what I like about this version. Scrooge doesn't suddenly become happy and giddy from the first of the three spirits, as in the Reginald Owen version. It takes Sim's old Ebenezer fully until the last spirit to convince him that he truly was a "squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!"
Victorian London is well represented here, its sinister darkness, dreariness, and hopelessness surrounding the viewer in glorious black and white to further the mood of the dirty old town.
This version has my favorite Jacob Marley (listen to the way he mourns and moans. Sends chills!). And Mrs. Dilber is hilarious at the end when Scrooge gives her a Christmas gift of money.
I collect the different versions of this movie that are available, and this one is my second favorite, with the George C. Scott version ranking number one and the Patrick Stewart version, with the best Cratchit family I have yet to see captured on film, coming in at number three. All have a bit to add to the story (including the Reginald Owen version) that the others may not have. All, pretty much, follow Dickens' original story (although, I must say, the George C. Scott version is truest to the book in the dialogue). Jacob Marley and Scrooge from Alastair Sim, the Cratchit's and the whole 'present' scene from Patrick Stewart, the dialogue and the sets from George C. Scott. My advice? By them all! Really! If you trust my opinion (and you have no copies of any version yet), purchase them in the order that I have placed them. You won't be sorry.

The one with Reginald Owen as Scrooge - 1938:
A nice, short, family version of the Dickens classic. Good for the kiddies to introduce them to this great story. But for the purist, it has its shortcomings. First of all, Marley just speaks his part instead of wailing it ("Business? Mankind was my business." Instead of "BUS-A-NESS?!? Man-KIND was my BUS-A-NESSSS!!!" like it should be). Bob Cratchit IS a bit too portly to be believably poor. And, I'm sorry to say, Kathleen Lockhart DOES over-act. Watch her as she sets the pudding down on the table. Also, Reginald Owen becomes converted just too darn quick to believe that he is supposed to be this mean, crusty old sinner as he's supposed to have been. As stated in previous reviews, there is more telling of the story here than actual portrayal of the story. Sort of like a Reader's Digest condensed version. Too bad the script writers wrote so many of their own scenes and changed Dickens' own 'staves,' too.
I will say this, though. This is the only version I have seen that explains about the Cratchit's goose being cooked at the bakery, to be picked up at an appointed time on Christmas Day. Many poor people in Victorian England did just that since their homes had too small of an oven or no ovens at all.
My advice is to purchase the George C. Scott, Alistair Sim, and even the Patrick Stewart versions first (although, the Patrick Stewart writers have also added their own scenes as well - but not quite as dramatically as this version) to get a more accurate portrayal of not only Dickens' original story, but Victorian London as a whole. Contrary to what another reviewer has stated, it IS the little things that count!
This is not a God awful version. Rather, a mediocre one that has its moments.
By the way, Scrooge's sister's name was FAN not Fran (as in Reginald Owens' and Patrick Stewart's Version).

The one with George C. Scott as Scrooge - 1984:
'A Christmas Carol.' Is there any other story that epitomizes what the modern day Christmas celebration is all about? And who would have thought this very English fable written over 150 years ago would be every bit as alive today here in the 21st century United States as it was in 1843 England when first published? Gerald Charles Dickens, great great grandson of THE Charles Dickens, was quoted recently as saying, "The 'Carol' is 10 times more popular in America than it is in England. In England, the 'Carol' is just a story. In America the 'Carol' IS Christmas."
And, to me, THIS is THE version to watch.
The opening scene of this great version literally grabs you and pulls you into the gray, wintry Dickens London on Christmas Eve day 1843. The viewer will feel as if they were walking down the cobblestone streets of Merry Olde England, passing the street vendors hawking their wares, and hearing the carolers and street musicians singing and playing that wonderful Victorian Holiday music. Top hats and bonnets abound as the crowd of people - rich and poor alike - rush to celebrate this most Holy of Christian nights. That is, all but one. And the first image of old Ebenezer Scrooge, played here to perfection by the late great George C. Scott, will send chills down the back of even the most ardent skeptic.
Just think...if the opening scene is this good, you can just imagine how great the rest of this movie is!
I'm sure there is no need for me to explain the story line of 'A Christmas Carol,' only that, of all the versions that have been filmed, this one is by far the best and most realistic I have yet to witness.
Now what puts this version of Charles Dickens' classic tale above the others available? First and foremost, as I explained in my first review, is the feel. There is a certain ambiance here - a sort of realism - that is not present in the others. As stated previously, you, as the viewer, are drawn into the movie as a willing participant to the events happening about you. Given that this movie was filmed not on a stage set in Hollywood, but in and around actual buildings that were standing during the period in which this story takes place alone gives this version an edge the others can't touch. And the authentic costumes are as accurate as I have seen.
Another major plus here is that Dickens' original story is followed much closer than in any of the other versions. The scriptwriters had a very easy task since they pulled a majority (but not all) of their lines directly from the book! And the casting was pert near perfect as well. In fact, the only character I felt that was miss-cast was the actor (who's name escapes me) that played the role of Scrooge's nephew, Fred. Not toward the beginning of the film when he's inviting his uncle to dine with him, but toward the end when Uncle Ebenezer IS dining with him. A bit of over-acting here. A small blip ever so minor that, because of just how phenomenal the rest of the movie is, one would hardly notice. Not enough to lower any part of the score!

The Ghost of Jacob Marley tears at your heart, for the believability factor here is high that this specter is truly wrenching in pain and sorrow for his life's deeds. And the Ghost of Christmas Present, with his sarcastic wit, easily puts Scrooge in his place simply by using Scrooge's own lack of common sense and lack of courtesy against him.
Virtually everything about this version of 'A Christmas Carol' surpasses its predecessors. All the 'Carols,' before and since, have been good to very good. But this George C. Scott ranks far above them all. I don't think even Masterpiece Theater - the greatest at filming Dickens' stories - could do better.

The one with Patrick Stewart as Scrooge - 1999:
This Patrick Stewart version of 'A Christmas Carol' is one that, judging by other's reviews, you'll either love or hate. I believe, however, in a middle ground (or upper middle ground in this case). What makes this version so unique is that it actually shows many scenes that were in the original book but never put on the various filmed versions available for viewing. A few examples: the Ghost of Christmas Present showing Scrooge the many different types of people - miners, lighthouse keepers, sailors out at sea - all celebrating this special day; the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come showing the lifeless body of Tiny Tim laid out in the Cratchit home; the lower jaw of the ghost of Jacob Marley dropping "down upon its breast" when the bandage around his head was removed. Even the items that once belonged to Scrooge being sold at "Old Joe's" pawn shop, such as the sugar tongs, were listed in the original book.
This version also has the best Cratchit family put to film. Their physical appearance (even their teeth), their manner of speech, their clothing, all were as you would expect a poor 19th century London family to look, sound, and be like.

The costuming, the acting, the sets, all are very well done. For what I just wrote, I would put this particular version right up there with the best of the 'Carols.'
However, it does have its downside that brings it down a couple of notches. First and foremost is Patrick Stewart. He actually does a fair job in his role as Ebenezer Scrooge. But I truly do have a problem with a totally shaved bald -headed Scrooge. Sorry, but most bald men are not 100% hairless! Also, Mr. Stewart's choking out a laugh toward the end of the film is obviously (too obviously) forced.
Another rather small but noticable error is when Scrooge is asking the young lad to go and get the poulterer, the young boy answers with "you're joshing." I'm fairly certain that 'joshing' was not a term yet used in 1843. For a movie that went to great lengths for accuracy, one must wonder why they put in a contemporary slang term.
One must also wonder why they call Scrooge's sister Fran instead of what she was called in the book - Fan. The 1938 version with Reginald Owen also makes this same mistake.
And, yes, I must agree that they could have done a better job on the phantom. Again, with all of the computer tricks available, why go with a battery operated child-type toy figure?
Why, with all of the wonderfully accurate scenes, did they allow for the inaccuracies that they did (there are a few others I did not list)?
All in all, even with the inaccuracies, it is definitely worth adding to your collection. It is a high quality version that, because of what it has included in contrast to its deficiencies, will, I believe, stand the test of time.

The one with Seymour Hicks as Scrooge - 1935:
Better than you might think for 1935, but not as good as the last three versions (Sim - 1951, Scott - 1984, and Stewart - 1999). I do place this slightly above the Owen version from 1938, however - not as Hollywood-y.
As with another reviewer, I feel that they could have come up with better spirits than a light, a shadow, and a voice. I also agree with Scrooge's reformation coming on a bit too fast. He was clearly already a changed man before the Ghost of Christmas Past was finished with its job. And, I have to say that Scrooge's former love, Belle, seemed to be quite the motherly type - we counted at least 14 children from her post-Scrooge marriage!
Now for the pluses: the sets were terrific! Very authentic - I wonder if they were actually filmed in original period structures? The Cratchit's home is perfect for their status, as was the home of nephew Fred. And the showing of Tiny Tim's body lying in state in the Cratchit home gives realism that the other filmed versions (except for the 1999 version) haven't touched. Also, seeing Mrs. Cratchit pull out the pudding from the laundry tub gave this that extra bit of authenticity rarely seen anywhere else.
The addition of Queen Victoria celebrating Christmas was unique.
Unfortunately, the quality of the print is not as good as it should be. It's not horrid but not what one is used to from a remastered disc. I am guessing that the original print is long gone. But, it's much much better than the VHS version.
All in all, not bad for its age. Very dark, but Mr. Hicks gives a wonderful Scrooge impression that is better than most.
A worthy DVD, especially if you are a collector.


Now, I know there are a few I missed (Muppet version, the musical version, the silent versions). I just wanted to cover the major film versions (and I haven't seen the silent ones yet).
I must say, however, that I really enjoy the Muppet version.

Hope you enjoy watching your favorite version of "A Christmas Carol."


Stratman88 said...

I never saw "Scrooge", the 1951 version, until my early 40's and now ? It's a tradition to watch them all every Christmas Eve. I agree with much of your assessment's of the films. Alistair Sim is second to none and his support cast just could NOT get any better whereas the 1938 version can be a little "unconvincing". I really enjoyed watching Seymour Hicks in the 1935 version but, like you said, the picture quality was just too dark and seemed a bit rushed. George C. Scott was just a great actor and brought so much to the role..I just liked Sim's better. Now, I know many would disagree with me on this next film but Jim Carey's animated version is just fantastic. Most of us over 50 have had a hard time with some movies just BECAUSE they're animated but the incredible High Definition in these animated movies today is just mind-boggling. Jim Carey's talent, combined with this technology makes his version, truly, one of the best and although nothing could ever match Sim's version this one really deserves to become a classic !

Historical Ken said...

I fully agree about the Jim Carey version - - excellent!