Good old Ponty made a proposal (not an indecent one involving Tina and a million dollars, fortunately) that he, Audre Myers, and myself write reviews of two classic Christmas films, the 1951 adaption of A Christmas Carol and the 1946 classic It’s a Wonderful Life. I’m dubbing this series A Very Portly Christmas. Cue the French horns and the sweater vests.
While I imagine we’ll all have quite positive things to say about these time-honored Christmas classics, our hope is that we’ll each see and take something different from the films, and our shades of perspective will reveal to readers previously unseen hues and details.
Or we’ll end up with three remarkably similar reviews and it will make for dull, repetitive reading. Such are the risks of blogging, eh? But knowing these two characters, I doubt that will be the case. All I know is I’ve got to get crackin’ on my homework—It’s a Wonderful Life is over two hours long!
But I digress. Ponty is kicking us off this Christmas season, and, boy, what a great way to start! I think you’ll find his review as insightful and engaging as I did.
With that, here is Ponty’s review of 1951’s A Christmas Carol:
A Christmas Carol has been made so many times, you’d be hard pushed to find an actor, past or present, who hasn’t been in it. It makes one wonder how many times the same film has to be remade before some bright spark says enough. We’ve seen them in black and white, colour, musicals, animation. Crikey, they even did it with muppets. What next? Will we get an amalgamation of all genres or maybe a video game version you can participate in using VR? Who knows?
I’ve seen quite a few versions of this film but none are better, in my opinion, than the 1951 adaptation with Alastair Sim as the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge. I did like the Patrick Stewart version and the musical with Albert Finney as Scrooge was pretty good, too. The less said about Kelsey Grammer’s version the better. It was a shame really. Grammer has an excellent voice but neither Tina nor I made it further than the halfway point. Maybe a Trey Parker/Matt Stone offering would be interesting to watch, but considering their particular brand of humour, I’d be wary about what they’d do to it. Before I get to my dissection of Sim’s classic, I’ll direct Tyler to “Woodland Critter Christmas,” a South Park Christmas episode which I have a feeling you’ll enjoy. As for Audre, please don’t watch it. I value our friendship and I don’t think you’d thank me for it!
I don’t believe for a second that I need to iron out the synopsis for this story. If you haven’t seen at least one version or read the book, then I presume you’ve been living in a hole or in one of those communities, like in The Village (2004), where they live in trappist simplicity. With that in mind, I’ll go straight into my analysis of what makes this version so much better than its predecessors and successors.
First off, the acting is superb. It doesn’t feel as on the nose as other versions, made to appear confected or hammy. With Sim’s Scrooge, you know the curmudgeon you’re going to get but he doesn’t over elaborate the part. His misery isn’t overzealous, his joy not exaggerated at all. I also thought the casting of George Cole as the younger Scrooge was genius, too. American audiences probably won’t know this but Cole did a lot of television and when I was growing up, I remembered him in Minder (1979-1994) as a small time crook. When he wasn’t smiling, he had that similar gaunt look we see on Alastair Sim’s face through the majority of this film so the transition from one to the other worked for me. Plus, he was a damn fine actor, a man whose career should have rocketed after A Christmas Carol. Regardless, he had a long career in and out of TV and film and his work will still be viewed with affection.
I thought Michael Hordern (Jacob Marley) was the only actor in this adaptation who maybe hammed up his performance, more so as the ghost of Scrooge’s long dead partner, but when he rattled those chains and wailed to the heavens, it still sent a tingle up my spine.
There were scenes in this version that didn’t exist in the novel but were added, and others that were in the novel that we don’t usually see in these adaptations. From the latter, the scene where Scrooge’s housekeeper is selling her old master’s belongings, including his bed curtains, taken down while Scrooge lay dead in his bed. Why this scene hardly featured in latter day versions is a mystery. There were many often used scenes where indifference was shown to the passing of Scrooge so it seems odd to me that this 1951 version would be one of the only reworkings to display Charles Dickens’ classic warts and all.
I very much enjoyed the story of Marley and Scrooge. How they met and built up their business. Who they were happy to screw over. When Marley and Scrooge take over the business vacated by Mr. Fezziwig, the man who gave Scrooge his start in business, Ebenezer looks momentarily guilty but it quickly passes. When Marley eventually passes, Scrooge is seemingly nonplussed, only visiting him once business hours are completed for the day. The extended visitation to Scrooge’s past was necessary, in my opinion, as it provided us the opportunity to see that not even those close to Scrooge, like Marley, were deemed important to him.
Like It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), A Christmas Carol was rejigged in future years so you could watch it in colour but it works much better in black and white. In darker scenes, like in Scrooge’s house or when he is finally met by the ghost of yet to come, the negative space surrounding Scrooge put the man in full focus, a figure very much dominated by the darkness, though lit by his isolation, from the world around him and from himself. I particularly enjoyed how immersive some of the scenes felt. For instance, before Scrooge is visited by Jacob Marley, he is sipping soup from a bowl, the hot steam dissipating into the air around him, showing a room that is not only dark but cold too. I love the image of the street behind Scrooge, the mist cast by the streetlights heavy, as the white hand of the ghost of Christmas future faces the cowering Ebenezer. It feels as oppressive as it is mysterious.
The black scenes were dark indeed, the white startling and bright. It is a much better medium for this kind of film.
Of all the adaptations of this film I’ve seen, this one for me felt real. The extended journey we take gives us a better understanding of the character, and by the time we reach its conclusion, we feel as joyous as Scrooge does, for his conversion has taken time, his outlook has been given a thorough examination, and Sim himself has given us a view of a man going through a transition rather than an overemphasized caricature of a Dickensian monster. That’s why when I flick up my Christmas lists each year, I will always go to this one.