Sunday, December 22, 2013

Scrooge (1935)

The average person is likely to be familiar with the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol with Reginald Owen and the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol (also known as Scrooge) with Alastair Sim. While both of these versions of Charles Dickens' classic novel continue to be popular, even many classic film buffs have never seen the first sound version of A Christmas Carol. Scrooge, released in 1935, is in many ways a forgotten film.

Scrooge (1935) was produced by Twickenham Film Studios and starred Sir Seymour Hicks, who had been playing the character of Ebenezer Scrooge for literally decades by the time the film was made. Mr. Hicks first played the role on stage in a production of A Christmas Carol in 1901. He went onto play the character literally thousands of times on stage. In 1913 he appeared in a silent film based on the novel, simply entitled Scrooge. There can be no doubt that Scrooge was the part for which Sir Seymour Hicks was best known and by 1935 he was the actor most identified with the character.

Seen today Scrooge (1935) is an interesting contrast to later films. Those familiar with Charles Dickens' original work will be struck by how much more faithful it is than later film versions of A Christmas Carol. Due to its length Scrooge does omit some pivotal scenes from the novel (most notably the scenes of Scrooge as a young lad at school and as a young man working for Mr. Fezziwig) and other scenes are abbreviated. The setting of one scene (Scrooge's break up with his fiancée Belle) is changed entirely. That having been said, many scenes in the film play out exactly as they did in the novel and the film also includes scenes that are in the novel, but do not appear in many of the other film adaptations. Indeed, it is the only feature film with sound to include the scene of Tiny Tim lying dead in his bed (it was also included in the 1999 TV film version starring Patrick Stewart). Scrooge (1935) must also be given credit for a fairly realistic portrayal of the Victorian London of Mr. Dickens' book, right down to establishing the differences in the social classes. Particularly when compared to MGM's 1938 version starring Reginald Owen (which departed considerably from the novel), Scrooge (1935) is over all a much more faithful film adaptation than most.

Scrooge (1935) also differs from later film versions in that we do not see Jacob Marley's ghost on screen. We only hear Marley's voice and see Scrooge's reactions to his presence (Scrooge obviously sees him, even if we do not). On the surface this does not sound as if it would be very effective, but it actually proves to be, largely because of Sir Seymour Hicks' performance. In addition to Marley's ghost, the film also handles the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Yet To Come a bit differently than other adaptations. The Ghost of Christmas Past is seen only as the spectral outline of the actress Marie Ney, although the Ghost's voice is provided by an uncredited and as yet unidentified male actor. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is only seen as a shadow, an effect that in some ways makes him more terrifying than he is in some other, higher budget adaptations of the tale. Only the Ghost of Christmas Present is portrayed as we generally see him in most adaptations of A Christmas Carol. Played by Oscar Ashe, he is largely as Charles Dickens described him--a large jovial man wearing a fur lined robe with a holly wreath atop his head (Dickens was apparently inspired by early depictions of Father Christmas).

Of course, there can be no doubt that the star of Scrooge (1935) is Sir Seymour Hicks. After over three decades of playing the character,  Mr. Hicks had playing Scrooge refined to an art form. Like other film versions of the character, his Scrooge is suitably gruff and mean spirited; however, unlike some other films versions of the character, Mr. Hicks' Scrooge never succumbs to being merely a caricature. At the film's end, Sir Seymour Hicks convincingly portrays Scrooge's repentance with a good deal of glee, yet still keeps the old miser's transformation realistic. It is a shame that Scrooge (1935) is not better known, as Sir Seymour Hicks gave one of the best performances as Scrooge ever. Donald Calthrop also delivers a fine performance as Bob Cratchit, as does Robert Cochran as Scrooge's nephew Fred.

While Sir Seymour Hicks is the undoubted star of Scrooge (1935), credit must also be given to director Henry Edwards. Mr. Hurst made Scrooge (1935) a very dark and atmospheric film. More so than other film versions of the tale, Scrooge (1935) drives home the point that A Christmas Carol is essentially a ghost story. In some respects Scrooge (1935), with its long shadows and dim lighting, seems closer to Fritz Lang's early films than any of the later adaptations of A Christmas Carol.

Of course, this is not to say that Scrooge (1935) is a perfect film. Sir Seymour Hicks was 64 years old when he made the film and it is sometimes difficult to believe him as the young Scrooge (perhaps this is why the Ghost of Christmas Past sequence is shorter than the others). Mary Glynne, in the role of Scrooge's fiancée Belle, plays her role a bit too broadly, a case of overacting so bad that it is embarrassing to even watch. It must also be pointed out that while the dark atmosphere of the film is one of its virtues, there are times that it seems a bit too dark. Of course, much of this might have to do with the quality of the surviving prints. Turner Classic Movies showed one of the better prints in existence, but it still showed a good deal of wear.

Over all Scrooge (1935) should be counted as one of the best adaptations of A Christmas Carol. It is much more faithful to the novel than some of the more popular versions, and even captures the book's gloomy atmosphere better than most. If anything else, it must be seen for Sir Seymour Hicks' performance as Scrooge, one of the very best ever seen on screen. While any serious classic film buff should see Scrooge (1935) for its historical importance as the first sound adaptation of the tale, it should also be seen as one of the best and most enjoyable adaptations of A Christmas Carol as well.

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