Thursday, December 23, 2021

The 70th Anniversary of Scrooge or A Christmas Carol (1951)

Scrooge
(1951), also known as A Christmas Carol (1951), is often regarded as one of the best adaptations  Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. In fact, over the years it has become the favourite version of A Christmas Carol of many. As hard as it may be to believe today, this was not always the case. Scrooge (1951) premiered just a little over 70 years ago, on October 31 1951 in the United Kingdom.

Scrooge was produced and directed by Brian Desmond Hurst, who had previously directed such films as The Tenth Man (1936) and Hungry Hill (1947). The screenplay was written by Noel Langley, who was one of the screenwriters who contributed to the classic The Wizard of Oz (1939). He also worked on such films as Babes in Arms (1939), Northwest Passage (1940), and Her Favourite Husband (1950). The title role was played by Alastair Sim. While he would later become known for the St. Trinian's films, Alastair Sim had played Inspector Cockrill in Green for Danger (1946), Felix H. Wilkinson in Hue and Cry (1947), and Commodore Gill in Hitchcock's Stage Fright (1950).

In sharp contrast to MGM's lavish 1938 version of A Christmas Carol, the tone of Scrooge was closer to that of the novel. Quite simply, it was a very dark film. Regardless, it did well at the box office in Britain. Unfortunately, the fact that Scrooge was a very dark movie would work against it in the United States. It was slated for a run at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, but the theatre's management decided the film was too depressing. Retitled A Christmas Carol in the United States, it premiered in New York City on November 28 1951. The movie ultimately failed at the box office in America. It probably did not help that MGM's A Christmas Carol (1938) was still very popular in the United States and still the choice of many people with regards to their favourite adaptation of A Christmas Carol.

What saved Scrooge in the United States was the relatively young medium of television. Under the title A Christmas Carol, Scrooge made its television debut on WOR-TV in New York City in 1954. Throughout the Fifties and Sixties, Scrooge would pop up on various local television stations throughout the United States. In the Seventies, many PBS stations began showing Scrooge. Over time, more and more Americans were exposed to Scrooge, and it became regarded as a holiday classic in the United States. Eventually, it would become regarded by many as the quintessential version of A Christmas Carol.

That is not to say that Scrooge does not depart from the novel a good deal. The biggest difference between the two may be that a good deal of material is added in Scrooge dealing with his rise as a young businessman. An entirely new character, Mr. Jorkin (Jack Warner) was added to the film as the mentor to both young Scrooge (George Cole) and young Jacob Marley (Patrick Macnee, later of The Avengers). A more minor change is that Scrooge's fiancée, Belle, is renamed Alice in the movie. She portrayed in the present as working with the sick and homeless, whereas in the book she is married with children. Scrooge also expanded the role of Scrooge's charwoman, who had such a minor role in the novel that she is not given a name. In Scrooge she is named Mrs. Dilber (the name of the laundress in the novel) and she is given much more to do.

While Scrooge does depart a great deal from the original source material, it is loyal to the tone of the novel in a way that many adaptations of A Christmas Carol are not. Quite simply, Scrooge is a ghost story, and it can at times be a bit frightening. It also does not shy away from the realities of Victorian London as portrayed in the novel. Charles Dickens largely wrote A Christmas Carol as a protest against the poverty that existed in 1840s London, particularly poverty where children were concerned. This theme is not lost in the movie Scrooge.

Of course, much of what makes Scrooge such a good adaptation of A Christmas Carol is its cast. While Mr. Jorkin may have been a character who was original to the movie, he was wonderfully realized by Jack Warner, perhaps then best known for playing Joe Huggett in the Huggetts series of movies. Mr. Jorkin was about as far removed from Joe Huggett as one could get. Interestingly enough, Kathleen Harrison, who played the charwoman Mrs. Dilber, was also a veteran of the Huggetts movies, having played Ethel, Joe Huggett's wife. She does a wonderfully comic turn as Mrs. Dilber in Scrooge. Mervyn Johns may well have been the best Bob Cratchit to ever appear on screen. He even looks like the Bob Cratchit from the illustrations of Charles Dickens's novel in the Victorian Era.

As great as the cast of Scrooge is, there can be no doubt that the star of the film is Alastair Sim as Ebeneezer Scrooge. Ebeneezer Scrooge's transformation from a curmudgeonly old skinflint to a generous man who loves Christmas comes slowly, and Alastair Sim does a wonderful job of playing out that transformation. Suitably bad tempered and cheap at the start of the film, Alastair Sim is positively giddy once he has shown the error of his ways. For many, Alsatair Sim remains their favourite Scrooge.

Scrooge would not be the last time that Alastair Sim played Scrooge and Mervyn Jones played Bob Cratchit. Australian animation studio Air Programs International produced an animated version of A Christmas Carol in 1969 as the first in their series Family Classic Tales. This version of A Christmas Carol, like Scrooge, was similarly dark. It would make its American television debut on CBS on December 13 1970 and aired annually on CBS for well over a decade.

Upon its premiere in the United States it must have seemed unlikely to many that Scrooge would ever become a Christmas classic. After all, no less than Radio City Music Hall had rejected the film as too depressing. Through the miracle of television it eventually found its audience and eventually became regarded by many as the best version of A Christmas Carol. Today it is hard to conceive of a time when it wasn't regarded as a beloved holiday classic. 

3 comments:

Billy Hogan said...

The Alastair Sim version of A Christmas Carol is my favorite movie version of the story.

Caftan Woman said...

Excellent article on a film that truly stands the test of time. It is Canadian tradition to watch it on Christmas Eve and, in this case, I am a stickler for tradition.

Lacey said...

I have always thought this was the "adult" version of the story.
I am one of those who was not happy with the dark tone, but at times when I feel mature, I watch and enjoy it.
Thank you for all the information and have a Merry Christmas.