Top Christmas Movie of All-Time
A CHRISTMAS CAROL, 1951
Directed by Brian Desmond Hurst
Starring: Alastair Sim, Kathleen Harrison, Mervyn Johns, Francis De Wolff, Michael Dolan, Glyn Dearman, Michael Hordern, George Cole
Review by Megan Powers
Bitter miser Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his dead partner Jacob Marley on Christmas Eve. He’s told he’ll be visited by three more spirits in an attempt for him to changes his unfeeling ways. He is given one night to re-examine his life and redeem himself.
Alastair Sim was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1900. He was an elocution and drama lecturer at Edinburgh University from 1925 until 1930. He loved the stage and made his London stage debut in Othello in 1930 and appeared for a season at the Old Vic. Sim made his film debut in 1935 and started a decade of prolific supporting actor roles. He was often stole the scene from the star. By the 1940’s, he advanced to leading roles, and became one of the most popular actors in Britain. Comedian Ronnie Corbett (of The Two Ronnie’s) described Sim as a “sad faced actor with the voice of a fastidious ghoul.” Very funny and true, Sim had a long successful career that end with his death in 1976.
Sim’s most indelible role was his portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol (1951). This story has had many incarnations, but in my opinion this version is the best. The story is well known and has been told and retold, from Mister Magoo to The Odd Couple television show to Bill Murray in Scrooged. Why would this film be the best? Well, because it tells the story in the best way, it feel authentic and because Alastair Sim is the personification of Scrooge.
In Hollywood versions I find the lead actor’s unbelievable as the miserly Scrooge. But Sim is frightening as the bitter and emotionally bankrupt Scrooge. Scrooge’s negative energy just about leaps off the screen at you. His misery is palpable and he chooses to be this way. Every withering look and condescending tone in his voice is chillingly real.
The film opens with Peter Bull’s wonderful narration, his booming voice sets the tone letting us know we are about to be told a great story. The crisp black and white cinematography is beautiful in its depiction of England in the 1800’s. We are transported there to bear witness to the story as Scrooge will have to witness his past and present. There’s a beautiful scene of Tiny Tim looking through a toy shop window. All the toys look magical in their splendor. Tim sees a big toy sail boat taken out to be sold and we see his sad longing face. But Tim is an optimist and doesn’t dwell long on this and is soon smiling again at the bountiful toys. We watch Scrooge’s empty lonely existence turning down charity donations, eating alone, refusing his nephew’s invitation to dinner, and he notices nothing wrong with his life. A blind man’s dog drags away his master as Scrooge approaches. This scene is a wonderful example of the dread that this man carries.
Scrooge is visited by his old partner Jacob Marley (Michael Hordern) on Christmas Eve. He’s told that he’ll be visited by three more spirits to help save his soul. Scrooge remarks that Marley was a good friend and good man of business Marley laments “Business…mankind was my business.” To illustrate the point Marley shows Scrooge spirits attempting to help a woman and her child and they are unable to assist. It torments them. Scrooge looks on in horror.
Scrooge is dubious that he can be helped or that what he’s seeing is real. As Scrooge is shown by the spirit of Christmas Past we see a young Scrooge (George Cole) lonely and left behind at school. His sister comes for him explaining that their father is much kinder know. Scrooge’s mother died giving birth to him and his father had always blamed him. Scrooge truly loves his sister Fan and is devastated when she dies giving birth to her son. Scrooge reacts just as his father did and blames the child for her death. But this time he hears her final wish that he would take care of her boy. He is stricken by this revelation. “Forgive me, Fan, he cries.
Noel Langley, who also wrote the adaptation of The Wizard of Oz (1939), does a wonderful job of creating the chapters in Scrooge’s life. We see the character and the milestones in his life and how those events and his choices slowly changed his disposition. His sister’s death, his sweet-natured employer loosing his business, the insidious love of money over people leading to losing his fiancé, meeting, working with and growing deceitful together with Mr. Marley all contribute to the man we first meet and wonder how he became that man.
Sim gives a rich layered performance. We can see his cold heart slowly melt as he views his past and present. As he watches the poor Cratchit family celebrate Christmas with a robust spirit despite having little money, he is visibly ashamed of how he acted towards Bob Cratchit (Mervyn Johns). He begins to invest his feelings in the family, especially Tiny Tim. Once Scrooge returns from his visits and awakes in his room, he is a man possessed. He vowed to change and he’s good to his word. He has an amusing exchange with his housekeeper (Kathleen Harrison) who believes he’s gone insane since he’s never been hospitable or kind to her before. Sim displays a manic euphoria as Scrooge is grateful that the spirits have allowed him a chance to redeem himself to mankind. He is suddenly full of life and is clearly enjoying the warmth of connecting with other people. I watch this film every Christmas and have done so since I was introduced to it as a child. I continue to enjoy it and discover new nuances in Sim’s performance every time. When Scrooge changes at the end, it as if Sim’s changed every molecule in his character’s body and truly became a new man. That’s what a great actor he was. The supporting actors are all excellent. Mervyn Johns as the put upon clerk Bob Cratchit embodies the good-natured loving husband and father of the Cratchit brood. Kathleen Harrison as Scrooge’s housekeeper Mrs. Dilber is wonderfully dour. Hermione Braddeley as the feisty Mrs. Cratchit. Patrick Macnee better known for the British TV series the Avengers, is the young Jacob Marley. Ernest Thesiger from The Bride of Frankenstein makes an amusing appearance as The Undertaker. Young Scrooge is played by George Cole, who Sim later unofficially adopted to his family. They appeared together in five more films.
Charles Dicken’s message in A Christmas Carol is more relevant then it’s ever been. Mankind is our business and it’s important to practice kindness and compassion all of the days of the year and not just one. Enjoy the film!
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