‘Tis the season for holiday entertainment, with multiple showings of everything from TV’s cartoon classic “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” to Richard Curtis’ popular “Love, Actually”. I for one could do without this weekend’s repeat of NBC’s “The Sound of Music Live” (http://exm.nr/1blIvjU) but its 18 million viewers ensured another airing and it's status as a potential new holiday perennial. Still, there’s one holiday classic you may have to work a bit harder to find these days. It’s the 1951 version of “A Christmas Carol” starring Alistair Sim as cinema’s most definitive Scrooge. It's not played on TV nearly as often these days and its dark nature may be the reason. It’s a bitter cookie in a world of craven holiday sweetness.
Make no mistake about it, this version of “A Christmas Carol” is very much a horror movie too. After all, the Charles Dickens classic is a ghost story. And for this 1951 take on the material, director Brian Desmond Hurst wisely shot screenwriter Noel Langley’s cryptic adaptation as if he was shooting a film noir thriller. Throughout, his film is sinister and foreboding. And he fills his screen with enough dark shadows and terrifying scenes to rival any of Universal Studios’ greatest monster movies.
You can see Hurst’s genre leanings when he introduces Marley’s ghost. The dead-as-a-doornail miser is heard dragging his heavy chains along the floorboards towards Scrooge’s bedroom and an intimidating weight of the world is evident in those lock boxes. Accompanying them is the ominous brass of composer John Addinsell’s terrorizing score. And when Marley’s spectral visage finally does appear, actor Michael Hordern howls in pain the whole time, agonizing in his atonement for his worldly sins. No Wolfman or Freddy Krueger could compare!
The horrors continue in set piece after terrifying set piece. We discover the skeletal children ‘Ignorance’ and ‘Want’ hidden under the Ghost of Christmas Present’s robes. Deathbeds show up in harrowing abundance, with cast members dropping like flies. And there are eerie visits to gravesites, poverty-stricken hollows, and treacherous streets that would make Jack the Ripper green with envy.
Perhaps this version of “A Christmas Carol” is simply too disturbing for audiences now hooked on the lighter stories of Rudolph and Frosty, yet it’s exactly how Dickens intended things to be. He knew stern lessons were necessary in this overly indulgent season of gifts, parties and eggnog. Dickens wanted us to remember that the true meaning of Christmas doesn’t come from a store. It’s about good will towards our fellow man. Of course Theodore Geisel, Charles M. Schultz and Frank Capra knew this as well, and their Christmas classics contain similar serious messages.
Ironically, an actor beloved for his comical performances turned into the most memorable and serious of Scrooges. Alistair Sim is the single greatest reason that this 1951 British production endures as the version that bests all others. His Scrooge is one of the most fascinating and full-bodied portrayals ever put on screen and it’s amazing considering how joyous a performer Sim usually was in his other roles (http://bit.ly/1deg71A). Yet his take on Scrooge is straight, complex and eminently relatable even when he’s behaving monstrously. He’s a haunted man, battling ghosts from his past long before any specters show up 'round the stroke of midnight.
Sim doesn’t play Ebenezer as a grumpy skinflint, a crotchety caricature that makes for an easy transformation to a giddy old man. Instead, his big eyes and hound dog face reflect all the bad luck and loss of love Scrooge has encountered in his life, from his childhood days to his lonely, friendless existence as a senior citizen. Why, this social miscreant even rejects another helping of bread at a pub, probably having more to do with not wanting to converse with the waiter than being charged extra for it.
And Durst and Langley wisely embellished Scrooge’s backstory with even more telling details like that. We learn about Scrooge's problems with his judgmental father, his guilt over his sister's death, and his callous jilting of his fiancé in favor of a better paycheck. Dickens only implied such things in his original text, but they're placed in the foreground here. Those enhancements to the narrative helped add many shades of gray to this exceptional black and white film. It’s what separates the better horror films out there as well. Monsters rarely are wholly evil. And every bad guy was once a kid who likely never enjoyed a proper childhood.
Thus, Scrooge’s motivations are revelatory in an applied psychology sort of way, and it makes this film version incredibly modern even though it’s over sixty years old. And there are more modern parallels to be discovered as well. The Victorian London of the 1840’s isn’t all that different from the economic imbalance we’re facing in our world now. And Scrooge’s indifference to the sick and needy can easily be read as comparable to the dismissive attitudes some have today towards those requiring government assistance and affordable healthcare.
Indeed, Dickens’ ghost story and this 1951 frightener both recognized that the true horrors in the world reside in the wrongs man inflicts upon his fellow man. And yet despite such dark themes in a season known for its excess of holiday lights, they are entirely appropriate. After all, the Holy Birth was intended to save mankind from itself, wasn’t it?