“Please let me stay!” exclaims Ebenezer Scrooge to the Ghost of Christmas Past. The ghost responds, “Nonsense! You don’t want to stay!” Scrooge replies, “Yes, I do!”
There have been several feature-length adaptations of Charles Dickens’ classic story A Christmas Carol. The most popular version is the 1951 version with Alastair Sim in his incredible performance as Ebenezer Scrooge, while the most faithful adaptation is (somewhat surprisingly) the 2009 motion capture computer-animated version with Jim Carrey as Scrooge (along with a few other characters). One of the most overlooked adaptations today is the 1938 version made by MGM (which also happened to be the first feature-length adaptation of the story after the introduction of sound in motion pictures). I recently got a chance to see this version on the big screen as part of a double feature with 1945’s Christmas In Connecticut (courtesy of NCM Fathom and Turner Classic Movies). Although I’d seen the film on DVD before, it was just a joy to finally see it up on the big screen.
1938’s A Christmas Carol follows the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, who is visited on Christmas Eve by three Christmas spirits who attempt to help him change his bitter ways before he is condemned to an afterlife of eternal pain and suffering. Edwin L. Marin’s direction is top-notch, gathering together an impressive cast: Reginald Owen (as Scrooge), Gene Lockhart (as Bob Cratchit), Kathleen Lockhart (as Mrs. Cratchit), Terry Kilburn (as Tiny Tim), Leo G. Carroll (as Jacob Marley), Barry MacKay (as Fred), Lynne Carver (as Bess), Ann Rutherford (as the Spirit of Christmas Past), Lionel Braham (as the Spirit of Christmas Present), and Ronald Sinclair (as young Scrooge). Owen gives a subdued yet powerful performance as Scrooge (not as harsh as some later interpretations, but strong nevertheless). The Lockharts make a convincing Cratchit family (their own children also played some of the Cratchit kids, except for Kilburn, who is excellent as Tiny Tim). Carroll is scary and creepy as the ghost of Jacob Marley, and Ann Rutherford makes for a very interesting Ghost of Christmas Past.
Hugo Butler’s adaptation of Dickens’ novel is terrific, but it does leave out some of the more darker aspects of the story (the phantoms wailing outside of Scrooge’s window after Marley’s visit, Scrooge’s fiancée leaving him due to his changing ways, the thieves going through Scrooge’s belongings after his death, etc.), which can most likely be attributed to studio demands (which is why this version runs only 70 minutes). The black-and-white cinematography by Sidney Wagner is superb and manages to capture the tone of the film. George Boemler’s editing keeps the film moving at a good pace, and the production design by Cedric Gibbons is phenomenal (I loved the look of Victorian London) as are the costume designs by Valles.
The special effects were quite effective considering the technology of the day (the film’s use of miniatures still holds up after more than 75 years). Also effective was Jack Dawn’s makeup design, especially for Scrooge and Marley’s ghost. Franz Waxman wrote a wonderful score, giving it a Christmas feel (he even incorporated a couple of classic Christmas songs) while still emphasizing the drama and the bizarre spiritual goings-on. This early version of A Christmas Carol may not be as long as some other versions, but it still manages to capture the spirit of Dickens’ novel, is well worth a look, and enjoyable for all.