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A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol(1938)

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It is almost impossible to ruin Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, and even though producer Joe Mankiewicz imposed major story changes the resulting picture is a satisfying experience. Just the same, connoisseurs of this tale greatly prefer the 1951 Alastair Sim version that's neither as rushed nor as flippant with the classic plotline.

This 1938 MGM version sticks with the basic story setup. Curmudgeonly miser Ebenezer Scrooge (Reginald Owen) hates Christmas good cheer and all that goes with it. He sends his employee Bob Cratchit (Gene Lockhart) home on Christmas Eve begrudging him the holiday, and ends up firing the clerk in an unfortunate snowball accident. Cratchit goes a little bonkers and spends all of his cash on a fancy feast for his impoverished family. The Christmas Eve misery of the story is replaced with a big party, an odd turn of events that saps some of the glory from Ebenzer's surprise goose the next day. Scrooge is also given a deserving nephew Fred (Barry Mackay) who wants to marry but cannot because of poor finances; Scrooge offers Fred with the same sentiments he reserves for the needy poor: Let them go to prisons or poorhouses. Or just die and alleviate the surplus population problem.

This cheerful reworking unbalances Dickens' story somewhat - Jolly Fred and his pretty fiancée Bess (Lynne Carver), Cratchit's snowball fight and the mostly happy first feast are more 'Christmasy' but detract from the author's intention to create a haunting ghost story. The middle section with the spectral visitations is rushed and far from frightening. Leo G. Carroll's ghost of Marley gives Ebenezer a quick lecture about his greedy ways and then moves on. Lionel Braham's Spirit of Christmas Present displays some examples of holiday good will, Ann Rutherford's Spirit of Christmas Past takes him on a quickie visit to Scrooge's youth, and D'Arcy Corrigan's Spirit of Christmas Future shows Ebenezer the bad news that lies ahead, just by pointing a finger out from under his dark shroud.

The problem with the center section is that we don't really feel Scrooge changing. Reginald Owen protests weakly about frugality being good for a businessman but responds almost immediately to the ghosts' reconditioning efforts. A few phantoms later, he's a generous and cheerful soul. The little scenes played out for Scrooge lack depth or feeling, seeming almost like one of those 'trick realities' dreamed up by the team of espionage con-men in the old Mission: Impossible TV show.

The exuberant windup on Christmas morning still works like a charm, showing the unsinkable nature of Dickens' tale. Scrooge gets big laughs when Mrs. Cratchit thinks he's gone loony and will harm the children. I don't hear anything said about Tiny Tim being sent to the Mayo clinic but Scrooge definitely sets things right with Cratchit and his nephew Fred. It looks as though it won't be "medical experiments" for the Cratchit kids after all!

Given the English setting, MGM and Mankiewicz did well by not trying to jam Jackie Cooper or Judy Garland into the show. Critics are forever comparing Reginald Owen unfavorably to Alastair Sim, perhaps with justification, but Gene Lockhart's Cratchit is just about perfect. It's pleasant seeing Lockhart's wife Kathleen playing his screen wife, along with the cute 13 year-old June Lockhart (later from TV's Lassie and Lost in Space) as one of his daughters. Terry Kilburn, the little kid who chirps "Goodbye, Mr. Chips!" in the film of the same name is Tiny Tim; he has a fixed grimace that passes for a smile. Ann Rutherford, the Ghost of Christmas Past, was a fixture in Andy Hardy movies and would soon decorate the Glenn Miller Fox musical, Orchestra Wives.

Young Ebenezer is played by Ronald Sinclair, MGM’s Eddie Bartholomew substitute who acted with Judy Garland and made about fifteen movies before becoming a film editor. He eventually worked with Roger Corman and ended up cutting a great many American-International films.

Warners' DVD of the 1938 A Christmas Carol is a fine pressing of a B&W film element in good shape, with clear audio. It's being released as part of a Warner Bros. Classic Holiday Collection with Boys Town and Christmas in Connecticut. There are three extra short subjects. The first is called Jackie Cooper's Christmas Party and features the kid actor (acting a little young for his 14 years) visiting various adult stars to worry about the party he's giving for his football team. The second item is an unattributed snippet consisting of one angle of Judy Garland singing "Silent Night," book-ended by a stock shot of a snowy house It was prepared for use at an MGM employee party.

The final extra is a crazy Technicolor cartoon called Peace on Earth, that technically gets the drop on the dark finale of On the Beach: A bunch of furry forest animals of the kind that Tex Avery would lampoon live in helmets and other gear left over on a snow-covered battlefield. War is no more because mankind has been eradicated in a WW1-style Armageddon. As grand-dad squirrel tells the story to his kids, we see the last (animated) human soldier die on screen. I doubt that Hugh Harman's animation people realized what they were saying, exactly...the little rodents still sing about "Peace on Earth, good will toward Men.

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By Glenn Erickson