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When Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, he struck a deal with his publishers to earn a percentage from its sales rather than an up-front lump sum. In the short term, the deal looked like a loser. Sales were good, in fact, very good, with the novella eventually going into 24 printings but the publication costs were extravagant and Dickens made little of what he'd hoped. But in the spirit of the story itself, his rewards were greater because he gave to the world one of the most powerfully uplifting and spiritual tales literature has ever produced. And while its adaptations to stage and screen are too numerous to count, one of them, the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol starring Alastair Sim, has become almost as beloved as the novella itself.
The 1951 version was not, however, an instant classic. In fact, for decades it fell in the shadow of the 1938 version starring Reginald Owen. After being released in its native England under the title Scrooge, the film was shipped to America (retitled A Christmas Carol) for its holiday premiere by United Artists, its North American distributor. It was scheduled for a showing at Radio City Music Hall until the Hall's management expressed the belief that the film was too depressing for its audience. What movie the management of Radio City Music Hall was thinking of remains a mystery.
When A Christmas Carol was finally released in the states, it didn't help that its premiere night wasn't Christmas but... Halloween. Well, it is a ghost story, it's true, but the spirit of the story belongs in a different hemisphere altogether. The box office was meager and as quickly as it came, it went. Three years later, it received a television showing and slowly, like another Christmas classic, It's a Wonderful Life (1946), it began to gain ground in the realm of Christmas Carol adaptations. As the decades rolled on its popularity increased until, by the eighties, it was the most beloved adaptation of the novella committed to film. A large part of that success is due in part to the extraordinary talents of Alastair Sim.
Playing Ebenezer Scrooge is not an easy thing to do for an actor. One must hit the sour notes, playing a ruthless, miserly Scrooge just enough to make the audience recoil but not so much that redemption would seem impossible. A twinkle of the decent spirit inside, the noble vestige of the youthful Ebenezer, must show through, if just a bit, lest the climax place our Ebenezer in the uncomfortable position of appearing phony. His redemption must seem and feel real, not forced, and with Alastair Sim that transformation is not only exquisite in its perfection, but joyful in spirit, both of the character and the story. And the story in this adaptation succeeds despite a bit of tinkering with the designs of Dickens. It's not commonly accepted as wise to rewrite the masters of the English language and while this is no exception, the changes do work, mainly for two reasons: Jack Warner (the actor-comedian, not the producer/studio head) and Kathleen Harrison.
In this adaptation, a new character, Mr. Jorkin, was created to act as the sinister, tempting force that lured Scrooge away from the light and into the dark. It's a change that is not only unnecessary but counter-intuitive. The lesson of Scrooge is not that some dark side lurking within was tempted away but, rather, disillusionment with life and the world around him and great family loss drove his spirit into the ground. It's a feeling nearly everyone can understand, a feeling of "why bother?" It also functions as a way out for Scrooge. Knowing that it was disillusionment, and not the temptation of greed, that was his undoing it is thus conceivable that three spirits could, in the course of one night no less, rekindle the spirit of Ebenezer still smoldering in the ashes of his youthful despair.
So how does the creation of Mr. Jorkin work then? It works because Jack Warner, the actor-comedian playing him, is wonderful. Good casting can usually overcome any setback and A Christmas Carol is no exception.
The other change, much less but still noticeable, was the expansion of the role of Scrooge's charwoman to that of second lead. Well, at least for the credits, that is. Playing his charwoman, Mrs. Dilber, is Kathleen Harrison and it's impossible to conceive of a better actress for the part existing in the world in 1951. Harrison received high praise for her performance and no surprise: at the climax, as Ebenezer compliments her and gives her a healthy sum of earnings, her reaction from shock to gratitude to elation is a master class in acting all by itself.
The rest of the cast fill their roles beautifully. Mervyn Johns, famous as the dreaded dream weaver of Dead of Night (1945), and Hermione Baddeley play Mr. and Mrs. Cratchit splendidly. Michael Hordern and Patrick MacNee fill the shoes of Jacob Marley, old and young, respectively (with Hordern filling his chains as well as his ghost) and Ernest Thesiger (Bride of Frankenstein, 1935) works his magic as the undertaker. It's not a big role but it is Ernest Thesiger and that's a plus for any film. Playing the life changing spirits are Michael Dolan (Christmas Past), Francis De Wolff (Christmas Present) and C. Konarski (Christmas Yet to Come). In the role of Tiny Tim, the child that touches Scrooge's heart, Glyn Dearman does well in what must be one of the most thankless roles in all of cinema: Look sickly, be chipper and say every line with a smile. Dearman does as well as any and probably better than most.
A Christmas Carol is a treasure of spirit and good will with which any holiday season is incomplete. Alastair Sim plays Scrooge so magnificently his performance has become the standard by which all other Scrooges are compared. It's hard to believe now that the film had such a slow start, such an uneven and unheralded journey on its way to becoming a classic. But it did become a classic and for that we can be thankful, forever and without condition. The spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come gave Scrooge the gift of redemption. The 1951 A Christmas Carol gives the gift of entertainment, laughter and joy to all of us. Everyone.
Producer: Brian Desmond Hurst
Director: Brian Desmond Hurst
Screenplay: Noel Langley (from the story by Charles Dickens)
Cinematography: C. Pennington-Richards
Music: Muir Mathieson
Film Editor: Clive Donner
Art Direction: Ralph Brinton
Cast: Alastair Sim (Ebenezer Scrooge), Kathleen Harrison (Mrs. Dilber), Mervyn Johns (Bob Cratchit), Hermione Baddeley (Mrs. Cratchit), Michael Hordern (Jacob Marley, Marley's Ghost), Ernest Thesiger (The Undertaker), Michael Dolan (Ghost of Christmas Past), Francis De Wolff (Ghost of Christmas Present), C. Konarski (Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come), Glyn Dearman (Tiny Tim).
By Greg Ferrara