A Christmas Carol
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Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol has been adapted countless times for the stage and screen but it was one of the most unfaithful adaptations that dominated the market for years before being ultimately overtaken by other, more popular, adaptations. For a time, the 1938 production, starring Reginald Owen as Scrooge, was the standard bearer of Christmas Carol adaptations for a couple of reasons. One, it was released by MGM, the biggest studio in town and, as such, enjoyed re-release for years after its initial run and two, it became a cheap staple on local television stations across the country when MGM sold the rights to stations across the country. By the sixties, it was shown multiple times by multiple stations throughout the Christmas season but by the seventies, as the popularity of Scrooge, the 1951 adaptation with Alastair Sim, began to surge after being acquired by CBS, Reginald Owens' Scrooge began to lose the interest of the public. What happened?
The story of the production of the 1938 adaptation is a troubled one and perhaps the writing was on the wall when the producers couldn't get the actor they wanted for the lead. In fact, it was the actor everybody wanted for the lead, Lionel Barrymore. Although not widely known today, in the thirties, Lionel Barrymore owned the role of Ebenezer Scrooge as much as Clint Eastwood owned the role of Dirty Harry or Sean Connery owned the role of James Bond. It was associated with Barrymore and no one else because he played it on the radio every year. Anyone who has seen Barrymore play cranky and crotchety, as in his Mr. Potter in It's a Wonderful Life (1946), can only imagine how wonderful his performance in a film version of A Christmas Carol would have been. But, sadly, Barrymore's health wouldn't allow it.
Lionel Barrymore had arthritic problems for years so when he broke his hip in 1936, events were set in motion that would eventually lead to lifetime confinement in a wheelchair. The hip was slow to heal and then, just a year later, when working on reshoots for Saratoga (1937), he fell again, this time the result of a loose cable that caught his ankle. Barrymore broke his hip again and this time the fracture never fully healed. Combined with his already painful arthritis, Barrymore could no longer walk. MGM had to go ahead with their production of A Christmas Carol but needed a new actor and the one they chose was veteran stage and screen actor Reginald Owen. He would even play Scrooge on the radio that year so audiences wouldn't have two Scrooges to judge against each other. Barrymore, though crushed, was loyal to MGM and even agreed to do a trailer for the movie where he praises Reginald Owen's performance. It must have been hard for Barrymore but MGM knew that if the movie had his public blessing, Reginald Owen would go over much better as Ebenezer Scrooge.
With their new Scrooge in place, it came time to make the movie and that had to happen fast. Delays had already put the movie behind and everything was done in six weeks with many changes from the original source novella by Charles Dickens. It's those changes that made the movie problematic for many fans. At first, with only this version being the one most people saw, it wasn't as noticeable. Eventually, however, with other versions pursuing a more loyal take on the novella, the differences began to detract. For one, the wandering, suffering souls that Jacob Marley shows Scrooge outside his window were excised from the script. Though this became one of the most powerful moments in all future adaptations, it was thought at the time to be too disturbing for a family audience. The same goes for the two children under the cloak of the Ghost of Christmas Present. Other subplots, like the practically nonexistent one of Freddy and his wife, were expanded for the movie to few if anyone's liking. Finally, Scrooge's fiancée was cut from the story altogether.
However, it wasn't all for the worse. One change worked so well, all future adaptations latched onto it and never let go. In the novella, Jacob Marley describes the visitation of the ghosts this way to Scrooge: "Expect the first tomorrow, when the bell tolls one... Expect the second on the next night at the same hour. The third upon the next night when the last stroke of twelve has ceased to vibrate. " That's right, the novella itself gives the three ghosts three nights to do their work. The 1938 adaptation gave them three hours, at one, two and three. Practically every major adaptation since has done it the same way.
The movie completed, it premiered to good notices and decent box office. Years later it became regular seasonal viewing on television until other more faithful versions supplanted it. In the end, the movie has much to offer, including a stellar cast and a family of actors playing a family. Gene and Kathleen Lockhart play Bob and Mrs. Cratchit and their real-life daughter, June, plays the oldest Cratchit daughter, Belinda. Later, she would become famous as the mother on the popular sixties TV series, Lost in Space. The great Leo G. Carroll plays the ghost of Jacob Marley and Reginald Owen does well in the lead role of Ebenezer Scrooge. And above all, it's unique. Watching the Reginald Owen version of A Christmas Carol gives one the familiar story of redemption but also allows the viewer the opportunity to see what happens when a studio decides to change Dickens. It may not be the most popular version around anymore, but it's still A Christmas Carol and that's always a story worth seeing.
Director: Edwin L. Marin Producer: Joseph L. Mankiewicz Screenplay: Hugo Butler, based on the novel by Charles Dickens Cinematography: Sidney Wagner Editor: George Boemler Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons Music: David Snell (uncredited), Franz Waxman Cast: Reginald Owen (Ebenezer Scrooge), Gene Lockhart (Bob Cratchit), Kathleen Lockhart (Mrs. Cratchit), Terry Kilburn (Tiny Tim), Barry MacKay (Fred), Lynne Carver (Bess), Leo G. Carroll (Marley's Ghost)
By Greg Ferrara
Sources: IMDB Wikipedia