The Inside Baseball of Film Versions of “A Christmas Carol” – Part 2

A couple of years ago, in the first installment of this essay, I wrote about the plot devices that were added in the 1951 and 1984 movie versions that weren’t written in Dickens’ novella.  And those two versions are my favorites.  The actors playing Scrooge in each case do a memorable job with the part.  And the productions are very good.

There are several other versions that I have watched several times.  There is a musical version with Albert Finney as Scrooge which has its points.  And the 1938 movie with Reginald Owens as Scrooge is acceptable.  But I’ve never cared for his acting style in the part.

But recently a friend told me he regards the 1938 version as his favorite.  Well, tastes differ so I just chalked it up to that.  But when this came up again during a conversation I asked if he thought Owens was the better Scrooge.  He said no.  What he liked about the 1938 version was the greater screen time given to the Cratchit family.  He thought that Gene Lockhart as Bob Cratchit and the rest of the family made the movie.

Since I had never analyzed the movie in that sense, I decided to give it another viewing.  In the 1938 version Gene Lockhart’s wife Kathleen plays Mrs. Cratchit and his daughter June Lockhart played Belinda Cratchit, one of the daughters.  Watching the various scenes they are in, it’s apparent that the Cratchit component of the story has been amplified.  The Christmas dinner scene is quite long and includes much more detail than any of the other versions.  And several other additional scenes involve Bob, Tim or Peter Cratchit interacting with either Scrooge or his nephew Fred.

And I noticed that Scrooge’s part had also been modified in this version.  Instead of the Ghost of Christmas Past bringing Scrooge to see his corruption by money he stops the ghost after the earlier Fezziwig scene.  Considered in the sense of time on the screen, the Cratchits are actually a larger part of the movie than Scrooge.  I think that is why someone might prefer this version.  It minimizes the amount of time spent with Scrooge.  So, if you aren’t primarily interested in Scrooge’s transformation then this would be the version that you would be drawn to.

Looked at in that light I understand the opinion.  But even though I will admit that the Cratchit family scenes in this version are attractive and enjoyable I have to go back to the story of Scrooge.  That is the center of the story and the reason for the action.

But it does bring up another trivia question.  Which is the best Cratchit family?  The most pitiable Tiny Tim is the one in the 1984 version.  He looks like he may keel over at any moment.  But for the rest of the Cratchit family including Bob I’d pick the ones in the 1951 version.  They seem the most authentic.

One thing that I notice is that no matter how many times I watch the various versions of A Christmas Carol I’m still affected by the emotions.  The Cratchits’ sorrow over Tim and Scrooge’s contrition and almost manic joy at being given a second chance always warm my heart.  Obviously, I’m over-sentimental and probably associate the feelings I felt when seeing these movies in my youth.  But whatever the reason they still work after all these years.  This is a tribute to Dickens’ genius but also to the culture that honored the humanity embedded in the Christmas spirit.  Peace on Earth, good will to men.  Or as Tiny Tim says, “God bless us all, everyone.

Getting into the Christmas Spirit in 2020

With all the horror that 2020 has provided I thought it would be extremely difficult to enjoy my annual ritual of watching my favorite holiday movies.  Just to start it off correctly I watched both the 1951 and 1984 movie versions of “A Christmas Carol.”  Surprisingly, I enjoyed them even more than I did last year under much less trying circumstances.  The scenes with Scrooge after his repentance are exactly what I needed to start enjoying the holidays the way I like to.  Surrounded by the squalor of the election fraud and the forced isolation of the COVID overreaction I needed to see scenes of joy and heartfelt emotion to wake my spirit up to the feelings of the season.

Wherever we are, even those of us locked down in this sad sham of an epidemic, we have many friends and loved ones that we can reach by phone or e-mail or by sending a little gift with a card.  Doing that will relieve some of the isolation and it will do a great deal of good for both the recipient and you.

And even if you are completely alone, maybe you can make a special meal for yourself and read a good book or watch a pleasant movie and reminisce about better times and look forward to better times to come.  Life ebbs and flows.  There are bound to be highs and lows.  This is a low point.  It will improve.  But letting Christmas pass without acknowledging it would make it even worse.  And I’m definitely not saying people should spend a lot of money or go through elaborate preparations for a party that no one will be attending.  Far from it.  One of few advantages that the present situation provides us is extra time for reflection.

We all rush through life without considering if we’re missing the bigger point.  Children grow quickly and people age without us realizing it.  We drift in and out of the lives of friends and then we’re left standing at a funeral wondering what happened to the time.  There’s definitely room for re-ordering priorities and reaching out to those we’ve lost track of.

When the world is going to hell in a handbasket is probably the best time to get your own life into better shape.  And the natural time to do that is at the end of the year.  Christmas and New Year are the perfect time to reflect and not just on the negatives.  Even those of us going through extremely hard times can take some solace from memories of the better times.  Those good things were real and we did enjoy them.  Remembering that joy can get you through some tough days.  Reliving it with someone who was also there makes it even better.

I come from a large family that truly relishes dark humor.  We reminisce about the most awful circumstances that we lived through together.  But this year I’ll look to remind them of some of the happier things that came with growing up in a large family.  If nothing else we can celebrate that we’ve beaten the odds and are all still alive and relatively healthy.  And we’ve got kids and grandkids too.  None of us is starving and there isn’t even a really strong feud going on in the sibling group which is pretty remarkable for us.  We won’t be getting together for Christmas which will break a decades long tradition.  But we can have a video conference and we can exchange presents and greetings.  That will help.

So, this is long enough.  My advice to everyone out there is don’t let the bastards get you down.  Make an effort to revive your Christmas spirit and I’ll bet it will be well worth your effort.

The Inside Baseball of Film Versions of “A Christmas Carol” – Part 1

Anyone who has been reading my posts on this site for more than a year knows that I am a Christmas Carol fanatic.  So as a fair warning I’ll just say that this post is only for true Christmas Carol devotees.  Every word of it is subjective and dedicated to minutiae.  I have four versions of the film that I like and each has an aspect in which it excels the other three.  Every year I re-evaluate the films and debate with myself on trivial points that would have exactly zero importance to the overwhelming majority of the human inhabitants of planet earth.  Here goes.

Material that wasn’t in the book

A Christmas Carol was a novella.  It is brief and in places lacks details about the characters and events.

For instance, the book never says why Scrooge’s father treated him so poorly.  In the 1951 version it is stated that his father held it against him that his mother died in his childbirth.  And in the same version a similar grudge exists as the reason why Scrooge dislikes his nephew Fred.  It is shown that his sister Fan died giving birth to Fred.  In the 1984 version the same reason for his father’s dislike for Scrooge is presented.  But the death of Fan during Fred’s birth is not added.  What is interesting about these additions is that based on the original story they would be impossible.  In the book Fan is quite a bit younger than her brother Ebenezer.  Therefore, their mother couldn’t have died at the birth of her older child.  I suppose Fan could have been Ebenezer’s half-sister but I don’t imagine that a twice married man would still be holding his first wife’s death as a grudge against his son.  So, this addition is spurious.  But it is extremely dramatic and provides a timely reason for both father’s and son’s misanthropic behavior that could be somewhat excused and so leave room for deserved forgiveness.  And it has a highly effective scene where the older Scrooge hears his dying sister ask for his promise to take care of her infant son Fred.  We see that the younger Scrooge never heard the dying plea and the older Scrooge gets to belatedly beg his beloved deceased sister’s forgiveness for his heartless treatment of her only child.

And notice that the 1984 version borrows both the discrepancy of Fan’s age and the spurious grudge of Scrooge’s father but neglects the equally spurious grudge of Scrooge for his nephew.  I guess they thought those additions gave resonance to the story.

In both the 1951 and 1984 versions Scrooge’s fiancée is introduced during the Fezziwig party scene and give a name (Alice in the earlier version, Belle in the later).  Neither this early link to Scrooge’s life or the name show up in the book.  In addition, in the 1951 version it skips the scene introducing this woman’s later life with husband and large family but instead substitutes a scene during the Ghost of Christmas Present section where Belle is volunteering at a shelter for the poor.  Now whereas tying Scrooge’s love to the Fezziwig era of his life is fine and in fact better than the way the book presents it, I do not particularly favor the poor shelter addition.  It seems unwarranted.  I think the scene where she is surrounded by her family is dramatic enough in that it illustrates what happiness Scrooge has lost.

In the book the Ghost of Christmas Present visits the house of Scrooge’s nephew Fred.  The dinner guests are presented enjoying games such as blindman buff and forfeits which I take to be word games such as twenty questions.  One of the rounds determined that it was a disagreeable animal that growled and lived in London.  And, of course, it turns out to be Uncle Scrooge.  In the 1984 version the story is adapted so the dinner guests are playing a game called similes where they need to guess the end of a simile.  When Fred asks his wife to complete “as tight as,” she replies “your Uncle Scrooge’s purse strings.”  Scrooge hears this while in the presence of the Ghost of Christmas Present.  After his repentance and on the actual Christmas Day he meets his niece and discussing the game of similes he advises her that the simile, in case it came up, was “as tight as a drum.”  Nicely played.

From the book we know that Jacob Marley died seven years earlier on Christmas Eve.  And we are informed that Scrooge inherited his house.  What the 1951 version does is tie these facts together in a scene.  We have Jacob Marley’s charwoman come to the office and interact with Bob Cratchit and Scrooge.  Then we have Scrooge being warned by a dying Marley that their misanthropy would endanger their immortal souls.  And this then links both the charwoman’s stealing of his bed curtains and bed clothing and her later spurious appearance after the last of the spirits depart and Scrooge wakes up on actual Christmas morning.  In this scene the charwoman (identified incorrectly as Mrs. Dilber) is bringing in Scrooge’s breakfast and witnesses his reformation into a caring human being.  His manic happiness frightens her and when he gives her a gold sovereign coin as a present, she assumes it’s a bribe to keep her quiet about his strange behavior.  When he tells her it’s a Christmas present and he is quintupling her salary she is overcome with happiness and rushes off with her own characteristic version of a Merry Christmas greeting.  I find this addition to the story especially apt.  In the story the charwoman selling Scrooge’s bed curtains comes off very negatively.  But humanizing her by including her positively in the scene about Marley’s death and allowing a rapprochement with a penitent Scrooge on Christmas morning improves the story and ties these aspects of the story together in a way that gives the story more depth.  It reinforces that Scrooge’s repentance touches every aspect of the world we have been shown in a positive way.

Overall I’d say that the film additions to the plot have been acceptable and true to the spirit of the story.

A Christmas Carol Snippet

Just to get us in the mood.

Marley’s Ghost and Scrooge discuss business.

“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again.

“Mankind was my business.

The common welfare was my business;

charity,

mercy,

forbearance,

and benevolence,

were, all, my business.

The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

It held up its chain at arm’s length, as if that were the cause of all its unavailing grief, and flung it heavily upon the ground again.

 

Here’s the best film version I’ve ever seen.

 

30APR2018 – Quote of the Day

I know, I know.  It’s almost May, but enjoy it anyway.

 

STAVE II:  THE FIRST OF THE THREE SPIRITS

“The school is not quite deserted,” said the Ghost. “A
solitary child, neglected by his friends, is left there still.”

Scrooge said he knew it. And he sobbed.

They left the high-road, by a well-remembered lane, and
soon approached a mansion of dull red brick, with a little
weathercock-surmounted cupola, on the roof, and a bell
hanging in it. It was a large house, but one of broken
fortunes; for the spacious offices were little used, their walls
were damp and mossy, their windows broken, and their
gates decayed. Fowls clucked and strutted in the stables;
and the coach-houses and sheds were over-run with grass.
Nor was it more retentive of its ancient state, within; for
entering the dreary hall, and glancing through the open
doors of many rooms, they found them poorly furnished,
cold, and vast. There was an earthy savour in the air, a
chilly bareness in the place, which associated itself somehow
with too much getting up by candle-light, and not too
much to eat.

They went, the Ghost and Scrooge, across the hall, to a
door at the back of the house. It opened before them, and
disclosed a long, bare, melancholy room, made barer still by
lines of plain deal forms and desks. At one of these a lonely
boy was reading near a feeble fire; and Scrooge sat down
upon a form, and wept to see his poor forgotten self as he
used to be.

Not a latent echo in the house, not a squeak and scuffle
from the mice behind the panelling, not a drip from the
half-thawed water-spout in the dull yard behind, not a sigh among
the leafless boughs of one despondent poplar, not the idle
swinging of an empty store-house door, no, not a clicking in
the fire, but fell upon the heart of Scrooge with a softening
influence, and gave a freer passage to his tears.

The Spirit touched him on the arm, and pointed to his
younger self, intent upon his reading. Suddenly a man, in
foreign garments: wonderfully real and distinct to look at:
stood outside the window, with an axe stuck in his belt, and
leading by the bridle an ass laden with wood.

“Why, it’s Ali Baba!” Scrooge exclaimed in ecstasy. “It’s
dear old honest Ali Baba! Yes, yes, I know! One Christmas
time, when yonder solitary child was left here all alone,
he did come, for the first time, just like that. Poor boy! And
Valentine,” said Scrooge, “and his wild brother, Orson; there
they go! And what’s his name, who was put down in his
drawers, asleep, at the Gate of Damascus; don’t you see him!
And the Sultan’s Groom turned upside down by the Genii;
there he is upon his head! Serve him right. I’m glad of it.
What business had he to be married to the Princess!”

To hear Scrooge expending all the earnestness of his nature
on such subjects, in a most extraordinary voice between
laughing and crying; and to see his heightened and excited
face; would have been a surprise to his business friends in
the city, indeed.

“There’s the Parrot!” cried Scrooge. “Green body and
yellow tail, with a thing like a lettuce growing out of the
top of his head; there he is! Poor Robin Crusoe, he called
him, when he came home again after sailing round the
island. ‘Poor Robin Crusoe, where have you been, Robin
Crusoe?’  The man thought he was dreaming, but he wasn’t.
It was the Parrot, you know. There goes Friday, running
for his life to the little creek! Halloa! Hoop! Halloo!”

Then, with a rapidity of transition very foreign to his
usual character, he said, in pity for his former self, “Poor
boy!” and cried again.

“I wish,” Scrooge muttered, putting his hand in his
pocket, and looking about him, after drying his eyes with his
cuff: “but it’s too late now.”

“What is the matter?” asked the Spirit.

“Nothing,” said Scrooge. “Nothing. There was a boy
singing a Christmas Carol at my door last night. I should
like to have given him something: that’s all.”

The Ghost smiled thoughtfully, and waved its hand:
saying as it did so, “Let us see another Christmas!”

A CHRISTMAS CAROL

IN PROSE
BEING
A Ghost Story of Christmas

by Charles Dickens