Earlier this year I uncovered a box of videotapes I had recorded over a period spanning from 1985 through the late 90s. The eclectic collection included such TV shows as Magnum P.I., The A-Team, Columbo, NYPD Blue, and Seinfeld. There were also many movies in the mix, and most of them are in great condition for viewing. When I found A Christmas Carol (1951) starring Alastair Sim as the miserly Scrooge, I put it aside as a Christmas present to be watched closer to the holiday.
Having just viewed the movie, I understand why Sim is called the “definitive” Scrooge by many critics. The film – released as Scrooge in the U.K. – realizes the essence of the characters and London of that time period, but more importantly Sim rises above the rest of those who have portrayed Scrooge due to a multi-layered performance that captures the wicked brutality of the man but also his underlying good heart.
Even in the first portion of the film before he is visited by the ghost of Jacob Marley (Michael Hordem), Scrooge spouts “Humbug” but Sim allows us to see underneath the veneer. We realize this is a man who once celebrated Christmas as well as anyone but was changed somehow. He fights against that former self when his nephew Fred (Brian Worth) visits his office and invites him for Christmas dinner. So ingrained is the greedy nature that has subsumed him, he scoffs at the offer and complains about Fred’s marriage to a poor girl. Later, as he leaves Bob Cratchit (an excellent Mervyn Johns) and makes a snide remark about “retiring to Bedlam” (since Cratchit is so poor and yet says “Merry Christmas”), we can see that he is a lost soul heading out into a dark night to mark Christmas all alone.
Sim begins Scrooge’s remarkable transformation slowly, but on film it takes a deft actor to achieve the nuances so well. As Marley shakes his chains and Scrooge cowers on the floor, we already see the ice that encases his heart start thawing. Then, as each spirit takes Scrooge on a journey of “reclamation,” his layers are peeled back, his cold heart warmed, and he starts thinking of his fellow human beings again.
It didn’t hurt Sim to be surrounded by so many fine actors (even Patrick MacNee as a young Jacob Marley). There is also a slam-bang musical score by Richard Addinsell, and Brian Desmond Hurst’s direction is topnotch. The entire feel of the movie is just right, taking us to that cold and dreary London of the 1830s where the poor kept getting poorer and dying, just as Tiny Tim (Glyn Dearman) would most surely had if not for the change in Scrooge’s heart.
When Scrooge wakes up on Christmas morning a changed man, Sim is a revelation as his face shows a transmogrified spirit, almost as if he has shed his skin and become a new being. His enlightened expression and happy demeanor scares the housekeeper Mrs. Dilber (a delightful Kathleen Harrison), who thinks he has gone off his rocker, but he chases her down the stairs, gives her money, and a kiss. We see the new Scrooge not just as a happy man but as the one he was always meant to be.
I think most people know this story and have seen a film version or two, including the most recent one with Jim Carrey. But no one has seen A Christmas Carol the way it was meant to be (as close to the text of the novella by Charles Dickens as it can be) unless they have seen this one. Sim will make you cry as you see him watch his sister die for a second time and ask for her forgiveness, but in the end we are left with the catharsis that no doubt Dickens wanted us to have when Scrooge walks with a healthy Tiny Tim down a London street.
This is a man who indeed knows how to keep Christmas, and Sim brings us there and leaves us smiling. If nothing else, you should see this film to witness a great actor inhabit a role and leave an indelible image of that character in your mind. Whenever someone says something about Ebenezer Scrooge, I envision Sim in his top hat grumbing “Humbug!” After you watch this film I believe you will too.
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