A Christmas Carol (1938)

Merry Christmas!
It’s that time of the year again—and time for a tradition I’ve kept up on this blog ever since its inception. Time for a Christmas movie.

This time, wondering which film I should review, I came across this one, and it appealed to me at once, because I remembered Dickens’s classic story of an asocial and curmudgeonly miser whose life changes one Christmas. I had seen an animated version of A Christmas Carol ages ago on TV, I’d just read the novella that Dickens wrote to help tide him over during a hard spell when money was short. High time (and appropriate time) to watch the film.

A Christmas Carol begins on Christmas Eve in London. As crowds hustle and bustle through streets covered in snow, people rushing briskly about from one gaily decorated shop to another, a young man (Barry Mackay) goes sliding merrily down a little slope of snow. In the process, he makes friends with Tim Cratchitt ‘Tiny Tim’ (Terry Kilburn), who can’t indulge in such treats because he’s lame—and so Fred happily takes Tiny Tim on his shoulders and allows him a taste of the joy of sliding down a slope.

Fred gives Tiny Tim a ride

As it turns out, Tiny Tim and his older brother (who arrives shortly after) are the sons of Bob Cratchitt (Gene Lockhart). Cratchitt works as a clerk for Mr Scrooge, the very mention of whose name makes the boys’ mouths pucker up in disgust. Mr Scrooge is not a likeable man. Fred mischievously explains that he is Mr Scrooge’s nephew, which embarrasses the young Cratchitts; they leave hurriedly, and Fred goes in to Scrooge’s establishment, a counting-house where the only denizen right now is Cratchitt himself.

The state of affairs, with which Fred is well-acquainted, is soon made obvious to us as well. There’s a sad lack of coal in the single small brazier in Cratchitt’s uncomfortable little cubby hole. The bottle of port that Fred produces is greeted with a pathetic eagerness, and when Fred presses Cratchitt to have a glassful, the only glass Cratchitt is able to produce is a small one in which Mr Scrooge has been having cough medicine.

Fred with Bob Cratchitt

Scrooge (Reginald Owen) himself arrives shortly after. He’s grouchiness personified; nothing, it seems, can make him look on the world with benevolence, not even Christmas. Fred’s announcement that he (Fred) has just got engaged and would like Mr Scrooge to come along to Christmas dinner with his fiancée’s family is rudely turned down (and Fred’s assertion that he’s in love is scoffed at).

... and with a grouchy Scrooge

Two gentleman, seeking donations to provide hot meals and adequate clothing to the poor, are asked if the jails are shut, as well as the workhouses. And when one of them, shocked at Scrooge’s brutality, says that many of the poor would rather die than go to a workhouse, Scrooge snaps that it would be better if they died—at least the population would be controlled.

Scrooge is rude to a couple of charity-seekers

No, this is not a man in whose veins the milk of human kindness is to be found in abundance. Or even at all.

Bob Cratchitt, timidly taking his leave (it’s already half an hour past closing time), has to bear the brunt of Scrooge’s anger: the boss is nasty about the fact that Cratchitt will want to take Christmas Day off. He very unwillingly gives Cratchitt his week’s wages, and shoos the clerk out.

Cratchitt, free of Scrooge’s company, soon runs into a group of boys who try to knock his hat off with a snowball. Cratchitt, as ready for a lark as any of them, teaches them how to make a proper snowball, one that’ll really knock a topper off, and proceeds to demonstrate—on the next man who comes along. Who, as luck would have it, turns out to be none other than Scrooge himself. Before Cratchitt knows it, Scrooge’s hat has been knocked off and been run over by a passing carriage, and a livid Scrooge has dismissed Cratchitt from service.

Cratchitt loses his job

Cratchitt, aware that this blow will ruin Christmas for his entire family, spends his last few coins on buying them everything that’ll go into a great feast: a goose, potatoes, apples, oranges, chestnuts… and when he gets home to Mrs Cratchitt (Kathleen Lockhart’s, Gene Lockhart’s real life wife) and their children, there is much jubilation. Bob doesn’t tell anyone that he’s been laid off.

At the Cratchitt's home, the family greets their upcoming feast with glee

Meanwhile, Scrooge arrives at his own home, and as he’s entering, happens to glance at the ornate door knocker—which, for a few moments, turns into the face of Scrooge’s old partner, Jacob Marley (Leo G Carroll), who died seven years ago on Christmas. This unsettles Scrooge, enough to make him double-lock the door behind him, but he soon convinces himself that it was nothing more than some trick of the light. Or something.

The door knocker turns into Marley's face

Not for long. Scrooge, sitting all alone by himself in his dim and dreary house, soon begins to hear clangs and jangles—and then, walking right through the closed door, comes the translucent ghost of Marley, all wrapped in chains and clanging horrifically. He tells Scrooge that he, Marley, has been wandering the Earth these past seven years. It emerges that Marley was, in many ways, a soulmate of Scrooge’s: the same miserly, money-minded, antisocial tendencies, the same contempt for the rest of the world. That has spelt doom for Marley in the afterlife, and he has come to warn Scrooge to mend his ways before it’s too late.

Marley appears to Scrooge, warning him of what is to come

Scrooge is disbelieving. So much so that he yells for the night watch, alerting them to ‘an intruder’. When the three men come running up, they of course can’t see any intruders, and put it down to spirits of another kind—which irks Scrooge even more.

When the night watch men are gone, Marley’s ghost pauses long enough to tell Scrooge that he, Scrooge, will receive three other visiting spirits tonight: the first at one o’clock, the second an hour later, and the third at three o’clock.

By now, Scrooge has gotten over his scepticism; it’s been replaced by dread. He quickly gets into bed, draws the bed curtains shut around him, and gets into bed, keeping a close eye on his watch. And, sure enough, when the clock strikes one, the bed curtains are whipped apart, and standing there is a spirit (Ann Rutherford, looking far more appealing than Leo G Carroll’s Marley). This one, pretty and innocent, is the Spirit of Christmas Past. And she is here to show Scrooge a glimpse of the landmark Christmases he has lived through.

The Spirit of Christmas Past

As the night passes and dawn comes, Scrooge will be taken into a past that has been, a present that is, and a future that may be, if he does not do anything to change it. What will the Spirits of these three Christmases show him? And how will that change Scrooge?

What I liked about this film:

The heartwarming message of it: not just that Christmas is a time of rejoicing, of giving and of being kind, but that ‘all year should be Christmas’. And that money should not become an obsession, but should be a means of helping others (Christian socialism?); after all, when you’re dead and gone, what will become of your money? The essence of Christmas, and of Christianity—of loving your neighbour as yourself—is exemplified in this story, a sweet, inspiring tale of what Christmas is really all about.

Comparisons, comparisons (which includes what I didn’t like about the film):

Since I’d just finished reading Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, it seemed appropriate to compare the film with the original novella. I’d watched this with a little trepidation, knowing how badly mangled most book-to-screen adaptations can be. But this (its screenplay by Hugo Butler, its direction by Edwin L Marin) is a surprisingly faithful adaptation of the book.

There are some deviations, of course, from Dickens’s story. The minor deviation is that in the story, Scrooge’s nephew Fred is already married to Bess; in the film, he’s engaged to her.

The major deviations are in the omission of certain scenes that are shown to Scrooge by the Spirits of Christmas Past and Future. The Spirit of Christmas Past, in the book, shows Scrooge not just happy Christmases from his childhood and early youth, but also from later: his love for a girl, his growing distance from her because of his simultaneously growing love for money, and her eventual happiness as the wife of another man, the matriarch of a cheerful and large family. None of these are even touched upon in the film; the Spirit merely tells Scrooge that it was his love for money which has distanced him from others and ruined his life. The ‘show, don’t tell’ idea works well in the Dickens story; the lack of it in the film dilutes that message somewhat.

Similarly, the Spirit of Christmas Future shows (in the book) Scrooge a glimpse of what happens to the possessions of a dead man: it’s a good reflection on how ephemeral is the (dubious?) satisfaction or happiness that is derived from wealth—and how pathetic is a dead man who has no-one to mourn him, but only strangers, like vultures, hovering around to take advantage of whatever they can.

While the inclusion of these two sets of scenes would have made the film better, it’s not as if their exclusion makes a drastic difference to the effectiveness of the message. It still remains an enjoyable, feel-good story. Fairly frothy and not as grim (especially in the Cratchitt family scenes) as Dickens portrays it, but I suppose that’s in keeping with the times and the audience.

Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!

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34 thoughts on “A Christmas Carol (1938)

  1. Shall I tell you of our latest coincidence? Last week, we went to watch a play based on The Christmas Carol and it was brilliant. Then, Turner Classic Movies always have Christmas movies on, all day long. On Thursday, they had what I consider the definitive adaptation of The Christmas Carol – the 1951 British movie starring Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge. :)

    I have not watched this version. But today, I watched another Christmas favourite: It’s a Wonderful Life.

    Merry Christmas, Madhu, to you, Tarun and the scourge of the piggies. :)

    • That is a coincidence, Anu! But I’m not surprised – we seem to have so many of these in our lives that now I’ve gotten used to it. If we didn’t have some sort of coincidence in the course of a month of blogging, I’d start getting worried. :-)

      I love It’s a Wonderful Life, even though it’s been decades since I watched it.

      Merry Christmas to you, Sadu and the boys, too! And best wishes for the New Year.

      • I also happened to watch It’s a wonderful life this week, and realized with a shock I’d almost forgotten everything except some scenes between the main hero and his guradian angel. So “not having seen it for decades” means, Madhu, that it’s up in the rotation for Xmas 2017!!!
        Merry Christmas and lots of fun in the season. I’m also a huge fan of Dickens, and Scrooge is a household name here. So thanks for the pleasant review.

        • Yes, I should really watch it next year – since I too have forgotten pretty much everything about the film! To be honest, Yves, now that you mention it, what I remember too are only some of the scenes between James Stewart’s character and his guardian angel. So it’s probably high time I watched this anyway.

          Thank you so much for the wishes. I hope you and your family had a lovely Christmas, and that the New Year is wonderful too!

  2. Ring out the old, ring in the new,
    Ring, happy bells, across the snow;
    The year is going, let him go;
    Ring out the false, ring in the true.

    Ring out false pride in place and blood,
    The civic slander and the spite;
    Ring in the love of truth and right,
    Ring in the common love of good.

    Ring in the valiant man and free,
    The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
    Ring out the darkness of the land,
    Ring in the Christ that is to be.

    Alfred, Lord Tennyson. In Memoriam

    • It takes time (I’ve been blogging for over eight years now). It takes effort – quality as well as quantity (I post regularly, at least once a week). It takes patience.

    • Who knows? I’m no expert on SEO optimization.

      Look, I write because I want to write, and because I love old cinema, not because I’m looking to see how quickly I can get a million followers. If your sole aim in blogging is to get loads of followers quickly, you should probably approach a consultant who will help you do that. I don’t know how.

  3. Look I love old movies to and I’m so eager to write about them. And I want to share my reviews to everyone and to do that I need followers. As for the consultant part if you have ever watched a movie properly you’ll know you won’t say that to anybody especially online???

    • “you’ll know you won’t say that to anybody especially online???

      LOL. Why not? If someone seems so desperate, that why not offer them concrete help? Only the other day, I was at a book event where there was an SEO expert who specializes in stuff like this. So if you’re so keen to build a following quickly, why shouldn’t you go to someone like that?

      And you don’t need followers to read your posts. People stumble across them, sometimes people read every post of yours and don’t comment – for years. They never follow, they read. And if your writing is good enough, they will come. As I said, it needs patience.

      • Oh thank you! And sorry for the misunderstanding or if you feel I’m desperate person. Sorry. As a fan I love reading your posts and after reading them you inspired me infact the first time I got a idea of blogging was from. 8 years!!!! Amazing may you continue. I wish I had a blog like you. After reading your reviews I can honestly say fab! And we have similar interests in films from the golden age of classics 40s till 2000s. Your fan most of the bloggers could not last for 8 years and I’m thankful you did I hope you continue for more 8 years. Love👍

    • A Christmas Carol may not be the appropriate post on which to pose a question on Andaz Apna-Apna… there are chances that the people who’ll read this post aren’t terribly interested in Andaz Apna-Apna.

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