- Year: 1935
- Director: Henry Edwards
- Starring: Seymour Hicks, Donald Calthrop, Robert Cochran
When I began to compile the ten most important and beloved versions of A Christmas Carol, I knew little if anything about this film. I have never heard anyone refer to it as their favorite version of the story, and if I had ever heard the name Seymour Hicks before, I would have figured it was some kind of Southern prank name
Scrooge is brought to us by Twickenham Film Distributors which is without a doubt, the most British name ever.
Many versions of A Christmas Carol start with joyous carolers or an upbeat band playing in the street outside Scrooge’s counting house, but in this version, we get the worst street musicians ever. Scrooge is supposed to be set up as a bitter man whom we dislike from the get-go, but can you really blame a guy for hating Christmas when this band is outside his window butchering “The First Noel?” Even Bob Cratchit seems pained by the music.
Seymour Hicks is a very different kind of Scrooge than we usually see. While most Scrooges are tall, imposing men who look even more intimidating with a large top hat and cane, Hicks is a small, wiry man with messy hair. Now, I’m not saying this “Get off my lawn” approach towards Scrooge is necessarily a bad idea, but the execution just falls flat. The lines in the opening scenes are rushed through, as if the actors thought the audience knew them already and wanted to get to the good stuff.
A lot of dialogue that isn’t in the book just sounds odd. When Scrooge asks Cratchit how many children he has, Cratchit responds with “Around half-a-dozen.”
Scrooge then asks Cratchit bizarre questions like “Can I afford a wife?” and “Have I got any children?” Obviously, this is meant to show that there is no way Cratchit can support a family on his pay, but Hicks plays Scrooge as so befuddled, that it seems like Scrooge has forgotten whether he has a family.
And now for the good stuff the actors were rushing towards earlier.
Just kidding. First we need to check with the local butcher and baker, and take a look at their slapstick hijinks. I could have accepted this scene, I really could have, if they had only completed the joke and thrown in a candlestick maker. As it is, all we get is a montage that would have been funnier in the recently-ended silent era. Maybe this Three Stooges-esque stuff worked in 1935, but it feels so out of place today, especially in A Christmas Carol.
Finally, it’s time for Jacob Marley.
Oh come on! For some strange reason, we suddenly cut to an aristocratic dinner where everyone stands up and sings “God Save the Queen.” Was this a stipulation of the utterly-British Twickenham Film Distributors? I’m assuming the conversation between Sir Lionel Twickenham (I may be completely making up the name) and director Henry Edwards went something like this…
- Twickenham: Ah, Henry my boy, so you want to adapt the dickens out of A Christmas Carol?
- Edwards: Yes, sir.
- Twickenham: Good, good. Twickenham would love to back your project, but we only have one thing.
- Edwards: Of course, anything.
- Twickenham: We notice you did not put “God Save the Queen” anywhere in the film.
- Edwards: I don’t see how that would be relevant. I am cutting it close on time as it is.
- Twickenham: But it’s a British film. How would anyone know who made it if we don’t include our national anthem?
- Edwards: Because all the actors are British?
- Twickenham: No, I’m afraid it won’t be enough. Just cut out that needless Fezziwig scene and put this in instead.
- Edwards: But why the Fezziwig scene?
- Twickenham: We wouldn’t a more British name than Twickenham in this picture, now would we?
Finally, at the 19 minute mark (of a 75 minute movie), Scrooge finally sees Jacob Marley on his doorknocker. I will admit this scene is done very well, as Scrooge, rightfully scared and confused, quietly walks into his home. After a lackluster opening, the film finally looks like it’s getting on track, the bells begin to ring throughout the house… and then we see Jacob Marley.
Or rather we don’t. Maybe the move was running tight on money and couldn’t afford a ghost effect. Maybe the director was going for the classic horror trope that what you don’t see is scarier than what you see. (I’m pretty sure it was the first one, though.) The worst part, though, is Marley’s opening line, “Look well, Ebenezer Scrooge, for only you can see me.” There is clearly no one else in the room to see Marley—Scrooge is alone. This line exists only for the audience’s benefit, so the movie can explain away its lack of an effects budget, and it is perhaps the dumbest line in the whole film.
The most chilling part of every good Jacob Marley scene is the chains that Marley carries with him everywhere he goes. Sometimes it’s not even the image that is haunting as much as the sound of the clanging chains, but we do not even get that here. Also, it is pretty clear that the actor voicing Marley recorded his lines quickly in a studio without playing off Hicks, as Marley’s line reads are incredibly dry and robotic, while Scrooge’s reactions are comically over-the-top.
The Ghosts of Christmas Past and Future are also shown minimally here, with Christmas Present being the only one we completely see. Christmas Past is a very bright outline of a figure, which works just fine, due to Dickens’ description of “like a child: yet not so like a child as like an old man” being near impossible to bring to screen, especially in 1935.
Christmas Past shows Scrooge his early life, starting of course with his tragic childhood.
Actually, this is one of just two scenes Christmas Past shows him, and herein lies the biggest problem with this film. When we learn of Scrooge’s past in the book—his abusive father, his time at boarding school, his sister’s death—we begin to feel sorry for this old miser. Here, we just see more of Scrooge being Scrooge, turning away a couple on Christmas and showing no remorse. I’m sure this scene is supposed to take place many years prior, but since they didn’t get a different actor for young Scrooge, it seems to be about ten years before the movie is set. Belle, who appears a bit younger than Scrooge, breaks off their engagement. In most versions, this is the point where Scrooge has gone from smart but mostly jovial boy to bitter man. Here, though, we have no backstory to work with. For all we know, this Scrooge had the happiest childhood ever and just decided to be a colossal jerk because he felt like it.
The only other scene Christmas Past shows Scrooge is that of Belle’s family. This scene is supposed to show us the happiness that Scrooge has missed out on by giving us a picture of Belle’s life now. However—and I’m not kidding, because I’ve counted—Belle has at least thirteen children in this scene.
Now, if this scene happened in George C. Scott’s version, he would he would have said something like, “Well, I really dodged a bullet there, eh Spirit?” but unfortunately this Scrooge is quip-less.
The Ghost of Christmas Present is the most memorable of the ghosts in that we at least see the guy. Normally Christmas Present is shown with long hair and a beard a la Father Christmas, but here he’s bald and clean shaven. However, Oscar Asche plays him with a commanding demeanor nonetheless, so it’s not distracting.
Scrooge tells the ghost that he has learned his lesson from Christmas Past and is eager to learn more. So, simply by watching his break-up with Belle and a glimpse of Belle’s family life, Scrooge is suddenly a new man already. This scene is incredibly out-of-character at this point.
Of course Christmas Present shows Scrooge the Cratchit house and how happy their Christmas celebration is. There’s just something about Donald Calthrop’s performance as Bob Cratchit that takes you out of the movie. It’s like he is trying to mug to the camera every second he’s on screen. His goofy faces and mannerisms really take away from what should be a heartwarming scene… plus they just aren’t all that funny. I’m not sure if someone told him he was in a comedy or if he was just trying to make the most out of a few scenes, but it’s awkward to say the least.
Tiny Tim looks bored and sounds downright angry with the world as he delivers his famous line, “God bless us, everyone.”
I don’t blame Tiny Tim’s actor. I blame the director for not doing a second take of the most famous line in the book. How hard would it have been to say, “Once more, with emotion”? The Cratchits then proceed to ask Tiny Tim to sing, which perhaps he likes to do, but since we don’t know that, it kind of feels like they’re just picking on the youngest one.
We see very little of The Ghost of Christmas Future, which is more acceptable since this is usually the case in most adaptations. Granted, we usually see a hooded figure, but regardless the image relies on “less is more.” Here, we just get a shadow. You heard that right. All we see of the ghost is his shadow. In what ghost story ever did a ghost cast a shadow?
You could argue that maybe The Ghost of Christmas Future is simply a shadowy figure, but nope, Scrooge is looking directly at a ghost that is just out of our view.
Also, Scrooge has no problem just going with this ghost. I’m surprised Christmas Present and Future didn’t just call it a day and go back to the office, because it seems Marley and Christmas Past did enough for everyone. Anyway, Christmas Future shows Scrooge how apathetic people are over a not-so-mystery-man’s death, and also shows him the Cratchit household after Tiny Tim’s death. He even shows him Tiny Tim’s lifeless body. That’s right—the version of A Christmas Carol that doesn’t even show us all the ghosts shows us a child’s dead body. It would be a deeply saddening scene if it wasn’t for Tiny Tim’s very obvious breathing.
There are two scenes that make or break a Scrooge performance. The first is when he realizes the grave is his own, the second is when he wakes up the next morning. Most Scrooges do passably with the grave scene, but very few do it well. Almost every Scrooge ever put to stage or screen, though, overdoes the waking up scene, with the worst playing it like Scrooge has gone completely mad. This is one of those performances. Suddenly, Scrooge’s voice shakes with every word, he dances and hops around his room, and he taps his servant on the chin for some reason.
Scrooge proceeds to cut himself shaving, because… now he’s more like us?
- Twickenham: I’m sorry, Henry my boy, but we do have one more stipulation.
- Edwards: You want a football match in the middle of the movie?
- Twickenham: No, no, nothing of the sort. What if after Scrooge reforms, he cuts himself shaving?
- Edwards: But why?
- Twickenham: He’s in such a bloody tizzy from being happy that he’s lost a bit of carefulness.
- Edwards: Would he not then skip shaving all together?
- Twickenham: No, only his servant does that.
- Edwards: While we’re on that topic…
- Twickenham: We’re keeping the servant.
The story wraps up as it should, with Scrooge attending Fred’s party and raising Cratchit’s salary, but there are a lot of distractions along the way. When Scrooge goes to get the prize turkey, he throws a random snowball at the grocer, and is then covered in snow himself when the grocer shuts the window. This feels like filler, which is off-putting in a film less than 90 minutes long.
Let’s take a look at the final scoreboard for Scrooge.
Story (15/30 Points)
A lot of the crucial scenes from the novel are here, but the pacing is all over the place. The hobo scene in Christmas Future is incredibly drawn out, while the scenes at the beginning with the charity workers and Fred are rushed. The worst part, though, is leaving out Scrooge’s childhood which makes us sympathize with him so much less.
Scrooge (13/30 Points)
Seymour Hicks is watchable as Scrooge, but not great. His voice sometimes switches to semi-Scottish for unknown reasons and he mumbles occasionally. There aren’t any scenes where he is spectacular, but there aren’t really any where he is exceptionally bad, except perhaps the Christmas morning scene.
Ghosts (3/10 Points)
Well, we don’t see Marley, which really takes away a lot. It doesn’t hurt too much that we barely see Christmas Past or Future, besides the aforementioned shadow thing. Christmas Present is fine, but not particularly memorable.
Bob Cratchit (4/10 Points)
When he tries to be funny, he’s obnoxious. When he’s being serious, he does just fine.
Supporting Characters (5/10 Points)
Tiny Tim is not good, but Mrs. Cratchit and one of the charity workers are actually memorable. It’s a wash.
Experience (9/10 Points)
Easily the film’s greatest strength. The streets of London are just dripping with Christmas. Even the goofy scenes of “God Save the Queen” and the slapstick butcher shop just have that Christmas feeling to them. I also love the harrowing town crier saying, “Twelve o’ clock and all is well.” It’s just a nice little addition. You really feel like you’re in Victorian England. I dock one lone point for the out-of-tune band at the beginning.
Final Score: 49%
It’s not a bad film, but it’s mostly forgettable. It has some moments that are fun to mock, but there isn’t anything that feels like it’s slapping Dickens in the face. If a much more famous version hadn’t come out three years later, this one may be a bit more iconic. As it is, 1935’s Scrooge just kind of exists. It was the first sound version of A Christmas Carol, but, besides the atmosphere, that’s about its only point of interest.
Join me next week when we’ll take a look at 1938’s A Christmas Carol starring Reginald Owen.