- Year: 1938
- Director: Edwin L. Martin
- Starring: Reginald Owen, Gene Lockhart, Kathleen Lockhart
Just three years after Scrooge, MGM released A Christmas Carol starring Reginald Owen as Ebenezer Scrooge. Originally, this film was to star Lionel Barrymore as Scrooge, but he had to drop out for medical reasons. Today, Lionel Barrymore is best known for playing a similar role, Mr. Potter, in It’s a Wonderful Life. Unfortunately, though, we never got to see him bring Scrooge to the big screen.
This film focuses on Scrooge’s nephew Fred perhaps more than any other version. He’s played by Barry MacKay, who just hits all the right notes with the character. Fred keeps a smile on his face and is a child at heart, who slides on the ice for fun.
Most adaptations of A Christmas Carol show Fred and Bob Cratchit being kind to each other, but this one outright shows them being friends, which I really like. They are both fairly poor men oppressed by Scrooge in their own way, so it makes sense that they would get along. They are even about to share a drink together when Scrooge walks in. Of course, Scrooge later steals the bottle of wine for himself.
The screenplay makes an interesting change in Fred’s character, in that he’s only engaged instead of married. Scrooge immediately assumes that Fred is only visiting to ask for money, and this shows even more of a contrast between the two of them than we usually see.
Reginald Owen was a well-respected actor with a full and varied filmography, but if your childhood was anything like mine, you know him best as this guy.
Owen plays Scrooge as cartoonishly grumpy in these early scenes—heck his opening line is “Humbug.” He continues to scowl and growl through his early interactions, but the worst moment of all is right after he leaves the counting house. Bob Cratchit is teaching children how to make a proper snowball, and the children convince him to throw a snowball at a passerby.
The snowball knocks Scrooge’s hat off, which then gets run over by a passing carriage. Scrooge fires Cratchit, and convinces him that he actually owes money for that hat instead of severance pay. This feels like a joke from a sitcom or even a kids show, perhaps something Mr. Krabs would do to Spongebob on a bad day. The slapstick butcher shop in Scrooge was pointless, but this scene feels wildly out of context.
As with Fred, this film focuses more on Bob Cratchit than usual. We actually follow Bob home first and see him pick out his Christmas dinner.
You might notice something a little different about this version of Bob Cratchit. He’s not really overweight, but he doesn’t look like someone who is starving either. Now, is it ever a good idea to cast an actor who bears no physical resemblance to the character on paper? Let’s take a look at an example from one of the greatest films of all time.
When Francis Ford Coppola was casting for Apocalypse Now, he wanted the character of Colonel Kilgore to be a tall, imposing man like George Patton. However, Robert Duvall, who is skinny and of average height, lobbied heavily for the role, and Coppola eventually gave it to him. Duvall went on to give a spectacular performance and get nominated for an Oscar, so obviously Coppolar had no regrets. No film goer is bothered by the fact that an average-sized actor is playing such a commanding role, because the performance is so stellar that it makes up for it and then some. Gene Lockhart as Bob Cratchit gives a decent performance, but not a good enough one to make up for the noted physical difference.
The Cratchit family is as jolly as always as Bob brings home the Christmas goose. In one of the film’s funniest lines, he has them guess what meat it is. While most of the children muster reasonable guesses like veal and roast beef, one of the sons guesses tripe.
I wish in the future section they had shown us what happened to all the Cratchit children later in life. I have a feeling I know where this son would be.
Scrooge very briefly sees Marley on his doorknocker and then goes upstairs to take some sort of medicine, presumably the cough syrup Fred mentioned earlier in the film. Let’s see here, Scrooge stole the wine from earlier and is now taking cough syrup. I’m starting to think this is just a 68 minute-long PSA on not mixing medicine and alcohol.
The ghost of Jacob Marley visits Scrooge, who of course doubts his reality, telling him he could simply be undigested food… or you know, maybe that mix of cough syrup and wine. Scrooge then hears the town crier outside his window and asks him to come up and see if someone is really there.
This completely destroys the feel of the scene. Scrooge is alone in his dark house, just like he is alone in the world. When Marley’s ghost comes to visit, it is harrowing, and Scrooge should be scared and have no one to turn to. Having the town crier and his assistants come up to the room is a waste of time. Of course they don’t see anything, because Marley is a ghost, and ghosts tend to disappear when they feel so inclined.
As I mentioned in my last review, the description of the Ghost of Christmas Past given in the book is nearly impossible to bring to the screen. How do you show someone who looks both like a young child and an old man at the same time?
Well, I suppose not trying at all works. To be fair, every version has tried their hand at a unique take on this character, but this one, played by Ann Rutherford, just reminds me of Glinda the Good Witch (and yes I know, The Wizard of Oz came out the year after this).
Rutherford’s Christmas Past is much more upfront with Scrooge, calling him out for being a horrible person. This feels incredibly unnecessary, as the memories should be enough to show Scrooge how he has changed.
Thankfully, the ghost actually takes Scrooge to his childhood in this movie. Reginald Owen is great in these scenes, as Scrooge looks back with joy and nostalgia. You believe these really were happy times for him. Scrooge watches as his younger self sadly tells a friend that he will not be going home for Christmas. This friend refers to Scrooge as “Young Scrooge.” Now, this character is presumably the same age as Scrooge, and they are both students, so why on earth does he call him “Young Scrooge?” Did every character have to be referred to by their official name as listed in the credits?
Scrooge is only shown two scenes from his past, but thankfully they are important ones. He sees his childhood days at school and then his time at Fezziwig’s. Belle is left entirely out of this story, probably due to time constraints. I suppose if something major has to be left out, this makes sense. Sure, we do not see Scrooge’s complete transformation from good kid to greedy man, but we at least believe it happened. Scrooge extinguishes Christmas Past before she can show him “the black years” of his life.
Scrooge is awoken at 2:00 to see The Ghost of Christmas Present (Lionel Braham) in his home.
Braham is gloriously over-the-top here, literally drunk on the spirit of Christmas (perhaps the same spirit Scrooge mixed with his cough syrup). In a bizarre scene, Christmas Present magically turns angry conversations on the street into happy ones. Perhaps in 1938 this came off as funny, but today it just feels like one of those instructional videos you watch on the first day of a new job.
Scrooge is then led to a church, where he sees Fred and his fiancée Bess, as well as Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim. When asked if Tiny Tim will live, Christmas Present responds that if things do not change, Tim will be dead by next Christmas.
The scene at Fred’s party shows once again how great Barry MacKay’s performance is. Even in the middle of laughing at Scrooge’s opinion of Christmas, Fred is concerned for his uncle, saying he “punishes himself.” This Fred is more than just a happy-go-lucky fool, which the worst portrayals (albeit unintentionally) show him as.
Outside of Fred’s home, Scrooge and Christmas Present get into a bizarre argument over whether or not Scrooge likes Christmas that feels like something out of Green Eggs and Ham. These little comedic bits (and I use the word comedic very lightly) really should have been left out. I understand why certain scenes were cut, whether for time or family-friendly reasons, but why are these scenes added?
A lot of versions will have Christmas Future leave Scrooge alone until he is approached by the Ghost of Christmas Future. However, here Scrooge just drifts back to sleep and after a while just appears… somewhere.
Apparently, Christmas Future is one for big entrances, because there is absolutely nothing to see at this location. The ghost walks up, Scrooge acknowledges him, and they go to future London. Christmas Future is played by D’Arcy Corrigan, who is clearly making no attempt to act like a ghost. I am very aware the entire time that this is just a man in a robe, especially when he sticks out his hand to point, and it looks completely human.
Scrooge is shown the dreadful future that is to come, where his former co-worker’s fake sideburns will start coming off…
A future where people discuss the deceased without ever actually mentioning their names…
And worst of all, a future where undertakers have forgotten how to spell.
It is all a very quick affair. The future sequence lasts a grand total of eight minutes. The scene with the hobos divvying up Scrooge’s loot is left out, but we still get the sense that he died alone. After pleading with the spirit, Scrooge wakes up.
You know what? I’m just going to stop the review here. I’m sure Reginald Owen does fine and doesn’t overact at all.
Oh boy. Take a good look at the expression on his face. Remember how I said in the last review that the worst versions of this scene make it look like Scrooge has gone completely mad? Yeah, this is worse than Seymour Hicks’ take on the scene. I don’t believe from watching this scene that Scrooge was ever cruel to begin with.
An odd twist is also presented where Scrooge makes Fred a partner at his business. This of course comes off as a loving gesture, but let’s think about it for a moment. The biggest issue is that this is a major shaft to Bob Cratchit, who Scrooge is hiring back as his co-worker.
Second, Fred’s occupation has never been stated. What if he’s actually trained in the metallurgic arts (1000 points to whoever spots the film reference) and has no knowledge of banking whatsoever? Suddenly he will be telling Cratchit what to do? I highly doubt they will stay friends after that. Real happy ending you’ve created there, Scrooge.
Story (21/30 Points)
Even though some big parts are left out, the story as it is presented flows very smoothly. The additional focus on the Cratchits and especially Fred works in the family-friendly vein they were going for. There are small filler scenes here and there, and Christmas Future is cut incredibly short, but it’s a pretty even telling.
Scrooge (18/30 Points)
I really wish MGM could have gotten Lionel Barrymore. If you ever get the chance, check out his radio theater portrayal of Scrooge. Reginald Owen does really well in the past scenes, but he’s too comically grumpy in the early scenes and way too over-the-top in the Christmas morning scene.
Ghosts (4/10 Points)
Christmas Present is spectacular, and Marley does alright, but isn’t memorable. Christmas Past is way too judgmental, and Christmas Future is incredibly hokey.
Bob Cratchit (6/10 Points)
Gene Lockhart does a good job as Cratchit, especially in the fun-loving scenes. As I said above though, he really needed to double-down on his performance to get past the obvious physical difference.
Supporting Characters (9/10 Points)
Barry MacKay brings us probably the most memorable Fred ever, and is undoubtedly the highlight of the film. The rest of the supporting cast does fine as well, but no one is a stand-out.
Experience (6/10 Points)
The score and set pieces do their job, but nothing really jumps off the screen.
Final Score: 64%
Overall, it’s a pleasant film. It’s fairly lighthearted compared to other versions, but it never shies away from the story’s meaning. 1938’s A Christmas Carol is perhaps the safest version of the story ever told, and you can decide for yourself whether that is a good or bad thing.
Next week, we will take a look at the version many consider the best of all time, 1951’s Scrooge starring Alastair Sim.