- Year: 1951
- Director: Brian Desmond Hurst
- Starring: Alastair Sim, Mervyn Johns, Kathleen Harrison
When critics and fans alike talk about the best version of A Christmas Carol, there are three that come up the most consistently, 1951’s Scrooge, 1984’s A Christmas Carol, and in recent years, The Muppet Christmas Carol. Without a doubt, 1951’s Scrooge (released as A Christmas Carol in the United States) is the one that comes up the most.
Alastair Sim, a respected actor of stage and screen, portrays Scrooge for this go-round, a role he would later reprise in the 1971 Oscar-winning cartoon. I do have to admit that multiple times I have accidentally referred to him as Alastair Slim, which sounds much more like a British cowboy than a renowned theatrical actor.
Scrooge is clearly a man who is angry at the world, particularly of course at the Christmas season, and there are two ways to play this. Most actors opt towards turning the anger outwards, which results in basically yelling at the world. Sim is one of the rare actors who turns the anger inward, coming off as more aloof and even depressed. Contrast the scene of Scrooge granting Bob Cratchit Christmas Day off with the same scene from A Christmas Carol 1938.
Scrooge is looking away from Cratchit for almost the entire scene. Christmas hits a nerve with him, but he does not feel the need to yell every time someone brings it up. Alternatively, Reginald Owen’s Scrooge shouts so harshly at a clearly terrified Bob Cratchit that you don’t believe he would even consider giving him the day off.
So many Scrooges say they wish to be left alone, but they seem to get so much twisted joy out of telling people why they are wrong about Christmas. With Alastair Sim’s Scrooge, you truly believe he wants to just be by himself.
Both of my previous reviews have been full of criticisms and jokes at the films’ expense, but to be honest, pointing out problems with Scrooge 1951 would really be splitting hairs. So, let’s split some hairs with my new segment…
Round 1: Find a character who is drastically miscast.
Oh good, there’s always one of these. Well, let’s take a look at Bob Cratchit first.
Cratchit is played by Mervyn Johns, and no I am not taking points off for his name being Mervyn. Be honest, if you saw this guy by himself and had to guess what character he played, you would say Bob Cratchit. This Cratchit is entirely aware his situation is not a great one, but he tries to make the most of it anyway, especially on Christmas. He is clearly proud of his children, gladly announcing Peter will soon be starting his first job. The scene in Christmas Future where the family mourns Tiny Tim’s death is even more heartbreaking than usual, with Bob trying to keep his spirits up, but finally breaking down.
So if not Cratchit, let’s try another often miscast character… The Ghost of Christmas Past.
I was a bit surprised at this ghost’s look at first, as most adaptations portray Christmas Past as either a woman or a young child, but this one seems to be going for a Father Time sort of thing. Dickens did describe the ghost as being both like a child and an old man, and we at least get half of that. Michael Dolan’s Christmas Past is a little less judgmental and more stoic than most interpretations, letting Scrooge learn on his own.
Well what about Tiny Tim? Surely there must be an issue with Tiny Tim.
A-ha, he looks way too healthy. Give me the points for the round.
Yes, I admit, no real attempt outside of a cane is made to have Tiny Tim appear sick. You really would not know he was sick unless they flat-out told you. However, Glyn Dearman’s performance is perfectly competent, albeit not spectacular.
Round 2: Find a change to the story that bogs down the film.
Alright, well it seems like most versions have these. Here we go…
Normally, Christmas Past shows Scrooge a scene of his childhood, a scene of Fezziwig’s, and his break-up with Belle (Alice in this version), and we are left to fill in the blanks. Here, Christmas Past shows Scrooge a lot of additional scenes in this movie, and I mean a lot.
Spirit, show me no more.
Spirit, show me no more.
Spirit, show me no more. I’m afraid the others will have no time left.
Yes, there are a lot of additional past scenes added, but this actually works in the film’s favor. We see Scrooge separate himself from Fezziwig, Alice, and Fan. We also get the anti-Fezziwig in Mr. Jorkin who, as shown above, embezzles money from his company.
Perhaps the most chilling addition is the scene of Jacob Marley’ death. Scrooge does not really seem to be shaken up about his only real friend being on his deathbed. He does go to visit him when work hours are over, and although Marley tries to plead with Scrooge to change, he does not heed his warning. We also learn that Scrooge took Marley’s house after his death, which finally answers the question of why a stingy man like Scrooge owns an expansive house.
This also brings a new level of meaning to Jacob Marley’s haunting, in that Jacob Marley is stuck in his old home, trying to repeat his dying message to Scrooge. These little changes add a lot of depth and subtext to an already wonderful story.
Another very subtle addition is made to the Scrooge-Fred dynamic. We learn that Scrooge’s mother died in childbirth, and Scrooge’s father always blamed him for his mother’s death. Later, we also learn that Scrooge’s sister Fan died in childbirth. Now, nothing more is said of this, but it is definitely implied that Scrooge blames Fred for his sister’s death.
Well, since there is no fault to be found with Christmas Past, how about Christmas Future?
When Scrooge first meets the Ghost of Christmas Future, he acknowledges that he needs to change, but suggests that he is too old. I am amazed that not one other version (that I’m aware of at least) has included this possibility. Sure, Scrooge could easily use this an excuse, but with Alastair Sim, you genuinely believe he is concerned about his age being a factor. Of course, since he is telling this to the Ghost of Christmas Future, there is no response.
The scene where Scrooge’s charwoman (essentially a housekeeper) Mrs. Dilber, the undertaker, and others go through Scrooge’s things is always dark, but it is so much more unsettling in this version. We have seen Mrs. Dilber (Kathleen Harrison) in earlier scenes as Jacob Marley’s charwoman, and we will see her later in the Christmas morning scenes as Scrooge’s. By that point, Scrooge knows what she would have been like in the future, and yet he still shares his joy with her.
Round 3: You’ve failed at round two, so your only chance at winning is to find the ridiculously over-the-top performance.
I’ve got it. The Ghost of Christmas Present is always over-the-top. Normally it works, but maybe this one goes too far.
Christmas Present is played by Francis de Wolff, and he is the perfect mix of somber and cheerful. Christmas Present is almost universally the highlight of the four ghost performances, and de Wolff is no exception. I don’t think the part has ever been played this well.
Well, we’ve already established that Cratchit and Scrooge avoid histrionics, so maybe no performance is too hammy.
Oh please, can we just move on?
Maybe he chews a little scenery…
Yes, that is a real picture of this movie’s Jacob Marley. I can hear you now, “Oh you just paused the scene on a funny face.” No, in all seriousness, the whole performance is hilarious. Michael Horden is so over-the-top as Marley that he makes Tim Curry look like Keanu Reeves. If this film was made today, there would immediately be a meme circulating of Marley shrieking “Business?”.
The only major flaw in this film is the Marley scene. I understand that Michael Horden recorded his portion in a different studio than Alastair Sim, but the same thing happened with the Ghost of Christmas Past and it doesn’t show. This is just a misfire. We also see a scene mentioned in the book that doesn’t make it into many adaptations—the wandering spirits outside the window. It is very easy to see why this is usually left out, as the effects leave something to be desired.
Alright, you’ve found the problem with the movie. Thanks for playing Let’s Find Fault.
The wandering spirits scene aside, this is an incredibly dark and creepy telling of the tale. Just look at this shot of Scrooge walking home on Christmas Eve.
Or this one of Scrooge’s house before Marley’s ghost enters.
Brian Desmond Hurst’s directing is brilliant, and it is paired with the gorgeous cinematography of C.M Pennington-Richards. They definitely draw some inspiration from horror films, much more than your typical Christmas Carol adaptation. For example, when Scrooge visits Marley on his death bed, he walks into the house to see this.
Who is this sitting so eerily at the top of the stairs with Mrs. Dilber? I’m sure it will be less scary when we find out it’s just Marley’s brother or something. Nope, it’s the undertaker trying to beat the competition! This is another one of those little moments that makes Scrooge 1951 so good.
I also really like what is done with the Ghost of Christmas Future. For the most part, we only see parts of his cloak and a bony finger, but Scrooge is looking right into his face. He is obviously seeing something terrifying, but we can only guess as to what it is. Now, if you want to see a version that insists on unmasking Christmas Future, we will get to that one next week.
Sim’s performance as Scrooge, in addition to George Cole’s as Young Scrooge, creates an even more rounded character than usual. Like most Scrooges, Sim is a bit silly in the waking-up scene, but I tend to be more forgiving, because Scrooge is very much laughing at himself.
Thankfully, Scrooge also has Mrs. Dilber to talk to in this scene, instead of just saying the lines to himself. She is obviously taken aback at his new demeanor, but she soon learns it is genuine, as do Fred and Bob Cratchit. The film ends with some narration right out of Dickens’ novel, read by Peter Bull, confirming of course that Scrooge did keep his promise to help the Cratchits and that Tiny Tim did live.
Every aspect of Scrooge’s change feels real. We believe he grew disenchanted with Christmas due to all the tragedy in his life, but we also believe that he is genuinely a new man at the end. Sure, the change technically happens in every version, but very few make it seem as complete as this one. Let’s check out the final score.
Story (30/30 Points)
Yeah, it’s getting the first perfect score. Noel Langley’s screenplay hits all the usual points, but the additional scenes of Christmas Past improve on the text, if that is possible. The scene with Jacob Marley’ death is especially chilling, and the added character of Mr. Jorkin works marvelously.
Scrooge (27/30 Points)
Alastair Sim is really, really good as Scrooge. He doesn’t play him as a shouting, argumentative miser, but rather a cold, reserved man who has given up hope. It is not a flawless performance—he is a touch too warm at the beginning and a touch too goofy at the end, but it is really close.
Ghosts (6/10 Points)
This is the third consecutive review where I have singled out Christmas Present, but Francis de Wolff tops both of the previous ones. Christmas Future is also rightfully creepy, and Christmas Past is serviceable. If it wasn’t for Marley, this would be a much higher score, but he misses the mark so much.
Bob Cratchit (9/10 Points)
Mervyn Johns is a wonderful Bob Cratchit, toeing the line between being full of Christmas spirit and being realistic. I love the scene in Christmas Past where we see that Cratchit has been asking for Christmas day off every year.
Supporting Characters (8/10 Points)
There are a lot of them. The rest of the Cratchits are fine, but none are as good as Bob. Jack Warner is delightfully smug as Mr. Jorkin, and I like the expanded role of Mrs. Dilber, which Kathleen Harrison portrays perfectly.
Experience (10/10 Points)
Just look back through the review at some of the screenshots, or better yet, go watch the movie. It is a stunning film to behold, especially the numerous dark scenes.
Final Score: 90%
Scrooge 1951 is often called the definitive version, and that is hard to argue with. Basically all of the chances taken with the story pay off, and some of them are very risky. Alastair Sim creates an Ebenezer Scrooge for the ages, and when you mix that with masterful writing and direction, Scrooge 1951 is a masterpiece.
Next week, get ready for some music, as we take a look at Scrooge, the musical adaptation from 1970.