Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Classic Films in Focus: A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1938)


I'm generally a fan of adaptations of Charles Dickens' holiday standard, even the loose and the weird ones, but the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol from MGM strikes me as a bowdlerized, lightweight entry into the category, pleasant enough but not really willing to get to the heart of the story lest it dampen the audience's Yuletide cheer. The desire to keep things merry leads the film to make big changes to the source material, expanding the roles of the likable Fred and Bob and downplaying the darkness of Scrooge's journey. If you're looking for a spooky, thoughtful, or faithful adaptation of A Christmas Carol, look elsewhere; this one is more punch and pudding than poltergeists and poverty. That said, classic movie fans will enjoy the presence of stars like Reginald Owen and the Lockhart family, and I'm sure this gentle, condensed version has its ardent admirers.

Owen leads the cast as the cranky old miser, Scrooge, who berates his cheerful nephew, Fred (Barry MacKay), for enjoying the season and then fires his mild-mannered clerk, Bob Cratchit (Gene Lockhart), for accidentally hitting him with a snowball on Christmas Eve. Throwing economy to the wind, Bob then surprises his family with a lavish holiday feast and makes the best of the celebration while Scrooge endures his encounters with the various spirits, starting with his deceased partner, Jacob Marley (Leo G. Carroll). Scrooge's ghostly guides repeatedly take him to spy on the domestic lives of Fred and Bob, which inspires Scrooge to become invested in their welfare and wish to be included in their happiness. After his supernatural adventure, Scrooge makes Fred a partner in his firm and rehires Bob at double his old salary, thus forming around himself a happy circle of families who will benefit from his newfound generosity.

I genuinely enjoy inventive revisions of the Dickens story, but I like for them to be transparent about it. You know The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) is going to take liberties with the story because most of the characters are Muppets, and even then it ends up being a surprisingly faithful version that leans into some of the darker elements of the narrative. The 1938 film, directed by Edwin L. Marin and with a screenplay by Hugo Butler, plays fast and loose with its source but keeps the atmosphere, the setting, and the most familiar bits of dialogue, making it seem like a faithful retelling even though it's not. For me the worst problem with this kind of adaptation of the Dickens text is its pandering to an audience that wants to identify with the sympathetic characters and not confront the uncomfortable truth that is central to the original story - WE ARE SCROOGE. Dickens didn't want or need to change the hearts of the Tiny Tims and Bobs and Freds; he wanted to confront the financially comfortable, the people who begrudgingly pay taxes and don't see "the poor" as their problem. If audiences don't feel called out by A Christmas Carol, then that version of the story is doing it wrong. Vastly enlarging the parts of Bob and Fred, diminishing Scrooge's meanness, and cutting out or radically altering whole chunks of the narrative lets the audience off the hook. We're left with a feel good story that won't even for a second consider the ruinous financial consequences of Bob's shopping spree. In Dickens' time the Cratchits would have been out on the street before New Year and the brood of children dispersed to the workhouses, as Dickens himself was when he was a child. The specter of real poverty haunted Dickens and haunts his stories, and it ought to be lurking under the robe of every Christmas Carol adaptation if one is going to do right by the story and its author, even if that particular scene about Ignorance and Want gets left out of most film versions.

I won't lay the blame for these shortcomings at the feet of the film's actors, for each of them embodies the watered-down versions of their characters as well as they can. Reginald Owen's Scrooge is pinched but never very terrible, and he melts like a snowball when confronted with his own childhood. He's a cranky, fussy, little old man, and Owen gives him lively feeling in his more childish moments. Barry MacKay's Fred is a handsome if conventional romantic lead, the first character we meet in the opening scene and thus more central to the story than is typical, while Gene Lockhart plays Bob Cratchit as genial, round, and playful. One of the more interesting tidbits of this picture is the presence of the gathered Lockhart family, including Gene's wife, Kathleen, as Mrs. Cratchit, and introducing classic TV favorite June Lockhart in an uncredited role as the Cratchits' daughter, Belinda. Of the ghosts I think the most convincing is character actor Leo G. Carroll as Marley, but Ann Rutherford makes an attractive Ghost of Christmas Past, even if she looks nothing like the apparition imagined by Dickens. Terry Kilburn's Tiny Tim doesn't seem particularly frail aside from his obligatory crutch; he's downright hearty as Tiny Tims go, but that decision is entirely in keeping with the rest of this picture, and thus it's no surprise that the end of the movie feels no need to reassure us about his continued existence.

As one of the most popular texts for adaptation, there's a Christmas Carol movie for every fan's taste, but the 1938 picture doesn't suit mine. Those who love it are welcome to it, but if it isn't for you, either, try the 1951 adaptation starring Alistair Sim, which is considered by many to be the gold standard of Christmas Carol movies, or the more recent live action versions starring George C. Scott (1984) or Patrick Stewart (1999). I'm deeply fond of the Muppet treatment, mainly for Michael Caine's dead serious performance as Scrooge and the fantastic puppetry that brings the Christmas Ghosts to life, but I also love the modernized Bill Murray version in Scrooged (1988) because it brings the themes of Dickens' story into the 20th century in a thoughtful, funny, and provocative way. There's also the fictionalized account of Dickens' experience writing the story in The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017), which takes its own liberties with Dickens' biography but works beautifully as a commentary on the heart of his story and the personal history that inspired it.

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