If there were one Christmas movie that would be the definitive yuletide cinematic classic, it would be have to be A Christmas Carol.
Over the years I have watched almost every version of this Christmas classic including the 1984 George C. Scott and 1999 Patrick Stewart ones as well as 1979’s An American Christmas Carol starring Henry “The Fonzie” Winkler (coming out right around the time Winkler was trying to pursue a movie career).
Although the 1951 black & white classic with Alistair Sim—who absolutely is Ebenezer Scrooge (his conversion of all the Scrooges ringing the truest) is the best-adapted version—I prefer the 1938 version that I grew up watching on WGN’s Family Classics.
I have always been more partial to the 1938 version, not the least of which is watching it on Family Classics year after year when I was growing up in Oglesby, Illinois from 1966-1976. It was usually televised a week or two after Miracle on 34th Street have been shown. Watching it again recently, got me feeling nostalgic and perhaps that is one reason why I have always preferred it to the 1951 version.
Nonetheless, the 1938 version is a delightful story with a fine, though Hollywood generated, atmosphere. Of course one could never expect in those days to see all the location filming or special effects available today. The film seems more “family oriented” and perhaps that is why it comes across a bit less terrifying than the other versions.
Reginald Owen, with his stooped figure and awkward gait, makes a likely looking Scrooge. However, he repents far too early. Before the Spirit of Christmas Past has taken leave, this Scrooge regrets his past miserliness and is ready to give generously and make merry. What is the point of the other two Spirits? Perhaps Hollywood wanted a more upbeat version.
In addition to Scrooge’s premature conversion this movie takes a few other liberties with the novel like how Scrooge summons to his chambers a trio of police officers from the street below during Marley’s ghostly visit. Not only is this unfaithful to the book, but also totally destroys the ghostly, eerie, haunted atmosphere of the ghost’s visit and poor Scrooge’s resulting terror.
Another one is that this adaptation makes no mention whatsoever of the young apprentice Scrooge’s sweetheart, Belle, or his tragically failed romance. However, it does depict his sister, Fan, as younger, in keeping with the novel—unlike most versions, which erroneously portray her as older and claim that Scrooge’s mother died in childbirth when he was born.
Bob Cratchit is jolly and likable but just a little too much on the plump side for the role of the poor clerk. Also, the director takes a little poetic license with the novel by having Scrooge fire Bob altogether. Tiny Tim is cute but far too old for the role and is almost as tall as his father. Mrs. Cratchit, on the other hand is convincing, except that she is actually the one who proposes a toast to Scrooge after their Christmas dinner—the complete opposite of the novel’s Mrs. Cratchit, who must be coaxed and cajoled by Bob before deigning to lift her glass to the health of her long-suffering husband’s oppressive, stingy employer.
That being said, otherwise it’s one of the better versions of the Cratchit family’s dinner, the goose and pudding scenes all beautifully done. This scene is done quite well.
The nephew, Fred, is supposed to be married, but in this version he is engaged to Bess. There are numerous fabricated scenes like the one with the pair sliding in front of a church, but I can forgive the producers for these scenes. To be sure, the Fred in this version is jolly and hearty and one of the better Freds of all the versions.
The worst offense, for those who are purists of the novel, is a complete elimination of the “morning after Christmas” office scene, in which Scrooge normally shows his newfound benevolence to the flabbergasted Bob. In this version, Scrooge actually delivers his Christmas turkey to the Cratchits personally himself on Christmas Day, with nephew, Fred, and his fiancée, Bess, both in tow. Again, it seems that the producers of this film wanted to tug on those heartstrings a little more.
However, the Spirits are well depicted, Christmas Past a beautiful and ethereal young lady (Ann Rutherford from MGM’s Andy Hardy series), Christmas Present a hearty and benevolent giant (who sprinkles from his torch the essence of Christmas cheer five times distilled), and Christmas Yet To Come the typical darkly shrouded and foreboding figure.
It’s all well intended and difficult to really ruin this wonderful story. This adaptation is lighter and brighter and despite its omissions, embellishments, and deviations, it makes for entertaining and heartwarming holiday viewing.