Friday, 3 December 2010

Scrooge

19. Scrooge (1951)
Dir: Brian Desmond Hurst


Since I was a very young boy I have absolutely loved Charles Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol'. It's a captivating story full of brilliant characters and not a Christmas has passed in my house without me watching one version or another. There has been absolutely tons of film and television versions of this classic tale, from period-faithful pieces to modern retellings (the excellent Bill Murray vehicle 'Scrooged' (1988)) and versions featuring established, classic characters in the main roles ('Mickey's Christmas Carol' (1983), 'The Muppet Christmas Carol' (1992)). For this review we will concentrate on the former.

I have seen many period-faithful versions of 'A Christmas Carol' and mainly been disappointed. The George C. Scott version is bland and misjudged, the musical Albert Finney version is hammy and horrendous and the Patrick Stewart version is just plain weird. While there are still many other versions out there to see, for now I have a rule for distinguishing the greatest screen versions of Dickens' tale: If it stars Alastair Sim, it's amazing! Sim, one of my favourite screen presences of the twentieth century, has become known in many quarters as the definitive Ebenezer Scrooge and two superb versions of 'A Christmas Carol' have used his talents. One of them, the 1971 Oscar-winning Richard Williams animated version, used Sim as the voice of Scrooge and is probably my favourite version of the story ever. In terms of feature length, live action tellings, however, it is undoubtedly the 1951 Brian Desmond Hurst version that I go to every time.

Noel Langley's excellent script takes the ultimate gamble by adding elements to the original story. This technique has often backfired, resulting in overegged puddings where Scrooge dresses up as Santa or descends into Hell but Langley gets away with it and actually improves the narrative. He does so by keeping everything from the Dickens story in but fleshing out Scrooge's past with extra details about his defection from a clerk at Fezziwig's to a higher paid clerk under a corrupt mentor, his subsequent take over of the company and the death of his sister in childbirth. These additions bridge some gaps left by Dickens own edited highlights of Scrooge's past and make his transformation from a young romantic into a bad-tempered miser far more convincing. As a result, the Ghost of Christmas Past section of 'Scrooge' is the finest and longest section of the film.

There is a wealth of recognisable British actors in supporting roles in 'Scrooge', including George Cole as the young Scrooge, Michael Hordern as Jacob Marley, and wonderful performances by Kathleen Harrison as charwoman Mrs. Dilber and the ubiquitous Miles Malleson as Old Joe. As the Cratchits, Mervyn Jones and Hermione Baddeley looks a tad too well-nourished for such a poor family but their good-natured performances make the audience forget this nitpick. But it's undoubtedly Alastair Sim's show and his portrayal of Scrooge is phenomenal. He avoids the traps of going over the top, making Scrooge a believable curmudgeon rather than a pantomime villain. Whe confronted by the shadows of his past, he seems genuinely troubled and moved while his fear at encountering the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come (in one of 'Scrooge's' most cinematic moments) is palpable.

There are two sections of 'Scrooge' in which Sim particularly shines. One is the all important redemption finale, the key scene in any production of 'A Christmas Carol'. Sim's frenzied transformation into a giddy little schoolboy is an utter delight, particularly his comic encounter with terrified charwoman Mrs. Dilber. He gets a chance to excerise his skill for physical comedy as he fluffs up his hair and stands on his head, while his constant, joyous chuntering to himself is hilarious. It's a true tour de force for Sim and he has a whale of a time. Sim displays his emotional range, however, in the other scene in which he excels: the encounter with the ghost of Marley.

I've always found the Marley section a little unbelievable in other film adaptations, not because of its supernatural elements but because most actors seem unable to interpret Scrooge's reaction appropriately. The explanation given is that Scrooge does not believe his own eyes, blaming the visions on a stomach upset ("There's more of gravy than there is of grave about you"). But the way the scene has been played by Scrooges before and after Sim makes it seem as if Scrooge hallucinates ghosts in his house every night. The fear is too readily dispensed with and Scrooge is often portrayed as cocky in his dismissal of this clearly present spook. Sim, however, makes this most difficult of scenes utterly convincing. From the moment he sees Marley's face on his door-knocker, Scrooge seems on edge, a look of complete terror dissolving into a cautious, edgy demeanour. When Marley finally bursts into the room in all his glory, Sim backs against the wall but his address to Marley is performed ANGRILY! Herein lies the key to the marvel of Sim's choice. Scrooge does not believe in Marley's ghost and yet he cannot deny his presence. This impossible to contradict challenge to the credibility of his beliefs enrages Scrooge even as it terrifies him. For a man who is about to undergo a night that will change his entire belief system, this reaction is entirely appropriate and a very clever bit of foreshadowing.

You'd think with such a strong story that it'd be hard to get a film adaptation of 'A Christmas Carol' wrong but that's a naive viewpoint. It is, in fact, an extraordinarily difficult story to bring to the screen. Too many filmmakers have fallen into the trap of believing that getting the supernatural effects right is the key to a successful Scrooge but the emphasis should actually be placed on the emotional content of the story. Hurst's film does just that, serving up some decent effects for the 50s but placing more importance in performance. Alastair Sim is simply perfect as Scrooge, drawing out all the emotions required to make the character believable as a cold-hearted miser, a man redeemed and a troubled soul in limbo between these two states, undergoing the revelation of getting back in touch with the romantic, idealistic young man he once was.

This Christmas, if you want to watch the best version of 'A Christmas Carol', remember the rule. Look for the Alastair Sim seal of quality!

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