Scrooge (United Kingdom, 1970)
When it comes to favorite Christmas tales on the screen, there are probably two. There's no confusion about the first, because there is only one It's a Wonderful Life. In fact, Frank Capra's classic is so expertly wrought that no one has even attempted a big screen remake. The second is a little more problematic, because there have been many worthy takes on Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. In 1984, George C. Scott humbugged to memorable effect in a made-for-TV adaptation. Albert Finney sang and danced his way through the title role of 1970's Scrooge. Even Mr. Magoo, the Muppets, Blackadder, and Mickey Mouse have taken their shots (with varying degrees of success). But the best-loved and most-remembered version of A Christmas Carol has to be the 1951 edition of Scrooge, with the inimitable Alastair Sim as London's cruelest miser.
Sim, a veteran of British stage and screen, started his motion picture career in the mid-'30s and ended it in the early-'70s. In between, he appeared in over fifty films, but the role that has given him true immortality is that of Scrooge. Sim is not just one of many actors to play the part -- for everyone who has seen the crisply-made black-and-white production, he is the definitive Scrooge. Everyone else, from George C. Scott to Bill Murray, is an impostor.
What did Sim do to put his indelible mark on Scrooge? Of those who took up the skinflint's mantle, only he has been equal to the task of playing Scrooge in his many, varied incarnations: uncaring miser, heartless employer, frightened old man, mournful supplicant, and repentant merrymaker. At the film's opening, Sim radiates cold; at the end, his giddy exuberance is contagious. In between, we experience many emotions directed towards his character: sadness, anger, and, most strongly, pity. Sim makes us feel for Scrooge in a way that no other actor has been capable of.
Take away the lead actor, and this version of Scrooge would still have been a credible reworking, with capable performances, a strong atmosphere, and superior costume and set design. The movie was made on an English soundstage in the early 1950s, but the look is of London a century earlier. Today, with modern special effects, this would not be as great an achievement as it was more than forty years ago. The black-and-white cinematography, brilliantly achieved by C. Pennington-Richards, is as crucial to the film's success as any other individual element. Rather than making Scrooge seem quaint and outdated, the black-and-white approach lends it a sense of eerieness and mystery that no color version has managed to recapture.
The plot is faithful to Dickens' original tale. Ebeneezer Scrooge is easily one of the nastiest men in London. To him, money is everything. He does not believe in charity and only reluctantly agrees to give his clerk, Bob Cratchit (Mervyn Johns), Christmas Day off. On the night before Christmas, Scrooge receives four ghostly visitors, all of whom share a mission: to teach him the error of his ways and show him the path to redemption. The first is Scrooge's former partner, the late Jacob Marley (Michael Hordern), who bears a warning about what happens to a man who dies after living only for money. Next is the Ghost of Christmas Past (Michael Dolan), who takes Scrooge on a journey into the years gone by, reminding him of times when wealth meant little. The third spirit is the boisterous Ghost of Christmas Present (Francis De Wolff), whose task is to show his charge how others are spending Christmas Eve. Finally, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (C. Konarski) lets Scrooge wander through the shadows of the bleak future that awaits him if he does not mend his ways.
Sim is supported by an able cast, many of whom are familiar faces. Mervyn Johns, who plays Bob Cratchit as sturdy-yet-sympathetic, appeared in over four dozen films over his career, including the cult classic The Day of the Triffids. Kathleen Harrison, whose Mrs. Dilber was Scrooge's comic highlight, had a similarly impressive resume. Michael Hordern, whose Marley was a tortured soul, became a mainstay of British and American TV. Likewise, Francis De Wolff enjoyed a long and successful relationship with the silver screen. Only Michael Dolan was hardly ever heard from again.
Like all uplifting Christmas stories, Scrooge ends with a flurry of good will and high spirits. But the chief pleasure of watching this version of A Christmas Carol is not the ending. At a reasonably short 85 minutes, this is nevertheless a complete experience, and the strength and depth of its drama makes it the most memorable of any adaptation of the tale. We may hum along with Albert Finney, hiss at Bill Murray, and smile at Scrooge McDuck, but none of them compares favorably to Sim. When it comes to A Christmas Carol, perhaps there isn't much of a question about the best version after all...
Scrooge (United Kingdom, 1970)
Cast: Albert Finney, Alec Guinness, David Collings, Edith Evans, Kenneth More, Paddy Stone, Michael Medwin
Screenplay: Leslie Bricusse based on the novel by Charles Dickens
Cinematography: Oswald Morris
Music: Oswald Morris
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox
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