A Christmas Carol (1938)

A Christmas Carol (1938)

Reginald Owen as the miserly Ebeneezer Scrooge.

(MGM) Reginald Owen, Gene Lockhart, Kathleen Lockhart, Terry Kilburn, Barry Mackay, Lynne Carver, Leo G. Carroll, Lionel Braham, Ann Rutherford, D’Arcy Corrigan, Ronald Sinclair. Directed by Edwin L. Marin

“God bless us, every one.” It’s a line that has become part of popular culture and has been that way for nearly two centuries now. It was common enough when Charles Dickens wrote it back in 1843 but these days it refers to the classic tale.

You know the details. Ebeneezer Scrooge (Owen) is a penurious money-lender whose grasping, greedy ways and hateful, aggressive attitude have made him the terror of London. He is visited on Christmas Eve by his jovial nephew Fred (Mackay) who invites him to dinner, which he does every year. As he does every year, Scrooge declines, expressing his disapproval to Fred’s betrothal to Bess (Carver), a poor woman who Fred nonetheless loves with all his heart.

Receiving his message better is Bob Cratchit (Gene Lockhart), his long-suffering clerk who suffers Scrooge’s rages stoically and tolerates his insults meekly. When he asks for Christmas Day off, Scrooge begrudgingly gives it, lambasting his employee to be at work all the earlier the next day. He reluctantly pays Cratchit his pitiful wages and the two depart. The fun-loving Cratchit has his top hat knocked off by a snowball thrown by some young boys which prompts an impromptu snowball fight. Eager to join in the fun, Cratchit lofts a snowball and knocks the hat off of…his boss. The hat unfortunately is crushed under the wheel of a coach. Scrooge sacks him on the spot and to add insult to injury, demands a shilling to compensate for the hat.

Cratchit walks away morosely but the sight of a swinging goose neck on the back of a shopper soon restores his good humor. He bustles from shop to shop, ordering the best meal he can afford. When he gets home, his good-hearted wife (Kathleen Lockhart, Gene’s real-life wife – and for those who love trivia, they were the parents of actress June Lockhart who appears in an uncredited role as Belinda Cratchit, one of their young children) and his beloved children are waiting. He loves them all – but perhaps the crippled Tiny Tim (Kilburn) the most.

The miserly Scrooge in the meantime arrives at his home, empty and silent as the grave. He goes inside to light a candle and is startled to see a face appear on his door knocker. It is the face of Marley (Carroll), his partner who passed away seven years previously that very night. He slams the door and heads up to his bedsit to warm himself by a meager fire. He hears a loud booming noise like a great door had been opened, then the unmistakable sound of chains being dragged across the floor and in walks Marley, bound and fettered.

At first Scrooge doesn’t believe in Marley and dismisses him as the results of indigestion. He summons the local bobbies to remove the intruder but they arrive to find the room empty. Angrily, Scrooge sends them on their way but is startled to see Marley still there. Now convinced of Marley’s validity, he listens to his message. Marley warns Scrooge that he will suffer a fate as sad as his own unless he changes and there was only one chance of that – but he would need to be visited by three spirits in order to do that – the Ghost of Christmas Past (Rutherford), the Ghost of Christmas Present (Braham) and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (Corrigan). We all know what happens after that.

This version has been shown on television many, many times over the years and is something of a Christmas tradition for many. Despite the technical limitations of the era (the special effects are primitive by our standards and some of the sequences of the spirits flying over London look a bit silly today) the acting is as good as you’ll find in any of the many filmed versions of the story. Particularly good is Gene Lockhart as Cratchit and even if he looked a bit well-fed to be impoverished (although in truth most onscreen Cratchits have been on the chubby side) he manages to capture the unshakable faith and unstoppable cheerfulness that make up the core of the character. Mackay does Fred very well indeed, and is a bit less callow than most of the other actors who have played the role; in my book it’s a little bit closer to the way Dickens wrote him.

Kilburn in my estimation set the standard for all those who tackled the role of Tiny Tim thereafter. His look, his gentleness and his ability to project cheer and joy has essentially become the way we mostly characterize the role. In fact, his recitation of the line I quoted at the beginning of the review is most often seen when the line is needed in advertising or in features.

The drawback here is that the studio wanted this to be an uplifting family film, so nearly every unpleasant element has been eliminated, including the character of Scrooge’s fiancée and the death in childbirth of Fan, his sister. If it wasn’t for that, the movie would have gotten a higher rating as so many familiar elements are missing that it feels like the movie is truncated.

This is one of the most classic of Christmas stories and many of our current holiday traditions can trace its roots to the original Dickens novel. It has been made and remade literally dozens of times on television, in animated form and as live action movies for television and the movies including the latest version starring Jim Carey that was previously reviewed here. While the 1951 version is probably the best known – and the best – of all of the many versions, this one set the standard that almost all of them have derived from at least partially and it is certainly worth seeing for that reason alone. Turner Classic Movies shows it regularly here in the States, but it is easily available everywhere. Merry Christmas to all, and God bless us, every one.

WHY RENT THIS: Gene Lockhart and Barry Mackay are memorable in supporting roles, and Terry Kilburn was one of the best Tiny Tims ever. Veteran character actor Reginald Owen delivers his most memorable performance as Scrooge.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The filmmakers speed through the material, skipping over entire sections of the story to finish at an astonishing 69 minutes. Some of the material is sorely missed. The special effects are primitive and at times painful to watch by modern standards.

FAMILY VALUES: As with most movies from the era, it is no problem for modern family audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first version of the classic Dickens tale to be made as a talkie and was meant to star Lionel Barrymore as Scrooge, but Barrymore was badly injured in a fall on another movie set and was unable to perform. He personally recommended Owen to replace him in the role.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are several short features, Judy Garland singing “Silent Night” in a film that was reportedly only played at an MGM Christmas party and an animated short called “Peace on Earth” that, ironically, was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, the only filmed entertainment to be honored thus.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Avatar

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