Saturday, December 25, 2010

Scrooge (A Christmas Carol) (1951)
UK --- fantasy

Dir: Brian Desmond-Hurst

Charles Dickens' beloved 1843 fantasy story originally titled 'A Christmas Carol in Prose: Being a Ghost Story of Christmas', has stood the test of time. Pretty good, seeing how Dickens didn't really get much money for it. He had to practically self-publish the book, seeing how he had to put up the money. The short story became a very popular and was prone to adaptation around the holidays, first on the stage and then to the screen. The supernatural tale of reflection, merriment, and redemption, had been filmed previously. The earliest filmed adaptation was in 1901 which saw the first British produced silent short film, followed by another American made silent short film in 1908, and yet another effort by Edison's company in 1910. In 1916 we got the first full-length feature called "The Right to Be Happy", but is now lost. The only version available to most was the not so accurate MGM version made in 1938; that is until this version came along.

Ebenezer Scrooge (played here by Alastair Sim) is the very personification of winter. He is symbolic of a time of year where it is often cold, and we reflect on the year and years past. Scrooge is a cynical old man of snow white hair and full of regret, devoid of compassion or love. Though his miserly demeanor shows he has an affection for monetary resources, there is little for humanity's strife and suffering, or the thankfulness of his own wealth.

The story opens at the funeral of Scrooge's business partner Jacob Marley, where he comes upon a debtor begging for more money and promptly dismisses him. Scrooge's best retort to the season of giving is "Bah! Humbug!". In this version we get a slight reference to Aesop's fable of "The Ant and the Grasshopper", which is telling of the character of Scrooge's miserly tendencies, and was a tale that told of the rewards of saving, saving, saving wealth for the winter. Keeping with the tale, we fast forward seven years later, and Scrooge is cruel to his clerk Bob Cratchit, to his nephew Fred, children carolling, and to representatives of the poor. Scrooge, however is still a haunted man. Haunted by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley, we soon learn there's more than meets the eye to Scrooge's lack of love. As we have all been shaped and molded by the choices we make, and the circumstances of our decisions. When Scrooge goes home Christmas eve night, he is confronted by the apparition of Jacob Marley who warns him that the lack of compassion in his heart will lead him in an eternity of torment by seeing the needy but never able to help. Marley tells Scrooge three spirits will follow visit him to hopefully help him to repent from his soulless contention.

The first spirit to visit Scrooge in his room, to the toll of clock bells ringign, is the ghost of Christmas past. Angelic and radiant in appearance, this spirit is Scrooge's visual interpretation of yesteryear. As it is for all of us, the best of times always seems behind us. He is lead out the window, and back in time where he sees himself at the age of a young boy. Scrooge delights in seeing his hometown and his younger sister, Fan (or Fannie) as she comes to tell him they're going home for the Christmas holiday. He then is brought a little later in time to a Christmas party held by his old employer, a portly "jolly" fella by the name of Fezziwig. Scrooge also sees himself in love with a girl named Alice (in the story her name is Belle, keeping with the theme of the tale being a carol), whom he's engaged to. We then move ahead to a scene that's not in the story, of Scrooge joining a new firm of corrupt employers, which ultimately sets the stage for Scrooge's fall. This, in addition to the death of his sister Fan during childbirth pushes Scrooge into a slow descent of spirit.

So the bells toll again, Scrooge awakens in his bed as a light emanates outside his door. A jubilant voice beckons him out of his bedroom to the sight of a large bearded man who announces himself as the Spirit of Christmas Present. He appears to be a kingly robed Santa Claus archetype, before Coca-Cola changed his appearance for us. This ghost takes Scrooge to the full home of Bob Crachit as they prepare a Christmas meal. The spirit informs him of the imminent death of the crippled boy "Tiny" Tim. They also visit the festivities of Scrooge's nephew Fred, as Scrooge hears them speak unfavorably of him, while Fred tries to defend him. Next he is brought to see his former love Alice working with the poor. The ghost soon shows Scrooge an omen in two quite gaunt and grossly deformed children under his coat; a boy and a girl which the ghost ascribes as the "ignorance" and "want" of mankind.

Finally, Scrooge faces the final ghostly visitor in the faceless and speechless Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come, which in every version is the visual allusion of Death. This is Scrooge's last chance to come to repentance as he sees the Cratchit family mourning the death of their young "Tiny" Tim. He then is brought to his own home as a bunch of vagrants continue to speak ill of Scrooge as they go over his belongings like chintzy consumers at a rummage sale. Scrooge questions the spirit if all this will truly come to pass, or if it is just one possibility of future events. Here he is brought to his own grave, where Scrooge breaks down and pleads his vow of repentance. He falls face first in the pit of his own grave, and while kicking and screaming quickly awakens to a new day - Christmas Day. He has been allowed a reprieve, and arises to see the sun again with a fresh joyous spirit. Scrooge makes amends with his nephew and his clerk Bob Cratchit and becomes a new man.

There are plenty of versions of this tale out there for comparison. This one, however, stands out as a popular favorite for many reasons. The first reason is, this stayed true to the source material more so than the previous MGM version which pretty much rushed the story along, foregoing somewhat essential elements of the tale. The only thing this film lacks is the extinguishing of the spirit of Christmas Past, due to budgetary reasons, the spirit is not so bright. The most important aspect of this version is the radical performance of Alastair Sim, who truly shows the believable transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge. It is arguably the most memorable reference point for anyone who has performed the character you've seen from then on.

The story of "A Christmas Carol" has been highly inspirational, having been the influence on films such as "It's A Wonderful Life", "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas", and to some degree even the "Back to the Future" trilogy. Yes, there is that time travel element, though the story can not be called one because it is unproven that Scrooge ever really travels through supernatural means as opposed to technological devices. It literally could be as he said, all in his head.

The classic Christmas tale does keep in the true reason for the season. It is not uncommon for good writers to plant hints at the theme within character names. The name Ebenezer comes directly from a story in the Hebrew Bible's old testament. In 1 Samuel 7, the prophet Samuel was instructed to pray for Israel during a battle against their arch enemies the Philistines. The prayer went through and they were victorious, and Samuel set a stone between the Mizpah and Shen, calling it Eben-ezer ‘Thus far the Lord has helped us’. Translated, Ebenezer means 'stone of help'. In other words, Ebenezer Scrooge becomes a sort of messiah and only saving grace to the spiritual Jacob (Israel) Marley and other remorseful spirits. Though Charles Dickens wasn't as deep a spiritual writer as CS Lewis or John Bunyan, like most people in earlier centuries they were humble God-fearing Christian folk who believed in morals and values. Dickens' sentimental essay on the spirit of Christmas and redemption will never go out of style, so long as there is belief in goodwill to all men.