Director: Henry Edwards
Distributor: Paramount Pictures (US, original version)
Runtime: 78 min
I hazard to guess that like many people I’ve seen and read multiple adaptations of Charles Dickens’ classic ‘A Christmas Carol’ (1843)’ but inspired by a similar story in the film ‘The Cheaters’ (1945)’ I decided to watch the earliest ‘talkie’ film of this tale i.e. the 1935 version.
I’m not usually a fan of stories where characters start praying on their deathbed aka seeking redemption and/or solace too little too late but Dickens’ knew how to tell a poignant, moral social commentary enough to melt people’s hearts and get them thinking in and from the days when even on a superficial level many didn’t pretend to care about the poor, poor children or orphans. Looking at budgetary cuts orphans still get a rough deal but this being an xmas tale allows for festive disposition to help the cause of general sympathy, perhaps.
Note – I doubt I could write a review on par or worthy of the novella itself as it is so crisp and quoteworthy that it’s text is its own testament. Therefore I’m not going to try and live upto its elegance of phrase and take rather a casual, semi-ironic tone.
“Man of the worldly mind!” replied the Ghost, “do you believe in me or not?”
“I do,” said Scrooge. “I must but why do spirits walk the earth, and why do they come to me?”
“It is required of every man,” the Ghost returned, “that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellowmen, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!”
“You are fettered,” said Scrooge, trembling. “Tell me why?”
“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it…”
“Or would you know,” pursued the Ghost, “the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was full as heavy and as long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago. You have laboured on it since. It is a ponderous chain!”
“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob.”
“Business!” Cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!” [sarcasm]
A successful man called Jacob Marley died leaving his partner Ebenezer Scrooge to continue the business of money lending. It’s cold but even the temperature has difficulty stifling the activity of London; fog, darkness, begging and repossession can’t stop people shopping for and looking forward to eating at Christmas but Scrooge is determined that it’s a poor excuse to pick a man’s pocket once a year. Much to the detriment of his wretched clerk Bob Cratchit who like his boss works until a late hour by candlelight in a premises that seems colder on the inside than the outside, but unlike his boss he’s keenly aware of the misery and frozen room, reprimanded for wanting a bit of coal to feed to the dwindling fire and generally threatened with losing his job for even an excess word.
Scrooge is hassled as modern people would consider it by travelling charity fundraisers and his sentiments about money to waste on idle people, prisons and poor houses reminds me of David Cameron and his usual mixing of migration and employment issues to blame low income people for being poor. Too bad we can’t use ice money like they do in the stop motion animation ‘Jack Frost’ (1979) (and in which Jack Frost falls in love with a girl called Elisa, *wink wink* Frozen/Rise of the Guardians fans.) After he manages to get rid of said collectors (oh the irony given he’s quick to repossess from debtors) he’s then accosted by his nephew who lets his uncle’s insults slide like water off a duck’s back and insists on extending an invitation to his Christmas party. He is strenuously declined of course. Following this Cratchit is allowed to go home finally after being told he’s always too quick to finish work, that the clock is fast, that begrudgingly he can have the whole day off tomorrow and to be back all the earlier the next day (when most of us would be bloated with indigestion on Boxing Day).
It’s ironic that Scrooge considers his all too merry nephew ‘poor’ and buying things he can’t afford getting each year older and not a penny richer yet when you look at his home, friends and celebration you see that they know not the meaning of poor and in a sense why Scrooge (and many people) consider being poor criminal since the Cratchits are abject poor. They manage just enough optimism for their residence not to turn into a likeness of derelict living but it’s not far off (I’ve lived in many and known others who’ve lived in such hovels/squalor).
How rich a man Scrooge is and surely that entitles him to contentment and cheer that other people seem to have but don’t deserve given that they are poorer than he, he’s earned his ennobled place in the world and to keep Christmas or not as he pleases, unlike other people and their familial ilk. So then why does the cold but not cheery atmosphere of his counting house follow him home, dark and desolate, dare I say waiting to decay? Many a wealthy employer or benefactor is stringent with their dependents/employees (Lowood Institution from Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’ (1847) anybody?) And then ‘justifiably’ indulgent or keeping up appearances elsewhere as expected but not Scrooge, he’s as miserly as they come and is it any wonder that his name has become synonymous for skinflints and those lacking in empathy?
Later that night he is visited by a ghost from his past and three spirits representing the past, present and future. His memories and snippets of the future are shown to him sparing no expense on their mission to prove that he is not actually incorrigible. Being one of many people who can dish it out daily yet barely able to take the tiniest portion of his own medicine, it’s a bitter pill to swallow and so he eagerly and readily seeks a remedy to his own dis-ease.
“Man,” said the Ghost, “if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child. Oh God! to hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!”
HOW WELL DOES THIS VERSION TELL THE STORY AND HOW WELL DOES IT COMPARE TO OTHER VERSIONS?
I’m partial to Black and White (B&W) films from 1935-45 but realize that the lack of colour could put some people off. I’d say bear in mind the social importance of films from that era, even though they were post-Code they still imo had the spirit of Pre-Code (approx 1930-1934) films. In short Pre-Code refers to a period between silents and talkies, where they had the initial ‘freedom’ of saying what they wanted before being subject to censorship regulations. I find films released up until the end of WWII to be surprisingly and refreshingly progressive, White women’s roles for example were less stereotypical and clichéd then they became post-war, they were allowed to be ‘normal’, witty, assertive, sharp, caustic or even intelligent, they didn’t have to fit have to be cookie cutter lookers, wives, mothers or secretaries on film at least. Asian and Native American actors were still pretty non-existent but there were a few notable Black actors allowed in main roles though those were very stereotypical, ‘Blacking up’ White actors lasted until the 1980’s but background extras could still actually be non-Caucasian. Storylines were a lot more telling as well, e.g common reference to masonic lodges and their influence in society and the impressive ‘House of Rothschild’ (1934) which I doubt could be re-made today without being whitewashed and heavily streamlined. It’s still a propaganda film but movies from that era were better at showing the motivations and complex nature of characters better than post-war to today in many respects though of course there have been landmark films in between particularly on the social diversity side but not necessarily historical accuracy. In that regard I can’t stress the importance of B&W films as part of our cultural consciousness despite our advances in technology which make them seem superfluous to many. I find that what they lack in technicolour, dolby sound, surround cinema sound, CGI, HD and 3D they make up for in rich content or at least a good laugh Wilde and Wodehouse style in the ‘screwball comedies’ genre.
That said from amidst the versions of A Christmas Carol I’ve come across this 1935 one and the 2009 CGI animated one (ultimately a vehicle for Jim Carrey) are the most detailed and faithful but the modern version lacks in many ways from the audacious ‘Disney’s A Christmas Carol’ title reminiscent of how they’ve edited their name onto the Muppets franchise (slap in the face to Jim Henson and team imo) to its feeling of slowness! The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) is still my favourite with their unique characterization and a bit of silliness. The only benefit of Disney’s 2009 rendition I thought was the ode to old films in the long opening sequence with production credits, the taking of the tuppence off the eyes of Marley’s dead body and his dramatic spectre.
Where modern version benefit from special effects (sfx) the 1935 version has to rely on its script, which thankfully is taken from excellent source material anyway, and ambiance. That’s not to say there aren’t sfx, stunts and stunt-people have always been a major part of productions and we’re treated to the glowing figure of Christmas Past and the looming doom that is Christmas Future but unfortunately we don’t see the ghost of Jacob Marley. We hear his voice, those iconic lines, the rattling of chains and slight clanking of burdensome money boxes but interestingly enough all we ‘see’ of him is the point where he is supposed to be standing/floating – in front of a door. Very significant. I’m not sure whether I would have preferred an sfx apparition or more flesh and blood but spectral human but I did miss seeing him. The portrayal of Scrooge’s memories is distinctly kept as visions of the past by adding a frame/border to the film rather than being immersed in and almost re-living it, a technique ubiquitous in modern versions, I preferred them separate.
Additionally it seems to take him longer to realize that people will actually be happy and benefit from his material possessions when he dies than it does in other films. Overall it is a film that would work better if watched at night I feel, it’s not one of the clearer B&W movies out there and is quite dark visually but still… I prefer it to the remastered colour version where scenes were cut. There are moments in the initial scenes that seemed to suffer some sharp editing leaving the dialogue feeling a little stunted but it makes it way steadily thereafter. It also shows corpses, something usually omitted.
Despite this being a relatively short film we see more of misty London and the people in it than in many others, both before and after Scrooge’s transformation; even with these scenes it is well paced and contrasts social strata whilst highlighting Scrooge as a loner – although seemed to confuse or ignore the difference between loneliness and solitude with the latter not being a bad thing nor the same as being anti-social. On a lesser note in later years I’ve noticed the dialogue subtly changed to favour concise delivery and cultural understanding of terms – subtle, not detrimental but still noticeable when watching this.
THE ACTING AND SOUND
Scrooge is portrayed by actor Seymour Hicks (having also played him in the earlier 1913 version) who does grim and nasty well, not so convincing as remorseful and repentant but well enough at joyous and seemingly grateful. His nephew Fred (played by Robert Cochran) steals his thunder despite having shorter appearances and I like that he’s shown as amiably optimistic and exuberant rather than quite brash as he’s seen in some later films. Then there’s Bob Cratchit (Donald Calthrop) who seems a little more outspoken and brave than modern counterparts, just a little but it makes all the difference and I found myself smiling at his small ‘affronts’. Strangely enough as a ‘sophisticate’ – a term used by the stirring narration/emulation of Jacob Marley by Mr. M in the film ‘The Cheaters’ (1945) – I usually find myself fond of and sad about but a tad ‘used to’ Tiny Tim. He and Scrooge’s ex-fiancée Belle are endearing characters but they can be hammy and sickeningly sweet and that’s coming from someone easily tearstruck by the suffering of others, I get through tissues… This film however moved me on Tiny Tim’s part again and somehow made it personal. He reminded me of someone I loved and lost, who was killed on 13th December 2009, with whose death much of me died too and since numerous enemies have made sport reminding me of and re-enacting using innocent animals as representatives to keep the memory/feelings as fresh as possible. So it’s no understatement that this film with its obviously predictable storyline somehow managed to be evocative. He’s less of a central character here but more believable.
Films of this period usually have a suitable score with emphasis on the melodramatic/driving parts and this is no exception, it was really in those parts that I noticed the acoustic side. I’m not adverse to hymns in general but I didn’t appreciate hearing ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ and thrice at that (once acoustic). It’s not what I would consider a typical musical but I did feel the need to turn the volume down during the singing. Overall the sound was clear enough for me, it’s not scratchy and doesn’t jump except in those early scenes where it felt like some parts were left on the cutting room floor.
FINIS AND ADIEU
Personally I wouldn’t give him another chance (given the amount he’s had per person he’s hurt and hurt to such extents) but what better motivator is there than the idea of personal gain to get people to treat each other better.
“You fear the world too much. All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach. I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off, one by one, until the master passion, Gain, engrosses you.”
“No space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused”
One of the best and earliest films of this classic and thus far still pertinent story, I’m not always of the ‘oldest is the best’ persuasion but the shoe fits here at least for those who wouldn’t find it too much of a culture shock between old and new filming. For those that haven’t read or seen the story at all, it transitions very well between vying emotions and attitudes of different people but the overarching theme is to show the more unlikely, startlingly quick and apparently permanent change of a person’s personality, even in extenuating circumstances (when push comes to shove via existential forces in this case) but it does so with the cheer necessary for the festive feeling of this time of year and wraps things up conveniently and nicely. I actually think the ending isn’t as clever as the rest of the writing but it’s a happy ending and who doesn’t want one of those? 🙂