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The Best Christmas Carol. . . . Ever?
by Jon Schuller

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This is the time of year when everyone hopes for a better tomorrow for their families and friends and even complete strangers who live far away. There are so many stories, books, tales and of course, movies about the holiday season, that you cannot go anywhere without all the references, sights and sounds reminding us of what we would like the world to be all year long. The famous story about the young girl who writes a letter to a newspaper asking if there really is Santa Claus and the answer becomes the title, "Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus." Stories from around the world have been captured in books and magazines, in radio plays and on the Big Screen. One of the world's most famous Christmas tales is A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.

Dickens gained fame in his native England by writing about the times he lived in. The terrible conditions for working people and, especially, the treatment of the poor and children were all exposed by his novels. His ability to describe living conditions in and around London forced the British government to pass laws and attempt to rectify how people were treated by the wealthy and powerful. The burgeoning English middle class was just beginning to realize their place in society as the outgrowth of the brisk business and trade conditions coming out of the 18th Century's Industrial Revolution. The term itself, Middle Class, was the midpoint between the rich, land-owning, titled upper class which had ruled England for centuries and the poor farmers and growing working class people who toiled for pennies in terrible factory conditions seven days a week. The businessmen and traders who ran these factories and textile mills, owned the trading ships to the growing British Empire overseas, and the shop and pub owners in London and other cities – all
constituted this new type of English citizen. They weren't poor but still weren't quite rich enough to own a manor house in the country or gain a title bestowed by the King. This is the world Dickens described and tried to change through his writings. The 1951 English film version of the story (released in England as "Scrooge") stars the great Alastair Sim in the lead. I think this is the best one made.

We all know the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, the miserly, nasty and selfish businessman who thinks Christmas is a "Humbug." He will not help anyone all year long but especially during the holiday season. He may have been a kinder, nicer man many years before we first meet him but no one really likes Scrooge – and he could care less. The people who work for him, his housekeeper, Mrs. Dilber (Kathleen Harrison) and Bob Cratchit (Mervyn Johns), his clerk (the English pronounce it "clark") at his company Scrooge & Marley, are mere tools for him and he pays the lowest wages possible for fourteen hour days. Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his late partner, Jacob Marley (Michael Hordern), who warns Scrooge that three spirits will visit him during Christmas Eve night. Marley is seen dragging chains and ledgers as he howls about how he forged these chains in life and is condemned to drag them through all eternity. Marley may have treated people like Scrooge while alive and is thus fated to be miserable as a ghost. Scrooge laughs it off and blames some bad food or drink. He goes to sleep and at 12 midnight is awakened from a deep sleep. The three spirits, Christmas Past, Present and Future, as predicted take Scrooge on an amazing voyage through his past life as we begin to get a picture of how he came to be his present gloomy self.

We witness a happy dancing Scrooge at his first job's Christmas
party hosted by his boss, the kind Mr. Fezziwig. How he and a young Jacob Marley (played by a young Patrick Macnee later of The Avengers television series' fame) take over the company from the unscrupulous Mr. Jorkin who has driven it into near-bankruptcy. The meeting with the bankers gives us a glimpse into the growing business coldness displayed by Scrooge. He is not worried about anyone but himself and how much he can possess from the deal. He proceeds to run the company totally opposite from the generous Mr. Fezziwig. We also see the young Scrooge walking out on the one woman who loves him. We witness Scrooge's only sister dying in childbirth as his nephew is born. Scrooge's own mother died giving birth to him.
The Ghosts of the Present and Future lead us through a growing darkness for Scrooge as his selfish acts and lack of charity for others ("Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?") will ultimately lead to a cemetery and a gravestone with his name on it. No epitaph has been inscribed on the stone. The young, crippled Tiny Tim, Cratchit's young son will die. His nephew will have another Christmas dinner without Uncle Scrooge. Bad things will happen unless something or someone changes them for the better. Scrooge has been given a chance to redeem himself, to become generous and charitable, to share with others his financial good luck and not look for anything in return. Christmas Day dawns bright and cold as Scrooge throws open the window and tells a young boy to go to the butcher and get the largest goose he can find. The goose will mysteriously go to Bob Cratchit's house. Tiny Tim will get well again because Scrooge pays for the doctor. Bob Cratchit and family will be more prosperous as we see Scrooge give his clerk a raise. And Scrooge attends his nephew's dinner party where
he dances and smiles and reconciles with his nephew's fiancé – a very touching scene by the way.

This famous tale has been translated into many languages and books. In one form or another it has been told as follows:
36 stage plays
13 radio dramas'
14 television presentations
21 movies and cartoons
Starting in 1901 with the first film version, then 1908, 1910, 1913, 1914, 1916, 1923, 1935, 1938, 1951, 1970, 1983, 1984, 1988, 1991, 1992, 1997, 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011. The Bill Murray 1988 Scrooged is a wonderful version of the story and is an interesting take on the Dickens' classic.

But in terms of telling the story as Dickens wrote it (with a few minor changes) the 1951 movie is the best in my opinion. Filmed in stark black-and-white we have no trouble seeing the England that Dickens wrote about and exposed to public scrutiny. There are blunt, glaring differences in social standings between the wealthy and everyone else; the snobbery exhibited by not only the upper classes but the new business/middle class coming into power and influence. The mores and manners, the deceits and prejudices, are all shown as they were in the real world of Dickens' Great Britain. The cast, headed by Alastair Sim, fit the characters and the dialogue sounds accurate.

I have seen this movie many times. Like other traditional Christmas movies (such as It's A Wonderful Life (please see my column An American Christmas Carol (1/3/2012), A Charlie Brown Christmas, The Snowman and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer), it asks us to suspend reality for a while but the underlying messages never change: don't wait for the holidays to treat others with kindness and charity. You may not get a second chance if at all. Share with others as you care for others. The greatest gifts are those we give and not receive.

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Mike Thomas
Dec 27, 2012 12:37 AM
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I have admit, even though IT'S a WONDERFUL LIFE is my all-time favorite Christmas movie, the 1951 Alastair Sim version is my favorite A CHRISTMAS CAROL movie. It somehow "gets' to me.

Thanks for the memories.
Dec 27, 2012 4:57 PM
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Thanks Mike. After my first daughter was born (at home, delivered by her daddy, ME) I watched this film in my wife's small hospital bed while she was feeding the baby next door. It was always my favorite version but this viewing made it extra meaningful.

Jan 5, 2013 2:48 PM
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Great column! No other version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL comes close! And in addition to Sim, Hordern and Harrison deserve praise as making their scenes remarkably wonderful. Really, has Scrooge's Christmas transformation ever really succeeded on-screen without the reactions of his suspicious, flustered housekeeper! Just for a bit of interesting information, Kathleen Harrison died in 1995. She was 103!
Jan 5, 2013 4:31 PM
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Thanks. I appreciate it

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Cinema Savant
Every other Thursday

My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.

Other Columns
Other columns by Jon Schuller:

Have You Been Spying On Me Lately? For How Long?

But Can She Act? That's What I Want to Know

They're Not the Same People They Used To Be

Time Does Fly When We Watch Movies

Before Minimum or Maximum, There Was Only Prison

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Jon Schuller
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for almost 30 years. I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I enjoy sharing my love of films with everyone and have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 50 years (as of December 22, 2018) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Jon Schuller by clicking here.

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