A Christmas Carol (1938)

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This 1938 production is probably the first good film adaptation of Charles DickensA Christmas Carol. Although slightly corn-ball and even treacly, it features lovely black-and-white photography and solid production values  – artificial but appropriate for the story – all in the service of good-natured, uplifting entertainment, which should appeal to fans of old-fashioned Hollywood-style film-making.

Although the short running time (69 minutes) would seem to preclude much extrapolation on Dickens’ familiar text, screenwriter Hugo Butler makes several additions and revisions. The film begins with a new scene of Scrooge’s nephew Fred meeting Bob Cratchit’s crippled son Tiny Tim (who looks more effeminate than chronically ill here). Fred is only engaged, not married, to Bess. While playing in the snow, Scrooge’s put-upon employee Bob Cratchit accidentally hits Scrooge with a snowball, prompting the old miser to fire him. Cratchit keeps the bad news to himself while spending his final wages on the Cratchit family feast, but his daughter eventually realizes the truth. When Marley manifests, Scrooge calls for police officers to help with an intruder, but of course they see nothing. When Marley leaves, there is no glimpse outside Scrooge’s window, showing other ghosts in similar straits. The conclusion has Scrooge making his newphew – instead of Bob Cratchit – a partner in his firm; this enables Fred to marry Bess. Then Scrooge pays a visit to the Cratchit home to spread good cheer.

Some of the screenplay’s additions feel awkwardly spliced in. For example, Fred does meet Tiny Tim in this version, but when the subject arises in a seen of Christmas Future, Bob Cratchit stills makes reference to Fred acting “as if” he had known Tim. And it is hard to believe that Mrs. Cratchit would volunteer a toast for her husband’s miserly employer.

There are also a few deletions that weaken the story. The scenes of Christmas Past feel truncated: there is no Christmas party with Scrooge’s former employer Fezziwig, nor do we see the young Scrooge in love; likewise, in the Christmas Future sequence, we do not see the selling of Scrooge’s stolen goods by those who robbed his dead body. In general, there is little of Scrooge watching the scenes shown him by the three Spirits of Christmas, and the action plays out with little opportunity to see old Ebenezer learning any lessons from these events.

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Reginal Owen in old-age makeup

The acting style of A CHRISTMAS CAROL is a bit melodramatic throughout: this is not a film that strives for realistic performances; everything is larger than life. Reginald Owen, wearing a somewhat unconvincing old-age makeup, offers a rather actory turn as Scrooge, but he certainly fits our conception of the character, and he does offer some good moments (as when he spits while denouncing Christmas to Bob Cratchit).

There are fewer Christmas carols than in other film versions of the story, but the film suffers from its over-insistent original score, which includes angelic music underlining Fred’s speech about the spirit of Christmas to his cynical uncle.

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Marley (Leo G. Carroll) confronts Scrooge (Reginald Owen)

A CHRISTMAS CAROL’s presentation of the Ghosts is an improvement over the earlier SCROOGE (1935). Seen mostly as a transparent superimposition, Leo G. Carroll makes a baleful Marley, in greasepaint makeup. Ann Rutherford’s Ghost of Christmas Past resembles Glinda the Good Witch of the North. Contrasting with other filmic depictions, the Ghost of Christmas Future resembles a monk more than the Grim Reaper; his outstretched hand is skinny rather than skeletal, but his scenes are nicely staged in front of a cyclorama painting of the sky, which looks like something out of Frankenstein (1931).

There are some good miniatures for the scenes of spirits flying Scrooge through the air, although the process shots combining live actors with miniatures are hit and miss.

A CHRISTMAS CAROL may not be a great film, but it is a good adaptation.Whatever its weaknesses, it translates the essence of the immortal Dickens tale to the screen with a professional sheen that brings the story to entertaining life: the horror of Marley’s ghost, the warmth of Christmas Past and Present, the ominous foreboding of Christmas Future, the redemption of hard-hearted old Scrooge – all play out glossy Hollywood terms that make this a fine film to revisit during the Yuletide season.

A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1938). Directed by Edwin L. Marin. Screenplay by Hugo Butler, based on the novella by Charles Dickens. Cast: Reginald Owen, Gene Lockhart, Kathleen Lockhart, Terry Kilburn, Barry MacKay, Lynne Carver, Leo G. Carroll, Lionel Braham, Ann Rutherford, D’Arcy Corrigan, Ronald Sinclair.

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About the Author

Steve Biodrowski

Cinefantastique's Los Angeles Correspondent from 1987 to 1993 and West Coast Editor from 1993 to 1999. Currently the webmaster of Cinefantastique Online, I also run a website called Hollywood Gothique that covers Halloween Horror and Sci-Fi Cinema Events in the Los Angeles area.

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