A Christmas Carol (1938)

This is not our favorite film version of the classic Dickens tale, but it does have a few things to recommend it, primarily the fine group of character actors that populate it. It’s no wonder, since it was produced by Hollywood’s biggest studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.  MGM’s shiny production values are present everywhere, but that also yields the film’s weakness as an accurate representation of the original Dickens story.  Everything looks quite beautiful, far too beautiful for the grinding poverty  that Dickens portrays in his novella.  Annoying background music fills almost every scene.  The Cratchit family seems almost middle class, and even though we love Gene Lockhart, it doesn’t look as if this Bob Cratchit has missed many meals.

Several key scenes from the original story are omitted in this screenplay.  There is no reference to Belle, Scrooge’s lost fiancé, so we don’t see how the young Ebenezer gradually descended into his bitter greed. The terrifying scene in which the laundress, the charwoman and the undertaker sell the dead Scrooge’s effects is missing.  Scrooge’s transformation and accompanying laughter occur before the Spirit of Christmas Present departs.  The didactic scene with Ignorance and Want hiding under the gown of the spirit is completely omitted.

The screenplay unaccountably adds new elements.  In this version, Scrooge fires Cratchit on Christmas Eve because his clerk accidentally hit him with a snowball while playing on the street with some urchins.  With Cratchit fired, a new scene has to be contrived for the ending: Scrooge visits the Cratchit home bearing a turkey and gifts.  With the additions and subtractions and the MGM gloss, Scrooge comes across as just a mean boss who needed some counseling from the HR department, rather than a man who needed painful spiritual reformation to save his soul from eternal torment.

The film was directed by Edwin Marin, who also directed Christmas Eve (1947).  Lionel Barrymore was originally slated to play Ebenezer Scrooge, but a broken hip kept him from the film, so the role went to Reginald Owen.

PLOT SUMMARY

You know the drill: the miser is visited by three spirits and then becomes a generous soul filled with the Christmas spirit.

CHRISTMAS CONNECTION

Except for the Biblical narratives, this tale is the essential Christmas story of hope and transformation.

CHARACTER ACTORS

Charles Coleman (first charity solicitor) appeared as the second Santa Claus in yesterday’s film, Double Dynamite (1951), which was the last of over 200 films in which he appeared. We will see him again in Never Say Goodbye (1946). He specialized in butler roles in films such as Little Miss Broadway (1938) and Poor Little Rich Girl (1936).

Gene Lockhart (Bob Cratchit), whom we have already seen as the mayor in Meet John Doe (1940), will be the link to the next film, Miracle on 34th Street (1947), so we will talk more about his career then.

Kathleen Lockhart (Mrs. Cratchit) was Gene’s wife and performed together with him in vaudeville and on Broadway.  She appeared in the Bill Powell-Myrna Loy screwball comedy Love Crazy (1941).

June Lockhart (Belinda Cratchit) was the daughter of Gene and Kathleen. Her best known roles were on TV: the mother in Lassie and Lost in Space. A Christmas Carol was her first film. We will see her later as Lucille Ballard in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944).

Reginald Owen (Scrooge) appeared in smaller roles in many wonderful films, including The Great Ziegfeld (1936), Woman of the Year (1942) and The Canterville Ghost (1944).  Two films of his that are quite good are The Good Fairy (1935) with Margaret Sullavan and Ernst Lubitsch’s charming Cluny Brown (1946) with Charles Boyer and Jennifer Jones.

Leo G. Carroll (Marley’s Ghost) had a wide-ranging career in films and TV. He appeared twice with Laurence Olivier: as Joseph in Wuthering Heights (1939) and as Dr. Baker in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940). He appeared in five other Hitchcock films: Suspicion (1941), Spellbound (1945), The Paradine Case (1947), Strangers on a Train (1951) and North by Northwest (1959). On TV he had extended roles as the title character in Topper (1953-55) and Alexander Waverly in The Man from U.N.C.LE. (1964-68).

Ann Rutherford (Spirit of Christmas Past) appeared a year after this film as Scarlett’s sister in Gone with the Wind (1939). She later appeared with Vivien Leigh’s husband, Laurence Olivier, in Pride and Prejudice (1940).

Billy Bevan (street watch leader) played the bartender in my favorite screwball comedy, Bringing Up Baby (1938).  He also had roles in Rebecca (1940), Suspicion (1941) and Cluny Brown (1946).

Matthew Boulton (second charity solicitor) appeared as one of the false policemen in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (19335).

Forrester Harvey (Fezziwig) had many wonderful roles in film such as Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), Captain Blood (1935) and Rebecca (1940).  He had a small role in Meet John Doe (1940).

ASTAIRE CONNECTION

Charles Coleman appeared as the valet in Astaire’s “Looking for a Needle in a Haystack” number in The Gay Divorcee (1934), as a doorman in  Carefree (1938) and as the policeman in Central Park at the end of the famed Astaire-Rogers roller-skating dance in Shall We Dance (1937).

Crauford Kent (tall business associate of Scrooge’s in the Spirit of Christmas Future sequence) appeared with Fred Astaire at the Actors Equity Association benefit on 5/9/1920 at the Metropolitan Opera House.

Matthew Boulton appeared as the ship’s officer in Astaire’s Shall We Dance (1937).

WHY WE LOVE THIS MOVIE

“Love” may not be the right word, but we will continue to watch this film every year.  It has many warm and charming moments, but it’s a good idea to read the original story by Dickens afterwards, to remove some of the MGM polish.  Then watch the more realistic 1951 version starring Alastair Sim.

WHERE CAN YOU SEE THE FILM

Turner Classic Movies will show this version on December 24 at 10 p.m. (ET).

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