With every holiday comes family traditions, and one of my favorites is to watch my parents argue over which film version of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is the best. We all tend to agree that “The Muppet Christmas Carol” is the best family version—impeccably blending fourth-wall shattering satire with touching sentiment—though “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol” takes the prize for best songs (it could mop the floor with Albert Finney’s “I Like Life” nonsense). Yet my parents each grew up with a classic, black-and-white version of the yarn, causing my sister and I to grow up with both and leaving us to judge which Scrooge was indeed the Scroogiest.
When I was young, the choice was simple: Edwin L. Marin’s 1938 Hollywood adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” (my mom’s pick) was far more entertaining for kids seeking laughter, charm and all-around merriment. Yet as I grew older, I began to admire my dad’s favored version, Brian Desmond Hurst’s 1951 British production, originally titled “Scrooge,” more and more, and eventually understood why it was so widely acclaimed. As the titular curmudgeon, Alastair Sim doesn’t have to mug or cackle in order to be authentically mean, he simply exudes unpleasantness through his every pore. His curt line delivery conveys a complete lack of patience for the irritating vexation of fellow humanity, and when he completes his final-act journey towards redemption, the transformation is exhilarating.
Though I ultimately love both versions, it is Sim who clearly stands as cinema’s greatest Scrooge, in part because his film delves deeply into the central character’s life and the various personal tragedies that caused him to become such a penny-pinching misanthrope. The film is too eerie and stark to appeal to young viewers—playing at times like an out-and-out horror movie—and that’s precisely as it should be. In contrast, the ’38 “Carol” is almost laughable in its portrayal of Scrooge, as embodied with gleeful hamminess by Reginald Owen (a last-second replacement for Lionel Barrymore, who perfected the character on the radio, and reprised the role again—unofficially—in “It’s a Wonderful Life”). The film hops past the most painful memories from Scrooge’s younger years—for that would be too depressing—and has him declare, “I love Christmas!”, while still hanging with the Ghost of Christmas Present, thus making the third act entirely anticlimactic.
However, there is one major area where this cheery crowd-pleaser one-ups all the other “Carol” pictures, and that is in its Cratchit family. As embodied by a game ensemble, this family is so engaging and lovable that they overtake the movie (which should’ve just been called “The Cratchits”), emerging as the central focus and filling the screen with tangible warmth for the entirety of the film’s brisk running time. It all starts with Gene Lockhart, the hugely versatile actor (who could play everything from the fiery Stephen Douglas in “Abe Lincoln in Illinois” to the deadpan judge in “Miracle on 34th Street”), as Bob. He is an utter delight from his first frame on, with his childlike exuberance and indefatigable relish in life’s simple pleasures. He’s also more sympathetic, thanks to a rather silly plot development conjured by screenwriter Hugo Butler that results in the long-suffering clerk getting “sacked” by his heartless employer. This brings an added layer of bittersweet irony to the Christmas Eve scenes where Bob avoids breaking the bad news in order to preserve the joy of his family—and what unbridled joy it is.
I’ve heard so many actresses say the line, “Sit ye down before the fire, my dear, and have a warm!,” but no one says it like Kathleen Lockhart (wife of Gene) as Mrs. Cratchit. The excitement her family displays in light of their meager yet much anticipated Christmas feast is so endearing that you’d frankly have to be a humbug not to feel moved by it. The chemistry between the real-life couple is undeniable, as are the tears glistening in their daughter June’s eyes as she observes her father straining not to cry while remembering his dearly departed Tiny Tim (June, by the way, would later find TV stardom on “Lassie” and “Lost in Space”). But let’s face it, the real magic of this film lies in its timeless performance by 11-year-old Terry Kilburn as Tim, the crippled boy with the resilient soul and stubborn belief in the good of mankind. He’s as angelic as the role requires, but he’s also a real kid who smuggles toys into church, fumbles with his hands like a strung-out junkie when faced with the Christmas goose and makes unintentionally creepy remarks such as, “I’d like to stroke it,” before blushing in embarrassment.
Kilburn later went on to star in such classics as “Goodbye, Mr. Chips,” “Swiss Family Robinson” and “National Velvet,” but this is the role for which he will be most fondly remembered. For me, the emotional crux of the film materializes in a scene that usually occurs offscreen in most “Carol” adaptations. Tim sings “O Come, All Ye Faithful” during church Mass, while standing next to Bob. In a brief close-up, Bob’s eyes well up at the sight of his son, who remains so loving and hopeful despite the bleak circumstances of his life. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, but it fuels the emotional power of everything that follows, all the way up until Kilburn delivers the definitive reading of “God bless us, everyone,” as the music swells and my eyes water to an obscene degree.
Yes, the film is somewhat hokey and aggressively cute to a fault. There are times I almost want to smack Scrooge’s insufferably chipper nephew, Fred (Barry McKay), but on the other hand, has there ever been a Fan as darling as Ira Stevens? She makes one single appearance as Scrooge’s dear sister and manages to give Shirley Temple a run for her money. As pure festive comfort food, few flicks will leave your heart feeling as warm and well-nourished as this infectiously playful gem. It’ll make you feel as light as a feather, as happy as an angel and as merry as a schoolboy, I guarantee it.
Edwin L. Marin’s 1938 “A Christmas Carol” starring Reginald Owen will play on big screens throughout the country on a double bill with Peter Godfrey’s 1945 Barbara Stanwyck vehicle, “Christmas in Connecticut,” on Sunday, December 7th, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies and Fathom Events. For tickets and more info, click here. And don’t miss the wonderful interview with Mr. Kilburn published last year in Lavender Magazine and conducted by E.B. Boatner.