A Christmas Carol (1938)
I have written previously about the versatility of Charles Dickens’ classic story and how it lends itself to multiple adaptations and interpretations. This 1938 film version tests that very theory as the reformation and redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge is presented through the medium of Golden Age Hollywood. A Christmas Carol sees the source text sanitised, infantilised and presented as a polished example of wholesome American film making. It has the high production values you’d expect from a studio such as MGM at the time, along with a cloyingly sentimental screenplay that dodges the politics of the book and renders the proceedings into an odd mixture of comedy and soft US Christian propaganda. It presents a very stylised depiction of Dickensian England and bears too many of the obvious foibles and tropes of the studio system that produced the movie.
This movie deals in caricatures and archetypes. Reginald Owen portrayal of Scrooge is hamstrung immediately due to his comical stylised “age make up”. His performance is neither scary, embittered or intimidating. He simply comes across as rather grumpy old man who is just “put out” about contemporary life. His Nephew Fred (Barry MacKay) has an expanded role and an ongoing romantic interest via his fiancée. As for Bob Cratchit (Gene Lockheart), his is reduced to nothing more than a comic foil (who is sacked due to his participation in a snowball fight). His rotund build hardly convinces viewers of his poverty. Similarly, his home, children and wife are only “poor” in the Hollywood sense of the word. With such one-dimensional depictions, it is very hard to become overtly invested in the characters.
Moving on to Marley’s Ghost (Leo G. Carrol) and the three spirits, all of these characters are subsequently bastardised. Scrooge calls the night watchmen when Marley first appears, and the use of comedy again robs the subsequent scenes of any drama. The Ghost of Christmas past looks like she’s stepped straight out of a Broadway chorus line, complete with a star on top of her hat. The Ghost of Christmas Present is also saddled with humorous vignettes as he uses the spirit of Christmas to stop several contrived comedic fights. The final spirit follows the standard depiction of a hooded spectre, but its scenes are pure melodrama. The screenplay removes the more sinister and bleaker elements of the book, such as “ignorance and want”, along with the pawn shop meeting and Scrooge lying dead in his own bed. There are further frivolous scenes of Fred and his fiancée attending church to bolster their piety.
This is a far from subtle or nuanced adaptation. It is contrived and tonally somewhat childish with its continual veering from humour to melodrama. Scrooge’s redemption and subsequent visit to the Cratchits house to make amends is borderline nauseating and devoid of any genuine adult emotion. It’s all very highly polished and superficial. The only aspect of the story that is clear is the perfunctory handling of the Christian message, which is no more sophisticated in this instance than “don’t be mean to each other”. Plus, this film includes one of the healthiest Tiny Tim’s ever seen. A Christmas Carol may amuse and entertain those who are interested in seeing how classic Hollywood film making was a finely-honed process that always lead to a specific product. It may also be of interest to completists who wish to seek out as many versions of the book as possible. But for those who want a more robust, honest and sophisticated adaptation of Dickens, then look elsewhere.