A CHRISTMAS CAROL

(1938)
With Reginald Owen, Leo G. Carroll, Gene Lockhart, Kathleen Lockhart
Directed by Edwin L. Marin
Black and White
Reviewed by JB

If you mention Alistair Sim one more time, Cratchit, I'll sack you!     A curiously short and sunny adaptation of the Dickens classic, A CHRISTMAS CAROL is like many great films from MGM's heyday - beautifully mounted, finely cast, eminently watchable, but lacking the spark that might have been provided at other studios.

     As a stand-in for Lionel Barrymore, who became unavailable just before filming, Reginald Owen is more than fine as Ebenezer Scrooge, especially good in the early stages of the film. If Alistair Sim is the definitive overall Scrooge, Owen's rheumatic and humorless Ebenezer is surely one of the greatest pre-redemption Scrooges. There are only faint glimmers of humanity in Owen's portrayal - pocketing a stray bottle of port wine, licking his fingers after a dose of cough medicine.  But with his crooked back and his permanent scowl, he is a Scrooge you can imagine kids running from in the street.

     But typical of the niceness that permeates this production, the script has him declaring his love for Christmas by the end of his visitation by the second ghost.  His redeemed Scrooge is good, but the staid MGM atmosphere keeps him from going hog wild the way future Scrooges such as Sim or Albert Finney would.  Instead of being "merry as a schoolboy" or "giddy as a drunken man", he is merely reasonably happy.  Likewise, Jacob Marley's Ghost's howls of eternal torment are more like sighs of dissatisfaction and the Ghost of Christmas Present never reveals the specters of Want and Ignorance under his robes.  The Ghost of Christmas Past can hardly be a frightening figure of death, walking around in broad daylight with Scrooge through a London that surely doesn't looks like it is home to the poor and needy.  Bob Cratchit himself purchases a gigantic goose, making the one Scrooge later purchases for the Cratchits look like a piece of French cheese cloth.  It is almost as if MGM was incapable of portraying the extremes of the human condition.  There is no account of Scrooge's greed causing him to lose the love of his life (it is mentioned by the Ghost of Christmas Past, but Scrooge poo-poos the idea of revisiting those times and is immediately returned to his four-poster bed), nor of the charwoman and others rummaging through his belongings after his death.  The "smile all the while" attitude reaches its most ludicrous heights when Mrs. Cratchit not only happily toasts Mr. Scrooge, but initiates it!

     For its opulent MGM production values and its talented cast, which includes that ubiquitous staple of Christmas films Gene Lockhart as Bob Cratchit and Barry MacKay as the jovial Fred, MGM's A CHRISTMAS CAROL cannot help but be a fine film, worthy of scheduling for Christmas Day itself.  But it is Dickens Light.  In short, it would be the greatest version of them all, if not for so many others. ½ - JB

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