1951’s Scrooge: The Darkest of Christmas Carols
by Matthew Cabe
Stage adaptations of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol were produced as early as 1844, one year after the now classic novella was published. On screen portrayals of the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge date back to the dawn of the of the 20th century, beginning with Marley’s Ghost, a six minute silent film made 1901.
Since that first depiction, Scrooge has been reimagined by the likes of John Carradine, Basil Rathbone, Albert Finney, George C. Scott, Bill Murray, Michael Caine, Patrick Stewart, and Jim Carrey (just a few of the notables). Even Orson Welles played Scrooge once in a Campbell Playhouse radio production when he filled in for Lionel Barrymore, who is probably best remembered as the Scrooge-like Mr. Potter in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life.
Despite the wellspring of talent, however, none of these performances outshine that of Alastair Sim’s in the 1951 version (known simply as Scrooge in Great Britain) directed by Brian Desmond Hurst. In part, what elevates Sim above all others is how effectively he balances Scrooge’s menace with the vulnerability that slowly reveals itself as the old money-grubber is guided through his past, present, and possible future by three Christmas spirits working hard to save his soul.
Along with Sim’s performance, Hurst’s film itself stands as one of the greatest adaptations because it deepens the gothic themes of the Dickens tale by incorporating elements of German Expressionist cinema popularized in the 1920s by films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror.
Long, slanted shadows fill the background in many scenes and provide Sim, and the house in which his Scrooge resides, a looming, villainous quality. It’s no mistake, then, that Scrooge’s presence is as ominously grotesque as Dr. Caligari’s, Count Orlok’s, or even that of the disfigured Gwynplaine in the 1928 American silent film, The Man Who Laughs, directed by Paul Leni, one of the great German Expressionist filmmakers.
A big chunk of the film pays careful attention to Scrooge’s past. These scenes are important not only because they humanize him and offer up the possibility of his redemption, but also because they document his transformation into the doomed distortion he inevitably becomes. Each snippet from Scrooge’s youth slowly strips him of his benevolence and hardens his soul.
In a pivotal scene following the death of his sister, Fan (Carol Marsh), the still youthful Scrooge explains a new outlook on life to his friend, Jacob Marley (Michael Hordern), that negates his previous optimism. “I believe the world is becoming a very hard and cruel place. One must steel oneself to survive it.”
That mentality guides Scrooge down a path of loneliness and hatred (and eventually regret) that he’s incapable of confronting. Even after he begins to comprehend the errors of his life, he continues to avoid fate and attempts to run from the truth. That is, until he is stopped, quite literally, by the raised hand of the shrouded Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come (C. Konarski), in an eerie scene that could have easily influenced Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957).
But the gloom subsides in the end, of course, and gives way to a genuinely earned lightheartedness. Even the score, composed by Richard Addinsell, which opens the film by cleverly offsetting “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” with threatening “dun-dun-dun” horror sounds, changes course to frolic with Scrooge in his effervescent giddiness.
What feels most real though is the way Sim incorporates doubt into Scrooge’s rediscovered exuberance and generosity. Back in his office the day after Christmas, he falls victim to a gleeful fit of laughter, but exclaims within it, “I don’t deserve to be so happy… I can’t help it. I just can’t help it.”
It’s a fading remnant of the outward war against happiness Scrooge waged most of his life, and proves that his change wasn’t magically brought on overnight, but that it will be earned in his future actions. The duality on display in that moment adds a very human quality to Scrooge’s character that makes Sim’s rendition all the more endearing and all the more definitive.