A Christmas Carol (1938) and The Meaning of Humbug

achristmascarol1938In viewing the 1951 version of the Christmas classic, I took particular interest in the name of our protagonist Ebenezer Scrooge, attempting to redeem it for the masses. For this picture, I was curious in considering another integral term in our lexicon: Humbug.

The term is so ubiquitous and elicits such an explicit connotation, one surmises it loses much of its inherent meaning. What is humbug exactly? To put it simply: hypocrisy. And it’s telling coming from the lips of Scrooge.

It suggests, in his contorted world, he believes himself to be the only honest soul in Britain because he is not taken in by this pipe dream of Christmas. Of celebrating when you have nothing and giving when it probably won’t do any good anyway. He cannot understand how joyous his nephew manages to be, despite being no better than a pauper. In fact, Scrooge holds scorn for just about everyone.

There are actually some prominent revisions to the traditional story that generally succeed in adhering to the tone this picture is searching out. An opening connection is made between Scrooge’s merry nephew Fred and the Cratchit boys. They have quite a time of it sliding across the ice together — even crippled Tiny Tim — riding on the young man’s back.

Fred finally makes it to the offices of Scrooge and Marley paying his yuletide greetings to the jovial yet flighty Bob Cratchit (Gene Lockhart). Years in the service of Mr. Scrooge have taught him to always keep on his toes and never push the envelope. Because Scrooge is the sort of man who invests his money in such eminent institutions as the local prisons.

For him, charity is, again, humbug. Altruism is all a put-on to make people feel good and make the world out to be a nicer play than it is. Of course, he would never tell you that. The only way to get at this conclusion is by the most roundabout manner.

It’s true this version of A Christmas Carol works in swift, impressionistic strokes of the past. Before we know it, Scrooge has awoken at night and begins his fateful journey. The narrative zips along telling his story through the visitations of Jacob Marley (Leo G. Carol) and the three Christmas spirits. First, he’s being fetched from school by his ebullient little sister for Christmas away from his boarding school.

Then, he’s back at the old warehouse where he worked for the generous soul Fezziwig and first met his curmudgeonly partner Marley. The church chapel is full of the merry intonations of “O Come All Ye Faithful,” not to mention a few furtive slides on the ice by Fred and his lovely fiancee. Of course, there is the final vision as well featuring a world with Tiny Tim (the marker of wide-eyed innocence) dead and gone.

Because it never attempts to go into the gothic depths of despair (nor does it have ample time), there is not the same rapturous payoff, but then again it manages to be quite cheery from beginning to end. Cratchit loses his job only to go home to his family, arms stacked high with food and happy as ever. Why he even levels a snowball at his good master on accident, resulting in his dismissal.

Promoted from his minor spot, Scrooge’s nephew adds dollops of his own charm to the mix supplying a few good slides across the icy streets. All parties involved contribute to the holiday cheerfulness such that even Scrooge seems unable to douse the gaiety, although there is hardly enough screentime for him to manage the task.

When I was in middle school, I once saw the eminent Hal Landon Jr. in his own stage interpretation of Scrooge, his most famous feat being his somersault on the bed to put on his hat. Meanwhile, Alistair Sim manages to be giddy with delirious delight as the utter despair of Christmas Yet to Come is stripped away from him fortuitously. Upon hearing Lionel Barrymore was meant to star and performed the role countless times on the radio, I am even more curious to hear him. Thanks be we have Mr. Potter.

Reginald Owen is a sterling Scrooge in his own right, even a yuletide archetype of the old crusty miser. Though a respectable performance, it’s no doubt overshadowed by Sim’s, among others, for the simple fact it feels conventional. There’s little wrong with this and the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol is nothing if not sentimental and streamlined for annual holiday viewing with the whole family. There’s time yet for other entries to sink into the depths of woe in order to reach the zenith of Christmas cheer. The final word is to not live a humbug life. Christmas is meant for so much more. Where jaded cynicism is replaced with radical generosity and even child-like faith.

3.5/5 Stars

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