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

A Tale of Two Cities (1935)

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It’s no surprise that this adaptation begins with that oft-repeated bit of poetic parallelism. “It was the best of times it was the worst of times” etc. Of course, in its abridged format the opening suggests the universal quality of those iconic words. It was a period very much like the present.

The scene is set. What follows are images that prove to be deliciously atmospheric with a loving mixture of British colloquialism and Hollywood storytelling all stirred together in an agreeable period drama.

Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay this film, directed by Jack Conway, is that it manages to capture some of the essence of Dickens’ novel even if it does not wholly enrapture me as the source material did those many years ago in my freshman honors English class.

The beauty of literature is that it allows you to create pictures in your head — to let your imagination run rampant — the magic of film is how it allows for such spectacles to be brought to us visually though they might come out imperfectly. Owing to length and practicality, it cannot completely transcribe every last detail onto the screen resorting to jumps in time and abridging of the text.

In fact, a slight criticism is that the film resorts to title cards too much. Still, there are some inspiring moments including the climactic storming of the Bastille sequences courtesy of that inspired combination of Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur. It’s simultaneously harrowing and marvelously condenses the sweeping forces of the mob rule’s swift rise during the French Revolution into a matter of brief images that overwhelm with their sheer scope and ferocity.

Also, whether this film succumbs to pure histrionics or is instead an impassioned interpretation of Charles Dickens’ material is up for debate but there is no denying that there is a pleasing texturing to many of the most prominent characterizations.

Though a minor part, Basil Rathbone that legendary villain turns in one of his myriad performances as a heartless French nobleman. Whereas Miss Pross is played with endearing yet resolute defiance by Edna May Oliver. Both Lucie Manette and Charles Darnay exude a certain geniality that we’ve come to attribute to the roles. They are less interesting but necessary for the story to have any magnitude.

The most telling difference in depictions for me was in the character of Mr. Lorry (Charles Gillingwater) likened to a crotchety old coot though Dickens paints a picture of him that feels much more reserved and similarly steadfast. I would know because out of all the many figures, I always resonated with him a man who remained a supporting player but nevertheless reflected fine qualities of loyalty and quiet integrity.

But of course, we must inevitably come to Sydney Carton. In the book, he transforms into our hero coming to the fore among a wide array of other characters but with Ronald Colman undoubtedly the biggest star in our film we are conveniently tipped off to his crucial importance and he is vital to the story.

It could have been all too probable that like The Prisoner of Zenda, Ronald Colman could have taken a double role because (SPOILER ALERT) Dickens’ original novel hinges on the likeness of Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton. But in this case, it’s almost a stroke of good fortune that Colman was only given one part.

In it, Ronald Colman plays the brilliant young solicitor who nevertheless spends most of his evenings with his snout in a bottle wasting so much of his talent toward purposeless diversions. He’s a charming fellow but he seems hardly a person of note. But that’s not the final word.

Colman is aptly able to focus all his energies on the man and he’s further allowed to embody one of the great redemption tales in all of English literature. It seems he knew it too, willingly relinquishing his iconic and beloved mustache in deference to the role which no doubt was one of the defining moments of his career.

There’s also no denying the transcendent themes that course through this narrative and reveal themselves much as we would expect. Because this is a story of ultimate sacrifice and a very overt evocation of the Christ story.

Thus, it seems no small coincidence that as Carton takes part in a selfless act that will define his life the trills of “Come All Ye Faithful” quietly play in the background. The inference is plain. Though, it’s a political fable as well a spiritual one, Carton’s words are what entrench themselves into the viewer’s consciousness, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” Some might vehemently disagree but this is a Christmas film if ever there was one. Because it points to hope even in the darkest times. That’s how those paradoxical lines can stand true. It was the worst of times but also the very best.

4/5 Stars

A Christmas Carol (1951)

Scrooge_–_1951_UK_film_posterOftentimes during the holidays, we are quick to label someone a “Scrooge,” almost jokingly because it’s a moniker that’s somehow lost a great deal of its magnitude with overuse and the passage of time. However, if we look at this film, so wonderfully anchored by Alastair Sim, and even Charles Dickens original work from which it is derivative, we would adopt a much wider definition of the word “Scrooge.”

Surely it is the archetypal Christmas tale and one of the most widely adapted works. Off the top of my head, I can think of versions from 1938, ’51, ’70, ’84, and 2009, not to mention countless retellings by Disney, Mr. Magoo, the Muppets, and Bill Murray no less.

We all know at least a little of the legend of Ebenezer Scrooge, and we can come up with a rough composite of what he must be like. He’s money-grubbing, has no spirit, and hates Christmas. If you say any of this you would be, in fact, most heartily correct, but there’s so much more to his character and his story. It’s far more universal than perhaps I would even give it credit for.

The narrative is beautifully elongated with the device of the three specters represented by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future respectively. Of course, it takes the apparition of his long-deceased partner Jacob Marley to scare Ebenezer out of the status quo — out of exactly the kind of person we assume him to be. But the key is he wasn’t always about the “humbugs” and lack of charity towards the poor and needy.

We learn about his story more in depth by the illumination of the first ghost. Scrooge began, a relatively humble young man, but his sister Fan had great affection for him, and he found a young woman named Anne, who loved him in spite of his lowly status. Money did not define their happiness — in fact, they were happier without it. But the way of the world back then was, and still is now, the pursuit of happiness by way of money. In a sense, although Scrooge greatly admired his generous employer Fezziwig, he became scared by the ways of the world. Once joining forces with another ambitious gentleman Jacob Marley, the two of them pressed their advantages when necessary and expanded their assets exponentially. The sweet, savory call of money quickly seduced them and as a result hardened their hearts. You see in the moments where Scrooge loses his sister and breaks off his engagement, that they are so emotionally charged even in the present. He hasn’t quite found a way to alleviate the pain because not even money can satiate that hurt.

The ghost of Christmas present shows him the inside of the humble Cratchit home, bringing to mind his previous comments about prisons and workhouses — as one of their foremost supporters. But the Cratchits, and specifically young Tiny Tim give a humanity to the common man like he has never seen before. He realizes that he has failed miserably in doing one of the most basic things — loving his fellow man and taking care of the widows and orphans. Scrooge still clings to the most poisonous belief that he is too far gone and he cannot be redeemed. That’s why what the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows him scares him the most. The pictures he sees ahead of him are haunting and all too real, but it makes his opportunity at a second chance all the sweeter.

In truth, when Scrooge wakes up from his dream-filled slumber he’s giddy almost to the point of insanity, but Alastair Sim is so brilliant to play his part that way. His character change is so radical because his paradigm has been completely overturned. It shows in how he interacts with his world whether it’s his housekeeper, a lad on the street, his nephew, or even the long-suffering Bob Cratchit. Ebenezer Scrooge represents the hope of Christmas when mankind begins living for their fellow man instead of all the fortunes in the world that will only grow old and dusty. Thus, before calling someone “a Scrooge,” it is best to take note of what you’re saying and then get the whole story. People are a lot more complex than we often give them credit for. That becomes obvious even in this streamlined Christmas classic of only 86 minutes.

4/5 Stars

Great Expectations (1946)

ad366-great_expectationsWith director David Lean, and starring John Mills as Pip, the film begins with Pip as a young boy. Upon meeting a fugitive, Pip show him kindness and the man promises he will return the favor. A year or so later Pip begins to go to the home of an eccentric, rich widow to call on her. There he meets the lady’s adopted daughter Estelle and he falls for her. Now an adult, Pip learns he has a mysterious beneficiary who is paying for him to move to London to be a Gentleman. There he interacts with Mr. Wemmick, the attorney of Mr. Jaggers, and also Herbert Pocket (Alec Guinness). Then, someone shows up on his doorstep and changes his world. Soon he is orchestrating an escape for his friend, saying goodbye to the cold Estelle, and showing his displeasure for the elderly Ms. Havisham. However, in the end he learns a happy truth and reunites with Estelle. This moody, Dickens adaption actually has an optimistic side which is a nice change.

5/5 Stars