Saturday, December 31, 2011

Scrooge (Twickenham, 1935)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I wanted to watch last night was Scrooge, a 1935 British version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol that I wished to screen before we got too far away from the end of the holiday season, and which frankly I didn’t have much hope for. It was produced at Twickenham Studios, where Arthur Wontner made all but one of his five films as Sherlock Holmes (the reason for the fear was that the one non-Twickenham Holmes film with Wontner, the 1932 Sign of the Four, was quite the best of them), and the director was Henry Edwards, previously known to me only for Juggernaut, a 1936 mad-scientist melodrama with Boris Karloff that was simply dull. Well, I got surprised: Scrooge turned out to be a quite tough-minded version of the Dickens story, which by removing most of the sentimentality and virtually all the comic relief, made the tale seem considerably more radical — politically — than it usually does in screen adaptations.

The Scrooge was Seymour Hicks, a veteran British actor who had first played the role in a silent version as early as 1913 (!) and would remain active until his death in 1949, and though he didn’t have the comic chops of Alastair Sim he’s quite convincing in the role — particularly in the chilling (literally and figuratively) moment in which he catches Bob Cratchit trying to sneak a few more lumps of coal onto the heater in his outer office. Cratchit is intriguingly cast: Donald Calthrop, usually an actor who played slimy villains (he’s best known as the blackmailer in Hitchcock’s Blackmail and as Boris Karloff’s crippled assistant in The Man Who Changed His Mind, the good mad-scientist movie Karloff made in his native England in 1936 just before Juggernaut). There are a few odd corners cut — the ghost of Jacob Marley doesn’t make an on-screen appearance at all (he’s just a disembodied voice) and the Ghost of Christmas Past is literally a “ghostly” presence (of the three, only the Ghost of Christmas Present shows up the way Dickens described him) — and the “Past” sequence doesn’t include the heart-rending scenes of Scrooge as a lonely boy at school, or his apprenticeship with Mr. Fezziwig (just where did Dickens come up with these bonkers character names?), and the one scene from Scrooge’s past we do get (the kiss-off from his girlfriend Belle, played by Mary Glynne) is so overwrought — Glynne literally screams at him — that we’re liable to think, “Good riddance,” instead of regarding that as the turning point for Scrooge’s character.

But overall this is a quite good adaptation, one of the best ever made of this oft-filmed story, particularly strong in cinematic atmosphere. Some of that may be due to the involvement of John Brahm, German expat who would eventually head for Hollywood and become a director himself (of such atmospheric British-set horror-mysteries as The Undying Monster, the 1944 version of The Lodger, and Hangover Square), who’s credited here as “production supervisor” and may have goosed up Edwards and cinematographers Sydney Blythe and William Luff into coming up with a marvelously Gothic atmosphere for the tale. There are a few inconsistencies, less within the film than between it and my imagination of the tale (I always thought the goose the Cratchits ate on Christmas Eve was considerably smaller than it’s shown here, and the prize turkey the reformed Scrooge buys them on Christmas Day was much larger), and somehow Seymour Hicks is a good deal less convincing as Scrooge post-transformation than he was pre-transformation (though I liked the touch of him shaving his scraggly beard to indicate his change), but overall the 1935 Scrooge is a worthwhile film, vividly directed, mostly well written by H. Fowler Mear (though I regretted the omission of Marley’s mea culpa), finely acted (Calthrop’s Cratchit is a triumph of anti-type casting) and staged in sets that look credible as 19th century London (the story is set in 1843, the year Dickens wrote the original) but also provide an appropriately Gothic atmosphere for what Dickens, in his preface to the original book, called “a ghostly tale.”

Incidentally, apropos of A Christmas Carol and its politics, Dickens was clearly a liberal rather than a radical — the message of A Christmas Carol is that the problems of industrial society could be solved by a moral appeal to the capitalists themselves to change their ways and treat their workers and customers more fairly — and I’m surprised nobody but me ever seems to have noticed that Scrooge’s character arc, from unscrupulous money-maker in the first half of his life to generous philanthropist in the second half (giving away much of the money he made by being so hard and mean in the first place!), has been lived by quite a few real-life super-rich people, from John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie a century ago to Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and George Soros in our own time.