Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 25, 2005)
Has any literary work been adapted for various media as much as Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol? I seriously doubt it. In addition to about 40 movie versions, it’s received countless variations on TV shows as well as numerous stage productions.
One of the better known projects is the 1938 film adaptation. Unfortunately, “better known” doesn’t mean “better”, as the 1938 Carol is a dud.
Given the fame of A Christmas Carol, a synopsis seems somewhat pointless, but I’ll provide one anyway. Ebenezer Scrooge (Reginald Owen) runs his own business and is clearly a skinflint and a jerk. Isolated from others by his own accord, on Christmas Eve the misanthrope receives a visit from the ghost of Jacob Marley (Leo. G. Carroll), his old partner. Condemned to remain in limbo, Marley warns Scrooge that he’ll suffer the same fate if he doesn’t clean up his act.
Scrooge initially discounts this incident, but then he receives additional visits from other ghosts. One takes him to Scrooge accompanies Christmas Past (Ann Rutherford), where he watches his childhood experiences and recalls how much he used to love the season.
From there he goes with Christmas Present (Lionel Braham), where he sees the poor but loving family of his employee Bob Cratchit (Gene Lockhart). Scrooge learns that Cratchit’s son Tiny Tim (Terry Kilburn) will die without significant medical attention. He also sees the festivities of his merry nephew Fred (Barry Mackay). Lastly, the Ghost of Christmas Future shows Scrooge his own fate as well as that of Tiny Tim. When the ghosts finish with Scrooge, he changes his ways and becomes a barrel of laughs.
Back when I was a kid, I assumed the 1938 Carol must be the best version simply because it was the oldest. My Old Man dismissed this theory. He felt the 1938 edition was junk and the 1951 take with Alastair Sim was the strongest rendition of the tale.
Chalk up a victory for the Old Man! Actually, I’ve not seen the 1951 version in a long time, so I can’t place it among the other tellings of Carol. However, he nailed the 1938 edition on the head. This is a simply dreadful Christmas Carol.
One big problem comes from the many liberties it takes with the story. I don’t insist on absolute faithfulness to the source material. Indeed, I applaud movies that make changes that work for the screen.
That’s not the case for the alterations performed on Carol. For reasons unknown, this one plays up the roles of Bob and Fred. At times it feels like this is more their tale than Scrooge’s, as Ebenezer gets lost in the shuffle at times. This makes no sense. Why focus on those secondary characters and ignore the main role?
We find other odd decisions. For instance, Bob decides that he won’t let Scrooge get him down and he splurges on a feast for his family. This undermines Scrooge’s decision to provide a banquet for them. They already had a pretty good dinner; his gesture becomes meaningless.
When we do see Scrooge, he doesn’t receive a good portrayal. Owen seems too young and spry for the role, and the addition of a really bad wig doesn’t make him more convincing. He plays the part in a dreadfully hammy manner as well.
The manner in which the movie makes his character change doesn’t work. This Scrooge alters his attitude without much prompting. This undermines his transformation since it provides no emotional depth. That area also suffers since we see little of Scrooge as a pained youngster. Why’d he turn out the way he did? This film declines to let us know much about that, as it’s too busy with Fred and Bob to bother with its main character.
Virtually nothing about the 1938 A Christmas Carol succeeds. Even at 69 minutes, it feels too long. From bad performances to a lack of focus, it’s a clunker.