“Cratchit, you magnificent bastard! I sent you a turkey!”
Some of you may have seen George C. Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge in 1984’s ‘A Christmas Carol.’ Some of you may have enjoyed it. But none but the very foolish would consider it superior to the 1951 ‘A Christmas Carol’ starring Alastair Sim. Yet, I have heard of people who think the Scott version is not only superior to the Sim version, but the best Ebenezer Scrooge of all. I have seen articles asserting this calumny.
Who could think such a thing?
Most in the Scott camp are Millennials, which explains a lot. They grew up in a cultural Black Hole, they can’t spell, they don’t know where to put an apostrophe, their self-esteem is way too high and they all need to get off my lawn.
But one of the afore-linked articles appears to have been written by a fellow Gen-Xer. Horrifying.
Now, I love George C. Scott. He was a fine actor. I have seen ‘Patton’ more times than a woman should admit. It’s my ‘go-to’ movie when I’m blue. But the Alastair Sim version is the only Christmas Carol worth your time.
What sets it apart? Four things: horror; humour; music; casting.
The Victorians were good at ghost stories, and this version of Dickens’ classic reflects the tradition well, starting with Peter Bull’s sonorous narration and moving along to Jacob Marley’s lamentations and rattling chains, to the toiling, tormented ghosts outside Scrooge’s window, all the way to the grim Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come.
Some of this is present in other versions, but nowhere else is it as effective. Black and white film helps, but it’s more than that – the mood here is dark, and darkly funny. There is much humour in this version, too many witty moments to list. The best, for my money, is when the undertaker, waiting patiently outside the dying Jacob Marley’s room, explains his presence by stating that “ours is a highly competitive profession.” Coming in a close second is Scrooge’s post-redemption conversation with his mortified housekeeper, Mrs. Dilber, and the moment when the Irish lady in the shelter says to Alice (in gratitude for her kindness), “Cut me throat, rip me liver from down the line, this is the happiest Christmas I ever had.” (It occurs to me that I should start thanking people like that. )
The use of music in the 1951 version is unparalleled in the panoply of cinematic Christmas Carols. (Why, it’s even better than the music in the ‘Scrooge’ musical, which went something like this: “I hate everyone, la la la!”) From Christmas carols, to the recurring use of Barbara Allen – if that song does not make you weep, you have no soul – to the celebratory clanging of ‘Oranges and Lemons’ when we first see the regal Spirit of Christmas Present, to the fiddlers at Fezziwig’s party, to the traditional ‘My Love’s an Arbutus’ which accompanies Scrooge’s visions of his lost love, it all works perfectly.
The cast is extraordinary. No room to list them all, but it is a measure of how well-selected each actor was that a most poignant moment takes place with no words: when Scrooge visits his nephew Fred on Christmas Day, Fred’s maid answers the door. The small nod of encouragement she gives a hesitant Scrooge is perfection. Of course, Sim’s performance as a weary man who feels “too old to change,” brings everything together.
Yes, I know, the 1951 version isn’t true to the novella. Scrooge’s mother didn’t die giving birth to him and Fezziwig’s Christmas parties weren’t all that and blah blah blah. Phooey! You can insist till the figgy pudding is ready that whatever version of ‘A Christmas Carol’ you prefer – the one with the Muppets, or Reginald Owen, or Fonzie, or Patton – is the best. But you’ll be wrong.
I will still, however, wish you a Merry Christmas, in keeping with the situation.