“Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,” said Scrooge. “But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change.”
Of all the tales and morality plays associated with Christmas throughout the years, few are as enduring as Charles Dickens’s immortal “A Christmas Carol,” published on this day in 1843. We love this simple, uplifting story because it offers hope for everyone. No matter how empty or greedy we have lived our lives, there’s always the opportunity for transformation. It’s a story rife with the Christian concepts of unconditional kindness, charity, forgiveness, redemption.
Last year at this time I offered a short list of some of the best Christmas movies and television specials [Christmas in Celluloid (A Short List)]. I included a way-too-brief homage to various film versions of “A Christmas Carol” (often entitled “Scrooge”). For this blog post, I’d like to expand and offer reviews of some of the more notable versions. And at the end, I’ll confess my favorite.
Scrooge (1935), starring Sir Seymour Hicks. Born in 1871, Hicks practically owned the role of Ebenezer Scrooge in the early years of the 20th century. He portrayed Scrooge thousands of times on the British stage, was in a silent film version in 1913, and reprised it for this talkie in 1935.
This film is very smoky and atmospheric. The ghost sequence is downplayed, and there’s a long buildup to emphasize Scrooge’s miserliness. Noteworthy: in addition to his association with the Scrooge part, Hicks produced and wrote his own films, and is famous for hiring a young Alfred Hitchcock to make his directing debut in 1923.
A Christmas Carol (1938) starring Reginald Owen. The first popular talkie version, and it ranks with the best, although this U.S. film took liberties with the Dickens story (e.g. Scrooge’s fiancé is entirely removed). Scrooge was originally to be played by the great Lionel Barrymore, who did it annually on radio, but he was replaced by the lesser-known Owen. Character actor Gene Lockhart portrays Bob Cratchit, and one of the Cratchit children is his daughter June, who later starred in Lassie, Lost in Space, Petticoat Junction, and hosted many “Miss U.S.A.” and “Miss Universe” beauty pageants. Noteworthy: the ghost of Jacob Marley was played by Leo G. Carroll, famous to American TV viewers for his title role in Topper, and as Mr. Waverly in The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
A Christmas Carol (1951) starring Alistair Sim. A number of film critics consider this the all-time best adaptation. For one thing, it’s British rather than American. Also, Sim is a more convincing Scrooge than Owen was. It was very popular in England when released, but didn’t really take off in the U.S. until about 1970. Since then it has been regularly shown on television. Noteworthy: Patrick Macnee, who has a bit part as a young Jacob Marley, later became famous as courtly John Steed in The Avengers English TV show.
Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962). This was the first-ever animated holiday special. For a lot of baby boomers (like me), it was also their first exposure to the Dickens story. Previous to this animated musical, “Mr. Magoo” was a popular cartoon series about a man blissfully unaware he’s legally blind, and who faces recurring disasters but always comes out on top. By today’s standards, the Magoo series was very un-PC, but this animated Christmas musical was well-received, and even today is many people’s favorite version of “A Christmas Carol.” The music by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill, composed on the heels of their score for Funny Girl, was top-caliber. Noteworthy: the voiceover for Mr. Magoo was done by Jim Backus, who later became stranded, as Mr. Howell, on Gilligan’s Isle (he’d earlier played James Dean’s father in the classic movie Rebel Without a Cause).
A Carol for Another Christmas (1964) starring Sterling Hayden and Peter Sellers. Definitely one of the strangest versions, this American TV movie was written by Rod Serling of The Twilight Zone fame during the height of the Cold War. It was loaded with socio-political messages and good intentions, but it came off heavy-handed and depressing. It was broadcast only once, on December 28, 1964, then shelved until Turner Classic Movies (TCM) dusted it off in 2012. Noteworthy: Hayden and Sellers had starred in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove earlier in the year. Other actors included Eva Marie Saint (On the Waterfront) and an awkward Steve Lawrence (of “Steve and Eydie” fame).
Scrooge (1970) starring Albert Finney. Another musical, although this one’s non-animated. This is arguably the most colorful and glittery version of the Christmas classic, with gorgeous cinematography, graphics, special effects, and original songs. It’s great in every way, impeccably produced and directed (by Ronald Neame), with music in classic English music hall tradition (the song “Thank You Very Much” was nominated for an Academy Award). My only criticism is Albert Finney’s acting. Finney’s a great actor, one of the greatest of his generation, but I feel he overacts the part of Scrooge. Nonetheless, this 1970 film is not to be missed. Noteworthy: Sir Alec Guinness, who played Marley’s ghost, had starred in David Lean’s film adaptations of Dickens’s “Great Expectations” and “Oliver Twist” in the 1940s.
A Christmas Carol (1984) starring George C. Scott. Speaking of greatest actors of their generation, here we have Academy Award winner Scott (The Hustler and Patton) taking a turn as everyone’s favorite miser, in a TV adaptation, and earning an Emmy Award in the process. Scott’s acting is, unlike earlier attempts, refreshingly low-key. He’s the “thinking man’s Scrooge,” apt to sneak in a twisted smile here or there for effect. The film is remarkably well-done for a television production. Filmed on location in England, with primarily English actors, it was released theatrically in Great Britain but debuted on CBS in America. Noteworthy: director Clive Donner had been an editor on the 1951 film version.
Other versions, which I haven’t seen so can’t comment on: Scrooged (1988) starring Bill Murray, which is a trendy, U.S. modernization of the tale and received mixed reviews; The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), a live-action musical featuring Michael Caine as Scrooge; and A Christmas Carol (1999) starring Patrick Stewart, who was nominated for a Screen Actor’s Guild Award for his performance.
My personal favorite: a tie between the Albert Finney and George C. Scott versions. In my opinion, Scott’s acting trumps anyone else who portrayed Scrooge, but the Albert Finney version is just so visually and aurally sumptuous.
Now tell me your favorite version of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol”!
(Note: thanks to Wikipedia for most images and some info)
10 thoughts on ““A Christmas Carol” on Film”
Our favorite is the 1951 version. We do also like the 1984 one, but to me it obviously references both the ’51 script, and Scott’s line readings are nearly identical to Sims. Props to the Magoo production as well. Really terrific songs, in a genre (Xmas specials) known for bad music.
Two that are favorites you didn’t mention: It’s a Wonderful Life, and the 3D Disney mo-cap version from 2009, with Jim Carrey.
Wonderful Life is the same story, with the clever twist of having Bob Cratchit (George Bailey) be the man in dire need of redemption via a magical journey, guided by one spirit in this case.
The 2009 film emphasizes more of the ghostly, mystical and scary aspects in the story than any previous version. It’s clear after each ghostly visitation that Scrooge is terrified, and when he finally faces his own grave, it opens to take him straight to HELL, not a cute hell set like in the 1970 Finney version. This helps motivate Scrooge’s Christmas morning giddiness better than most adaptations.
A key to properly adapting Dickens’ novella is to understand that Scrooge deserves pity and forgiveness, because his hard-heartedness comes directly from his having been deeply wounded and emotionally neglected. The versions that can’t manage to convey this psychological aspect well aren’t as emotionally satisfying. We all want to believe we deserve a second chance. And Scrooge isn’t really changing. He’s returning to who he would have been all along if he had been able to forgive and be generous toward those who abandoned and rejected him.
You make some very good points. I’ve seen “It’s a Wonderful Life” and love it, also.
Thank you very much for commenting, and have a Merry Christmas!
I’ll go with Alistair Sim.
His portrayal of Scrooge is the gold standard. Thanks so much for commenting!
All good picks. The image that sticks out in CB’s head is the size of Albert Finney’s wine goblet in the version he was in. Hilarious.
I’ll have to keep an eye out for that goblet come Xmas time!
I like them all except the musical one. The only part I did like about the musical was the song, “Thank you very much sang for when Scrooge died.” My favorite though is A Christmas Carol (1951) starring Alistair Sim. I do not remember which one showed Scrooge in a cold room specially built for him in hell, but that was a neat idea. (This also could have been from the musical one)
Hi Geri. The cold room in hell was in the musical with Albert Finney. I think the Owen, Sim, Magoo, Finney, and Scott versions are all excellent, but the Sim version is generally considered the classic. I probably shouldn’t have included the Rod Serling production, as it’s too weird and dark. The one with Sir Seymour Hicks has a few too many cobwebs, and I’m afraid to even attempt watching any from the last 45 years!
Are you from Branson? Please tell my girlfriend Kathy Lennon I said “Hello”!
I do not remember a Rod Serling version, but I would watch it if it was on TV. Yes I moved to Branson in 2019, and If I run into Kathy Lennon, I will tell her you said hi. By the way, have you ever seen Its a Wonderful Life starring Marlo Thomas?
The Serling production is the very loosely adapted version I wrote about here called “A Carol for Another Christmas.” It’s extremely downbeat and was only shown twice on TV.
No, haven’t seen the Marlo Thomas version, but I love the original. Happy New Year!