Monday, December 5, 2016

Dec 3 - A Christmas Carol (1938)

Okay, now it's starting to get interesting since it's possible to genuinely compare and contrast the adaptations. This is a very good one, it stumbles in a couple areas but it's an improvement over Scrooge (1935) in several ways.

Best of all is characters are fleshed out a little more and feel more real. Scenes have more breathing room and appear like actual interactions with real humans and not just actors hammering through dialogue without much sincerity behind the delivery or proper reactions. When Scrooge suggests that Christmas revelers should be boiled in pudding, Fred is horrified and it's not just a silly line that gets shrugged off in an instant. Fred is the real hero of this adaptation, he's given some more screen time as a kind of bridge between Ebenezer's current bitter, isolated state and the younger man he was. A reminder of the most powerful love he has probably ever felt, for Fred's mother and Scrooge's sister-Fan. A love that died long ago. Most adaptations seem to focus too heavily on Bob and Tim Cratchit and overlook Fred's importance in the story of Scrooge's redemption.

Speaking of Fan, this is the first time we see Scrooge as a child during the first ghost's visit. A boy abandoned away at school by a father who saw his education more important than forming or maintaining strong familial bonds. No other movies thus far have conveyed very well why Scrooge might have turned out how he did, judging from the information they give the audience, you'd just assume Scrooge's first words were bah and humbug.

Unfortunately, the Ghost of Christmas Past fails to remind Scrooge of Belle, his one-time fiancee who left Scrooge when it became clear that his money was more beloved than she was. Even in the novel, there's not a lot explaining the transition between being a young homesick man who loves his family and the greedy miser who slowly forces all of his non-business relations away. So to lose Belle and this significant piece of his puzzle is disappointing. In most of the adaptations, I don't think the redemption comes across as very real, it just kinda happens because it has to. Surely Scrooge has a concept of what being poor is. And he knows he is generally despised by the world and will die alone. But the ghosts show him a quick peek into the Cratchit home and his own gravestone and he flips out like they're the most knee-buckling revelations in the history of the world. Scrooge isn't a dumb or oblivious character who doesn't realize how isolated he has made himself with his personality or fails to understand how the world and economy works...someone like that could be won over by a fly-on-the-wall glimpse into how people talk about him. Scrooge's redemption needs a little more work to feel truly earned. They don't nail it here, but they get close.

The Past segment does, however, get a million points for being sure to include a scene with the character who has perhaps the best surname in all of fiction, young Scrooge's employer Mr. Fezziwig.

Backtracking some now that the Fred thread I was on has kinda wrapped up... back to the first ghost. Jacob Marley is really well done here. Head bandaged up and dragging chains just like he should be. His cacophonous entry is exactly as harsh and unsettling as it should be. The production values are very high. Lots of camera movement and some inventive, Citizen Kane-esque shots. The special effects are wonderful, at one moment with Marley, Scrooge walks around and in front of the transparent ghost...very well done for the time.

The production value in some ways is almost too high, though. It no longer feels like a filmed play since the sets are more expansive than in earlier movies, but they also feel flatter and too clean and shiny. No one feels very poverty stricken. The Cratchits have a large home and cavort in matching, brilliant white dressing gowns. Bob Cratchit is a fairly fat fellow, which doesn't seem right at all. So some of those details, which seem like they should be obvious catches, are overlooked and hurt the final score.

Worth noting is while this version is only an hour long, they felt the need to invent some scenes. There's a near-subplot where Fred likes sliding on the icy sidewalks and breaking distance records. And after leaving Scrooge's on Christmas Eve, Bob Cratchit joins in snowball throwing with some children on the street, hits Scrooge as he walks home and is fired. It's a small addition that really doesn't change much in the overall story, so I don't know why it was worth shoehorning in.

Lastly, there are some awkward, oddly sexual scenes with the Cratchits that struck me as funny. After Cratchit arrives home he makes all the children dig in his pockets like a gaze of rabid raccoons for the chestnuts he just bought. When the children first see the hot goose laid on the dinner table, they're transfixed with looks that can only be described as lustful. And Tiny Tim, speaking before he can catch himself, says, "I..I want to stroke it..." Very strange.

Watch it on YouTube
  1. A Christmas Carol (1938)
  2. Scrooge (1935)
  3. A Christmas Carol (1910)
  4. Scrooge, or, Marley's Ghost (1901)

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