The Best ‘Christmas Carol’

By Frank Fedi

The greatest 19th-century novella ever written, “A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas,” was composed in six weeks starting in October 1843 by Charles Dickens and published in time for the holiday. By the author’s own admission, the seeds of the tale germinated from Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle,” in my humble opinion the greatest 19th-century short story ever written, with its ghosts and goblins of olde Dutch New York. 

Further inspiration for Dickens came from his own bleak childhood, when at the age of 12 he was forced to work in a boot black factory, pasting labels on bottles to support the recently vacated head-of-the-household position after his father was incarcerated in debtor’s prison for defaulting his creditors. The story has not been out of print since.

Let’s speculate on which of the surplus population of filmed versions of his immortal classic he might have liked best. So, take my hand and you will be upheld in more than this!

Since 1935 there have been many film adaptations of the beloved tale, from both the United Kingdom and the United States. Which is the best, though? Oy! I can see everyone jumping up and declaring the 1951 British film with Alastair Sim the hands-down best, and you’ll get no argument from me. However, nearly every incarnation has merit, and each has something to offer. Furthermore, it is my intention to convince the reader that there is one that equals or possibly surpasses the 1951 version by which all others are judged. So, before you get your Christmas stockings in a bunch, hear me out. Humbug, you say?

In 1935 Twickenham Studios produced the first fully talking version of the spectral narrative, titled “Scrooge” and starring Seymour Hicks, who was well qualified for the part, having reprised the role countless times on the British stage. In this strange version, concessions had to be made to the 77-minute running time, so the characters of Scrooge’s sister, Fan, and the employer he was first apprenticed to, Fezziwig, were omitted. Marley’s Ghost is seen only on the door knocker for a minute and then is a voice thereafter, but it is interesting to note that it is the voice of Claude (“Casablanca”) Rains in an uncredited role. Thus the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Three years later, MGM released “A Christmas Carol” with a British-born character actor, Reginald Owen, cast in the lead. Bob Cratchit, as played by the lovable Gene Lockhart, was criticized as being too corpulent, rather like an overstuffed Christmas goose, to portray an underpaid, underfed employee of a skinflint like Ebenezer Scrooge. As its running time was only 69 minutes, the powers that be decided to cut the character of Belle Fezziwig, Scrooge’s fiancée, thus removing the epicenter of the plot, that of Scrooge’s choosing mammon over woman and the inherent regrets that accompany it. At the crossroads of avarice or amour, Scrooge selects the former, and he is thus catapulted down the road of solitary coldhearted businessman. The absence of a loving lifelong companion creates in him an eternal bitterness toward all mankind. 

Which brings us to the 1951 masterpiece. Released in England, where it was produced, as “Scrooge” and in the U.S. as “A Christmas Carol,” it was the longest and most faithful adaptation yet. The film introduced elements that were not in the book, however, such as the suggestion that Scrooge’s sister, Fan, died giving birth to his nephew, Fred, thus offering a reason why the boy’s uncle never accepted any yearly invitations to holiday get-togethers.

In addition, the film has it that Scrooge’s mother died giving birth to him, this being the sole reason for his father’s utter contempt for his only son. This angle would be adopted in all subsequent reincarnations, and one must admit that both deviations enhance the narrative. 

Why is this version the standard to which all others are compared? Alastair Sim, that’s why. Sim plays Scrooge as a sympathetic, tired old personage who is self-admittedly beyond redemption or reclamation. His transition from cold, mean penny-pincher on Christmas Eve to gleeful, giddy benefactor on Christmas Day is nothing short of triumphant. Dickens would have loved this film.

In 1977, the BBC aired a 58-minute version with the inimitable character actor Michael Hordern in the role of Scrooge. This all but forgotten quickie can be found in an eight-DVD boxed set titled “The Charles Dickens Collection.” All the actors involved are brilliant, and you get Bernard Lee as the Ghost of Christmas Present and the mercurial actress Zelah Clarke (the best Jane Eyre?) as the eldest Cratchit offspring, Martha. Seek this one out. It’s worth it if only for the John Le Mesurier rendition of a tired, forlorn Marley’s Ghost.

The 1984 redux coulda been a contender but for the ghastly casting of the wooden, stilted George C. Scott as Scrooge. It was released as a TV movie in the U.S., and we do get Edward Woodward as the Ghost of Christmas Present, and a jollier bloke you’ll never see. But best of all is Frank Finlay as Marley’s Ghost, without a doubt the most jaw-dropping (literally) acting tour de force in any of the films.

Hallmark released a version in 1999 with Patrick Stewart as the grump. Though fairly straightforward, it is the only one to include a long-forgotten passage in the novella regarding sailors, coal miners, and a lighthouse, and for that alone it is worth a look.

In 2004 Hallmark produced a nearly 100-percent musical, with Scrooge played by Kelsey Grammer, who hobbles about as though he has plum pudding rolling around in his britches. This musical is annoying and the songs unmemorable. The one interesting scene not found in any other version or the book is one in a court in which Scrooge’s father gets convicted of not being able to pay his creditors and is sentenced to debtor’s prison. Young Ebenezer is present, and as his father is being hauled away he can hear his pleas to make a fortune and keep it, thus setting up a lifelong deep-rooted belief in avarice.

In 2012 October Eleven Pictures released the only adaptation that cannot be considered a family film, and this atmospheric, dreamy, spooky, mesmerizing ghost story is no doubt what Dickens had in mind when he penned his classic. Complete with an eerie score by Michael Richard Plowman and Moya Brennan, lead singer of the Irish band Clannad and sister of the new age artist and more famous Enya, this film is way better than the ratings it receives on IMDB.

In fact, I love this near-horror film. It has perfect casting and tremendous acting by an admittedly unknown troupe of Irish and English players and a clever script that blends traditional Dickens dialogue with a touch of Shakespearean language, which results in a wholly fresh take on a tired genre of retreads. I urge the viewer to watch with the captions on. Give it a chance on a windswept and stormy, if not silent, night.

And finally, I will make a case for the best “Christmas Carol.” The 1970 British semi-musical “Scrooge” is a forgotten masterpiece, so unwrap it this Christmas. The great Albert Finney won a Golden Globe for best actor for his portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge, the best Scrooge ever. Directed by Ronald Neame with a score by Leslie Bricusse, this 113-minute film allows the story to finally be fully fleshed out. The songs are infectious and memorable and the supporting cast staggering. In one hilarious segment we visit Marley’s Ghost, played by none other than Alec Guinness, in hell, where a special room has been allocated for Scrooge because of the enormity of his karmic chain. 

One of the tunes, “Thank You Very Much,” won an Academy Award for best song. It refers to Scrooge’s dying and relinquishing all debts owed to him. He witnesses the townsfolk joyfully singing this tune and parading through the streets of London, unaware that he is the object of their merry derision. In fact, Scrooge joins in the dance and festivities celebrating his own demise.

The film’s most soulful element is a segue into the loss of his fiancée, Belle (Suzanne Neve), through flashbacks to their courtship. The viewer realizes what Scrooge has given up in the name of financial gain: love and a woman who loved him, something he will never again attain. 

Best of all is Tiny Tim (Richard Beaumont), who is without debate the most tear-inspiring of them all. When asked by his beleaguered but always mirthful father as they look in a toy store window which toy he would pick if he could pick one, Tim replies with the wisdom of a sage, “All of ’em.” His father asks why all of them and not just one, and Tim philosophizes, if he can’t have none of ’em, he may as well have ’em all. (Moist eyes.) 

Give this film a long look and don’t shy away because it’s a musical. After all, a carol is a song!

“God bless us, every one.” — Tiny Tim

Frank Fedi, a former poker columnist for The Star, lives in Sag Harbor.