You have to wonder if Charles Dickens had the slightest idea while writing it that A Christmas Carol (published in 1843) would become, almost certainly, the most frequently adapted novel of all time. Within a year of its publication there were multiple stage productions, none of them authorized by Dickens, and the author himself gave hundreds of public readings of the book in England and America until his death in 1870. The first film version came just after the turn of the 20th century, and there have been dozens on the screen and on television (and, during its heyday, on radio) ever since, including multiple musical and even operatic versions. The role of the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge has been played by everyone from Lionel Barrymore to Jim Carrey, from Basil Rathbone to Kathleen Turner, from Yosemite Sam to Barbie.
This article is primarily about the 1935 British film titled Scrooge. I should say that my favorite versions of the story (and I’ve seen a lot) are the 1951 British film (titled Scrooge in the U.K. and, until very recently, A Christmas Carol in the U.S.) starring the great Scottish character actor Alastair Sim, and the 1962 American television cartoon Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol, with voices provided by Jim Backus, Jack Cassidy and Morey Amsterdam.
The Sim version is beautifully atmospheric and has superb performances by pretty much everyone in the cast, particularly Sim, whose tall, gaunt, acerbically witty Scrooge has been my model for the character ever since I first saw the movie as a small child. It also made an attempt, in a few scenes not in the original book, to explain the motivations behind Scrooge’s personality. There are a few technical problems in the film, like unconvincing special effects and a technician whose reflection is caught in a mirror while Scrooge is looking in it, but by and large it’s the best film version to be had.
Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol switches the order of two of the ghosts (Present comes before Past here, for some reason), but considering that the lead role is played by a cartoon character famous for his farcical nearsightedness, it’s astonishingly good. The animation – particularly the background art – is intentionally slightly abstract, the framework of the story (apart from the abovementioned switch) is mostly intact, and the hour-long film has an unusually first-rate score by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill, who wrote the hit Broadway musical Funny Girl. Years after seeing it, I could still remember most of the songs, as well as the intense joy and wonder I felt at its first broadcast, when I was seven.
What the 1935 film of Scrooge has going for it is the performance of Sir Seymour Hicks in the title role. (He was knighted the same year that the film was released, although not specifically for that reason.) Physically, Hicks is the opposite of Sim: short, stumpy, with a weathered face that looks as if it’s been through many miserable winters. He’s also even more misanthropic than Sim, who seems to enjoy a little verbal sparring with his visitors, living or dead. There’s no fuss about trying to figure out why Scrooge is so mean – he just is. And he’s quicker to start reforming – in fact, he’s almost eager to go with the ghosts to become a better person, whereas even by the time Sim meets up with the terrifying Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, he’s asking the spectre, “Wouldn’t it be better if I just went home to bed?”
The print I watched of the 1935 film is slightly abridged and a little furry-looking, which adds to its atmosphere of fairly intense gloom. The film itself has some serious idiosyncrasies, the most important of which (to my eyes) is a long, elaborate, very expensive sequence near the beginning that has no counterpart in the book. After Scrooge has closed up shop for the night and gone to a nearby chophouse for a cheap dinner, we see a lavish dinner at the Lord Mayor’s house, with the camera pulling slowly back to reveal tables covered with elegant food and drink and silverware, and surrounded by dozens of costumed extras holding up their glasses and singing “God Save the Queen”. This is intercut with scenes of the cooks toiling away in the gigantic kitchen, and further scenes of poor children hanging outside the windows hoping for a few scraps from the dinner table. I don’t know this, but I suspect that the set and costumes (and even the performers) for this scene were being used in another film at the same studio at the same time, and the producers of Scrooge decided to take advantage of them. Whatever the reason, it’s a reminder that this film, like the original book, came out at a time of serious economic and social problems in England.
The other major idiosyncrasy is the treatment of the spirits: we never actually see Marley’s Ghost, the Ghost of Christmas Past is a kind of halo, and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is a silhouetted hand. We do see the Ghost of Christmas Present, who is morbidly obese, gluttonous, and grumpy rather than jovial. The invisibility of Marley’s Ghost means that Scrooge seems (like Clint Eastwood) to be having a long conversation with a chair. The voice of Marley’s Ghost, although uncredited, is pretty clearly that of Claude Rains, who had become famous a couple of years earlier as The Invisible Man.
This Scrooge also cuts out a lot of important scenes from the book, particularly those introduced by the Ghost of Christmas Past. Instead, we get a scene of nasty younger Scrooge refusing to give a young couple any more time to pay back their loan (the young husband is Maurice Evans, who went on to become a highly regarded Shakespearean actor in America, as well as Samantha’s father in the series Bewitched). This is witnessed by Scrooge’s fiancée Belle, who gives him a good talking-to and angrily returns his engagement ring. (In the Mr. Magoo version, Belle gets to sing the most beautiful song in the show, “Winter Was Warm.”) Then we see Belle again, looking no older but surrounded by her husband and at least twenty of their children, all of whom seem to be about the same age. It made me think that maybe Scrooge dodged a bullet there.
There are a number of lovely moments in this film, particularly after Scrooge’s reformation, when he visits the nephew he had scolded and “Bah, humbug”-ed earlier in the film and is invited in to dinner. At one point, Scrooge goes over to look at the Christmas tree and his eyes tear up with regret. The scene of the housekeepers selling off Scrooge’s belongings after his death is actually very unsettling – the lighting and camera angles are very expressionistic, and the actors all seem to emit a whiff of evil. (This scene is played a little more for laughs in the Sim film, and entirely for laughs in the Mr. Magoo version, where it’s the occasion for a song titled “We’re Despicable”.)
In general, though, the 1935 Scrooge seems primitive and disjointed in comparison with the others, and primarily notable for the lead performance by Seymour Hicks.
Even if he had never made this film, Seymour Hicks would probably be noted as the actor who had played Ebenezer Scrooge more often than anyone else in theatrical history. This wasn’t even the first time he’d played the role in a film. That was in 1913 and, of course, silent. But he’d begun his Scrooge career in 1901, when he was 30 years old, and played the role literally thousands of times before his death in 1949.
Hicks is largely forgotten today, but he was a major figure in the English theater in the decades around the beginning of the 20th century. In addition to being an actor, he wrote and produced over sixty farces and musical comedies (generally with lead roles for himself and his wife Ellaline), from whose earnings he built two London theaters that are still in operation: the Aldwych Theatre in 1905, and the Hicks Theatre (now the Gielgud Theatre) in 1906.