Every year it happens. Some time around mid September I see a too-early Christmas-themed TV advert and my inner Scrooge wakes up and says ‘Humbug’. Then, usually in late December, someone puts on the DVD of Brian Desmond Hurst’s 1951 film Scrooge (released as A Christmas Carol in the US) and I wake up to what Christmas is all about.
Although there have been many film versions of Charles Dickens’ masterpiece, in which he pretty much invents our modern secular approach to Christmas, Brian Desmond Hurst’s 1952 version stands head and shoulders above all the others. Orson Wells once said that it was the fate of all films to become old fashioned and this is certainly true of older film versions, which are now curiosities for hard core film buffs. But, through a strange alchemy, Hurst’s film seems to acquire more power with each passing decade.
This is partly because of the perfect adaptation undertaken by the screenwriter Noel Langley (who also did the adaptation on The Wizard of Oz – although on that film he shared credit with others). Langley successfully boils the story down with such consummate professionalism that one is left feeling that the book has been subsumed and no longer needs to be read. But another reason for the film’s increasing emotional impact with each passing year is that the film was made at a time when all the myriad artistic and technical aspects of film were sufficiently advanced that we don’t feel shut out of the film yet it appears, more and more, to actually emanate from the Dickensian age – it feels like the authentic telling of the tale. And this is perhaps not an entirely far fetched notion - as everybody involved in the film would have known people who lived during Dickens’ time and therefore, however tentatively, they still had one little toe dipped in that age.
What is more some of them had ‘Dickensian’ experiences. The director himself was born in East Belfast in 1895 into a working class family. His mother died in 1899 leaving his father to raise six surviving children. At thirteen he had to leave school to work in a linen factory.
Incidentally Brian Desmond Hurst is one of only five British directors to have blue plaques on their houses (the others are David Lean, John Schlesinger, Alexander Mackenderick and Michael Powell) – and should probably be a household name for Scrooge alone.
Hurst’s Scrooge was a box office hit in 1951 and it must have been a joy indeed to see it fresh in a cinema at the time. Perhaps it’s popularity in Britain partly stemmed from the fact that people had been living under wartime austerity conditions for years (meat and food rationing didn’t end until 1954) – conditions which imposed a sort of Scrooge-like regime on people, and the message that it was time for you to loosen up, let go of all the scrimping and saving and indulge a little must have seemed very appealing.
Alastair Sim’s performance as Ebenezer Scrooge is so perfect that Jim Carey had the good taste to steal his characterization and vocal delivery for the 2009 animated version of the same story (sadly Carey’s version is spoiled by excessive sentimentality and pointless CGI spectacle – at one point Scrooge flies to the moon for no reason!) Sim had just been voted Britain’s most popular Film actor when he played Scrooge – a part he was perfect for in every way. Aged fifty-one it took little effort for him to look older and his own personality was not dissimilar to that of Ebenezer after he is transformed by his night of ghoulish encounters. In the film he sings “I don’t know anything, I never did know anything, but now I know that I don’t know – all on a Christmas morning”, a sentiment not far removed from a delightful utterance from the actor himself: “It was revealed to me many years ago with conclusive certainty that I was a fool and that I had always been a fool. Since then I have been as happy as any man has a right to be.”
Another highlight of the film is Mervyn John’s portrayal of Bob Cratchet - one of the most perfectly judged performances in all cinema and one which makes it unbearable to watch more modern versions of the films as they tend to try and milk the emotions, rather than intelligently underplaying them. The scene where Scrooge reveals to Bob Cratchet that he wants to ‘Help raise that family of yours’ makes me weep every time – because Mervyn John’s does not go all cringingly and pathetically grateful – instead he looks frightened – thinking that Scrooge has lost his mind. The poor man has been so ill-treated that madness is the only explanation he can think of for a man suddenly being kind to him. Likewise the scene where he describes how he has found the perfect burial plot for his son Tiny Tim is beautifully judged and brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it. Rather than delivering the speech as someone who is deeply sad he instead delivers it as someone who is thrilled to have found the perfect spot to lay his son’s body to rest. Such intelligent playing against the grain almost certainly comes from Dickens’ writing – like any good writer he avoids writing on the nail of the emotion – but staying true to such things takes courage. It is impossible to know if such decisions were made by the actor or the director but it is remarkable how again and again in modern versions they get it wrong. Emotions are drawn out of audiences when you show characters trying bravely to triumph over adversity and master their emotions, not wallowing in adversity and indulging their emotions.
Also brilliant in the film is Kathleen Harrison as Mrs Dilber, a woman who has been brutalized into utter callousness by the mean bloodless world she inhabits. Harrison's performance is utterly impeccable and the part allows for broader comic moments – such as when she runs screaming from the room when Scrooge threatens to do a handstand in his nightshirt - a golden moment in world cinema. What is so incredible is the way our sympathies for this woman are awoken the moment she becomes the recipient of a bit of human warmth and decency. Even though we know she would have sold the very sheets on his bed when he died we realize that Scrooge's awakened humanity is going to allow her to be the person she should be.
I find it very hard to do justice to this film in writing – and perhaps all I really need to do is recommend the film and leave it at that. I do know that absolutely the best Christmas present you could give yourself is to settle into a big old armchair with a cup of tea and some hot buttered crumpets and watch the 1951 Scrooge without smartphone, ipad or laptop to distract you. I promise you will have a merrier Christmas as a result.
To listen to a podcast documentary about Brian Desmond Hurst click here: http://tinyurl.com/3vme8dq