Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Film Review: A Christmas Carol

"A Christmas Carol"  *** (out of ****)

If you were to ask a group of movie fans which film version of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" they thought was the best, there is a very good chance you'd hear the 1951 version starring Alastair Sim mentioned the most. As is usually the case, that wouldn't be my answer.

In my family we watched this 1938 version starring Reginald Owen as Ebenezer Scrooge.

As the story was told to me, Lionel Barrymore used to play the role of Scrooge on the radio every Christmas. Because of the popularity of the radio program, someone thought to make it into a film version and Barrymore was set to play the part. However, due to an illness, Barrymore had to drop out and suggested Reginald Owen play the role, thus, making this one of the first American film adaptations of Dickens' novel.

This version of "A Christmas Carol" was a favorite of my grandmother's. Every Christmas I would watch it with her. As readers know, two years ago she died. This was the first time I have watched this movie since her death. It was a bittersweet experience.

I enjoy this film adaptation. I find the story of Scrooge to be emotional no matter who plays the role. One year I placed Robert Zemeckis' animated version with Jim Carrey on my "top ten" list of the best movies of the year. And I was emotional watching this version again. Emotional because I find the story uplifting and because it made me think of my grandmother and how she and my grandfather are not around this Christmas.

There are those who claim this film, directed by Edwin L. Marin, is not a faithful adaptation. All I can say to that is, that's nice. Tell me another one. I sincerely don't care how faithful this movie or any movie is to a book. If I was that interested, I'd read the book again, not watch a movie based on the book. That of course is the ever long battle which will rage among book lovers who see movie adaptations of their favorite books. Forever and a day they will complain that a movie is not as good as a book. You'd think after a while they would get tired of making the same complaint over and over and over again. But no. Apparently they have good lungs and can complain for hours and days if needed. It's a shame I no longer listen.

Maybe this version does leave a lot out of Dickens' novel. In the end it really doesn't matter. As a film it works. Reginald Owen does a nice job playing the role of Scrooge. And, when necessary, makes us care about his character and experience in his moments of delight and regret. In other words, we are pulled into the story largely thanks to his performance.

For us old-timers Owen was/is a famous character actor. He appeared often in secondary roles playing stiff upper-class Englishmen. He was in two of my all-time favorite movies; "Random Harvest" (1942) with Ronald Coleman and "Mrs. Miniver" (1942) which won a Best Picture Academy Award. He was also in the sequel, "The Miniver Story" (1950), which was not quite as good. As well as the Jack Benny comedy "Charley's Aunt" (1941), the Jean Harlow comedy "Personal Property" (1937, which I have reviewed), the Bob Hope comedy "Monsieur Beaucaire" (1946, which I have reviewed) and the family classic, "Mary Poppins" (1964). So, even if the name doesn't ring a bell, you've seen his face and the movies he has been in.

Playing the role of Bob Cratchit is Gene Lockhart. Another famous character actor to us old-timers. He was in the classic comedy, "His Girl Friday" (1940), a very good Fritz Lang film, "Hangmen Also Die!" (1943) and another holiday classic, "Miracle on 34th Street" (1947).

I don't think I really need to go over the story line for readers so what I will comment on is what I didn't like about the movie. I have already explained what I did like about it. The biggest problem with the movie is it is too short. A little over an hour. It doesn't fully dwell into Scrooge as a man. His transformation is too quick. We need to see more of his pain and sorrow when being visited by the spirits. The movie does a good job establishing his character at the beginning of the movie, but, rushes through everything else.

The Tiny Tim character doesn't break our hearts the way it should. And it is hard to explain Scrooge's sudden heartache for the boy here. I wish the movie would have taken its time setting up these character revelations.

But that's it. I like all the actors in their roles. The direction is fine. The production value decent. The special effects are decent, especially for the time period.

Like a majority of Hollywood Christmas stories, this one has a more secular message. Christmas is a time of holiday cheer. A time to show good will and kindness toward your fellow man and those less fortunate than you. There is no mention of it being a time to celebrate the birth of Christ. Though there is a scene in which we see characters in a church singing.

I don't get mad when the seculars in Hollywood do this. It's fine. It's a nice message even without the mention of religion. Only "The Bishop's Wife" (1947, which I have reviewed) mentions Jesus Christ. Then again, it had to. One of the characters is a Bishop. Surely the Bishop has heard of Jesus, even if it was made in Hollywood.