Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Caftan Woman's Choice - One for December on TCM

Honestly, I don't know how Ben Mankiewicz does it. It's the fourth month of my self-imposed challenge to choose one film to recommend each month from TCM's schedule, and I'm a nervous wreck. December is a month filled with endless movie delights, but if only one movie is watched during the month it must be 1951s A Christmas Carol. I hear you. "Really, Caftan Woman? You must know that we all watch A Christmas Carol and who doesn't love the 1951 feature?" True, but Christmas is a time of tradition, not originality. A Christmas Carol has been a Christmas Eve tradition since my girlhood some fifty-odd years ago and this gives me a chance to sing its praises. It regularly plays on Canadian television on that night, and when VHS tapes hit the market it was my first purchase in case of any unforeseen distractions. It's not Christmas without that annual viewing with a hot pot of tea and something sweet (Nanaimo bars, anyone?).

Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge

It starts with the story and Charles Dickens was one of the best story men of all time. His novels delighted audiences in the 19th century and still do in the 21st. Mankind being what we are, we haven't changed that much. The story of Ebenezer Scrooge shown the path to make his and others lives better by the spirits of the past, present and future is a lesson in faith, hope, charity, redemption and grace that speaks to our core.

Brian Desmond Hurst produced and directed the "potboiler" in the summer of 1951 to cash into the Christmas market, challenging the idea that you have to spend two years in the desert to make a masterpiece. The Irish born Hurst was a veteran of WWI who studied film under John Ford in Hollywood before returning to Europe to create his well-regarded films. Hurst's A Christmas Carol is presented with a sense of authenticity in setting and characterization that sets it apart and above the countless other versions of the story.

Noel Langley adapted the screenplay. His 40 year career on both sides of the Atlantic includes Maytime, Edward, My Son and Shirley Temple's Storybook on television. Some of the changes and nice touches he brought to the story include making Ebenezer the younger brother of Fan and having his mother die in childbirth make a symmetrical connection to the story of nephew Fred. Langley added to the business relationship between Scrooge and Marley. Instead of Ebenezer seeing his lost love enjoying the family life he might have shared, Scrooge saw his former fiance a single woman assisting the poor. When Scrooge asks the Ghost of Christmas Present if the people are real or shadows, the spirit responds "We are the shadows. Did you not cut yourself off from your fellow beings when you lost the love of that gentle creature?" I can't help think that Dickens himself would nod and smile at that line.

Michael Hordern as Jacob Marley's ghost
Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge


The crowning jewel is the casting of Alastair Sim as Scrooge. Sim had been stealing scenes and delighting film and stage audiences for years. They couldn't get enough of his plummy voice, pop eyes and the unique way he had of insinuating himself into a character yet at the same time letting us in on the joy in his work. Michael Hordern (not yet Sir) is truly eerie and heartbreaking as Jacob Marley. Hordern would also play Scrooge in a 1977 TV version of the story. Sim and Hordern would reprise their Scrooge and Marley roles in Richard Williams' stunning 1971 animated version of the story.

One of the most memorable characters is Mrs. Dilber. In the story that is the name used for the laundress, however Langley gave it to the charlady and Kathleen Harrison ran with the role. Ms. Harrison had as long a career as a life, and she lived to be 103, with one of her last television roles in another Dickens adaption when Our Mutual Friend appeared as part of Masterpiece Theatre.

Mervyn Johns is my favourite Bob Cratchit. He plays a sweet soul, but not cloying, who is servile to a mean master only because he must. Hermione Baddeley is a perfect match as the loyal Mrs. Cratchit, and it tickles me to think that in over a decade she would be cavorting with Johns daughter Glynis in Sister Suffragette when Mary Poppins hits the screen. Ernest Thesiger (the infamous Dr. Pretorious from Bride of Frankenstein) is droll as the undertaker and Miles Malleson (the sultan from The Thief of Bagdad) unforgettable as Old Joe the junk man. The entire film is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to Britain's fine character actors. As Old Joe says in the movie, "We're all suitable to our calling."

Glyn Dearman (Tiny Tim), Alastair Sim (Ebenezer Scrooge)
Francis De Wolff (Ghost of Christmas Present)
John Charlesworth (Peter Cratchit), Mervyn Johns (Bob Cratchit)
Hermione Baddeley (Mrs. Cratchit)
Assorted Cratchits champing at the bit for Christmas to begin.

The music for the film is from Richard Addinsell whose popular Warsaw Concerto is from another Hurst film, Dangerous Moonlight. The booming introduction to the movie never fails to produce goose bumps, and the imaginative use of familiar Christmas tunes and of the folk song Barbara Allen as a theme for Fan still brings a tear to my eye. In the Dickens story he mentions only a "familiar air" in relation to Scrooge's sister and the sweetly melancholy Barbara Allen is a perfect choice.



In the story Dickens mentions Sir Roger de Coverley, a traditional Christmas dance tune and it is featured prominently at Fezziwig's party. Our local classic radio station in Toronto has the tune as part of its' Christmas playlist. I never can hear those fiddles start up without hearing Alastair Sim, with excitement in his voice, say "Look, there's Old Fezziwig and Mrs. Fezziwig - top couple." We are back to Mr. Sim whose transformation from "a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner" to "as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man as the good old city knew" is total and touching and real. It is all that is all we can ask and more from any performance of Scrooge and any adaption of A Christmas Carol.

If your 24th is already booked and hasn't room for this personal and Canadian tradition, TCM is screening 1951s A Christmas Carol for the first time on the network on Monday, December 12th at 8:00 pm.


22 comments:

  1. Great choice! This version of A Christmas Carol has always been my mother's favorite. She swears Sim is the best Scrooge ever put to film. Not sure I agree w/her completely ... I like Sim and this film, but I am also inordinately fond of Patrick Stewart's take on the role from 1999!

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  2. I know better than to argue with Patrick Stewart fans, but moms know best (runs and hides).

    Many good actors are drawn to the role and who can blame them?

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  3. Caftan Woman, I've seen and enjoyed bits and pieces of the 1951 version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL on TCM and other channels, but your enthusiastic post convinced me to actually write the date on my calendar so I'd be sure to catch it on TCM next Monday, December 12th! Thanks for recommending it, and thanks for the sprightly music, too!

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  4. Dorian, you are very welcome. Don't forget the hot pot of tea with something sweet to make the viewing experience complete.

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  5. Just a wonderful tribute to a great film, C.W. Of course I watch it every year. Maybe not specifically on Dec. 24th, but at some point for sure.

    And thanks for all the casting tidbits.

    I'm also a fan of Patrick Stewart's Scrooge. :)

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  6. I knew you'd be a fan, Yvette. I imagine you get a little choked up during that little scene with Fred's maid.

    Believe me, I understand the Patrick Stewart love, but I have to take a stand.

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  7. CW, I love your monthly TCM recommendation. This is a perfect pick for the holiday season. Of all the versions of A CHRISTMAS CAROl, this one stands out for one reason: Alastair Sim. He's outstanding here (and in many other fine films like GREEN FOR DANGER and STAGEFRIGHT).

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  8. Thanks so much, Rick.

    A friend of mine saw Sim in a play in London and referred to him as "dear Alastair". He really made an impact on people, and he is Scrooge.

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  9. I like the Sim version, but I'm also fond of the George C Scott version .

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  10. Paul, I think Scott gives a faultless performance in the 1983 version. The director, Clive Donner was the editor of the 1951 version. I guess once "A Christmas Carol" gets into your blood, it's there for good.

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  11. Alastair Sim rules. He IS Ebeneezer scrooge. No substitutions accepted.

    The 1951 version not only has, well Alastair Sim, its perfectly cast in every role.

    We watch it every Christmas.

    God Bless us, everyone.

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  12. This is a holiday must for my family too...we have a whole list of Christmas classics that we watch in December, but generally save this one for close to Christmas. My mother and I agree that Alastair Sim and Kathleen Harrison give perhaps the best performances we've ever seen in a movie. The acting is so good that I can live with the few changes to the story.

    The only weak spot, I think, are the nephew and his wife, whose acting is pretty awful. I've said before that if you could just transplant Barry Mackay and Lynne Carver from the 1938 version you'd have a perfect Christmas Carol.

    And this movie is the reason I love the melody of "Barbara Allen"...it was a red-letter day when I found sheet music and learned to play it myself.

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  13. Elisabeth, I will now think of "Barbara Allen" as your theme song. Merry Christmas to you and your family. I know you'll enjoy this year's viewing of Sim & pals as much as in the past.

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  14. A wonderful post in the Christmas spirit, Caftan. This is THE Christmas movie for me. The R. Owen version is a little too light, and George C. Scott version is a bit too scary, but Sim is magnificent.

    I love to watch his emotions throughout. He is a nasty as can be when approached for a donation, nervous on his way home after dinner, as scared as a little boy as he is confronted by the ghosts, and his joy is boundless in the morning. I especially like the scene at his window as he asks the little boy to buy the turkey for Cratchit.

    BTW, the title of that version of the movie is "Scrooge." And thanks for covering all the Bit Actors!

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  15. this is the best version of the story in my humble opinion Caftan Woman and i'm spreading the word! btw who doesn't get choked up when it comes to that delightful scene with the maid, but does anyone of your acquaintance knows the name of the actress?

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  16. Siencyn, it seems as if everyone loves that young actress who played the maid, but no one (NO ONE!) knows who she is. It's very frustrating. I wonder if she knows or knew what an impact she has made on the audience.

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  17. Siencyn, are you referring to Scrooge's charwoman, Mrs. Dilber? Scrooge and she go 'round when he wakes up, and she runs out of the bedroom and down the stairs. Scrooge promptly gives her a raise in salary.

    Mrs. Dilber was played by Kathleen Harrison (1892 - 1995). She has 108 titles listed in her long career, starting in 1915, up to her final film, The London Connection, in 1979.

    If you are referring to Fred's maid, the very young, pretty girl who silently answers the door for Scrooge on Christmas, I have no idea who that is!

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  18. My fave as well, and Sim is amazingly true to the transformative storyline. It really does have a first-rate supporting caste, even for tiny parts, like the maid at Scrooge's nephew's house - Sim looking back to a servant girl for approval, and she nods and gives it. That Barbara Allen scene is where Sim really sells the complete transformation, once again in a room of crack supporting players. When I was a boy and saw it on TV first time, it wasn't the graveyard scene that got me, it was when the boy Ignorance and girl Want.

    Speaking of TV viewings, sometimes it's hard to catch on the tube at all.

    (BTW, the Addinsell piece is the Warsaw Concerto, a fave of mine, too)

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  19. Yes, the scene at nephew Fred's parlor is terrific. The young maid's face is sublime.
    "Can you forgive a pig-headed old fool; for having no eyes to see with, no hears to hear with all these years?" Not Dickens; but it gets me every time.

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  20. Did you know that during the war, Sim and his wife (who lived in the countryside) took in a boy evacuated from the East End of London named George Cole? It was the beginning of Cole's acting career -- within a few years he played Falstaff's Boy in Olivier's "Henry V". And of course, in this masterpiece he's the young Ebenezer.

    And "Avengers" fans will spot Patrick Macnee as young Marley. I've seen this movie way too many times.

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  21. Vanwall, noted and amended. I knew it was "Warsaw Concerto", but that's what I get for being a fast typist and a slow thinker. Thanks.

    Merry Christmas, Bit Part Blogger.

    Happy Miser, you are going to make me cry by quoting that line.

    Buttermilk Sky, you can't see this movie too many times. I know you'll be back at it next year.

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