Several weeks ago on social media, a group of friends and I were debating which actor has played the best Ebenezer Scrooge in the many film versions of Charles Dickens’ classic “A Christmas Carol.” Several names were noted, like Reginald Owen in the 1938 version, or George C. Scott in the 1984 made for television version or even Albert Finney in the 1970 musical version. Later I even remembered Michael Caine in 1992 “Muppets Christmas Carol” or even Bill Murray in the modernized “Scrooged” from 1988.
But the nearly unanimous choice was Alastair Sim’s Scrooge in director Brian Desmond-Hurst’s “A Christmas Carol”, a film which was called “Scrooge” in Great Britain. This adaptation by Noel Langley, who was the lead screenwriter of the adaptation of “The Wizard of Oz”, is now considered by most as the definitive version of Dicken’s classic story of Christmas redemption.
Scottish actor Alastair Sim was known mostly for his wartime light British comedies and detective dramas of the 1940s. His characters had a definite screen presence; with his bald head and distinct vocal diction he had the most expressive facial features. And with his piercing eyes he could switch from stern frowns to joyous smiles.
Sim is simply fabulous as the mean, nasty, then frightened, and later revitalized, reformed Scrooge. At first we witness Sim’s Scrooge at his most nasty, labeling Christmas as “humbug” and refusing to give help to the poor, declaring they should “die, and decrease the surface population.” From his initial Christmas Eve visit by the Spirit of Christmas Past as he’s shown various poor people, a past sweetheart named Alice, and other suffering people, he shows little concern.
Later the Spirit of Christmas Present shows Scrooge poor miners celebrating the season and Bob Cratchit’s family joyously gathering for a Christmas feast, with poor Tiny Tim struggling to get along. Scrooge begins to express sympathy for the crippled boy and asks if he’ll live, when the Spirit reminds him of his words, “They should die and reduce the surface population.” Bob even offers a toast to Mr. Scrooge, despite his family’s protests. Then later Scrooge’s nephew Fred, who invited him to Christmas dinner, wonders whether his uncle could one day reform. All through these events Sim’s Scrooge begins showing a sense of fear and apprehension for his past deeds.
Finally, the silent and black cloaked Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come challenges Scrooge to see he potential horrors of the future. The Cratchits are shown mourning Tiny Tim’s passing and the spirit points ominously toward a grave site that has Scrooge’s name on it. Sim emotes with deep regret and sorrow as he tells the Spirit, “I’m not the man I was!”
And as he awakes on Christmas Day to discover he had experienced a night of awful dreams, Sim becomes gleeful and joyously spreads his newfound Christmas cheer all around, first, frightening his housemaid Mrs. Dilber, purchasing a prize turkey for the Cratchits and even surprising his nephew Fred for Christmas dinner.
Besides Sim’s wondrous performance, the film features several actors whose careers would flourish on television and feature films. Michael Horden, who’d appear in many British films in the ‘60s and ‘70s, is the ghost of Jacob Marley. Peter Bull, who was known as the Russian ambassador in “Dr. Strangelove”, narrates the film’s story. Hermione Baddeley, who’d later be famous as Maude’s housemaid in the popular 1970s tv series, is Mrs. Cratchit. And Patrick Macnee who came to fame as John Steed in the 1960’s popular British spy series “The Avengers”, is young Jacob Marley.
The film’s wonderful visual style, featuring C. M. Pennington-Richards’ rich black and white cinematography, is brought back to life in new blu ray versions of the film, also. Clive Donner, who is the film’s editor, would later direct the television version of “A Christmas Carol” with George C. Scott. But dear old Alastair Sim is the main reason you should see this amazing old version of “The Christmas Carol” this holiday season.