Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A Christmas Carol: 1938

Although A Christmas Carol with Alastair Sim is my favorite film version of the Charles Dickens story, I've found myself enjoying the 1938 movie with Reginald Owen several times. Filling in for the injured Lionel Barrymore, Owen delivers some lines a little too hurriedly, but captures the essence of the crusty capitalist before, during, and after his transformation.

As a side note, this film mentions that the poor take their dinners to the baker. This was of special interest to me because Elizabeth Gaskell notes the same tradition in Cranford. My edition of the novel explains that the poor used the leftover heat from the baker's morning production to cook. I don't know if this is in the original Dickens story, but it's wonderful to see a small insight into daily life like that in a contemporary book and then in a film produced nearly 80 years later.

This version of the film focuses on the differences between childhood and adulthood, children and adults. When the juvenile Ebenezer is left behind at school for the holidays, he explains haughtily to a departing friend that he is to stay to continue his studies and that Christmas and its traditions are for children. Barely out of childhood, he justifies his father's edict with the grim resignation of an adult. When his sister Fanny comes to retrieve him after his father's reversal of mind, Ebenezer responds with a delight that mirrors Fanny's own. This scene serves as a glimpse into Scrooge's formative years, when he is neither child nor man.

Earlier, both Scrooge's nephew, Fred, and his clerk, Bob Cratchit, had been portrayed as men-children. When he comes upon boys sliding down an icy hill, Fred cannot resist taking a few turns himself, attracting the notice of two of the Cratchit boys. Then, on his way home, Bob Cratchit turns a snowball attack on his formal adult person into a lesson on the fine art of making the perfect snowball. When one of the street urchins announces, "Here comes a topper!" Cratchit gleefully impresses his young friends with the accuracy of his aim—knocking the top hat off his curmudgeonly employer. Within an instant, Cratchit is transformed from impish boy into a careworn—and unemployed—father.

When the Ghost of Christmas Past tries to take Scrooge away from the reawakened memories of his childhood and youth, he demands to stay, like a difficult child. At a party in honor of Fred and his fiancee, Scrooge watches a game of blind man's bluff with the wide eyes of a child (and seems not to notice the couple kissing in the foreground). When the Ghost of Christmas Present tells him it is time to leave, he pettishly refuses, stamping his feet and pounding his fists like the child within himself he is rediscovering.

In contrast, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come takes Scrooge to the relentlessly dark world of adulthood. With the death of Tiny Tim, the ebullient spirit of Bob Cratchit and his family is diminished if not lost. Scrooge's own death brings out only the sarcasm and greed of the "men of business" who are his peers; Scrooge leaves no children behind to mourn him.

By the end, Scrooge finds his inner child, the spirit of openness, generosity, and even fun that makes the poorest of street urchins and the lowliest of clerks happier than he. In his new-found joy, Scrooge gleefully engages an urchin to bring him a prize turkey for the Cratchit table.

Christmas is a time for family and friends and for the unspoiled spirit and wonder of childhood. In this movie, Scrooge becomes a good, even a great man by opening his elderly heart to the child he had never been allowed to be. I would not be surprised if he broke Fred and Peter's record slides on the icy hill.

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