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Scrooge Month Day 2: Alastair Sim in A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1951)

Christmas Carol 1951Director: Brian Desmond-Hurst

Writer: Noel Langley, based on the novel by Charles Dickens

Cast: Alastair Sim, Mervyn Jones, Kathleen Harrison, Hermione Braddeley, Michael Hordern, Rona Anderson, Francis de Wolff, Carol Marsh, Brian Worth, Michael Dolan, Glyn Dearman, Roddy Hughes, C. Konarski, Peter Bull

Notes: This well-known version of the story was released in the UK as Scrooge. Although originally slated to have its US premiere at Radio City Music Hall, it was rejected for being “too grim.” Evidently, the Radio City folks didn’t know what they were getting into when they booked the most well-known Christmas ghost story of all time. The movie wound up having its premiere at a different theater, on Halloween night. A colorized version was released in 1989, as part of Ted Turner’s ongoing pact with Satan.

Thoughts: Another fairly straightforward production of A Christmas Carol today, friends, although we’re getting into some of the most well-remembered versions now. The Alastair Sim Scrooge has been considered a classic for sixty years, and with good reason. His depiction of the character is remarkable, and the rest of the cast is quite impressive as well. Glyn Dearman’s Tiny Tim, for instance, is much more convincing than the one we saw in the Seymour Hicks film, whose perfect hair and chipper tone made it somewhat difficult to believe we were looking at a child on death’s door. Michael Hordern as Marley is notable as well – he has this distant, forlorn keening in his voice that makes it really easy to accept he’s spent the last seven years suffering torment for the sins of his life… and that he knows he has an eternity more to look forward to.

This version ratchets up the spooky very well, starting with Marley. He shows Scrooge visions of other tormented souls, a nice shot of toiling, despairing ghosts imposed over Alastair Sim that really has a haunting quality to it. No wonder Radio City thought this movie might freak people out.

This time around get see a story that really plays up Scrooge’s relationship to his sister, Fan (Carol Marsh). I’ve always liked when a version of this story gives her the proper respect. Early on we see her talking to Scrooge about their father, and how he’s kinder now than he used to be; Scrooge later comments how much of Fan he sees in his nephew, Fred. In this production Fan dies giving birth to her son, something that wasn’t stated in the Dickens book, but that has passed into many of the versions of the story since then. Fan even calls Scrooge to her deathbed, but he storms out in a rage when he hears the baby cry. He never hears Fan’s last words, in which she begs him to take care for Fred, until Christmas Past shows the moment to him, and Old Scrooge breaks down in tears, begging for forgiveness.

The reason this works for me is purely character-focused. Fan was a ray of light in what was obviously a very gloomy childhood, and her death is one of the clearest events that could have caused Scrooge’s slide away from the good young man he was into the cold old man he became. What’s more, by connecting her death to Fred’s birth, we’ve also got a rock-solid reason for Scrooge’s distance from his only remaining family: not only does he blame Fred for the death of his beloved sister, but seeing so much of her in the young man he becomes is no doubt painful for Scrooge. Every minute he looks at Fred, he’s reminded of his beloved sister’s death. Hell, when viewed through that prism, who could blame him for not wanting to spend Christmas with Fred’s family?

This version spends more time with Christmas Past than most others, even taking us to Marley’s deathbed, at which point Scrooge has already become a miserable old miser. Before Marley dies, though, he whispers to Scrooge that they were “wrong” – he’s realized his mistake before he dies, but too late to do anything about it. This focus on the past really works well, showing Scrooge his own fall so that he can fully understand the mistakes he made in his life. Most versions of the story pluck out different highlights that force the viewer to merely assume that Scrooge turned into a bigger jerk in-between each scene we actually get to see. Here, the changes are apparent. When Christmas Present (Francis de Wolff) finally shows up, Scrooge already realizes he’s made terrible choices in his life. The Present serves mostly to show him that those decisions go beyond ruining himself, and indeed carry a heavy cost for those around him as well.

The way Sim plays his interaction with Christmas Yet to Come is pretty unique. He begs the Spirit to leave him be, not because he’s unwilling to change, but because he’s “too old to change.” What’s more the way he says it sounds sincere, not like someone just making an excuse. I don’t know that I’ve seen any other versions of A Christmas Carol that put this particular spin on Scrooge (although now that I’ve said that I’ll probably find exactly that thing next Thursday or something). Taking this approach changes the story just a little. When you combine it with the earlier scenes with Fan, we now see Ebenezer Scrooge as a man craving stability. Why did he run before his sister died? Why did he drive away Alice (changed from “Belle” for some reason) before they could be married? Why, even now, does he cling to his horrible ways, even after he has come to accept how horrible they are? Because anything else would require something different, and that’s something Scrooge is unequipped to deal with. With just a few lines, screenwriter Noel Langley gave Dickens’s story a much different subtext than we usually get.

In the end, this all leads to a beautiful transformation: Scrooge sits in his counting house, berating himself because he doesn’t deserve such happiness, but laughing all the time because, with the goodness he’s managed to find within himself, he simply can’t help it. This version perfectly encapsulates the real meaning of Dickens’s work: it is, first and foremost, a story of redemption, which is tailor-made for Christmas.

This is, simply stated, one of the real classic versions of A Christmas Carol, and with good reason. It’s a great cast with a take on the characters that’s just slightly off-center, while still being fully respectful of the story Charles Dickens told back in 1843. That’s not easy to pull off, but director Brian Desmond-Hurst and his actors handled the task with style.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Superman Week Day 2: George Reeves in Superman and the Mole-Men (1951)

Superman and the Mole MenDirector: Lee Sholem

Writer: Robert Maxwell

Cast: George Reeves, Phyllis Coates, Jeff Corey, Walter Reed, J. Farrell MacDonald, Stanley Andrews

Plot: Daily Planet reporters Lois Lane and Clark Kent (Phyllis Coates and George Reeves) are sent to cover the opening of the deepest oil well in the world, but arrive to find that unknown problems in the drill shaft have caused the company to shut the oil well down. As the two of them find rooms at a local hotel for the night, the oil shaft is opened from the inside and two bizarre creatures stumble out. In the morning, Clark and Lois arrive back at the oil shaft to find the night watchmen dead, frightened to death Lois glimpses one of the creatures, but Clark and the oil rig’s foreman are skeptical of her claim. The foreman confesses to Earth that the super-deep drill hadn’t struck oil as planned, but phosphorescent radium, then burst into an enormous hollow area deep beneath the Earth’s surface.

The two Mole creatures are spotted in town and an angry mob forms, planning to hunt them down. Switching his clothes to his Superman uniform, the man of steel races the mob, led by Luke Benson (Jeff Corey). The Mole Men have already escaped, and Superman’s effort to placate the mob is only partially successful – several of them head out that night and find the Mole creatures atop the town dam. One of the Mole Men is shot, and Superman catches him in the air, racing him to the hospital, while the other escapes. Benson’s mob chases the remaining Mole creature to a shack, trapping him, then set the building on fire. He narrowly escapes, but Benson believes him dead, allowing him to return to the drill shaft and slip back underground.

At the hospital, the doctor is afraid to operate on the Mole Man due to the radiation, and Benson is assembling his mob again again. Superman faces down the mob, and the second creature returns from the drill shaft with reinforcements and a weapon. They approach Superman, who realizes they’ve only come to rescue the wounded creature. Benson tries to attack them, and they turn their weapon on him, but Superman saves him. He helps the Mole Men return to the drill shaft, which they destroy from within. No one will ever disturb the Mole Men again.

Thoughts: After two movie serials starring Kirk Alyn, this short movie (only 58 minutes) was made as a sort of test for the proposed Adventures of Superman TV show. The show was given the greenlight and this movie was heavily edited and shown on television as the last two episodes of the first season. These days, such a thing would be really obvious, but at the time, the production values of a TV show versus a B-movie weren’t really that disparate from each other… I’m sure a lot of the audience never even knew.

The film absolutely presumes audience familiarity with the characters. Aside from a short bit of voiceover at the beginning, it doesn’t waste any time with Superman’s origin or establishing Clark Kent’s life at the Planet. In fact, except for Lois Lane, none of the other characters who would be regulars on the TV show make an appearance at all. Reeves and Coates are cut from the same cloth as Kirk Alyn and Noel Neill, who filled those roles just the previous year  (and Neill would replace Coates on the TV show after the first season). Reeves is the square-jawed paragon of heroism that we all expect Superman to be – strong and bold. Like Alyn, his Clark Kent is earnest, but he also has a bit of swagger, a bit of cockiness that we don’t often see in Superman. He’s not a jerk or anything, but neither is he the oafish, bumbling Clark Kent later adaptations would have. Reeves’s Clark is virtually the same character as his Superman, just with a change of clothes. As the TV show progressed over the next few years, he began to adopt a real sense of tongue-in-cheek humor, a bit of a wink at the camera, but in this early appearance we don’t see any of that.

All things considered, there’s surprisingly little Superman in this movie. If you skip the opening narration, Reeves doesn’t put on the famous costume until 24 minutes in (and I remind you, the total running time is just 58 minutes). If a viewer somehow didn’t know who “Clark Kent” and “Lois Lane” are, they could easily think this was just another “monsters from beneath the Earth” sci-fi flick like hundreds of others being turned out at the time. This falls into the edict of the TV producers, I suppose – there was a rule on the show that Superman didn’t show up until the third act. This limited the need for special effects (a term used here loosely), but also helped force Reeves’s Clark into being a tougher character, otherwise the audience probably couldn’t have stood him for that long. The best effect in the film, by the way, are the bursts of light when the Mole Men try to zap Benson… it wasn’t much of a wad, but they blew it at the end.

Coates is a passable Lois Lane, but doesn’t quite have the energy that Neill (and later actresses) brought to the role. She moves the story along and doesn’t embarrass the character, but at the same time, she doesn’t really keep pace with Superman the way you’d want her to. She has a brief exchange with Clark, berating him for always disappearing when there’s trouble and completely missing the obvious answer, even when he slips and says “I” saved one of the Mole Men before correcting himself to “Superman.” It’s stuff like this that sometimes gets Lois branded as less of formidable woman than she deserves to be.

The Mole Men themselves, visually at least, are probably the least-effective thing about this film. They’re creepy, to be certain, but that mostly comes through their odd way of moving and the expressions on their faces. Like so many science fiction movies of the era, the monsters look like actors in bizarre suits, covered in fur and wearing skullcaps that make them look less human, but not totally convincing as monsters.

From a story standpoint, though, the Mole Men work much better than the makeup budget allows. There’s a hint of tragedy to them. They’re never portrayed as evil or even accidentally menacing – they’re simply creatures taken from their own world and placed in one where they don’t belong. Even at the end, when they fight back, it feels much more like self-defense, like a rescue mission, than it does an intentional threat. The scene where they meet the little girl has echoes of the Universal Frankenstein, while the agonized face of the creature trapped in the burning shack reminds me of nothing so much as Tod Browning’s Freaks from 1932. Like the people in that film, you sympathize with the creature far more than the people who torment him.

In the end, the biggest reason to watch this movie is for Reeves. Both as Clark Kent and as Superman, he’s got a strength and a commanding presence, a clear-headed rationality that the character deserves. Reeves was wonderful in this role, even if it did weigh down upon him for the rest of his life. That life ended tragically, of course, and one will always have to question how much of that tragedy was a result of his association with his most famous role… but as a Superman fan, we can only be grateful to have had a performer this early who embodied the hero so well.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!