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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!

DRACULA WEEK DAY 2: Christopher Lee in Horror of Dracula (1958)

Horror of DraculaDirector: Terence Fisher

Writer: Jimmy Sangster, based on the novel by Bram Stoker

Cast: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Michael Gough, Melissa Stribling, Carol Marsh, Olga Dickie, John Van Eyssen, Valerie Gaunt, Charles Lloyd Pack, Barbara Archer, Janina Faye

Plot: Librarian Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) is called to Castle Dracula by its mysterious count (Christopher Lee). He encounters a strange woman (Valerie Gaunt) who begs him to help her escape, but she flees as Dracula makes his appearance. Dracula has summoned Harker to index his enormous collection of books, and encourages him to make the castle his home as he works. As Dracula leaves him, Harker pens a journal entry that reveals his true intention – to end the Count’s reign of terror forever. That night, he again encounters the strange woman from before, and she again begs his help, only to bite him on the neck. As she does so Dracula appears, blood on his mouth, and he attacks the woman. Harker grapples with the Count, but is defeated, and Dracula takes the woman away. Harker wakes up in his bedroom the next morning, a pair of fang-marks on his neck, and decides he must exterminate Dracula before sundown. He finds the crypt and drives a stake through the vampire woman’s heart, awakening Dracula just as the sun goes down. Dracula seals Harker in the tomb.

Some time later Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) stops at a tavern, seeking word of the missing Harker. A tavern girl gives the Doctor a book she found – Harker’s journal. He finds Castle Dracula and the bodies of both the vampire woman and Harker. Van Helsing returns to Harker’s bedridden fiancé, Lucy (Carol Marsh) to tell her of Harker’s death, but her brother Arthur (Michael Gough) and his wife Mina (Melissa Stribling) hide the truth from Lucy, unaware that she is already being visited by Dracula in the night. He is biting her, draining her slowly, preparing her to become his new thrall.

As Lucy is treated for what her doctors believe to be anemia, Van Helsing recognizes the symptoms of a vampire attack. He orders the windows in her room shut at night and the room filled with garlic cloves. At Lucy’s behest, though, her housekeeper (Olga Dickie) opens the windows and removes the garlic. In the morning, Lucy is found dead. Later, the housekeeper’s daughter Tania (Janina Faye) claims to have encountered her dead “Aunt Lucy.” Arthur goes to her tomb that night and finds it empty. Lucy, now a vampire, summons the child to her and they encounter Arthur. Van Helsing saves him and stakes Lucy, sending her to a true rest. Arthur gives Mina a cross to wear, but upon touching it she shouts and collapses, the cross burned into her flesh. She, too, has been touched by the vampire.

That night, Dracula comes for Mina again, draining her so completely Van Helsing has to give her a transfusion of blood from Arthur. Van Helsing finds Dracula’s coffin in the cellar, but the Count takes the moment of distraction to take Mina and flee. They chase him back to Castle Dracula, where Van Helsing exposes him to the light of the sun. Dracula shrivels and turns to dust, his reign of terror ending… until the sequel.

Thoughts: It is utterly unforgivable that I’ve been conducting these movie studies for three consecutive Octobers now, and this is the first time I’ve touched upon the storied Hammer Films catalogue of horror. While Hammer may not have the immediately recognizable icons of Universal (although they in no small way owe their fame to remaking the characters Universal made famous), it’s no less an important chapter in the universe of terror, and I should have delved into it a long time ago.

That said, I picked a great film to begin my Hammer Horror education. Horror of Dracula was Christopher Lee’s first time portraying Count Dracula, and he did a fantastic job in the role. Although largely absent from the middle section of the movie, his presence is compelling and powerful, a real menacing figure worthy of the Dracula name. In the final confrontation with Van Helsing, he momentarily devolves into a mad, snarling beast, and it’s a great moment. You’re terrified of him, you think he’ll rip Peter Cushing’s throat right out. He’s a monster in the best sense of the word.

He’s also the subject of some pretty impressive special effects. When the sunlight kills him at the end, the way he wilts away into nothing is really remarkable for a 1958 film. Hammer truly was on the top of its game.

As Van Helsing, Peter Cushing makes for a great hero. There’s an authoritative sense to him – he’s a man you want to trust in the middle of a terrible ordeal. He carries a gravity and a power that makes the situation seem just as serious as a horror film should seem. Even now, over 50 years later, this really works as a horror classic.

The structure of this film is odd. It’s based on the original Dracula novel, at least in part, but both the plot and the characters presume a great deal of familiarity with the Dracula concept even before the film begins. Harker knows who and what Dracula is and has a plan to destroy him from the very outset, although Dracula seems at least initially fooled by his façade of being a simple librarian. It’s almost as if the film’s heroes had read the novel and decided they wanted to cut off the monster at the pass. Of course, that sort of genre awareness seems to evaporate when Harker reaches Dracula’s crypt and stakes the woman first. Seriously, man? You always kill the boss first, if you’ve got the chance. It’s like this 19th century character from a 1950s movie had never played a video game or something.

Although clearly inspired by Bram Stoker, screenwriter Jimmy Sangster took some unusual and rather inexplicable liberties – changing Harker’s love interest from Mina to Lucy, making the two sisters-in-law, making Arthur Mina’s husband and so on. All in all, the film succeeds in telling a perfectly coherent story, but it’s not exactly the same story as the book. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, mind you, but it is a… thing. That happened. And I find it curious enough to point it out. The film also attempts to distance itself from the novel, accepting the by-then common conceit that the vampire cannot venture out in the daylight (absent from the novel) and dismissing the idea of the vampire changing its shape as “pure fallacy” (this idea was present in the Stoker original). I’m truly not sure what to make of it. The writer really seems to be struggling to buy in to the existing Dracula mythology, while picking and choosing the parts he likes and bringing in other elements pretty much at will. I don’t know how a storyteller reconciles those two impulses, but Sangster at least manages to turn out an entertaining story in the mix.

If nothing else, the movie is plenty of fun and a great film to throw on during your Halloween party… or any other time you’re looking to have a creepy good time.

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!