|Original caricature of Alistair Sim as Scrooge in 1951's A CHRISTMAS CAROL (copyright 2011 by Jeff York)|
Make no mistake about it, this version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL is very much a horror movie too. After all, the Charles Dickens classic is a ghost story. And for this 1951 take on the material, director Brian Desmond Hurst wisely shot screenwriter Noel Langley’s cryptic adaptation as if he was shooting a film noir thriller. Throughout, his film is sinister and foreboding. And he fills his screen with enough dark shadows and terrifying scenes to rival any of Universal Studios’ greatest monster movies.
|Michael Hordern as Marley's Ghost in A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1951)|
The horrors continue in set piece after terrifying set piece. We discover the skeletal children ‘Ignorance’ and ‘Want’ hidden under the Ghost of Christmas Present’s robes. Deathbeds show up in harrowing abundance, with cast members dropping like flies. And there are eerie visits to gravesites, poverty-stricken hollows, and treacherous streets that would make Jack the Ripper green with envy.
Perhaps this version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL is simply too disturbing for audiences now hooked on the lighter stories of Rudolph and Frosty, yet it’s exactly how Dickens intended things to be. He knew stern lessons were necessary in this overly indulgent season of gifts, parties and eggnog. Dickens wanted us to remember that the true meaning of Christmas doesn’t come from a store. It’s about good will towards our fellow man. Of course Theodore Geisel, Charles M. Schultz and Frank Capra knew this as well, and their Christmas classics contain similar serious messages.
|Alistair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge in A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1951)|
Sim doesn’t play Ebenezer as a grumpy skinflint, a crotchety caricature that makes for an easy transformation to a giddy old man. Instead, his big eyes and hound dog face reflect all the bad luck and loss of love Scrooge has encountered in his life, from his childhood days to his lonely, friendless existence as a senior citizen. Why, this social miscreant even rejects another helping of bread at a pub, probably having more to do with not wanting to converse with the waiter than being charged extra for it.
And Durst and Langley wisely embellished Scrooge’s backstory with even more telling details like that. We learn about Scrooge's problems with his judgmental father, his guilt over his sister's death, and his callous jilting of his fiancé in favor of a better paycheck. Dickens only implied such things in his original text, but they're placed in the foreground here. Those enhancements to the narrative helped add many shades of gray to this exceptional black and white film. It’s what separates the better horror films out there as well. Monsters rarely are wholly evil. And every bad guy was once a kid who likely never enjoyed a proper childhood.
Thus, Scrooge’s motivations are revelatory in an applied psychology sort of way, and it makes this film version incredibly modern even though it’s over sixty years old. And there are more modern parallels to be discovered as well. The Victorian London of the 1840’s isn’t all that different from the economic imbalance we’re facing in our world now. And Scrooge’s indifference to the sick and needy can easily be read as comparable to the dismissive attitudes some have today towards those requiring government assistance and affordable healthcare.
Indeed, Dickens’ ghost story and this 1951 frightener both recognized that the true horrors in the world reside in the wrongs man inflicts upon his fellow man. And yet despite such dark themes in a season known for its excess of holiday lights, they are entirely appropriate. After all, the Holy Birth was intended to save mankind from itself, wasn’t it?