Christmas is coming and we’re looking at the classic film Scrooge to get in the mood; no one ever said ‘Bah, humbug’ better than Alastair Sim, says James Oliver...
Since its publication back in 1843, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has (probably) done more to shape attitudes to Christmas than anything else, in the UK and US at least.
It’s not that Dickens invented what we now think of as ancient traditions, although he certainly codified them. Rather, it’s the emphasis he placed on the magic of Christmas – not magic of the supernatural sort, even though his tale is crammed with ghosts. The real magic is the kindness and compassion which the novella lays out as the essence of Christmastide; it was Dickens who took the Midwinter revels and turned them into the Season of Goodwill.
No wonder the story became so beloved. And no wonder either it should be plundered for adaptation. It was a popular subject for the earliest filmmakers, with the first versions appearing when Queen Victoria was still on the throne: showboating directors illustrated the ghostly happenings with state of the art special effects like ‘double exposure’ (very much the CGI of its day).
Of all the Adaptations, why is this Scrooge the Best?
The story of A Christmas Carol has remained popular ever since but despite a plethora of adaptions – and seriously, there are loads out there – there is a remarkable (and rare) consensus about which is the best. Made in 1951, Scrooge (as this film was titled) is generally reckoned to be the finest on-screen rendering of Dickens’ yarn.
Why is this so? Well, it plays the story straight: the old miser Ebenezer Scrooge disdains festivities until he receives a visit from three spectres representing Christmases past, present and future that turn him into a rampaging do-gooder (we don’t need spoiler warnings here do we? The story has been in print for 173 years now, after all.). But other productions do that too. And it’s not as though Brian Desmond Hurst is an especially inspired director: he was a journeyman and while he acquits himself creditably here, he hardly shows the flair David Lean brought to his Dickens films (Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, both an evident influence on this movie).
No, the real reason this version continues to be watched (and continues to find new fans) is simple: no matter how good the other versions might be, they don’t have Alastair Sim. Sim is one of the great treasures of British film and maybe more, a comic actor whose tiniest gesture could make audiences crack up with laughter.
Alastair Sim as the Embodiment of Ebenezer
A comedian is not the natural choice for Scrooge, who begins the film as a very bad man indeed (the film’s American distributors actually believed it was too dark for their customers and soft-peddled it on first release). But Sim – an actor who could do much more than comedy, of course – proved perfect for the role.
Dickens wrote outsized characters and some actors find it hard to bring them to life on screen, either trying to ground them in a naturalism that sits at odds with the rest of the story, or overcompensating and using too broad a brush. Sim, though, understood exactly how his performance should be pitched, ladling on menace enough to keep Scrooge hissable while never letting us doubt that he might be redeemed. And even though we know, inevitably, that the old so-and-so must be transformed, Sim’s performance still makes it feel plausible and genuine.
While younger thespians are no doubt urged to watch and learn from the more heavyweight practitioners of their craft, they might be better advised to study Sim instead as an example of total control. Damn it, the man was one of the great screen actors and his talents are on full display in Scrooge: he doesn’t need to raise his voice to make his presence felt.
There have been other Scrooges since 1951. Some have been pretty good; a special mention should be made of Michael Caine in The Muppet Christmas Carol, the other classic version of Dickens’ hardy perennial. But Sim still reigns supreme, a performance as close to definitive as anyone is ever likely to get.
As we enter the festive season once again, why not give the film another spin? What better way can there be to remind us of how Christmas ought to be? God bless us, everyone!
This article by James Oliver was originally written for MovieMail