Out of all the myriad movie permutations of the Charles Dickens classic over the years, this 1938 production still remains my favorite. The MGM treatment is in full effect, putting their glossy stamp on Victorian Era London and giving the production a high-polished look. Director Edwin L. Marin brings Hugo Butler’s tight script to life in just over an hour, keeping the story moving along swiftly with no overblown padding. Marin was a competent storyteller whose steady hand guided everything from Bela Lugosi mysteries (THE DEATH KISS) to MGM’s Maisie series with Ann Sothern to Randolph Scott Westerns. A CHRISTMAS CAROL was produced by a 28-year-old tyro named Joseph L. Mankiewicz, later to become an Academy Award winning director ( A LETTER TO THREE WIVES, ALL ABOUT EVE), who did his own take on the story with 1964’s Carol for Another Christmas.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock since 1843 you already know the story. Ebenezer Scrooge is a mean, rotten old skinflint who hates mankind in general, and Christmas in particular. He fires his clerk Bob Cratchit on Christmas Eve, even though Cratchit has a wife and six kids, including crippled Tiny Tim. He disinherits nephew Fred for getting engaged to the woman he loves. Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his dead partner Jacob Marley, who’s wrapped in chains and cursed to wander the earth for his sins. Marley tells Scrooge he’ll be visited by three spirits this eve, the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, and given a chance to change his miserable ways. The miserly old sourpuss repents, and learns to love both Christmas and his fellow-men.
Lionel Barrymore was set to play Scrooge when he became ill. He was replaced by character actor Reginald Owen, who is wonderful as the crusty Scrooge. He blusters, bullies, and berates all around him, his favorite curse a dour “Humbug!”, and his turnabout into a warm-hearted human is a joy to behold. Owen dominates the screen in this, his only starring role. He appeared in over 80 films, lending his presence to A TALE OF TWO CITIES, MRS. MINIVER, WOMAN OF THE YEAR, and MARY POPPINS, among many more.
For Gene Lockhart (Cratchit), this movie was a family affair. His wife Kathleen costars as Mrs. Cratchit, and 13-year-old daughter June makes her debut as one of the children. Yes, that June Lockhart, the one who played TV moms on the hit series LASSIE and LOST IN SPACE. Terry Kilburn as Tiny Tim will melt even the coldest of hearts, and the Cratchit family’s anguish over Tim’s death will bring tears to your eyes. Barry McKay and Lynne Carver are fine as the lovers Fred and Bess. McKay’s best known as a star of British musicals with Jessie Mathews, while Carver was strictly a B player most remembered as Nurse Alice Raymond in a couple of DR. KILDARE films (with A CHRISTMAS CAROL’s original star Lionel Barrymore as cantankerous Dr. Guillespie).
The ghost of Jacob Marley was Leo G. Carroll, who later encountered ghosts of his own in the television version of TOPPER. Carroll is remembered by horror fans as the acromegalic doctor who let loose the giant TARANTULA in the 1956 thriller. He was a favorite of Alfred Hitchcock, appearing in seven of the Master of Suspense’s films, and later found a new audience as spy chief Mr. Waverly on THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. If the Ghost of Christmas Past looks familiar to you, that’s because it’s pretty Ann Rutherford, one of Scarlett O’Hara’s sisters in GONE WITH THE WIND, and girlfriend of Andy Hardy in the long running Mickey Rooney series. The other two ghosts were Lionel Braham (Present), who gives a robust, jolly performance, and D’Arcy Corrigan (Future), who’s hooded, black cloaked face is never seen, silent as death as well. This apparition is particularly eerie, and used to scare the daylights out of me as a child.
Franz Waxman’s musical score sets the film’s mood, going from dark in the beginning to spritely by film’s end. Sidney Wagner’s cinematography also adds to the atmosphere, and MGM’s ace set designer Edwin B. Willis outdoes himself. Jack Dawn was MGM’s answer to Universal’s Jack Pierce. His makeup jobs for Owen and the various ghosts are often overlooked by viewers, but they’re excellently crafted. Dawn’s work can also be seen in MARK OF THE VAMPIRE, THE WIZARD OF OZ, DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (with Spencer Tracy), and THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY. The special effects crew deserve a round of applause too for their contributions to A CHRISTMAS CAROL (I can’t find any information on who they were… any fans out there know?)
Well, I’m off to wrap presents for my loved ones, and will be away from the keyboard for a few days. To all you dear readers out there, I’d like to leave you with the words of Ebenezer Scrooge after his conversion, and the sentiments of little Tiny Tim:
“To all of us, everywhere, a Merry Christmas to all of us, my dears!”
“God bless us, everyone”