Why Scrooge (1951) is the Best Version of A Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens may not have despised all industrious men, but he repeatedly attributed the cruelties of successful people to the system that permitted their success. He seemed less adamant about transforming this view into sociology than his close neighbor, Karl Marx. Always a moralist, Dickens' work focuses on London's soul more than on particular politics. Remembering his days as a boy gluing shoe heels in factories to repay his father's debts, he had every reason to take a moral high road when he rolled all the bankers and loan sharks and factory men he'd ever met into one portrait of impenitence in the form of the awful Mr. Scrooge. Redemption for this character may not have been about making him good but just making him guilty enough to be useful (not his “welfare,” but as the Spirit clarified, his “reclamation”). A Christmas Carol could be a story about payback at least as much as redemption, depending on the slant of each adaptation towards the flavor of Marx. What Brian Desmond Hurst did with the 1951 version, rightly renamed around the character’s ethos as Scrooge, is to incorporate the Western male social experience as a source of the character’s unseen empathy. Rather than rely on the social ramifications of the existence of Scrooge in the abstract, Hurst loves the real Mr. Scrooge, maybe more than Mr. Dickens did, or even intended anyone else to. In a turn that would make Marx squeal like a cautionary ghost, Scrooge can do whatever he pleases with his money, even after his reclamation. He just needs to feel okay about doing it. This may not make Scrooge (1951) the most cautionary version of Dicken's morality play, but it's without hesitation the most human.

The world of Hurst’s film comes alive as a living legacy of the illustrator John Leech’s vibrant drawings. Light frays across rooms from sparse candlelit halos into the backs of walls and on the noses crowded expectantly around them, darkened by cold. It paints so much period-specific gritty glamor that it’s hard to recognize it as a film made 100 years after the reality of its images. Even the smallest supporting role, with no exception, dissolves into the period. There are no children – only ragamuffins. There are charwomen and hucksters and investors and advocates and undertakers. The men and women are all ladies and gentlemen (or aware of their failure to be one). They inhabit the magic grime of their time inside all its slushy snowfalls and sooty corridors. Regardless of its context as an adaptation, the film is a grand accomplishment as a recreation of a time and place, down to every bleak nose and chapped lip. The cinematography of C.M. Pennington-Richards is never too clever for it. Whether that was his lack of experience or abundance of foresight, it makes the film mellow-beautiful; it's a leather-bound world.

Entering the postcard dirtiness of Camden Town is easy. Alastair Sim may be repulsed by the world around him, but it’s hard to feel the same way toward him. This is the Scrooge in our hearts, the man who seems to deserve redemption because the story has been told so often that it now seems as inevitable as a beloved season. While subsequent adaptations may have hoped the audience would be to Scrooge what the charity collectors were, coming with just demands and moral scrutiny, Scrooge recasts us in a role closer to Nephew Fred’s. We feel bad for the poor fellow. After being informed that extra bread costs pennies more, he denies it to himself. His house, which he reclaimed from Jacob Marley’s estate, is dust-covered, an unhappy cave. When Fred suggests that “no one suffers by his hatred more than himself,” Marx may have hoped it would mean that no one will pay for it more than him. But in Hurst’s film, the statement is more literal. Scrooge really is in pain.

Added details contextualize this new feeling, allowing the Hurst version to grow out of the vengeful intent interpreted into many later takes. Here's a hidden context unknown to many viewers. In Biblical times, the prophet Samuel thanked God for good fortune with a tiny monument called, "the stones of help," or in Hebrew, “Ebenezer.” Those who saw them knew they were in a place where God once was. The Hurst adaptation may be the first Scrooge to earn that brilliant namesake. Where others seem to interpret Dickens' intent for that analogy as a way to focus on Scrooge’s godlessness, Hurst reinterprets it as his lost purity. He does it with details that clarify how God went out of him to begin with, such as an added line about how Scrooge’s father blamed his son for the death of his mother in childbirth. Then later, the birth of Fred kills Scrooge’s sister, his rock in a hopeless world, and the editor Clive Donner frames this directly with his breakup with Alice. These connections transform the story from one about a man corroded by greed to one worn down by the loss of his crucial feminine influences. He was left to the devices of the world that Dickens feared, which makes him most equipped to reflect it, while in other adaptations he seems to be the problem. From Neame’s musical extrapolation, also called Scrooge (1970), to The Muppet Christmas Carol, he seems to be the only thing stopping everyone else from having a good time. He’s the mugger of an innocent bystander society in those versions. Here, he's its ironically model citizen.

The screenwriter Noel Langley (credited as the first writer to rework The Wizard of Oz into its 1938 adaptation) adds additional details of the Scrooge & Marley takeover of the lending business, which if not as directly thematic as most of Dickens' scenes at least add narrative color to Scrooge's past. This adds to its new identity as a kind of biopic. In other versions, it always seems like his ownership of so much wealth came from nowhere but the power of spite, which feeds into that Marxist overtone through which money is viewed as a magic substance neither created nor destroyed. It simply exists in one cosmic pot, from which some steal more than their share and others struggle to get what they deserve. Even at the risk of making Scrooge too sympathetic (the scene in which Scrooge accuses society of condemning poverty and the pursuit of wealth at the same time has never sounded truer), Hurst sees money more as an ebb and flow of resources and strategies. He shows Scrooge obtaining his vast fortune by out-cunning a cunning world, which makes his unhappiness even more critical in examining the mindset that made it. His motives become so central that the Cratchits have never felt less needed, as they rush through their Christmas dinner lines as a backdrop to the melodrama.

Yet, they lived a backdrop life, and even if Mervyn Johns is among the weakest personalities to ever play Bob (he reads every line like a recitation of a school lesson), meekness suits his role in Hurst's world too well to fuss about it. One of the film's only problems at all comes with the reintroduction of Alice in a brief scene during the Christmas Past sequence. Now older and unmarried, she tends to the homeless on Christmas with saintly deference. The problem is that no amount of selflessness made her deserve Scrooge less or happiness more, and the idea that without him she became a nymphic celibate skews the viewer's impression of Scrooge's decisions to an awkward feeling of pre-destiny. In this one instance, his worldview made a change arguably for good since if he had remained with Alice, she never would have helped those people. The book's impression of this meeting is far more coherent. Alice exits a carriage with her children and Scrooge wonders what stopped him from being a part of that happiness. Langley's change twists her fate around the contradiction that the moral quality of her life depended on Scrooge rejecting her for his wealth; without him, she had no recourse but this nunnish servitude. It would be like if someone in Bedford Falls was happier in the universe where George Bailey didn’t exist – it doesn’t work.

This is the only scene that fractures an otherwise clear portrait. It's difficult to continue estimating the film’s qualities without summarizing the whole plot since so much of it simply capitalizes on the best images from the book. The children, Ignorance and Want, make a much-needed appearance at the end of the Christmas Present sequence, where Dickens clarifies that Ignorance is the greater threat to humanity. The miners sing in the bowels of the earth (in perfect harmony). The spirits lament their inability to help the beggarwoman. These images are powerful in any version but most of all in this one since the Victorian mood adds so much chilly sparseness to its already prophetic shadows.

Of all the additions, the use of the old folk song, Barbara Allen, as Sister Fan’s theme adds the most heart to the story. The song is ancient, and brings ancientness to Scrooge’s emotional turmoil. It's about people from two social standings whose worldviews prevent them from understanding each other’s love until it’s too late. Tellingly, it’s Barbara who scorns the less wealthy William in the song, a subtle reminder that Hurst’s version thinks of Scrooge more as a man jilted out of a beautiful life by his reaction to circumstance than as one who stole it from himself out of his bad nature. In the film’s best moment, Scrooge enters Fred’s home at the end as they unknowingly rehearse his sister’s song in the living room, pushing the double doors open two words before the end of the first stanza, “And all she said when she got there, was young man I think …” and he comes in. The last two words are “you’re dying,” but Scrooge interrupts them. No adaptation has ever communicated better the lingering question of whether Scrooge will live longer than the Ghost of Christmas Future foretold. Hurst’s version realizes that no matter how much longer he lives, he won’t be dying as he lives it.

There’s hardly a better way to describe Christmas, the time of year when it’s most stressful to be happiest, than the icon of its loneliness pushing open the door to his family's home at the moment they were singing of an unrequited lover's poor death centuries ago. It re-emphasizes Scrooge's story as melodrama, near to mythicism, to which all of Dickens' work emphatically belongs. The ironic thing is that Tiny Tim (Glyn Dearman) and his god blessing everyone has almost no place in this version, once redirected to Scrooge’s more interesting and self-aware turmoil. That may be the little shoe factory Dickens that Hurst reduces to an afterthought in his own story. But that’s the thing with Christmas. Even a miserly hero is a more memorable personality than an innocent child-saint. It may not be for the benefit of the season's "true meaning" as Dickens meant it (or society's, as Marx meant it) that Hurst lifts Scrooge himself to the top layer of the story's sketchbook world. But he's always been Christmas, to us.

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©George Minter Productions

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