A Christmas Carol (1938)

This 1938 MGM version of A Christmas Carol is notable (among other reasons) for being the first Hollywood adaptation of Dickens' classic with sound, though a British version starring Seymour Hicks beats it by three years and is, in my opinion, a far better film. That's not to say this one is bad - parts are fantastic - but the 1935 is difficult to beat.

Tonally, this is far more comedic than its predecessor or most subsequent theatrical adaptations. I'll cover the changes in depth in a moment, but as a rule of thumb most of the darkest bits are excised, and the additions favor light, family-friendly fare. When it's not going for laughs, it skews towards lessons. This version is somewhat more instructive than I'm used to, often outright lecturing on morality, rather than having the protagonist come to his own conclusions.

This story deviates significantly from the source material, perhaps more so than any major live-action version prior to the 2019 miniseries. As I've said before, I don't consider deviations inherently good or bad independent from how they affect a film. There are more than enough versions at this point to worry about whether any individual version is faithful to the book.

The entire opening of this film is new. Rather than opening with Marley's death or even Scrooge, the first scene after an impressive establishing shot (done with miniatures, I assume) brings us to Fred walking down the street on Christmas Eve. He stops to play with some kids and meets Tim and Peter Cratchit, who are supposed to be delivering a shopping list to their father but are procrastinating because they don't want to see Scrooge. This gives us an opportunity to establish the basics about him, as well as his relationships to Bob and Fred.

When Fred reaches Scrooge and Marley's, he finds his uncle out. He gifts a bottle of wine to Bob, and they have a brief discussion revealing they're old friends. Scrooge returns, and the movie begins following the source material for a while. We get his argument with Fred, his interaction with the charity collectors, and his abuse of Bob more or less in line with the original story. That said, it's worth noting this doesn't establish that Marley's dead until Scrooge tells the collectors. Honestly, I'm surprised so many versions retain the book's redundant exposition rather than just allow the information to emerge organically in this scene. I absolutely think it's a smart alteration.

Eventually, Scrooge and Bob leave for the day, and we follow... Bob? He runs into some neighborhood kids, who lure him into a snowball fight. He gets carried away and throws a snowball at an approaching man, unaware it's Scrooge. Scrooge's hat is destroyed in the process, and he fires Bob.

The POV stays with Cratchit a while longer. At first, he's despondent, but he cheers up after watching a turkey head swinging behind someone carrying a dead bird (no idea if this is a reference or something). Bob then goes shopping, buying a bird of his own, as well as a bunch of other supplies. He brings these home and conceals the fact he lost his job from his family.

I found the depiction of the Cratchits' home life surprisingly American in feel. They interact more like an American sitcom (albeit we're still a decade away from those appearing) than characters in a nineteenth-century British novel.

Finally, we're back to Scrooge and the plot. The section in Scrooge's house with Marley's ghost mostly follows the text, deviating for an odd addition where Scrooge calls some passing watchmen up to the room to prove the spirit isn't really a spirit (despite being translucent, but let's not quibble). Marley's ghost vanishes the moment before they enter, the watchmen assume Scrooge has been drinking, then Marley reappears as soon as they're gone to finish the scene.

The first spirit arrives as usual and takes Scrooge flying through the air before landing in his past. They do the school sequence with Scrooge's sister - they conflate a few Christmases and change "Fan" to "Fran," but these are trivial alterations. There's a larger one when we get to Fezziwig's: this skips the party entirely. The spirit lectures Scrooge on the differences between Fezziwig's kind treatment of him and his cruelty towards Cratchit (this is not a subtle version), then Scrooge extinguishes the ghost, skipping Belle entirely. More on this later...

Present shows up more or less as you'd expect, though things get weird quickly. The bit about his magic torch is expanded - there's a line in the book about the spirit restoring goodwill to quarreling individuals that's turned into a fairly substantial scene here. Then, in yet another new scene, we're off to church to catch up with Bob, Tim, Fred, and Fred's fiancée.

At first, I suspected this was going to replace both the sequence at the Cratchits' home and Fred's party, but we do versions of each after. This is a bit redundant, all things considered, though it gives some time to develop Fred's relationship with his fiancée, itself a change. This actually came up in Scrooge's office at the start, as well: unlike the original where Fred's already married, he's still engaged in this version, as the couple lacks enough money to marry. At the church, the Ghost of Christmas Present goads Scrooge into defending their relationship by suggesting it won't last. Scrooge, seeing them together for the first time, argues they're clearly in love, which of course contrasts with his dismissal of such things at the beginning.

Cratchit's Christmas is partially new material, some of which centers on him confiding in his eldest daughter that he's lost his position. Fred's party is truncated, but the basic idea is still there. And with all that out of the way, we're ready for the present to end and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come to arrive.

As is usually the case, this bit plays out fairly close to the book, though the pawnbroker sequence is entirely removed. It's more sentimental than some versions, but there are no huge surprises here.

The ending hits most of the familiar beats but remixes them to justify Scrooge bringing his nephew and his fiancée to see the Cratchits on Christmas. This whole bit is largely new, with Scrooge bringing gifts along with him. He gives out the gifts, makes Fred his Partner, and rehires Bob at a higher rate, then they all drink a Christmas toast. "God bless us, everyone," and all that, and the movie ends. This may be drawing from a 1910 silent short adaptation which features a similar resolution, or alternatively some like source.

That gets us through the story changes. Let's talk about the rest, because there is a lot to go over.

I'll start with a piece of information that might be the Rosetta Stone for understanding this production: it was heavily rushed. This was initially intended for release in 1939 before the studio pushed the date up in order to get it in theaters before Christmas 1938. We're talking a couple months between production and release. The fact this is even sort of good is impressive.

Given that, it's not too surprising the movie's quality varies from scene to scene and element to element. Let's back up to the beginning, establishing shot of London, supposedly in the nineteenth century. I'm not entirely certain how this was pulled off: it looks quite good. Same goes for some flying sequences with the Ghost of Christmas Past later. My assumption is these were achieved with miniatures, but I can't entirely rule out the possibility some of this is stock footage from hot air balloons or something. Overall, I think it's a little too clear for anything other than miniatures, but I'm really not versed enough in cameras from this era (or any era) to say this with any certainty. Regardless, it looks extremely good.

Same goes for the sets of London. I suspect these were recycled from other productions, given how rushed this was, but they look great. I can't quite say that for every set used. Most of the interior sets (such as Scrooge's office and bed chambers) are good, but they're clearly a step down. Likewise, some of the sets in the future look a little rushed. Not bad, mind you, but clearly not as detailed or believable as city streets.

More than that, I strongly suspect the rushed schedule was responsible for at least one cut to the story, namely Belle. The changes to Fred's relationship feel like they were made to mirror that aspect of Scrooge's life, and Scrooge leaping to the defense of the couple would make far more sense if they'd established his own love story first. I don't think it's absolutely a required aspect of every adaptation of A Christmas Carol, but its absence stands out in this one.

Likewise, there are some other moments that feel out of sync. In particular, Scrooge asks the spirit whether Tim will live when he sees the child in church. This really comes out of nowhere here: we've been given no indication Tim is all that ill, nor has Scrooge seen more than a few seconds of the kid interacting with his father. I'm not at all certain what occurred here, but it feels like something was either moved or rewritten as a last-minute fix.

Then there are the costumes on the three spirits... Okay, really we're talking about costumes for Past and Future: Present, while a little silly looking, is more or less par for the course until the 1970s. But Past in particular looks incredibly rushed. The actress shows up in a dull white gown with a star on her head. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is a little better - he's got the standard flowing black robes - but it really feels underwhelming and a bit thrown together. Again, I suspect it was.

All that being said, there's one section that doesn't feel rushed at all, and that's the sequence with Marley's ghost. The costume and makeup are both good, and the translucent visuals are fantastic. And before anyone points out making a character translucent isn't all that difficult to achieve, let me tell you a little about the staging. Scrooge and Markey appear together, move around, and converse seamlessly. At one point, Marley's ghost circles in front of Scrooge, and Scrooge's gaze follows him around the room. I know how they must have done this, but the timing and blocking on these shots would have left virtually no room for error.

Moving on to the cast, I'll start with the elephant in the room: Reginald Owen's makeup. Owen was 51 when this was made, but they clearly wanted him to appear older. He's wearing a great deal of makeup, along with a bald cap, to make him look closer to classic depictions of the character. The quality of this makeup is... honestly, it's a little difficult to judge. On one hand, I think it's pretty good for the time. I've absolutely seen worse in recent years. But "good for the time" isn't the same as "good," and - more than that - it all feels completely unnecessary. They don't even use him as a younger version of himself (the section with Belle is cut, and they use a teenage version of Scrooge for his time at Fezziwig's).

So, why cast Owen for the role? Because their original choice, Lionel Barrymore, had to drop out due to arthritis, and they needed a replacement. I have to believe they'd have looked a little longer if they'd had more time to do so. Regardless of what you think of his performance in the role, he's just not a good choice.

The rest of the cast is better, though I do want to call attention to Gene Lockhart's Bob Cratchit. I think he does a fine job for the part he's playing, but it's a very different take on Cratchit than any other I've seen. Here, he's more a comic figure - I'd almost describe him as comic relief, but of course we're meant to sympathize and grieve with him when he loses his son in the tangent timeline. But earlier in the movie the actor comes across as a bit bumbling, not particularly devoted to his work, and somewhat absent-minded. This is a very different approach than the hard-working, emotionally scarred, yet resilient Bob I'm used to.

To be clear, I'm not complaining - far from it. If anything, it's a reminder that stories like A Christmas Carol which are adapted again and again too often get stuck repeating the same beats and ideas again and again. I don't think this version is appreciably more or less valid a reading of the original character.

Beyond questions of quality, several members of the cast have some interesting connections to other holiday movies. Ann Rutherford, who plays the Ghost of Christmas Past here, also appears in Love Finds Andy Hardy the same year. Meanwhile, Gene Lockhart shows up as the judge in Miracle on 34th Street nine years later. Kathleen Lockhart, Gene's wife both in reality and onscreen as Mrs. Cratchit, appears in The Lady in the Lake that same year. And because two Lockharts playing Cratchits wasn't enough, Kathleen and Gene's daughter plays one of the Cratchit girls and goes on to land a role in Meet Me in St. Louis.

While my opinion on this is somewhat mixed, it certainly seems to have left its mark. I've seen speculation online that the design of Disney's Uncle Scrooge may have been influenced by that of the lead in this movie. Given the Disney character was created in 1947, this would have been the highest-profile adaptation, so the theory certainly makes sense. Beyond that, aspects original to this version of this mirror those in later comedic movies and specials, particularly Mickey's Christmas Carol and the 1970 musical version. As far as I'm aware, this is the first version featuring Scrooge purchasing gifts for the Cratchit children and going to their home on Christmas: these aspects would become common in future adaptations.

It is difficult to summarize this as a whole, because the components vary a great deal. The first ten minutes or so work well as a comedy loosely inspired by the book, and the section with Marley's ghost ranks among my favorite adaptations of that scene. But none of the three ghosts really pack much of a punch, and I found the moralizing somewhat pedantic at times. This wasn't a bad movie, and it has quite a bit of value as a window into a time before adaptations of the classic became so standardized. But I certainly wouldn't recommend this to a casual fan of the book or later adaptations. If you're going to watch a version from the 1930s, make it the Seymour Hicks adaptation. This one's interesting as an artifact, but the Hicks version is actually a great film.