Scrooge (1901), A Christmas Carol (1910), Scrooge (1913), A Christmas Carol (1914), Scrooge (1922), and A Christmas Carol (1923)

As you've probably guessed from the heading, this covers six separate silent adaptations of A Christmas Carol. As far as I can tell, this is the entirety of surviving footage from that era. To be clear, there are several other known versions that have been lost, including "The Right to be Happy," a 55-minute film from 1916. Not all of the films discussed here are available in complete forms, either. If you're curious about any, they're all readily available for free online - just go to YouTube and search by name and year.

Before I get to my individual reviews (to the extent the term even applies here), I'll give a brief overview for those of you who'd rather not wade through four thousand words of text about a bunch of movies 100+ years old. That's all of you, right? I'm grouping these together as a single post, because I can't imagine anyone would be in the least bit interested in seeing these appear one a day for a week.

In general, these movies tend to lean more towards the "ghost story" end of the spectrum of Christmas Carol adaptations. They explore and utilize camera tricks and early effects to create the illusion Scrooge is interacting with ghastly apparitions. The techniques used are of course simple, but the effects are often very impressive, particularly when you consider the amount of effort that would have gone into timing and staging the performances. Several of these are sequences are quite magical, especially in the earlier versions. You do kind of get the feeling some of the later ones were just following existing templates with a few alterations, but several of these feel like moving works of art.

I also noticed these tend to fixate more on financial restitution than emotional. Scrooge's relationship with his nephew receives a greater degree of focus in these, compared with later adaptations, and more than once Scrooge's reconnection involves some monetary payout to his kin.

Before I go on, I'll reiterate my warning: reading my notes on these isn't going to be interesting to anyone who isn't bizarrely, freakishly invested in this stuff. You might want to close your browser and do something more compelling, like stringing un-popped popcorn or watching dry paint continue to be dry. Or maybe just go look up and watch the 1910 short: it's most interesting of the bunch.

Okay. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Scrooge, or Marley's Ghost (1901)

This short is the earliest surviving filmed adaptation of A Christmas Carol, and the first half of this sentence is only partly true. This film hasn't entirely survived: the end was lost, as was the very beginning. We're left with a bit of time in Scrooge's office with him and Bob, Scrooge seeing Marley in the doorknob, his visions of the past, him being taken in spectral form to Cratchit's dinner and Fred's party (very briefly for the latter), then finally him seeing his gravestone.

There are a handful of details worth noting. In the past section, they include pantomime versions of Scrooge's sister coming to him, as well as Fan leaving him. The words, "God Bless Us, Every One," are written on the set above the Cratchits, and even without sound, you can clearly see Tiny Tim utter the phrase. The final title card informs us they were going to include the death of Tiny Tim, but this section was lost, as was the resolution.

The sets, acting, and effects here are understandably simplistic. The sets are very clearly stage sets: background elements such as bookshelves and cabinets are painted on. The actors do a good job pantomiming speeches and actions, but Scrooge in particular looks younger than you'd expect the character to appear.

The ghost effects are achieved using different techniques for different sections: they wanted Marley, the past, the present, and the future to all be unique. Markey's face in the door is simply done with a hole blocked off from the film and another image filmed in its place. At first I thought it was done on set with a trick door, but at one point Scrooge passes in front of Marley, and you can see Marley's face overlaid on top of Scrooge.

The past section starts with Scrooge closing two black curtains, which are later used to show a spectral image of the past. I'm assuming they just filmed the subsequent images on the same film, blocking off the section Scrooge was supposed to be in. It achieves an impressive spectral effect that would be duplicated in subsequent silent adaptations.

The Present is just an inverted version of what they did in the past, with Scrooge and the spirit as "ghosts" rather than the background. The Future skips this entirely: the ghost is now just an actor in a white robe standing with Scrooge over a gravestone.

There's not a great deal to say about this, aside from the obvious: these early experiments in visual effects and camera tricks are fascinating to consider, but they certainly don't hold up technically against the movies they'd be making a decade later, let alone a century. That said, only three minutes and change of this have survived: it's worth watching if only to get a better understanding of where the medium came from.

A Christmas Carol (1910)

While more a summary of A Christmas Carol than the full story, this manages to run through the entire plot in around thirteen minutes. In part, it accomplishes this by mostly foregoing dialogue altogether: title cards are more or less present to introduce a scene and help the audience follow along: if you don't already know the story, you'll likely be lost.

That said, this manages to deviate in a few respects without being incoherent - Fred is engaged, rather than married, and Scrooge's vision of the present reveals he'll be rejected because of his poverty. At the end, Scrooge gives Fred a letter telling him he's making him his partner, so he'll be able to marry any woman he wants, which is problematic in a whole bunch of misogynistic ways.

Also, he then brings Fred and his girlfriend to the Cratchits for a big closing moment together. It's worth noting the 1938 MGM adaptation seems to have incorporated versions of these ideas (though they changed it from Fred being in danger of rejection to him and his fiancée not having the money to get married). I'm not certain whether the 1938 film was basing these changes on this one, or if there was some like source they were drawing from (there were many, many stage versions of A Christmas Carol - it wouldn't surprise me if at least one made similar alterations to the story).

Other than that, there's not a great deal to discuss in the story, because - again - this is barely a story in the conventional sense. Sequences silently acted out without transcription, so a lot of the details are up to interpretation.

Mainly, I'm left impressed with how well they're able to stage Scrooge interacting with Marley and the spirits, as well as the spirits introducing each scene from Scrooge's past, present, and future. This really feels more like a special effect or a magic trick than a narrative, but if you can imagine yourself in the shoes of someone watching when it came out, it's easy to understand why these were popular.

Several of these are good, but the visuals here are particularly enjoyable. If you're only going to watch one of these, this is probably the one to see.

Scrooge (1913)

Scrooge, sometimes called Old Scrooge due to its US rerelease title, is notable for a couple reasons. First, at around forty minutes, it's significantly longer than any earlier filmed adaptation. Secondly, this stars Seymour Hicks, who'd go on to reprise the role in the 1935 version, which is my favorite filmed version of both the story and character. This version came out twenty-two years earlier, so of course it's silent.

A lack of sound is only one of several ways this differs from later adaptations. First, this includes an introduction providing context about Charles Dickens, including footage of his childhood home and text speculating how his own troubled childhood may have inspired aspects of A Christmas Carol. It also features an actor playing Dickens as he writes the story. Seeing as later versions would normalize opening with the completed book, I found this somewhat oddly appropriate.

Once we're through the foreword, we immediately deviate from the book by introducing Scrooge by showing him quarreling with neighborhood kids who are pelting him with snowballs. Meanwhile, title cards are intercut giving us a little background about Scrooge and Marley. I was surprised to see the text wasn't drawn from the book. It also takes a while before textual descriptions give way to dialogue, and even longer before said dialogue starts drawing from the original book.

Eventually, we do get truncated versions of Scrooge's main interactions on Christmas Eve. This does Bob Cratchit and the coal, Fred and Scrooge's argument, and the charity collector. Actually, the charity collector is a little different - it's split into two separate visitors, one a woman begging for change, then a single solicitor. Bits of dialogue from the encounter in the book are split between the two interactions. Eventually, Bob goes home for the night, leaving Scrooge in his business. I guess Scrooge lives here in this version, because he falls asleep after hearing some chains.

He's woken later by Marley's ghost, assuming you don't interpret the entirety of the visitation as a dream (it seemed to be intentionally ambiguous). This starts out more or less in line with the source material, though it veers off fairly quickly when Marley tells Scrooge he's going to show him his past.

In fact, Marley replaces all three spirits in this one. Also, they never actually leave the room - instead, visions appear in front of them, sort of like movies within movies (or more accurately movies within movies within movies, as I'll explain in a moment). This all plays out pretty fast, and we only get a handful of scenes. For the past, we get Scrooge's sister coming for him at school and Scrooge's breakup with Belle. The present only shows us the Cratchit's dinner, then the future gives us a few seconds of them mourning, followed by Scrooge's grave. Scrooge pleads for a chance to change, then wakes up elated.

We do a shortened version of him sending a kid to buy a goose, then Scrooge imagines himself eating with the Cratchits. This is a strange inclusion, as the movie's explicit this doesn't occur. Meanwhile, we don't see him eat with his nephew, which we're told does happen. My guess is they filmed this intending to use it, decided to do the scene on Boxing Day instead, but wanted a way to incorporate the footage anyway. For what it's worth, Scrooge's prank where he pretends to be angry with Cratchit before raising his salary and vowing to look after Tiny Tim plays out relatively accurate to the book.

Let's talk sets, costumes, and visual effects, because those account for the bulk of the experience of watching silent movies. The sets are fairly simple by modern standards, but I'd say they're better than most I've come across in my limited experience with films from this era. They do a solid job selling the illusion they're rooms and locations, rather than stages. Likewise, the costumes look good to me. I think they overdid Scrooge's makeup a bit, but that's a minor quibble (and probably more reflective of my own conditioning than anything else).

The ghost and vision effects are fairly good. When I mentioned a third level of "movie" earlier, it was in reference to how I suspect this was filmed. For much of the sequence, Scrooge is positioned on one side of Marley, and the visions of past, present, and future appear between them. Impressively, Marley is also translucent, meaning this would have been filmed in three stages.

The composition isn't flawless. There's a scene early on where Scrooge passes in front of Marley, but the ghost can be seen through Scrooge. Likewise, there are a few sequences where Scrooge is positioned in front of the visions, and they of course appear through him, as if he's a ghost.

But other than these spots, the effects are artistic and beautiful. It's easy to see why audiences who'd never encountered effects like these before would have been amazed at what they were watching. All that being said, I honestly think the 1910 version achieved a better effect using the same technique. This version, being more than twice as long, obviously had to maintain the illusion longer, however, and both still look good.

From the standpoint of looking at how the story's being adapted, I find it interesting to see how much more leeway they felt they had, compared to the vast majority of modern versions. A Christmas Carol was certainly a classic in 1913, but they don't appear to have been as precious about the details as we are today. Granted, they didn't really have much choice: time and budget constraints wouldn't have allowed a full version at the pacing silent pictures demand (those text cards eat up a lot of runtime).

One element that fascinated me is the attempt by the filmmakers to distance themselves from the fantasy elements. These are present, but they're buffered with two levels of plausible deniability. First, the film starts by stressing that this is a literary work, and therefore not something that should be viewed as any sort of reality. Then even within that added context, the narrative is structured to leave open the possibility that Scrooge's encounter was a dream by making it clear that he falls asleep thinking about ghosts. I'm not certain why they felt this was necessary. Perhaps they were embarrassed to be filming fantasy elements in general, or maybe there were concerns around censorship.

I found this interesting and impressive. That said, I find most early films impressive, simply by virtue of the fact the people making these were doing so without the benefit of more than a hundred years of history to draw on. Despite that, I'm not going to recommend people without an unhealthy obsession with adaptations of this story watch a forty-minute long silent film from 1913. The experience is more akin to reading an illustrated book where the pictures move than watching a modern movie. I found it illuminating, but there's a reason they stopped making silent pictures when they figured out how to add music and dialogue.

A Christmas Carol (1914)

At 22 minutes, this is one of the longer silent versions (though still significantly shorter than the 1913 Scrooge). Like the 1910 adaptation, this packs in more of the story's events by foregoing almost all the dialogue and using the title cards mainly as general descriptors. Also worth noting, the cards in this film contain actors' names when they first appear.

The movie starts with Scrooge and Cratchit at the office, and - as usual - we get a couple of visitors. Fred is accompanied by his wife, which isn't typical, but otherwise this plays out like you'd expect. Similarly, Scrooge blows off the charity collectors. Again, this is all done without dialogue, so the actors just have to pantomime the scenes. If you know the story, it's pretty easy to follow along.

He heads home, and we see Marley's face in the door as usual. We also get a bonus scene with Marley's ghost coming up the stairs and ringing the bell, the latter I don't think I've ever seen. His warning to Scrooge actually merits some rare dialogue in the title cards. 

Unlike some of the earlier adaptations, this leaves in all three spirits and depicts them relatively accurately to the source material. Christmas Past is portrayed in white that appears incredibly bright due to the lighting. Present is a good approximation of Father Christmas, and Christmas Yet to Come shows up as a silent man (well, even more silent than usual, I guess) wearing dark robes.

The past section shows Scrooge a quick glimpse of his childhood at school (though it omits Fan). We also get to see Fezziwig, looking more or less the same as he does in virtually every subsequent adaptation. This version doesn't include the scene with Belle - instead, Scrooge is returned to bed.

Christmas Present is next. We get a glimpse of both Cratchit's Christmas dinner and Fred's party. The main focus of both is that Scrooge is toasted by those present. This isn't alone in adaptations from this era honing in on that as a significant detail. While it's certainly in most (if not all) modern versions, it never has the same weight it seemed to in these movies.

To put this in perspective, there's nothing in this that implies Tiny Tim's life is in danger. Can you imagine an adaptation made in the last eight decades that prioritizes the toasts over that plotline?

Future is even more trimmed back. The ghost literally just pulls Scrooge out of bed, takes him to see his gravestone, then brings him back to bed. Scrooge vows to be better, then wakes up the next morning.

While a lot of the details in the resolution are typical, there are a couple deviations I find interesting. First, while Scrooge purchases and sends Cratchit a turkey on Christmas, he doesn't do so anonymously. This actually strikes me as a sort of minor plot hole given the scene where he pretends to be angry at Bob before revealing he's doubling his salary, which still makes the cut.

We also get a scene of Scrooge giving coins to kids, making amends with the charity collectors, and spending Christmas dinner with his nephew. Then, in a very unusual departure, we get a final scene set some unspecified number of days after the 26th in which all the human characters (Scrooge, the Cratchits, and Scrooge's nephew and his wife) have a dinner together. This gives them a chance to do the "God bless us, every one," line, though it goes to Scrooge instead of Tim.

While most of the ghost effects are fairly uniform, this boasts a fascinating twist. When the ghosts collect Scrooge, they take his spirit while leaving his body in bed. Conversely, when they bring him back, that spirit reunites with his sleeping body. Impressively, this is actually shown on screen: his ghost is pulled out of his body and later merges. If you look closely at his body, you can tell its translucent - his bed post can be seen through until he's "whole" again. I can think of several ways they might be accomplishing this, the simplest being overlaying a frame of him in bed without the ghost on top of the scene for the duration. Alternatively, they might have asked him to lie still and ran the film through a second time after shooting him and the ghost. Regardless, it's a neat effect that made me pause and wonder how it was done without the use of modern digital (or even most analog) tools.

That's not the only visual effect I thought was impressive. There's a brief scene earlier where Cratchit blows out a couple candles. Blowing out the first essentially cuts the lighting on him without seeming to alter that on the rest of the set. I don't think there's any real mystery here - it's just clever, well-timed lighting coupled with good cinematography. Still, it makes for a cool moment.

Charles Rock, the actor playing Scrooge, is a good casting choice. He appears quite a bit younger than his character, but the makeup is mostly convincing and he gives a solid performance. In makeup, he looked closer to Seymour Hick's Scrooge in the 1935 film than Seymour Hicks himself did in the 1913 short.

As is typically the case with this era, the actors react in exaggerated ways to convey emotion without access to sound. The actor playing Bob Cratchit (George Bellamy) does so to a slightly unusual degree. I won't say it's bad - there's a case to be made he's technically better than usual, but it's still jarring when we're conditioned to be used to more subdued styles of acting.

As is the case with most of these, I found this interesting for what it is, but I'm not sure I'd recommend it to anyone who wasn't particularly curious for one academic reason or another. These are fascinating relics, but they're very different from what we think of as movies.

Scrooge (1922)

I don't have a great deal to say about the 1922 British adaptation, in part because the only cut that still exists is abridged. The original was around 18 minutes long; what's left is around 10. Usually when this occurs, it's a case where the beginning or end is missing. This is different: the cut that survives was a shortened version, so it's got a beginning and end, and the story is mostly coherent.

While that sounds better, for my purposes it's actually a little less informative. Because I don't know what's been cut, I don't have a picture of what any portion was supposed to be.

Stylistically, this uses title cards more for dialogue than description. I should also note the sets look great. Scrooge's bed chamber, in particular, is fantastic. This came a long way from movies a few decades earlier where you could see the edge of the set.

The ghosts are all individually designed and are fairly faithful to the source material. That said, the version that survives lacks any transitions between them. It's almost like it's one spirit transforming between scenes. My guess is this was different in the longer cut.

This reuses the effect from the 1914 adaptation where Scrooge's spirit is pulled from his bed. That said, the technique improved, as you can no longer see through the figure in bed.

This version also features a variation of the idea Scrooge's journey is a dream, though the implication is that at Christmas people in need of correction are forced to go on these sorts of dream journeys. So, sort of a hybrid between real and imaginary.

I don't have much more to add here. The acting is pretty much on par with earlier versions. These continue to impress me visually, which is really all you can ask from a silent production.

A Christmas Carol (1923)

Despite being one of the longer adaptations at 27 minutes, this review is going to be a bit anticlimactic for a couple reasons. By this point, the effects used feel fairly rote, though there's at least one technique I haven't seen in earlier versions. In addition, while this version is fine, it isn't really all that remarkable or interesting. On top of all that, the surviving footage appears to have degraded, so it's difficult to get much of a read on elements like set quality. That said, there are a handful of things that stood out as significant.

Let's start at the very beginning. Once we're past the title and a truncated cast list, we get something I haven't seen before: scrolling text. The introduction contains more information than will fit on the screen, so the card moves up. It's a trivial thing now, but this is the first time I saw the technique employed on one of these adaptations.

After that, the title cards are static. These are mainly dialogue boxes, by the way, unlike wholly descriptive ones used in some earlier versions. The dialogue itself is largely drawn from the source material, though it's both altered and sort of jumbled. Conversations feel somewhat disjointed, with lines of dialogue out of order. This mainly occurs during the Marley section. I didn't notice anything that created a plot hole, but the order used wasn't optimal. My guess is this was stitched together by someone who wasn't entirely familiar with the book.

The opening is fairly straightforward. It runs through short versions of Scrooge's interactions with Fred, Bob, and a charity collector. There's also a brief sequence with a young caroler Scrooge smacks on top the head, knocking the kid down - this is a particularly cruel take on the character.

Once the ghosts start appearing, things get really odd. The Ghost of Christmas Past shows Scrooge a vision of him losing Belle, and that's it. Present is even briefer: the spirit essentially shows up, tells Scrooge he only hangs out with people who embody the Christmas spirit, then leaves. He mentions Cratchit and Fred in passing, but Scrooge isn't taken to either of their homes. In fact, Tiny Tim doesn't appear in this version, at all, making it unique in that respect at least.

The Spirit of the Future actually introduces himself, making this a rare version where that spirit speaks. This is the only thing he says - after that, he just points and gestures as usual. He takes Scrooge to his grave, and that's all.

The resolution shows Scrooge visit his nephew for Christmas dinner. He also appears to give Fred some money, though I'm not entirely sure (again, the surviving footage isn't great). Afterwards, he calls Cratchit to his house on Christmas night to tell him he's doubling his salary.

Visually, this is fairly by the numbers, for the most part. The ghost effects look fine, but I've seen earlier versions where they looked better. The notable exception is that this version uses some added tricks to shrink the Ghost of Christmas Past down to half size. It's not a particularly difficult effect to manage, but it's still neat to see. The Ghost of Christmas Present appears as a giant, though I'm not 100% sure if this was utilizing the same trick photography or if they simply used stilts and an oversized costume. The fact the spirit was already translucent, along with the degradation in the film, makes it difficult to parse.

Speaking of which, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (renamed "The Spirit of the Future" here) is incredibly difficult to see. Again, some of this is probably due to the quality of this copy, but it also looks like they didn't manage to light this as well as they could have. The spirit is hard to make out most of the time.

That said, there's a shot of his ghostly hand reaching around a partially open door beaconing for Scrooge to follow that's pretty cool.

There are certainly some notable aspects of this version, particularly around the decision to cut Tim, but overall it's not all that good or impressive compared to earlier versions that managed more faithful retellings and more artful visuals.


  1. Thanks for taking one for the team. It must have been a bit of a chore watching and writing about these versions. Good table setting for later adaptations though, I suppose!

    1. The order I'm publishing these in isn't the order I watched them, so by the time I actually got around to the silent versions, I'd seen numerous versions with sound (around a dozen, if I'm remembering right). You'd think that would make this harder, but instead it made the whole thing kind of fascinating. There are concepts and spins on the story in some of these that are picked up by later incarnations, and other aspects that are wholly unique (imagine a modern day version that cut Tim, for example). Some of the longer silent ones did try my patience a bit, but on the whole this wasn't that bad an experience. In fact, it jump started an interest in silent film, both Christmas and otherwise.

    2. Thanks for the response. I always find that there's a fascinating world of silent films out there, even if I sometimes need extra motivation to step into that world. Keep up the excellent work!


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