Scrooge (1935)

For those of you trying to keep track, this British production is the first feature-length adaptation of A Christmas Carol with sound. It stars Seymore Hicks as Scrooge, and despite leaving an imprint on subsequent versions, it seems to be widely dismissed as inferior to the 1951 movie of the same name. I don't at all agree with that - I prefer this one, and not just because it's shorter (though that doesn't hurt: I'm a believer most modern adaptations of A Christmas Carol are too long).

I think Hicks is fantastic as Scrooge. He looks and acts very different than the version that's become the norm. Hicks is quite a bit stockier than most versions of Scrooge, and he's a little wilder in appearance and in his mannerisms. To me, this makes his eccentricities a little more believable. At the beginning, he feels like a curmudgeonly old man who's not quite right in the head. Frankly, he's an angry conservative, rather than a cliché villain. Then, after his transformation, he becomes a sort of kind, old man, who's still not quite right in the head. I find his character arc more believable and compelling than virtually any other adaptation I've come across.

Likewise, this version of Bob Cratchit works fantastically well. He's a bit older with a lot of character. You get the feeling there's a lot more going on in his head than his dialogue suggests. He's always upbeat, but the actor (Donald Calthrop) almost plays it as a coping mechanism. I felt more depth from his family, too. The dialogue is virtually identical to what's in the book and most versions, but they worked to give these characters some dimension. It's astonishing to me this came in 1935, and it's still the only version I've seen that really feels like the Cratchits are characters, rather than props in Scrooge's morality tale.

Visually, things get a tad complicated - there are aspects I absolutely love and others I found dated. I'll start with the positive: the look of Victorian London at the beginning is gorgeous. Both there and in the Future section, the movie embraces elements of horror, creating an atmospheric and ethereal world. It's genuinely creepy, as it should be. Too many adaptations of A Christmas Carol forget this is supposed to be a ghost story.

I also want to call out the visual of Marley's face appearing in the doorknob. It's a rather simple effect by most standards, but it works well here. That said, it's the only time we see Marley, because the movie chooses to have his ghost remain invisible to everyone except Scrooge, and that includes the audience. They do a great job selling this with props, camera moves, and through Hick's reactions, but it's a surprising choice.

Likewise, the Spirit of Christmas Past looks a bit dull (he's basically a lighting effect). The section set in the past section is treated as a flashback, with the edges of the frame fading to white. I didn't think much of it at first, but I like the way the movie inverts this for the future, where everything's black and shadow.

From a story perspective, the Past section is severely truncated. Any positive memories Scrooge had of the holidays are gone: this is just two quick scenes showing Scrooge losing Belle, followed by her with her new family. It's one of the movie's missteps, in my opinion: we lose Scrooge's relationship with Christmas and humanity.

That said, it's kind of interesting seeing a version of this story with the nostalgic aspects removed rather than amplified. It's worth noting this came out prior to the holidays being reimagined around that idea in response to World War II.

Moving on, the Present is fairly straightforward. The spirit is a guy dressed as Father Christmas, basically the same as every subsequent adaptation. Interestingly, he lacks a beard, which deviates from the original illustrations. The costume is a bit unimpressive, but I'll give them a pass due to the age.

I mentioned future is basically shrouded in shadow, with characters appearing in the center of the frame (or in some cases just their faces). I think this works well, both as an adaptation of the original text and a cool visual image. The spirit is himself a shadow, while Scrooge is contained in a shadowy reflection of himself for the majority of the sequence (ooh - symbolism).

The content in the present and future leans heavily on the Cratchits, focusing on their happiness together in the present, then contrasting this with the death of Tiny Tim (whose corpse makes a rare appearance in this version). It gets a tad melodramatic at times, but the acting is good enough to sell it.

We also spend a significant amount of time with the robbers pawning Scrooge's possessions. Normally, I find this section tedious, but the stylization here gives the whole thing an eerie quality that keeps it interesting.

Once we cut back to the real world, the resolution is incredibly faithful. No notes here: this is all good.

I've seen this several times this year, and this is now my favorite live-action adaptation of this story, despite my issues with the Second Stave (i.e.: the Christmas Past stuff). This is a well-made adaptation with great expressionist designs, an evocative atmosphere, and an incredible performance from Hicks. I almost stopped short of an unconditional recommendation because I suspect the dated aspects will be off-putting to most audiences. This looks and sounds like an "old movie" - if you're not prepared for that, it'll pull you out of the movie (the music choices, in particular, will sound dated to anyone used to modern movies). Likewise, there are some odd celebratory cutaways towards the beginning that feel completely unnecessary (I realize these are based on brief passages from the book, but this expansion doesn't work for me). But if you can look past those minor issues and the age this is from, you might be pleasantly surprised at the layered performances, artistic style, and tonal complexity.

And at the end of the day, I've got to go with my gut. This really worked for me, and I encourage you to track it down and give it a chance. It turns out there's more to this story than we typically see, and that alone deserves a recommendation.