A Christmas Carol (1923)
At last, dear readers, we have come to the end of our silent films. With “The Jazz Singer” in 1927, sound came to the Silver Screen, changing irrevocably the theater experience. Already, we’ve covered two decades of cinematic adaptations, and already the technical and theatrical leaps and bounds have been stunning from beginning to end. At the beginning, all we had were superimposed images of Marley, giving the plot the ol’ heave-ho to cram the necessities in. We had theatrical overacting; we had a rush of every little detail aside from Stave I, in which we had to hit each beat.
Well, in 22 years time, we have almost the exact same darn thing!
To begin with (Marley was dead as a doornail), the quality of this filmstock is really bad, making it already a bit of a chore to view. That is in no way the film’s fault, but it does it little favors as you’re hoping you’ll find some hidden gems between the blown-out grain. A bit sad, and also more than a bit wildly hilarious, to see the film itself.
As a side note, the version I found on YouTube has a wonderful score put together by the channel. It has nothing really to do with “A Christmas Carol”, but it nonetheless contributes heavily to the viewing enjoyment.
We do open with a welcome sight: opening credits, including a meager cast list! “A CHRISTMAS CAROL / featuring the character of / SCROOGE / from the immortal pen of / Charles Dickens” greets us right from the get-go. This fills me with hope!, I think, because they’ve read the book! The cast list includes Russell Thorndike as Scrooge (Thorndike seems to be one of those actors I’ve always heard the name of but never seen; he was in a lot of Shakespeare, but moreso I know the name as the author of the Dr. Syn books! Just pieced that together reading Wikipedia. Thanks, J. K., for gifting me the first two!) in rightful top billing. Inexplicably, “Mrs. Fred” takes second place, played by Nina Vanna, followed by “Mr. Fred”, played by Forbes Dawson, then “Marley’s Ghost”, played by Jack Denton. Again, actors I swear I’ve heard of, but never knew from elsewhere.
The next title, while being nowhere in the book, does promise some form of epic, Book of Job-ian struggle: “Wise men have always contended that the toughest skin that covers any animal is to be found on that of a miser. Nothing short of a miracle can ever regenerate him.” I personally have never heard anyone contend such a thing about tough skin, but perhaps I was not invited to that particular meeting of the wise men.
Outstandingly, the titles actually scroll to reveal a new addition: “In the joyous story of A Christmas Carol, we bring to life the world-renowned character of…”
Smiling to myself, seeing how much they praise the book here and how surely they will stick to its plot--at least with enough focus to emulate each other silent version, always hitting the highlights--I find the first source of befuddlement, as they’ve already highlighted the character SCROOGE twice in two previous intertitles. But it serves, I guess, more as a transition, for on the screen now we see:
Another intertitle! “A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner.” “Who is Ebenezer Scrooge?”, I ask the Jeopardy host, and the crowd applauds the right answer. (I’m still on meds for the back troubles, so this might be a little unhinged, apologies.)
But blow me down! Here’s the old fellow now, sitting at his desk, pondering over some important piece of BUSINESS! Though here is point of befuddlement number two; why was the first order of BUSINESS! not to clean up the mess of strewn-about papers littering the office floors?
I must say, perhaps just due to the spacing of the table, cocked at an angle amidst an otherwise vastly empty floor, it does not seem an impressive office, this of “Scrooge and Marley.” However, Thorndike captivates, even with something as little as putting his quill in his mouth briefly to get his hands free and glance over at Bob in his little cubicle. Why he decided to chomp down on the feathers is beyond me, but nonetheless he immediately comes off as a miserable old bastard, which is fine characterization indeed!
Bob Cratchit, whose actor was not above “Mrs. Fred” in terms of importance, it sadly seems, turns around to get on with sneakily getting some heat from the fireplace, and by Jove he looks like Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera. No offense to the actor--but with the grain and age, with the receding hairline and long gaunt face, stiffened by weary working, I honestly believed for a second Erik had survived being tossed into the Seine. Although, with this being two years before that film, maybe the future was full of shadows of things that will be, and after Tiny Tim’s destruction Bob fled to Paris.
It could happen; stranger books have been written as “A Christmas Carol” sequels!
Bob’s office is even more cluttered with fallen papers--I know Scrooge is miserly and greedy, but did he not invest in filing cabinets at the very least? Perhaps it’s all the copies of “Don Juan Triumphant”--either way, Scrooge barks at him to get back to it, and Bob huddles away again.
A wide shot shows us just how barren the offices are, and in comes Mr. Fred to wish his uncle a Merry Christmas! Scrooge grumbles and winces off Fred’s heavy slap on the back, replying with the traditional “Humbug!” spiel. Fred laughs him off, and every few seconds the editor found it necessary to cut back to Bob, peering around and listening, seemingly enraged by two actors whose names were billed in the cast list.
Scrooge ups the ante with the “boiled in pudding / buried with holly in the heart” line, causing Mr. Thorndike to quiver and huff, Mr. Dawson as Fred to be taken aback, and Mr. Phantom to peer goblin-like around again, hunched over his desk. Fred never really regains himself, asking why do you resent me because I married for love (and to get third billing under the Mrs., I suspect!)? The expression makes Fred look more like a downcast, petulant child if I’m being frank, but he’s every right and reason to be hurt, especially as Thorndike’s Scrooge titters and never looks up from his pen for a full ten seconds, only to have “Good afternoon!” as the only translation of his soliloquy.
Scrooge sasses him with a condescending roll-over of the hand again and again that my partner and I do a lot to show extreme exasperation. Fred, on the receiving end of such 2010’s sass, resignedly leaves, but not before wishing his uncle and Bob a MERRY CHRISTMAS! Bob waves after him, and Scrooge barks at him again for continuing the wave after Fred’s left.
Outside, a boy comes over to sing, or some such begging, at Scrooge’s door. Fred, on the way out, pauses to give the boy some coin--which I was grateful for, considering the child is inexplicably rubbing his upper thigh. “Please sir; my pocket is hungry and hasn’t eaten money in a long while! If I stick me ‘and in, it’ll chomp it down to the wrist-bones!” A common enough situation, sadly. The actor makes eye contact with the back of Fred’s head the entire time, even more strangely.
The young lad gets a close-up, during which time he’s positioned himself to rock against a wall, yell-singing a Christmas carol (MAAARLEY WAS DEEAAAD, TOOO BEGIN WIIIITH, ALLLLLL IS QUIET, AAAS A DOORNAIL), and Scrooge, ballistically angry, works himself up into such a tizzy that he grabs a ledger from the desk and smashes it down over the boy’s head like a game of whack-an-urchin. The lad stares up at him in disbelief--in large part because we can very clearly see that it very much connected with his head--and runs off as Scrooge swings and misses a second shot.
We get now to see Scrooge standing, and he’s quite the hunched-over beanpole, this one.
He seems to be either ecstatic at shutting up the singer, or still frothing with rage, because he brings the ledger up and down in pantomime twice more--maybe disagreeing that the doornail is the deadest piece of ironmongery.
Just as he gets back to work, Bob hurries over to let in the gentleman collecting money for the poor, who must not’ve seen Scrooge’s moral display just a few seconds earlier. In a first, breaking with every other interaction between these two characters I’ve seen, Scrooge is cordial enough to invite the collector to sit down, perhaps believing him a client of BUSINESS! The intertitlist does a good job filling us in on each important line, straight from the immortal pen of Charles Dickens.
At the first sign of “want to give to charity?”, Scrooge’s expression goes from cordial to confusion and bitter greed--soon enough, he tells the collector to talk to the hand, stopping the fellow, and asking if the usual Bad Places are in operation, jiggling about in his chair each time he speaks, and seeming to mewl in contentment at the info that they still are open. Bob Cratchit has a split second of being cold and shivering by the candle. Thorndike brings his hand down again, grumpy but sickeningly polite in a way I haven’t seen other Scrooges do. You get the impression the old fellow’s actively malicious and would be far more conniving and manipulative if he had any interest and a bit more intellect.
The collector collects his hat back up and leaves, mouthing something harsh back at Scrooge, who replies with a thumb stuck out jerking it to leave--except at the camera angle, we barely register it’s his thumb before the cut, and boy does it look like a far more R-rated “A Christmas Carol” now!
Here’s what we’ve been waiting for, though! We get to see our top-billed actress, as Mrs. Fred (Nina Vanna, a Russian-British actress in her film debut!), and her sister, decorate for the party tomorrow. Before we can see that one of them is standing up on a chair, it appeared that Mrs. Fred was in fact a young Lady Dimitrescu. Fred’s not that lucky, though. Speaking of which, in he comes!, greeting his overly-affectionate wife. She tussles his hair with such ferocity he pulls away and shakes his fist at her, which may or may not have been scripted because all the joy fades rapidly from the room even before Fred relates Scrooge’s catchphrase about Christmas.
Scrooge, not to be outdone by his nephew’s inexplicable ferocity, shakes his walking cane at a far-too-close Bob Cratchit, angry as ever about paying a day’s wages for no work on Chribnus. As soon as the boss legs it out the door, Bob follows suit!
“Goody, goody!”, I think to myself. “A little over a third done--now we get to see Marley in the door-knocker! I missed the old chap in 1922.”
In the first of many strange changes regarding the Spirits, Scrooge makes it home without seeing Jack Denton’s face peering out of the middle of his door! This one is especially odd, considering that there’s no doubt of its deliberateness--in 1922 so much was cut that I could give it slack, but here…
Maybe Scrooge had a word with the editor along the lines of, “Right: I’m hungry and I want my gruel, Bedelia.” The editor, having seen Creepshow too young like myself, screamed and omitted the scene.
Or, more likely, in keeping with the rest of the film, the effects may have been too costly on time and money, and were ostensibly cut wherever they weren’t necessary.
Either way, Scrooge is hunched over in nightgown and nightcap, almost eerily similar to the illustrations of the book. For all I may rag on this film (especially going forward), I must say they took deliberate care to recreate the look of the characters (both in make-up and costuming, and for that matter even in the props and set dressing!) exceptionally well. Scrooge reaches out--my first thought was to pet a plant over on the left side--to warm his hand by the fire.
The intertitlist elicits an impromptu laugh from me, as the scene bizarrely cuts to say an unprompted “Humbug!”
In an outstanding effect, the wide shot of the drawing-room--looking, again, exactly like the book illustrations even down to the dimensions--shows Scrooge sitting by the meager firelight and suddenly Jacob Marley appears through the closed door in the set!
Scrooge puts down his gruel, he’s so flabbergasted.
Another illegal chuckle came from me, seeing Russell Thorndike less frightened and more bewildered--rubbing his eyes--contrasted with Jacob Marley standing arms-crossed, hip jutting out, sighing like, “Oh, this guy.” Almost unendurably, they stare at one another, until Marley finally says, “In life I was your partner--”, making me think now that maybe Scrooge actually forgot him.
A tragedy, considering there’s at least three versions I can remember reading about where Scrooge and Marley were queer-coded. How could you forget your sworn business partner, Ebby?!
Marley’s got a good set of chains and lockboxes this time around! Scrooge looks up from the floor, utterly embarrassed at ghosting his ghostly friend. The seeming embarrassment does turn to a better-to-read shock and fear, though--it’s fascinating as ever, seeing a different take on the character: in this one, Ebenezer seems to feel emotions from the get-go much more heightened than the others. Not at all a bad thing, just an observation!
The effects and lighting of Marley sitting are phenomenal; the strides and advancements to let him cross in front of Scrooge--and sit down opposite him--without losing anyone’s features is astonishing.
Scrooge tries to prissily rebuke the spirit as a liver disorder--Marley, having none of this nonsense (and sensing most urgently that the run-time is already half done!) informs his old buddy that three spirits will haunt him. He even says the misleading thread from the book; they will haunt him one after another after another over the course of three nights, not one. I feel like this detail is skipped over a lot, and makes the “they did it all in one night!” have little place in a lot of versions. But I digress--and Marley’s shutting me up anyway; we’ve got to hustle!
Scrooge, again having none of it, shakes his head in a big no-no that he won’t eat his vegetables, Mom!!! (He really does look like a pouting child due to the positioning in his chair and the film’s deterioration.) Moreover, he gets off another few lines from the book, including the ever-popular, “There’s more of gravy than the grave about you!”, to which Marley stands up and shrieks in silent-film form, scaring the bejeezus out of Scrooge (and the chair out from under his butt), because we’ve got to hustle!!!
Despite my desperation, the intertitlist has taken on a mind of their own for the film, and now that we’re getting well and truly past minute 14 of 27, Marley expounds on his chains and where they were forged and why didn’t he value humanity and of course we need more precious time to read all these beautiful paragraphs; I worked so hard typing them up and isn’t the font just darling?
As we approach 1913’s “Old Scrooge” levels of intertitling, Marley gives it his all with a very heartfelt performance, and Scrooge is so hunched and huddled and aghast that it’s hard not to be drawn into the film once more. Just in time, however, for Scrooge to ask how he can escape his own chains, Marley to reply, “You will be haunted by Three Spirits,” and my brain (though addled on back-pain-meds) can’t help but wonder if I’m stumbling into a möbius strip of celluloid now. Marley, similarly pained with repeating his words after they’ve been chopped all to smithereens, leans back and peaces out of existence, sparing us again from the scene of the woman freezing in the street with her wailing baby.
Interestingly, the final line of the scene, “Why do spirits walk the earth and why do they come to me?”, is rhetorical here, whereas it was asked to Marley in the book. In some ways, I actually think it works a lot nicer as a rhetorical!
And so, with ten minutes left, Scrooge gets up to go to bed and lie down and wait for Christmas Past. Except, seeing the runtime, Christmas Past decides to hop to it and visit the drawing room instead! And what a strange little Christmas Past it is--“little” being the especially operative word here! Materializing as a plain figure of a man when the almost-always-forgotten extinguisher cap comes off, CP is no higher than Scrooge’s knee! No higher than his thigh, even!
Someone check if the Ghost of Christmas Past is named “Tim!”
It is a marvelous effect--one I haven’t seen replicated elsewhere and one I haven’t seen attempted in any of the other silent versions. Scrooge seems utterly terrified by the fun-sized Ghost, whose face may be undefined because of book loyalty (it does always seem to change, one moment to the next!) or just from 100 years of age on the film print. Heedless of my urgent pleas, they have a conversation that jams in even more book dialogue without advancing us into the actual scenes of the past.
Chrombdus Past, sensing how a precious thirty seconds are already gone, says, “Behold the girl who would not marry you because your heart was obsessed by love of Gold, engrossed the passion for gain!”, and quite horrifyingly extinguishes himself. Scrooge looks on in terror; I do too, because the ghost has effectively said one line about the past and dipped! I can understand no Fezziwig, but will we at least see--
Ah! Yes; there she is, sitting down in a shot that makes it look like Belle’s sitting along the table. Young Scrooge, lounging behind her, says something or other to which she skyrockets up to her feet, exploding her hands about, and storms off. Shouldn’t have made that joke about calling her a “snack,” Ebenezer; “five-course meal with the best dessert ever” or bust.
Russell Thorndike, having effectively ten seconds to implore over, does a magnificently quiet job of folding in on himself in despair.
In another strange decision, Christmas Past comes back by removing the extinguisher cap again! And holding it as if he were cosplaying an Amazonian Madonna. It seems he’s only come back to pour enough salt into the wound to summon a spectral deer; it’s no wonder that Thorndike rushes from his chair, gesticulating and shouting, “Haunt me no longer!”, onto the intertitles. It must’ve been terribly hard to act, considering there was nobody there with him--the sight-lines line up perfectly, but all his grasping (scraping, covetous?) at the air and shaking just makes him look like he’s having the type of fit that lands you in a hospital overnight. The spirit, not wanting to pay for his medical bills, departs.
Scarcely do we have time to read “Humbug! All humbug!”, than Santa Claus himself pops up! Well--the Ghost of Christmas Present has always been a thinly-veiled Santa, of course--but this one really is just effectively St. Nick. Sitting on a box covered in a lovely fabric, with at least one bauble hanging down between his thighs (gosh, I hope it’s a bauble). His white beard may be stuck on by string, or it might be rightly the actor’s; it’s very hard to tell on the film print. The requisite green robe and white fuzzy edges are there, and he seems as jovial as any mall Santa on a good day.
Scrooge approaches him to inquire if he can get a pony this year, and we see another wonderful sight with how tall this Christmas Present is, and positioned such that the actors replicate yet another John Leech illustration. Marvelous staging, absolutely marvelous!
Scrooge even rubs his hands together, anticipating the great scenes of festivities to come and agreeing that this has such marvelous potential!
“I am the Spirit of Christmas Present!”, Santa exclaims. Scrooge starts hopping foot to foot slightly with me; childlike glee taking over--
“I spent to-morrow at your nephew’s home, your clerk’s home, and in the home of all who love Christmas!”
Yes-- Yes, go on! And we’ll see the coal miners, and those men far out at sea, and the lighthouse? Scrooge seems to be imploring those scenes into being, hanging onto Santa’s arm--
“No! You cannot tempt me to remain, for you have no love for your fellow men--only love for yourself!”
Saying this, Christmas Present waves an arm, utters a scoffing “hmph!”, and vanishes, having only taken up 50 or so seconds of screen time and telling us the quintessential scenes we would’ve loved to see from the book rather than showing them.
Scrooge cries out, “Spirit, hear me! I am not now the man I was…”, and you sort of wonder why, considering that all that’s happened has been five or so minutes of ghosts telling him he’s been a right prick. I’ll touch on this in the analysis part later, but Christmas Present is arguably the most important part of the story--without it, there’s no weight to Scrooge’s exclamations here. Although, if three ghosts had come telling me I’d been a right prick, I would be a changed man, I guess. All right, “A Christmas Carol” (1923), you got me there!
We cut back to the wide shot again as Scrooge numbly gets up from the floor, our eyes trained to be looking over again and again at the door, where inevitably not-Asheton Tonge will appear. But the ghost doesn’t materialize; Scrooge simply wanders over to the shut bedroom door, opening it--
Stumbling back in horror, we see the palest of the Spirits. Shot against light wood, it sadly is the hardest to make out--but as Yet to Come stalks out from the dark room, we still see that familiar, deep hood, draping down over every feature, making it impossible to define--
“I am the Spirit of the Future.”
Is it just me, or is the immortal pen of Dickens being scratched out line by line and paragraph by paragraph all of a sudden? Christmas Yet to Come having an intertitle--or any kind of distinguishable voice--takes away so much of the mystique and fear of it! It’s a blank unknown slate; a shape, billowing out endless cloth into the frigid night air! If it can speak, it becomes more human; more definable. Less impact as an omniscient being, because now there’s the possibility that Christmas Yet to Come could just say, “Hey Scrooge, I’m running down to Ralph’s; do you want me to pick up a Red Baron pizza for you?”
It probably wouldn’t happen, since I don’t think Red Baron was around in Dickens’ time, but it’s now a possibility, and that’s a terribly inconvenient thought to have when trying to watch a terrifying apparition.
It doesn’t help that the film stock is overexposed, making it even harder to see poor Yet to Come, so we focus more on Thorndike bent over the table gasping and clutching his throat. Recipes for a memorable Christmas Eve indeed, but all in the wrong order here!
The scene at least ends with hands-down the best and creepiest moment from any adaptation so far; Yet to Come backs out of the room, beckoning, as Scrooge tries in vain to stagger away. In the pitch-black doorway, the spirit is definable, especially the hand, sticking out from behind the arch and drawing a finger up and in slowly, unable to be refused.
Scrooge, seeming almost hypnotically compelled, staggers forward into the darkness, and you genuinely feel like he could die for once in the adaptations. It’s an amazing turnaround from just fifteen seconds ago, and--if you’ll pardon me--haunting.
Against more sadly-overexposed shots, we can make out Yet to Come (in--what are those? Sneakers? Bare feet? Hard to tell) against a bush, beckoning Scrooge to a sunken gravestone. Sticking as closely as they can to the illustrations, the spirit points straight down, and Thorndike (and intertitlist) continue to deliver faithful lines from the immortal pen; will these tombs be, or only may be? To be or not to be; that is the question. That’s not the author though, so I guess that’s not the question. It sort of is. English is hard and I’m tired, if I may be entirely sincere.
Gazing at Yet to Come against the bush--so visible yet so indistinctly not there--it reminds me pleasantly of those chicken-wire sculptures set in graveyards that seem invisible to the naked eye until darkness and nighttime. I love those things; they’re really cool. The stillness of Yet to Come here is perfect, as is Thorndike’s shuddering.
Ebenezer Scrooge’s gravestone is just starkly his name; no fancy-shmancy obits obscuring Jacob Marley this time. I honestly like the starkness and blunt dismissal the letters-on-plain-stone has, as if even the person carving it didn’t want to interact with Scrooge!
Maybe because he sees his own grave as little more than an afterthought (or, as it comes across if you’re not analyzing every frame, because he sees that “oh my God, I’m going to DIE?!”), Scrooge goes into a frenzy, tearing away his nightcap and beseeching the spirit to let him change this future (to be immortal, perhaps? Many of the reviews I see of this version seem to think it comes across that way--given what little there is of these spiritual visions, I’m inclined to agree that it does!). Yet to Come remains unmoved--we all have to face mortality, Ebenezer…
Scrooge pleads and pleads to be granted everlasting life by keeping Christmas in his heart, and Yet to Come fades away, leaving Scrooge (oddly; I think this is also a first) in the graveyard. Though, in just another moment, after collapsing into a fetal position to weep over his inevitable death, Scrooge wakes up in his chair again safe and sound. On with Stave V!
For as much as I think the acting in this film is much more a product of the vaudevillian stage variety than the poised, more mature newer style that appeared in the past few versions, I really do like Thorndike a lot as Scrooge. Because of how animated his portrayal can be at times, the quieter moments like his redemptive turn seem all the more genuine.
But now, gentle readers, comes the piece of this film that truly boggles my mind. There have been some strange changes, and I have to imagine it’s due to pacing, unneeded omissions to cut back on how much film’s being used, effects difficulty--typical things for films, especially of the time, to grapple with. For some reason, lost to time and further lost to any sane reasoning, the filmmakers decided that omitting all of Christmas Present’s scenes might’ve been a mistake. It might’ve taken away something impactful from the ending--we might’ve been bereft of a character so beloved, so universally there throughout almost every other adaptation (though he has been surprisingly absent in even some of the other silent versions)--so necessary to the plot that a huge subplot and even some amount of the theme of Christmas love cannot be tied together without him!
Yes, dear friends, I’m talking about Topper.
No, not “Tim”--who on Earth is Tim? He was that Tiny Christmas Past, wasn’t he?
Remember the horndog who seemed to be cheating at Blind Man’s Buff in Fred’s party just to get some squeals out of one of the lady guests? Crown-Prince of the 1840s frat-boys--that’s our man Topper.
With literally 3 minutes left, this film comes crashing to a halt so hard I honestly almost fell out of my chair the first time I saw it, and had to get up and walk out of the office I was viewing it in to exclaim bewilderment where nobody else could hear. For some absolutely unexplained reason, rather than showing us these scenes--I don’t know, during Stave III--we now get to see Topper, having cornered Mrs. Fred’s sister in the dining room (where she looks meek, or extremely uncomfortable) and is monologuing his affections to her so sappily I thought it was in jest at first. Mrs. Fred busts in, pauses, then brings Mr. Fred over to gawk and laugh at them. Topper bends down on one knee, arms out towards Mrs. Sister, looking as if he’s reciting verbatim, “Soft! what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun. Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon, Who is already sick and pale with grief, That thou her maid art far more fair than she.”
Fred can’t help himself and yells out something to bust up the awkwardness, and Topper--the rascal they deemed so important to include from the book--seems uncharacteristically bashful. Mrs. Fred’s sister turns away, but Mr. and Mrs. Fred barrage them with hugs and congratulations over an interaction that seemed to be entirely one-sided.
Scrooge comes to their door, which is great to see, though he does so as he waves off (a maid?) someone unseen. He’s allowed to enter and immediately is embraced, shaking Fred’s hand for a good fifteen seconds before handing the lad the best Spoonmas present ever--a huge wad of cold hard CASH, baby! Fred does a PogFish.
The intertitle also tells us that “Scrooge ends his first real Christmas by sending for his downtrodden little clerk” and seemingly still on Christmas day, we see Scrooge and Erik the Phantom sitting in Scrooge’s drawing room, drawing up a Christmas Bowl of Smoking Bishop, exactly like John Leech’s illustrations. Bob’s salary is doubled, and everything’s happy until two years later when lovely Mary Philbin rips off his mask. The end!
“A Christmas Carol” (1923) is a brilliant example of filmmaking’s evolution. The advancements compared to even the previous film we’ve seen are wondrous; the effects work for Marley in particular is truly something. This is, for all that I’ve ragged on it, a very daring version: it dares to show Marley coming through the door instead of on from camera right--it dares to have spectres of different sizes, and pulls off the sight-lines very well in my opinion--it dares to keep so many lines of the book while changing some of their placements to create a quick tempo that still captures much more of the book than other adaptations.
And, it also dares to change the material in ways that seem to have very little reason, to me.
In regards to Tiny Tim’s omission, it might’ve honestly been a case of not being able to use child actors due to the production’s timing. Even the urchin in the beginning looks to be in his mid-teens at the youngest--and, while it is a huge, critical piece of the story, which ties in the themes of classism and humanity, there’s a case to be made that the story still works by omitting it (in this case, by focusing more on how Scrooge gives money to Fred and to Bob).
What bothers me more is the omission of almost all of Stave III, save for seeing Christmas Present briefly in the drawing room. In researching “A Christmas Carol” adaptations, I found a very neat article here by Jeffrey Bolognese about “The Top 5 Ways Movies Get ‘A Christmas Carol’ Wrong”, and I want to actually copy and paste #4 because it highlights something I never could put into words:
“Giving the Ghost of Christmas Present short shrift — I think it’s the Ghost of Christmas Present that sets Scrooge firmly on the path toward “reclamation.” Most adaptations have the Ghost of Christmas Present just taking Scrooge to the homes of Bob Cratchit’s and Scrooge’s nephew Fred and leave out the rest. “Much they saw, and far they went, and many homes they visited,” the narrator tells us, but we usually don’t see much of that on the screen. That’s a shame, because this “stave” of the story is loaded with social commentary by Dickens that is eerily relevant today. For example, at one point Scrooge accuses the Ghost of being party to English laws that closed businesses on Sundays and disproportionately disadvantaged the poor of society. The Ghost replies:
“There are some upon this earth of yours,’’ returned the Spirit, “who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.” ”
That first observation--that this is really where Scrooge starts to change, is insightful and, I think, accurate. Christmas Past tears down the defenses he’s built; Christmas Present shows him all he’s missing; Christmas Yet to Come scares him, but also as Mr. Bolognese points out in point #5:
“Scrooge’s transformation doesn’t happen because he’s scared of dying. His transformation is finalized (and it starts very early in the story) when he realizes that he’s scared of dying alone, “ bereft, unwatched, unwept, uncared for.” By the end of the Ghosts’ visits he realizes that he actually needs other people and that they can need him as well. If Scrooge changed just because he didn’t want to die, then his transformation would be out of fear. Instead, Scrooge finds himself finally transformed by love and the recognition that he could both give and receive love.”
Which does make it a bit more difficult, watching Yet to Come only have a barren gravestone to show him. This’ll happen in a lot of other versions--heck, it’s happened in almost every version we’ve already covered--that Scrooge just sees that he’ll die and is scared straight. As I said earlier, with how drab and unremarkable the tombstone here is, it seems to hint at how bitterly alone he’ll wind up, but it still is rushed enough that it is more easily seen as him not wanting to expire. Silly Scrooge--you didn’t need to ask Yet to Come not to die; you were already written into life eternal by the immortal pen of Charles Dickens!
As the final chapter of the Silent Era of “A Christmas Carol” adaptations closes, we can see a few issues with pacing--in large part due to how expensive celluloid was, and doubly how expensive the effects shots would be--and some bemusing overacting (it was the times, though; I can’t really fault any of them for it!). We’ve seen exquisite shots, muddled shots, blown-out shots, and beautiful shots. We’ve seen Marleys that guide, a Spirit of Christmas that guides, and now three different Spirits that guide. Moving forward, we can see how adaptations will evolve further--how the acting matures for the camera; if the pacing quickens any in Stave I; if any versions remember the poor woman outside the window, or the lighthouse. We might even get to see Topper, the living embodiment of the Sunglasses Emoji again.
But to wrap up, I think this is a very fine film! It would’ve been nice to see with a better print, but as it stands, it's still more than legible here (ironically, the theatrical acting helps convey all that was lost to time!). It’s not terribly long, it’s quiet when it needs to be, and it’s got a particularly fine eye to capturing the visual details of the book--if not all the details of the plot. Please watch it here, and enjoy!
Thank you, Justin! For all the years the K.A.C. has covered all angles of the story, this is the first time I've stopped to ask, "What exactly IS a 'Christmas Bowl of Smoking Bishop'? If you've been asking, as well, or better yet, if you'd like to MAKE your OWN Bowl of it this year, read on!
From our files: This year's K.A.C. could have looked a lot different, as we almost lost Ebenezer due to Covid back in 2020. It was hushed up, of course, what with him being a worldwide icon and all. The truth can finally be revealed below: