The Right to be Happy (1916)
This is it! A monumental moment--a milestone in adaptation history! The first film adaptation of “A Christmas Carol” that’s “feature-length;” five full reels of celluloid, running about 55 minutes long-- on top of that, it stars a 37-year-old Rupert Julian--the man who directed Lon Chaney Sr.’s “The Phantom of the Opera” in 1925!
I can’t wai--
“According to the Library of Congress website, this film has a current status of ‘No holdings located in archives,’ thus it is presumed all copies of this film are lost.”
Guess that particular Right got caught up in a filibuster in the Christmas Congress. Wikipedia, which has some neat pictures of the cast, is here!
This is, I must say, kind of a weird one. Before I get into it though, I think the history needs a little bit of expositing so that it makes some sense.
Wikipedia, in its grand page “Adaptations of A Christmas Carol” (which shamelessly I have used as a guide--shameless, my English teacher friends!), describes this film as “an 18-minute silent version of the story directed by George Wynn and starring Henry V. Esmond.” While there is no page for the film, Mr. Esmond has a short page here which describes nothing “A Christmas Carol”-y, but is nonetheless a concise read with a pleasant portrait. Sadly, this film was Mr. Esmond’s last, before dying suddenly of pneumonia at the age of 52.
While there is no Wikipedia page, IMDb does mention in its trivia section two items of note: “No complete prints of this film are known to exist. The original film was 1280' in length. All that survives is an edited 825' copy held by the Library of Congress,” and, “This silent film was originally released in Great Britain in 1922. The original length of the film was 1,280 feet and would have lasted approximately 15-20 minutes long depending upon the speed of the projector. The movie was later released in the United States in 1929 after it was edited into the then standard one reel format which was only about 10 minutes long.” It also tells us this is the “Seventh release in the ‘Tense Moments with Great Authors’ series,” numbers 1-6 perhaps being the fisticuffs that went on after many an author’s work was butchered in the studio system. But I digress!
The main thing I wanted to say, before getting into the actual film viewing and reviewing, is that it’s incomplete, and it’s not really possible to view it without that lens. A lot of the film that survives relies on what didn’t, although--much like the earliest films--it’s certainly able to be followed if you already know the story.
It just makes me curious, watching it now, if some of the scenes I’ll talk about as “missing” were once included, but are now lost to time.
With that laid out, let’s look at the film!
We open on our beloved, miserable counting-house, where Scrooge is dourly pouring over some important ledger. His hair, white and curly and strewn about shoulder-length or so, makes me think unfavorably that he looks a bit like a tiny dog that’s been out rolling in rain-soaked gutters. For what it’s worth, Mr. Scrooge, my hair is just as similarly a mess.
This is one of the first times I can remember Bob seeming--though gaunt and weather-worn--actually remarkably younger than Scrooge! Maybe it’s the sleek black hair, but he’s got an almost corpsish handsomeness to him. Listen, I know that might sound mean, but I genuinely don’t mean it as such! It’s a face Tim Burton would display and a thousand goth tumblr pages would swoon over. He’s put-upon, but he’s--
Scrooge, interrupting my monologue, barks at his Sandman-looking assistant to stop trying to get more heat from the fire and get back to work. Bob gets back on top of the pile of ledgers helping add height to his seat.
In busts Nephew Fred, who’s hearty and British and even looking at him I’m thinking, “Yup! That’s a film star from the silent era! He looks nice!”, and then I can’t tell you two things about him. But he does look kind enough, even not registering in my memory at all as a fresh face.
Scrooge, knowing the celluloid’s being chopped all to hell by those rotten Americans, greets his nephew’s Christmas cheer with the immortal “Bah--humbug!”, setting us fans of the book ablaze with cheers in the theater. He then busts out the quintessential, “What have you got to be happy over--poor as you are?”, and Fred replies with the equally iconic, “Why are you dismal--rich as you are?”
My boy Fred hitting him back with the top roast of 1922 right there!
Scrooge, pissy as ever, shuts Cratchit up even as an insert shot shows us the entirety of Bob’s well-cared-for teeth and gums.
“Don’t be cross, uncle--it’s Christmas!” Fred continues. “Come and have Christmas dinner with me! I’ll give you some aloe vera for the burn.”
Scrooge, working his eyebrows, sits back and angrily rebukes him with his ever-famous phrase:
“Oh, bah! Bosh!”
Now, I may just be a half-delirious-with-moving-stress theater kid, but anyone at any time saying “Bosh!” makes me think of the incomparable Nancy Zamit from “The Pilot (Not the Pilot)” from The Goes Wrong Show, at 10:14. BOSH! I couldn’t take the next few minutes of “Scrooge” seriously and had to go back and rewatch it, giggling to myself.
(Oh, come on Val… Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten the time we spent in Monaco… BOSH!)
Scrooge, having forgotten the time he spent in Monaco, grumps back to work as an insert shot of a street urchin looking up to the counting house window floats by, a remnant of a longer film. Gaunt Buster Keaton gets ready to leave for the day and Scrooge obligatorily grouses about him wanting a holiday.
I must say, despite the initial strangeness of the hair--for some reason it keeps drawing my eye--Mr. Esmond does make a particularly fine Scrooge! He seems naturally worn from a long life, and even with his eyes emphatically opening wide every so often when speaking, it doesn’t detract at all from the impression he is cold and money-hungry and utterly impartial to anyone else. (Skipping forward, he also does the turn to joviality very well, too!)
Perhaps because of the different prints edited together, the YouTube video has a few sections where the intertitles narrow down inexplicably, or even change fonts. This one tell us that Christmas Eve night is a night when “the spirit of a man who has never given is sometimes doomed to walk the earth in a dream, and witness the happiness he might have shared--” so you ought to remember this, and shun not the ringer of the Salvation Army bell, dressed cheerlessly as St. Nick against the frigid doors of your local nice supermarket! This message sponsored by the ghost of Jacob Marley.
In a rare first--and this, I think, especially due to the previous intertitle, may be the first clear indication of edits slicing away footage--we get no “Jacob Marley cosplaying a door-knocker” sequence! This is actually the only time I can recall seeing a version without it, though what follows more than makes up for that.
Scrooge locks up his chambers--which are starting to really look like how I imagine them in the book; a large room, gilded with lovely wood panels, but drab and dry with a slender enough bed, a fireplace, some chairs, and very little more. Scrooge has on his night-cap to sup on gruel, wonderful, and even more wonderful are the amazing shots of Marley’s entrance: spectral bells superimposed over the walls clanging themselves into frenzy--Esmond’s disturbed, worried face--a shot of the floor receding into the darkness with disembodied legs and feet dragging along a (if we’re being polite, extremely manageable) chain affixed with books (seriously, I’ve carried heavier quantities of books to school for years, Jacob!)--the full spirit stalking forward and coming onto the set finally with a pointing hand through the chamber door!
Granted, after he says, “I am the ghost of what you shall be!”, and we see that he’s got big moony glasses on a particularly pointed nose, the bandage tied around a copious amount of hair, I can’t help but wonder if Scrooge is recoiling to the sound of Homer Simpson screaming “NEERRRRRRRRRDDDDD!”, but that’s neither here nor there.
Marley does a great job scaring the bejeezus out of his old business partner, helped by the video’s incidental violins and the intertitlist. It’s the first time, though, that I’ve seen so much wringing of the hands from Marley, as if even in this last deathly offer, he’s still considering it some form of contractual business.
With his piece said, Marley lifts his chain easily and fades out, leaving Mr. Esmond blinking and wide-eyed, which he does very well. Then he goes to bed with his SHOES STILL ON, HEATHEN, take your shoes off!!! What the hell, Scrooge?! He really is a scary old man. They might be slippers-- still!!!
Christmas Past materializes, robed in something loose and flowing that I can’t tell is heavy cloth or not. The face is young, the hair old, the flowers tucked in their arm undefinable, but there. Scrooge wakes up long enough to see them, then dies and his soul comes out to accompany the Spirit, having been smited for his shoes-on-blankets heathenry.
Okay--he doesn’t die--but it is interesting to me to see versions, especially early on, where they make a point to show that his body is safely staying in bed while he goes on these journeys. Because of the spirits just whisking him away in the book, him being safe in bed is a twist that relieves us; the stakes seem a bit lesser if we know it. If I had to guess, honestly I think it’s more a result of an ingenious way of getting around limitations of early special effects, where to interact with the spirits--and separate him from the action happening in the visions they show him--Scrooge has to be see-through as well, and you can’t just have him go see-through out of nowhere!
Even with the limitations of 1922, the special effects are seamless; Scrooge’s spirit sits up, wide-eyed (and double-exposed) to face Christmas Past, while his body does a snooze. It’s a wonderful shot, with the angle and composition drawing the eye to the spirits--perfectly lined up with the bedposts--while Scrooge lays quietly in the middle. The mise-en-scène is (Editor’s Note: Justin has been dragged away again to rest, babbling about film terminology. We’ll reset him and bring him back in a jiffy.)
I’ve gotta say, Henry Esmond does seem the most terrified of the Scrooges--probably entirely due to the absolute hugeness of his eyes. It’s not a bad thing; I like the quieter expressions more than the convulsing theater-acting of earlier years.
Man! I just realized--this film is a full century old! And it’s already over 20 years older than the first adaptation we looked at! Almost 80 years since the novella. Time is crazy, man.
Speaking of going into the past, here’s the days when Scrooge is “carefree and happy,” glossing over the vignette of his school-days. There are apparently only 2 or 3 confirmed versions of the filmed story where the leading actor for Scrooge plays himself as a younger man; I think this is one that’s been unconfirmed. Young Scrooge looks precisely like the older Esmond, and it’s nice seeing him without what I’m realizing is heavy old-age makeup, wrinkling up his cheeks and eyes.
Maybe this vision of the past is so happy because he’s got a friend, laughing over him and doing Bro things like clapping him on the shoulder while he does business. It strikes me as slightly strange that his “happy” past still looks like business--just cheerfully. They put so much emphasis on how he got greedy--Krampus Past even saying, “You made your Gold your God!”, which is not hard to do; you just white-out the l--and we see him poring over a book, doing the same crazy-eyes, counting chocolate coins he got on Halloween.
But--really; it’s odd how instead of Fezziwig’s party for the happy work-life of the past, it’s just a happy job with another guy there. Almost as if, if Marley hadn’t died, he’d still be chilling and getting clapped on the back by his Bro.
The font changes again as the Americans or someone slice away most of the film, and we (at first inexplicably) are transported to the Cratchit’s home. However, we immediately get some context if you’ve read the book (it’s like watching the last few Harry Potter films; book fans will get what’s happening, everyone else is saying “what the hell’s this shard of glass?”); a jovial Christmas Present is with him!
This is the only version I’ve seen where we see almost nothing of Christmas Present the ghost, which is a pity, because the costume looks marvelous.
Gaunt Bob Keaton kisses his cheekboney wife on the lips and she looks around smartly like, “Bob! Here, in front of our nondescript children, of whom Tiny [REDACTED] is one?” But before she can ask where [REDACTED] is, Bob pulls out a bird for their feast that’s maybe as big as a rubber chicken. It’s interesting seeing a version--and this includes John Leech’s illustrations--where the Cratchits do honestly look and seem underfed. It’s a bit sad, honestly. As it should be.
Bob tries to thank Mr. Scrooge as the founder of the feast, and while our best shot of Christmas Present gives a full-bellied laugh, Scrooge backs us away from this scene before Mrs. Cratchit snaps her husband like a twig.
In a lovely shot that might be a first for adaptations, we see the transition of Spirits out in the open, not just in Scrooge’s room or off-screen! Against a-- wall?-- Scrooge appears to lead Christmas Present on-screen, where we can see him clearer and-- oop, he’s gone nevermind, only three shots. Christmas Yet to Come comes stalking on with either a black robe or a very heavy towel over his head, and he looks suitably like the book, even if it’s probably not stone-jawed Asheton Tonge.
Especially once he raises his arms to lead and point (much to Scrooge’s horror), we get a better look at the costume, and it’s wonderful with each fold looking highlighted in the cloth, as if this were a veiled stone statue come to life and moving among us.
Scrooge is led beyond any of the other scenes of the Future to see his grave, laid down in a very real looking graveyard. I think they actually might’ve shot on location. If not, then outstanding job to the set designers!!! We get to see that “Ebenezer Scrooge -- Himself Without Human Kindliness -- ~He Died Without Friends~” which is not worded as Jacob Marley erasure for once :D More importantly, it’s worded such that we do still get the Future’s lesson of “stop being a tool” without needing the other scenes necessarily.
Scrooge sobs and the Spirit lowers his arm, ushering the film to black.
Abruptly, we’re staring at Henry Esmond’s befuddled gaze, and it has the effect of jarring us out of sleep, much like the character. Not because his face is bad; it’s just an abrupt cut. Man, I could do without this quick-paced “Jason Bourne” editing! (in a film about 80 or so years before said film.)
Henry Esmond does a magnificent job as the new, overjoyed Scrooge. It’s surprising how realistic it seems seeing him still moving slowly and like an old man but just in a joyous, heart-skipping way--not zip-zooping around the room. He calls down to a BOY on the street, who rushes over from that forlorn shot that went nowhere earlier. “Go find and buy the biggest turkey in London!”
Walk-er! All of London? But Scrooge tosses down coin after coin and dances about in his room, musing on how he’ll send it to Cratchit! But does he?
“And he DOES send it all to Bob!”
~Phew~ thank you, intertitles. Had me worried there Scrooge’d pull a fast one on us!
This point of hilarity was--I would’ve initially thought--because they edited that scene out. Except we immediately see the Cratchits bent over a basket of goodies!
Might be my favorite intertitle of this whole viewing experience, honestly.
In a few short seconds, Scrooge runs into Fred on the street and asks to come to dinner. Fred looks elated; they look very happy and that’s nice :D
“So there is HAPPINESS-- everywhere he goes there is HAPPINESS….”
These intertitles are hitting me like a truck. Like a great Spanish announcer in football (soccer) when the game picks up finally.For the second adaptation in a row (minus “The Right to be Happy” and I’m still bitter about that, Christmas Congress! Pass the darn Right!), we see Scrooge play his Dec. 26th prank on Bob. He pulls it off well, laughing and poking at Bob’s elbow I think, while Bob stands there stunned. The intertitles creep me out one last time with, “A merry Christmas, Bob! I’m going to plan some Happy Days for your family! We’re going to be HAPPY, BOB!”
Everything’s okay :)
Oh, it’s fine; they shake hands and cheerfully go to start the fireplace up for some warmth, THE END
All in all, this is a very well-done version hampered by that pesky problem of missing almost a third of its footage. It’d be wonderful seeing it restored, but at this point that likely will not happen. For what is there, it’s easy to parse out where stuff should be and fill in the gaps, but that takes you out of the viewing experience. There’s a lot to enjoy; the sets are great, the costumes are wonderful, the acting is very good and overall it’s a well-directed production from George Wynn. Henry Esmond is a decent Scrooge--not as memorable as some, but certainly refined in a way that earlier silent actors were not, and giving us the image of a realistically vulnerable old man.
It’s a shame that there’s so much missing, because it really does throw your mind for a loop. It’s bitter irony that the US didn’t seem to cut anything relating to Scrooge’s money-making, just unfortunately some of that sod about Spirits.
Nonetheless, this is a good adaptation, even being only partial! It’s well worth seeing here, and like [REDACTED] said,
What's NOT BOSH is the legendary blueberry muffin recipe from Jordan Marsh. Long a Christmas staple to Boston residents, who would go in town to see the window displays, the lights on the Common and the Enchanted Village, the secret recipe is revealed at long last for you to try at home. Enjoy!
Should you be stuck in traffic for hours having to brave the malls or stores for that last-minute 'must have' gift this year, and you just want to shriek or (more appropriately) howl at the Moon in frustration, try THIS instead to while away your time, the Weird Christmas Podcast all about Christmas Werewolves - AROOOOO!!!