Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Reginald Hates Christmas

TCM hosted another Fantom Event this weekend - a double feature of two excellent Christmas films.  I'll be posting about both of them, starting with the 1938 A Christmas Carol, starring Reginald Owen as Ebenezer Scrooge.  A later post will deal with the second feature on the double bill.

In the spirit of total honesty, I'm going to admit right off that my favorite Christmas Carol is the Alistair Sim version from 1951.  My husband is a fan of The Muppet Christmas Carol (Michael Caine as Scrooge).  And I have a fondness for Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol as well (I love the music).  But this version, with Gene Lockhart as Bob Cratchit, and real life wife Kathleen Lockhart as Mrs. Cratchit is excellent (oh, and there is also young daughter June in an unbilled appearance as Belinda Cratchit).  It does alter the book in many respects.  We get much more exposure to Scrooge's nephew, Fred (Barry McKay) and fiance Bess (Lynne Carver) than in the book.  That's not a bad thing, but does skew the story a bit.  We also have an incident in which Scrooge fires Bob Cratchit on Christmas Eve (for hitting him with a snowball).  THAT is a big change from the book, and very much changes the dynamic of the story.  While we gain a more preoccupied Bob, we lose so much of his Christmas spirit - remember that, in the book, to the dismay of Mrs. Cratchit, Bob insists on toasting "Mr. Scrooge, the founder of the feast" in the Christmas Present visit.  This Bob has no reason to toast Scrooge - and does not.  To my mind, the elimination of this brief dialogue is unfortunate, because, in one sentence, you can appreciate the genuine goodness of Bob Cratchit.
That being said, seeing A Christmas Carol in a theatre is a moving experience.  Reginald Owen plays Scrooge as someone who is looking for redemption.  Certainly, it is a short film (only 69 minutes.  Both the Alistair Sim version and the Muppet version are 85 minutes), so Owen doesn't have a whole lot of time to accept his future, but he is believable as a man who faces his destiny and resolves to be a better person.

Owen was not the first choice for the role.  For years, it had been performed on radio by Lionel Barrymore, and MGM was eager to have him recreate the role on screen.  However, Barrymore broke his hip on the set of Saratoga, and was unable to participate in the film.  Always a gracious man, Barrymore consented to do the trailer for the film (as this TCM article points out, in the 1930's, Barrymore WAS the character of Scrooge to the general public), and handed over the radio broadcast for 1938 to Reginald Owen, so there would be no unfair comparison.  Though bitterly disappointed that he would be unable to enact the part, Barrymore suggested Owen for the role, and supported his substitute as much as was possible.  Interested in hearing Mr. Barrymore's interpretation? Old Time Radio has a recording of the Campbell Playhouse production, hosted by Orson Welles.
I'll end with the beginning of the Scrooge's journey towards redemption.  Pictured above (and in the clip below), is Leo G. Carroll as the Ghost of Jacob Marley.  I felt that Carroll played to the ambiguity of the character - Marley, a selfish and grasping man in his lifetime, reaches out to his old partner to try and help him to avoid Marley's fate.  Will Marley receive some heavenly brownie points for this effort? It's not clear from the dialogue between the two, but Carroll's is on a man more concerned with his old friend than with any credit he will garner.  See if you agree.