Program Notes: A Christmas Carol (1951)

Every year seems to bring another filmic variation on Dickens’ immortal A Christmas Carol.

But none of them has succeeded in surpassing the 61-year-old British version starring Alastair Sim.

Which is not to say that this 1951 rendition is the most faithful to the original story. Among other things, it introduced a not-in-Dickens subplot involving Scrooge and Marley as young men. For that reason this version may offend some purists.

Moreover, the film is in black and white (a distinct disadvantage in an era when many youngsters seem to believe that watching a black-and-white film is a physically painful experience).

And yet the movie – which was released in Britain as Scrooge – feels more authentic (to me, anyway) than any other Christmas Carol.

Film Screening:
A Christmas Carol (1951)
Saturday, Dec. 1 at 1:30 p.m.
Central Library

In part, I think, it’s because this production gives the illusion of having actually been filmed in the Victorian Era (in that regard the lack of color is an advantage).

But mostly it’s because Alastair Sim was simply brilliant in the role of Ebenezer Scrooge.

The Scottish Sim (1900 -1976) was described by one colleague as "a sad-faced actor with the voice of a fastidious ghoul” – perfect credentials for a man cast as literature’s most infamous miser.

Originally a stage actor, Sim in 1930 made his London debut in Othello. Over the years he often tackled the role of Captain Hook in Peter Pan, starring in six productions between 1941 and 1968.

Though he appeared in movies from 1935, it was usually as a supporting player – albeit one notorious for stealing scenes from the films’ stars. He was a regular in the popular Inspector Hornleigh film series, playing Detective Sergeant Bingham and regularly upstaging leading man Gordon Harker.

Eventually Sim was elevated to leading roles and in 1950 was named Britain’s most popular film actor in a national poll.

Next stop: Scrooge.

But despite the efforts of a top-notch cast of British thespians, Scrooge/A Christmas Carol was not an immediate success. It did very well in its original British run, but its reception in the U.S. was chilly.

Originally booked into New York’s Radio City Music Hall, the film was rejected by the management as too grim for a big holiday show aimed at the family. (And that’s another reason I love this version...it’s NOT a whitewashed, simperingly saccharine version.)

It opened in a nearby theater, received mixed reviews (a rave from the New York Times, a so-so response from Time magazine) and quickly sank into obscurity.

And then along came television. From 1975 local stations aired the Sim Christmas Carol every December. In the early ‘80s PBS picked it up for national broadcast, and it quickly crept into the public’s consciousness as one of the best (if not the best) version of the yarn.

Sim enjoyed a long career. Among his recurring roles was his wildly popular drag turn as the headmistress Miss Fritton in the St. Trinian’s series of films set in a British boarding school. He appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright and in productions like Waterloo Road, Folly to Be Wise, and An Inspector Calls.

Late in his life he appeared opposite Peter O’Toole in The Ruling Class (’72) and in Richard Lester’s Royal Flash (1975).

Sim lived long enough to get a sense of the enduring popularity of his Ebenezer Scrooge. Only a year after the movie began showing regularly on TV, Sim died at age 76 after a battle with lung cancer.

Other films in the series “A Very Dickens Christmas”

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:

 

Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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Comments:

I would have to agree that

I would have to agree that this is the best film version of "Christmas Carol." For a quirkier version, "The Muppet Christmas Carol" also is quite wonderful. And Michael Caine does play a great Scrooge.

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