Perhaps the greatest joy of the Christmas season for a young person lies in the delicious anticipation, in the events, rituals, traditions, and the sounds and smells that contribute to the build-up of excitement that peaks on Christmas morning. For us as children, decorating the classroom in late November, buying and trimming the tree in the second week of December, tasting the shortbread, the fudge, the Christmas cakes, the Nanaimo bars that emerged in an almost continuous parade of plates and trays from my mother’s kitchen, seeing the pile of wrapped gifts get larger and larger as the 25th approached, watching the Christmas TV programs, and hearing the carols on the radio—all of these made sleeping at night and paying attention to school work near impossibilities.
I cannot remember the first time I saw it—I mightn’t have even been that young—but the 1951 black-and-white production of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, with Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge, stands out as one of the highlights of the Christmas season both in my childhood and in my adult years.
A series of encounters in the first few moments of the film, which is set in London on Christmas Eve, gives us a clear picture of the character of Mr. Scrooge, surely a stand-in for all the mean-spirited people of the world. When approached for a donation to the poor, Scrooge utters the infamous lines: “Are there no prisons? And the union workhouse, are they still in operation? The treadmill and the poor law, they’re still in full figure, I presume?”
Mr. Scrooge’s uncharitable nature is offset by the goodness of characters like his nephew Fred, his employee Bob Cratchit, and of course, Cratchit’s unfortunate son, the crippled Tiny Tim. The simple but happy family life of the Cratchits, crammed as they are into a tiny hovel, is contrasted with Scrooge’s solitary existence in a large but empty and gloomy house. After begrudgingly granting Cratchit Christmas day off to be with his family (“Be back all the earlier next morning”), Scrooge goes home, where he is greeted by the ghostly image in the door knocker of his dead business partner Jacob Marley, a premonition of what is to come.
The story is familiar to everyone who read the novel or has seen one of a plethora of versions of A Christmas Carol. Marley, who wears the chain he forged in life (“I made it link by link and yard by yard! I gartered it on of my own free will and by my own free will I wore it”), appears to a frightened Scrooge to warn him that he will be visited that very night by three spirits so that he may still avoid the fate of endless wandering that Marley now suffers.
The Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge on a journey of his tragic childhood and youth and offers a glimpse of the hardened young businessman he becomes. The final leg of this first journey is the death of Jacob Marley on Christmas Eve seven years before. When Cratchit conveys the news that his partner is not expected to live, Scrooge replies, “Well what can I do about it? If he’s dying, he’s dying” and insists on remaining in the office until closing time.
The Ghost of Christmas Present, a Christ-like figure, leads Scrooge to the happy homes of Bob Cratchit and of Scrooge’s nephew. Along with the warmth and fellow-feeling of Christmas he is forced to hear what others think of him. Yet he is praised and pitied by his clerk and by his relative.
By the time the Ghost of Christmas to Come, a silent spectre in the form of the Grim Reaper, greets Scrooge, Ebenezer is still protesting that he is too old to change. Yet he must submit to visions of the Cratchit family mourning the death of Tiny Tim and of his housekeeper, his laundress, and his undertaker selling the items they have stolen after his own death.
Scrooge awakes in his own bed on Christmas morning, a changed man after the spirit has shown him his own grave stone. The new Ebenezer is giddy with happiness that he has avoided the fate suggested by his last visitor and that it is still Christmas Day so that he can begin undoing the miserly reputation he has spent a lifetime creating. After anonymously sending a very large turkey to the home of Bob Cratchit, he visits his nephew and in front of the shocked company, asks if he may still accept Fred’s invitation for Christmas dinner. The little speech he tenderly delivers to his nephew’s wife whom he has treated so badly is particularly touching: “Can you forgive a pig-headed old fool for having no eyes to see with, no ears to hear with all these years?”
For me, there can be no other Ebenezer Scrooge but Alastair Sim, who plays the role to its delightfully melodramatic hilt. And there can be no other version but this imaginative and cinematically beautiful production of A Christmas Carol.
Merry Christmas, everyone!
A Christmas Carol movie poster @ Wikipedia
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