Thursday, December 21, 2017

Scrooge, 1935, and A Christmas Carol, 1938 -- comparing and contrasting

By Steve D. Stones


During Christmas time in the mid-1980s, I walked into a Musicland store at my local shopping mall to look at Led Zeppelin cassette tapes. As I passed the VHS movies section, I was drawn to an image of Sir Seymour Hicks on the front cover of a video box. The image looked worn and hand-colored. It was contained on a VHS print of the 1935 version of Scrooge, put out by Goodtimes Home Video.

Although I have never been much of a fan of Christmas movies, the image on the VHS box made me want to purchase the film. Instead of buying a Led Zeppelin cassette tape (I didn't have enough money), I decided to buy the Scrooge video. Not being knowledgeable at the time of when sound films were first made, I assumed Scrooge was going to be a silent era film with intertitles and music.

When I got the video home and began to watch it, I was greatly intrigued by the worn out appearance of it. The print was slightly out of focus and very dark in contrast. Nothing on the screen was sharply focused. This did not disappoint me in any way or take away from my experience of enjoying the film.

I loved how the 1935 film portrayed 19th century London as dark, gritty and poverty stricken. Most exterior shots of the film show London as dark, overcast and foggy. This made me think I was watching a classic Universal horror film, and not a Christmas film.

The full length version of Scrooge (which was not the version I bought) runs one hour and eighteen minutes and uses elements of German Expressionism. Sharply defined shadows cast on solid, flat walls, and even on Scrooge's face, often frame and emphasize a character in the scene. The ghosts of Jacob Marley and of Christmas past and future are not shown, but greatly implied for the viewer to imagine, which adds to the intrigue I felt as I watched the film for the first time.

Sir Seymour Hicks has the perfect droopy old face to communicate his crusty, selfish character, but at the same time show a genuinely frightened and fearful expression when confronted by the ghost of Jacob Marley. Reginald Owen's depiction of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol (1938) shows us a taller and younger Scrooge. He's just as grumpy and hard nosed at Hicks' Scrooge, but he is missing more hair and his appearance is less poverty stricken. He dresses well and presents himself as prim and proper.


The 1938 version of A Christmas Carol shows us a more upbeat, hustle and bustle depiction of 19th century London in the opening sequence. The Cratchit children play a game of sliding on an ice sheet in the streets of London and throw snowballs at other children. The 1935 Scrooge shows us a bleak view of London that discourages children from playing out in the streets. We wouldn't expect to see children out in the streets in the 1935 version.

Scrooge's home in the 1935 version is a run down, untidy one bedroom apartment with few furnishings and minimal lighting. In the 1938 version, he appears to live in a mansion with fancy furnishings and lots of space – giving us the impression that he is much better off financially than the 1935 Scrooge. The viewer gets a sense that the 1935 Scrooge is a more isolated and introverted man who avoids people completely because of his living environment.

The 1938 A Christmas Carol relies less on expressionist elements of sharp shadows and dark interiors and more on well lit interiors, helping to clearly define each ghost that visits Scrooge. The ghosts are not implied, but clearly shown to Scrooge and the viewer. More screen time is spent with each individual ghost in the 1938 version.

The 1938 film was the first Hollywood sound version of A Christmas Carol – produced by MGM studios, so the much larger budget is clearly apparent in the film. The lower budget and minimal elements of the 1935 Scrooge helps to communicate the poverty stricken atmosphere contained in the Charles Dickens story.

Whatever version of A Christmas Carol you choose to watch this holiday season, Charles Dickens' story will remain a great classic of Christmas entertainment. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! 

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