1938 “A Christmas Carol” with Reginald Owen

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This handsomely-produced 1938 version of “A Christmas Carol” seems to have the dual reputation as being the most ubiquitous, and simultaneously the least regarded, of the ever-growing stable of film adaptations. Although popular at the time of release and for many years afterward as it was shown on TV, the affection that many had for it began to wane as more faithful adaptations were released and permeated the public consciousness; supplanted as the favorite of many by the 1951 version with Alastair Sim. While it’s very true that it played fast and loose with the Dicken’s story, perhaps being one of the least faithful in terms of details, there is nevertheless much to like about it.

Although older than the Sim version by 13 years, the Owen version nevertheless looks newer and much slicker, boasting lush production values due to a higher budget. The sets and special effects are well done, in contrast to the poorly-executed effects in the 1951 film. Based purely on appearance, without any previous knowledge of either, one would surely reverse their production order and think that the Sim version preceded this one by over a decade. The flying effects seen during the Ghost of Christmas Past scenes are excellent and not attempted again until the 1970 musical starring Albert Finney. And it may be noted that this was the first time of many that this Spirit was depicted as female. Another change that the movie made which stuck, and was emulated by nearly every version after, was having the Spirits visit during the same night at 1, 2 and 3 o’clock, rather than over the course of three nights as in the book.

My own personal perception of the film had been influenced for many years by the negative reviews I had read online, before ever seeing it. Although it was in my collection of DVDs of the various versions for a couple of years, it was not until this Christmas season when I finally put it on that I realized with astonishment that I had never actually watched it before. “How did I miss this all this time?” I wondered. I was also amazed by the richness of the production, and the feeling that I had been missing out on a classic grew as I became engrossed. Audiences of the era saw, for the first time in any film adaptation, the Ghosts as they deserved to be seen. Marley was semi-transparent as described in the book, the bright Ghost of Christmas Past took flight with Scrooge (something we had never seen done before), the jovial Ghost of Christmas Present was a joy to behold, and the ominous Ghost of Christmas Yet-To-Come was frightening in execution.

Sometimes the film wanders off into territory that does nothing to advance the story; such as contrasting scenes of the poor Cratchits celebration with an extended look at how the Lord Mayor and the elite are celebrating, and a church service with a large crowd singing. Also, nephew Fred and his fiancee occupy a larger role than in the book, as they worry over having finances enough to get married. Although thrown off a bit by the departures from the book and the unnecessary changes, I had seen so many others treading the same familiar ground before this, that I didn’t mind a few surprises. The criticisms leveled at the film over the oft-named overly “saccharine” sweetness, particularly as it related to Tiny Tim and the Cratchits, and the too-rapid conversion of a softer Scrooge to loving Christmas are all well-earned, but ultimately don’t merit dismissal of the film as a whole.

Ann Rutherford plays the Ghost of Christmas Past, bringing a bit of Glenda, the Good Witch of the North to the role, a year before the Wizard of Oz was released.

The antithesis of the defensive “tough-nut-to-crack” Scrooge as played by George C. Scott in his 1984 version, this Scrooge responds immediately to the events shown to him, coming to love Christmas even before the future is shown to him. This easy conversion makes the final repentance lose some of its power, but his joy over a changed life comes through as thrillingly as any version. Perhaps this Scrooge just needed a bit of a reminder of what life and Christmas were all about, rather than resisting until the threat of eternal damnation forces him to change.

In defense of this depiction in the film, it would be well to remember that the book itself depicts Scrooge as reacting with emotion to all of the scenes shown him in the past and present, also. After the tears flow freely when being shown the past, he humbly tells the Spirit of Christmas Present, “conduct me where you will. I went forth last night on compulsion, and I learnt a lesson which is working now. To-night, if you have aught to teach me, let me profit by it.”

In the book he is open to what he is being taught, as revealed in what he says to the silent Ghost of the Future:

“I fear you more than any spectre I have seen. But as I know your purpose is to do me good, and as I hope to live to be another man from what I was, I am prepared to bear you company, and do it with a thankful heart.” 

So, as we see that in the book, even before the darkness of the future was shown to him, he was already well down the path of repentance, a legitimate point which the film emphasizes. Perhaps this movie Scrooge, already world-weary and cold from cutting himself off from human compassion, unconsciously recognized his need for change…. and deep down, was ready for it.

Scrooge leads his nephew and wife to go with him to give gifts to the Cratchits. Bob is played by Gene Lockhart.  Mrs. Cratchit is played by Kathleen Lockhart, Gene’s wife, and their daughter June Lockhart (best remembered for her TV roles on  Lassie and Lost in Space) plays daughter Belinda Cratchit.

The oft-mentioned “excessive sweetness” associated with the scenes of the Cratchits celebrating their holiday can hardly be blamed on the producers, as the film attempts to capture the flavor of the book in describing the happiness they feel. Indeed, the joy they demonstrate in the original story (and the film) in such abundance is what loosens Scrooge’s bound-up heart, and he begins to not only soften toward them and Christmas while watching, but he becomes genuinely concerned over Tiny Tim’s well-being. All of this happening in such a short time can only be attributed to the sincere emotion that they exhibit toward one another and the season. This is one criticism of the movie that I don’t agree with, as I enjoy the similar scenes in the book to a great degree.

Perhaps coming to the film late, with very low expectations, made me appreciate what good it had to offer, and to consider it under-rated by many; but at any rate, it is a lovely movie to watch and is well worth adding to your holiday viewing list.

Is it great? By no means. But does it deserve the bad rap that some have given it in the preceding years? Not at all. It has a lot going for it.

Review links:

Read The Turner Classic Movies Review.

A review by Robert X Gillis of the film.

A review of the film that considers it among the best!

Holiday Film Reviews holds the film in high esteem.

A CHRISTMAS CAROL, Reginald Owen, Terry Kilburn, 1938