Over the years, dozens of actors have embodied Charles Dickens' dour, greedy, holiday-hating miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, but most movie lovers agree Alastair Sim's 1951 portrait leads the pack. Yet before Sim became the Scrooge standard-bearer, Reginald Owen crafted his own take on the cantankerous old crank who's transformed by three ghosts into a giddily benevolent softie one memorable Christmas Eve. His performance in MGM's 1938 version of 'A Christmas Carol' may look a bit cartoonish when compared to his successors, but Owen nevertheless captures the character's essence, and makes Scrooge's climactic transformation typically wondrous and heartwarming.
Owen, however, was not MGM's first choice for the coveted role. For years, Lionel Barrymore regaled audiences with his interpretation of Scrooge on an annual radio broadcast, and MGM hoped 'A Christmas Carol' would immortalize that classic portrayal on celluloid. Sadly, a hip injury that would later confine the actor to a wheelchair forced him to bow out of the production. Barrymore hand-picked Owen to replace him, and though his theatrical makeup and fake-looking bald cap detract somewhat from his performance, Owen seizes the opportunity and makes Scrooge his own. Best known for dapper, often dim-witted supporting characters, Owen seems a bit ill-at-ease as the gruff, ornery miser, but as the ice around Scrooge’s frozen heart begins to melt, the actor relaxes and allows his natural warmth to infuse the film. When he delivers the prize turkey to the stunned Cratchit family on Christmas morning, and gives his very first holiday toast, it’s difficult to suppress a lump in the throat.
At a mere 69 minutes, 'A Christmas Carol' breezes by, yet truncates Dickens' story somewhat to achieve its brevity. Among the casualties is young Scrooge's fiancée, Belle, who is deleted entirely. Also gone is the evolution of Ebenezer from an enthusiastic, fun-loving apprentice in Albert Fezziwig's office to a cold, avaricious businessman who abhors Christmas and browbeats and belittles all who approach him. Those unfamiliar with the tale won’t notice the omissions, but purists will understandably (and rightfully) decry them. After all, MGM had recently mounted lavish and lengthy adaptations of two Dickens classics — 'David Copperfield' and 'A Tale of Two Cities' — to great critical and popular acclaim, so the studio’s decision to present a trimmed down 'A Christmas Carol' seems odd. MGM also trimmed the film’s budget after Barrymore’s withdrawal, which accounts for the movie’s unfortunate bargain basement look.
Owen may not be the finest screen Scrooge, but without a doubt Gene Lockhart is the quintessential Bob Cratchit. No actor in any other version can top his robust portrayal of this lovable character. With his butterball physique, bouncy demeanor, and mile-wide smile, Lockhart oozes heart, and helps the tightly-knit Cratchit family supply 'A Christmas Carol' with its warmest moments. Of course, it helps when your real-life wife (Kathleen) and daughter (13-year-old June, in her film debut) play those same roles in the movie, but director Edwin L. Marin's depiction of the Cratchits’ sparse, simple Christmas — and how the family reaps tremendous joy from the most meager offerings — forms a beautiful centerpiece for the film.
So often, Tiny Tim is portrayed as a wimpy, wussy invalid, but Terry Kilburn lends the character admirable spirit and strength. As the Ghost of Christmas Past, Andy Hardy’s Polly Benedict (Ann Rutherford) acquits herself well, while Leo G. Carroll brings stone-faced resolve to Jacob Marley, and Barry Mackay makes a jovial impression as Scrooge’s big-hearted nephew, Fred.
The MGM film version of 'A Christmas Carol' never quite eclipses the 1951 British effort, but this sincere, reverent telling of Dickens’ immortal yuletide yarn should please just about everyone. Reginald Owen may be a poor man's Alastair Sim, but he files a rich performance that decades later still brims with holiday cheer.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The 1938 version of 'A Christmas Carol' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Warner's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer improves upon the 2005 DVD, thanks to a more consistent image and better contrast and clarity. Grain is evident, and though its intensity varies a bit throughout the presentation, it never overwhelms the picture. Most of the specks and marks that littered the print on the DVD have been removed, leaving a clean, often vibrant image that often makes a striking impression. Blacks are deeper and richer here, whites possess more pop, and excellent gray scale variation enhances the Victorian atmosphere. Shadow delineation is quite good and close-ups are crisp enough to call undue attention to Owen's heavy theatrical make-up. No crush or noise intrude, and any digital doctoring escapes notice. Fans of this version will be pleased with this fine rendering, and those who own the DVD should certainly consider an upgrade.
The DTS-HD Master Audio mono track isn't anything special, but the sound is pleasingly clear and free of any age-related defects, such as hiss, pops, and crackles. Dialogue is always clear and comprehendible, and Franz Waxman's appropriately melodramatic score enjoys good presence and depth of tone. Dynamic range is generally satisfactory, although a few instances of mild distortion crop up when the levels swell, and accents, such as Marley's clanking chain and the ticking of a clock, nicely punch up this pedestrian track.
All the extras from the 2005 DVD have been ported over to this release, and though they don't have much to do with 'A Christmas Carol' per se, it's a fine selection of vintage holiday offerings that will certainly infuse you and yours with a bountiful dose of Christmas cheer.
Vintage Short: 'Jackie Cooper's Christmas Party' (SD, 9 minutes) - This delightful 1931 holiday short showcases moppet star Jackie Cooper (fresh from his success in 'The Champ'), who decides to host a yuletide shindig for his pee-wee football team. Word spreads fast, and Jackie soon realizes he'll need a banquet hall to accommodate the ballooning guest list. He asks fellow star Norma Shearer to convince patriarch Louis B. Mayer to let him hold the party on an MGM soundstage, and who should show up as waiters and waitresses but a cavalcade of the studio's best known talent. Marie Dressler, Wallace Beery, and Polly Moran man the buffet line, while Clark Gable, Lionel Barrymore, Marion Davies, Anita Page, Cliff Edwards, and Ramon Novarro cater to the pint-sized diners gorging themselves on turkey and all the trimmings. For vintage stargazers, this rare antique (in exceptional condition) is a real treat.
Vintage Short: Judy Garland Sings 'Silent Night' (SD, 2 minutes) - Another rising MGM personality, 15-year-old Judy Garland, takes center stage to sing a single chorus of the traditional carol, 'Silent Night.' The 1937 clip lasts a scant 90 seconds, but Garland fans will relish this beautiful rarity, which features an angelic-looking (and sounding) Judy bathed in heavenly light and fronting a children's church choir. Garland's tones are so pure and heartfelt, it makes one wish more verses could have been filmed.
Vintage Animated Short: 'Peace on Earth' (SD, 9 minutes) - This 1939 Oscar-nominated Technicolor cartoon presents a surprisingly sober and effective anti-war message in — of all places — a post-apocalyptic setting. Chipmunks have constructed a comfy-cozy city amid military debris, and on Christmas Eve, an elderly chipmunk tells his grandkids the story of how the human race became extinct. The cautionary tale, which thankfully ends on an uplifting note, still resonates today, and reminds us to respect and embrace our fellow man and pursue that most clichéd yet vital holiday theme, peace on earth.
Theatrical Trailer (SD, 3 minutes) - Titled 'A Fireside Chat with Lionel Barrymore,' this preview allows the crusty actor - who portrayed Scrooge for years on an annual Christmas Eve radio broadcast - to introduce 'A Christmas Carol' and sing its praises.
The 1938 version of 'A Christmas Carol' at last arrives on Blu-ray, and though it may lack the atmosphere and depth of later tellings, it remains a faithful, involving - albeit brief - adaptation. Reginald Owen makes a satisfying Scrooge and Gene Lockhart's exceptional portrayal of Bob Cratchit can't be beat. Warner's Blu-ray presentation features solid video and audio transfers, as well as a few vintage rarities that enhance the disc's seasonal appeal. If you're a fan of the 1951 version of 'A Christmas Carol,' adding this edition to your holiday collection isn't essential, but those who admire Dickens' ghostly yuletide yarn will certainly appreciate this reverent production, which - despite a few faults - still earns a recommendation.