Over the course of film history, few literary characters have been resurrected more often than Charles Dickens' legendary miser and Christmas killjoy, Ebenezer Scrooge. Several esteemed actors, from Reginald Owen and Albert Finney to George C. Scott and Michael Caine, have barked at Bob Cratchit, growled "humbug," and giddily danced a jig - all with a fair degree of relish. Yet one Scrooge consistently stands apart from the pack. Alastair Sim never achieved much renown in America, but in Britain he was a pretty big deal, a deft character actor with a basset hound face, a mellifluous voice, and a gallery of bemused expressions. Sim enlivened many a dreary feature, and if a vote were ever taken to crown the quintessential Scrooge, he would surely win. His take on the crusty curmudgeon who's transformed by three ghosts into a benevolent softie one cold Christmas Eve in Victorian London remains iconic, and the version of 'A Christmas Carol' in which he appears is required viewing for countless families each holiday season.
Americans revere Dickens' time-honored tale, but it's no surprise the most engaging adaptation of 'A Christmas Carol' comes from its native England. There's just something about this 1951 version that screams authenticity. Yes, liberties were taken with the original novel, but the mood, atmosphere, and characterizations remain a cut above other films. Noel Langley, one of the writers of 'The Wizard of Oz,' fashions a tight screenplay, and director Brian Desmond Hurst combines whimsy and melancholy with a hint of creepiness that honors the yarn's ghost story roots. The noirish black-and-white photography enhances the darker elements of the story, adding welcome tension, and the production design exudes a distinctly British look and feel that help immerse us in mid-19th century London.
A wealthy yet bitter man who would rather count his money than his blessings, Ebenezer Scrooge retires to his stark, run-down flat on Christmas Eve, seven years to the day after his unscrupulous business partner, Jacob Marley (Michael Hordern), passed away. A paranormal disturbance, however, in the form of Marley's chain-laden ghost, interrupts his tranquil evening. The celestial Marley warns Scrooge that unless he alters his selfish and greedy ways, he is doomed to endure a similar restless, tortured afterlife. The only way Scrooge can possibly prevent such a horrible fate is to meet with three spirits, who will try to humanize the irascible miser by revisiting his troubled past, looking at his unhappy present, and pondering his uncertain future.
All the English character actors who portray the supporting parts are perfectly cast, right down to arguably the least annoying and saccharine Tiny Tim (Glyn Dearman) in any version of 'A Christmas Carol.' Yet despite their excellent work, they can't compete with Sim. His Scrooge resonates so strongly because he's always disarmingly real. A palpable sadness and air of regret seem to swirl just beneath the surface of his scowls and sneers, so we sense his vulnerability and root for him much sooner, and his ultimate transformation seems more believable because, deep down, it seems to be something Scrooge sincerely craves.
Hurst's film employs some rudimentary special effects and adopts a darker tone than most, but relies on good old-fashioned storytelling and top-flight acting to put over this beloved yuletide tale. If you crave flash, music, Muppets, or 3D, there are plenty of other adaptations of 'A Christmas Carol' to tickle your fancy, but if you like your Dickens neat, with no frills or embellishments and lots of heart and substance, then this 1951 production is the one for you...and will be for many Christmases to come. God bless it, everyone!
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The 60th Anniversary Diamond Edition of 'A Christmas Carol' arrives on Blu-ray wrapped in a standard Blu-ray case that houses both high-def and standard-def versions of the film on two discs. Tucked inside the front flap is an abridged fold-out version of the American pressbook (new to this edition), featuring promotional articles on Sim and screenwriter Langley, a cast and credit listing, a synopsis of the story, and plenty of poster and lobby art. Video codec is 1080p/VC-1 and audio is lossless LPCM 5.1, despite the fact that both the packaging and on-screen menu list the audio as Dolby Digital 5.1. When the disc is inserted, a rather lengthy promo for other VCI classics precedes the full-motion menu with music, and unfortunately, it can't be skipped.
At first glance, the 1080p/VC-1 transfer for this 60th Anniversary Diamond Edition of 'A Christmas Carol' doesn't look much different than the one on the 2009 Blu-ray, but upon closer inspection I'd have to say it makes a few subtle improvements. Clarity is ever-so-slightly enhanced and contrast appears a bit more pronounced, lending the image more vibrancy. Black levels are superb, with marvelous shadow delineation emphasizing the film noir feel of many scenes. The snowy whites also hold up well, maintaining their texture in varying degrees of light. Not surprisingly, grain is fairly pronounced, but seems similar to the previous version; some scenes exhibit more than others, but it never overwhelms the picture. Close-ups are quite nice, often highlighting Sim's large, expressive eyes, and background elements exude a fair degree of detail.
The source material looks exactly the same as what VCI used on the 2009 Blu-ray, and that's a minor disappointment. A few errant specks dot the print, but several scenes flaunt nagging imperfections that somewhat distract from the on-screen action. A white vertical line appears during the Marley ghost sequence, while black vertical lines mar the Marley death scene later in the film. Some clear vertical bands in the center of the screen also crop up randomly during the course of the movie. Budgetary constraints most likely prohibited a complete restoration of 'A Christmas Carol,' but hopefully this classic film will one day receive such royal treatment.
If you're thinking of upgrading your copy of 'A Christmas Carol' based solely on video quality, I'd say it isn't worth it. The enhancements aren't notable enough to merit the expense. But when coupled with the new audio and supplements (both described below), trading in your old copy for this new edition makes good sense.
VCI Entertainment puts out some great flicks on home video, but the company needs some better quality control when it comes to advertising the contents of its discs. Aside from the plethora of new supplements (described below), one of the main selling points of this anniversary edition is an uncompressed audio track, an upgrade from the lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that graces the previous Blu-ray release. Yet nowhere on the packaging, and even worse, nowhere on the disc setup menu is there any mention of the lossless LPCM 5.1 track. Instead, both areas list the audio as Dolby Digital 5.1 (or, in the case of the disc menu, Dobly [yes, Dobly!] Digital 5.1), which doesn't do this VCI product any favors. Rest assured, though, the lossless audio is indeed there, both in 5.1 and the original mono.
The uncompressed audio makes a big difference, providing brighter, more distinct, and more nuanced sound. Accents, such as horse hooves and doors slamming, enjoy marvelous presence, and both the cacophony of bells that precede Marley's appearance and his angry wail are quite striking in their intensity. Surround activity is, understandably, limited, and mostly involves the half-festive, half-forboding music score by Richard Addinsell. Bass frequencies possess a bit more weight than those on the lossy track, and high ends nicely resist distortion, even when pushed. Dialogue is always easy to understand, from Sim's deadpan put-downs early in the film to his giddy blabbering during the denouement.
A bit more clean-up, however, would have been appreciated. Quite a bit of pronounced hiss still remains, as well as a modicum of surface noise, including pops and crackles, all of which slightly detract from the movie's mood. Still, this audio bests the previous track by a solid margin, and fans of the film should notice an improvement.
The previous Blu-ray edition of 'A Christmas Carol' contained only a handful of extras - an audio commentary, pop-up trivia track, and a couple of trailers. This edition piles on the supplements, porting over everything from the 2009 Blu-ray except the trivia track, and adding plenty of other goodies that will surely please fans of this holiday classic.
Some double dips are rip-offs; some are legitimate upgrades. I admit to being a little skeptical (okay, Scrooge-like) when I first heard about the re-release of 'A Christmas Carol' a mere two years after its first Blu-ray go-around, but I'm pleased to report this 60th Anniversary Diamond Edition is a big step up from its 2009 counterpart. Improvements include slightly better video, a lossless audio track, and a cavalcade of well-produced, substantive extras, as well as an attractive reproduction of the film's American pressbook. The film itself, of course, remains a timeless classic - endearing, inspiring, festive, and just dark enough to add sufficient impact to its themes of redemption and renewal. There never was and never will be a better Scrooge than Alastair Sim and this excellent production showcases his iconic performance to perfection. So toss that old Blu-ray aside and pick up this much-improved anniversary edition that's a fitting tribute to one of the world's finest holiday movies. Highly recommended.