Many, many actors have played Ebenezer Scrooge. Not even counting all the various stage productions featuring the likes of Patrick Stewart, the movies and TV alone have brought us dozens, including George C. Scott, Bill Murray, Michael Caine, Albert Finney, Kelsey Grammer, Jack Palance, Jim Backus and Scrooge McDuck. It says a lot, then, that Alastair Sim is widely considered the best Scrooge of them all. And the film that he starred in, Brian Desmond Hurst's Scrooge -- released in 1951 in the U.S. as A Christmas Carol -- is likewise the definitive film adaptation.

Sim is known for this role above all; his only other two roles of note came in Alfred Hitchcock's Stage Fright (1950) and Peter Medak's The Ruling Class (1972). For one thing, Sim looks like Scrooge as Dickens might have imagined him; he has a kind of sour, pointy mouth and sunken, dagger-like eyes. His body is stovepipe lanky, and his wiry, white hair flies off in frightening angles. For another, he seems to understand Scrooge at some core level. Rather than a being of pure evil, this Scrooge comes from a place of sadness, loss, anger and regret. In one great scene, Scrooge has left the office on Christmas Eve and stops at a tavern for his meal. He orders more bread, but when he finds out that it will cost extra, he decides against it. His expression after the waiter leaves is nearly broken, crushed, as if that bread might have brought him his final bid at happiness.

Charles Dickens (1812-1870) wrote the novel in 1843, and it has been the basis for many films, beginning in the silent era. I guess everyone knows the story by now, but Scrooge is a miser who hates Christmas and won't share his wealth with the needy, including his own underpaid clerk Bob Cratchit (Mervyn Johns), who works in a chilly office and has a lame son, Tiny Tim (Glyn Dearman). On Christmas Eve, the ghost of his dead partner, Marley, visits Scrooge and warns him that three ghosts will be visiting him. The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future arrive and show Scrooge the parts of his life that he has forgotten or ignored. In the morning, he is renewed and ready to do good again. Part of the genius of Sim's portrayal is that his pre-redemption Scrooge's behavior isn't particularly infectious. In lesser holiday movies, like About a Boy (2002), the malicious hero is so much fun that his redemption comes as a disappointment. Sim paints his character with such delicate strokes that the jubilant Christmas morning Scrooge is the equal of the nasty, night-before one.

That Hurst's version is the best is very rarely contested these days (I'm very fond of Ricard Donner's Scrooged, but I don't really count it as a literal adaptation). His film runs about 86 minutes, which seems just about perfect for the story. Other films, such as Edwin L. Marin's 1938 version, seem too short and skimpy, or drag on and wear out their welcome. Hurst's pace is peppy, but he never fails to linger when the moment calls for it. (Hurst never made another movie of note, but the screenwriter Noel Langley worked on The Wizard of Oz.) If A Christmas Carol has a flaw, it's that the ghosts have very little personality, and the visual effects -- mainly double exposures -- that bring them to life are rather clunky. No matter: it's Scrooge we're looking at anyway.

Since I've been reviewing DVDs, I have received three different editions of Brian Desmond Hurst's A Christmas Carol from VCI Entertainment, but this new two-disc set is actually quite impressive. This is the first edition that was mastered from original materials rather than copies, and it actually has English and Spanish captions (in red, rather than white or yellow). It comes with a commentary track, and lots of extras, mainly interviews with surviving actors. There's a colorized version, as well, introduced by Patrick Macnee (of TV's "The Avengers" fame), who plays young Marley. Most intriguingly, it includes as a bonus Henry Edwards' 1935 film Scrooge, which isn't as good, but has an interesting noir-ish quality and much better ghosts.

categories Features, Dvds, Cinematical