For people raised on Christmas movies like Scrooged and the live-action The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, or holiday releases like Happy Feet 2, Alastair Sim likely isn’t a familiar name or face. The Scottish actor, however, gave one of his best and better-known performances in a classic 1951 film that should appeal to both the Goth/emo generation and the Occupy Wall Street crowd — as Ebenezer Scrooge in Scrooge.
Directed by Brian Desmond Hurst, Scrooge isn’t the simple tale the Charles Dickens story has become in popular culture, with characters who can be played as easily by cartoon mice as by human actors. The world of Sim’s Scrooge is dark, creaky, and grim in the best tradition of monochrome film, with even a few film noir touches of interspersed light and darkness.
At Christmas, the world of the better-off poor (represented by Bob Cratchett, played by Mervyn Johns) seems bright and merry, dependent as it is on the little they receive from “men of business” like Scrooge. By contrast, Scrooge’s house is a nightmare of cavernous space dominated by dust, disturbing sounds, and impossible shadows. Even his door knocker appears to be possessed — and that’s before Jacob Marley’s face appears on it. If a bad bit of potato or cheese didn’t inspire Scrooge’s ghastly visions, the lonely austerity of his house might.
The story follows the standard plot, but Sim’s performance, those of the supporting characters like the undertaker and the housekeeper, and bright visuals of happier times and places contrasted with the stark reality of poverty and death keep the film moving. Sound is important; when Marley directs Scrooge to look upon the tormented, the music and sound work more effectively on the nerves than the visual. The pointing skeletal finger of the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come dominates the screen in a horrifying way — Scrooge and the viewer are compelled to look. The most haunting scene, however, is that of “this boy and this girl,” Ignorance and Want, emaciated, sickly urchins with deeply shadowed eyes who look like Death itself.
When most film versions of A Christmas Carol have come out, the huge divide between Victorian capitalists and the workers who supported their wealth seemed like distant history. Today for many, it looks more like history repeating itself. Again.