For the last Christmas film I’m looking at before the holiday itself, we’ve got one version of one of Hollywood’s most frequently told tales: that of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol! This time, we’re looking at the 1938 film starring Reginald Owen as Ebenezer Scrooge!
Coming Up Shorts! with… Bored Of Education (1936)
(available on Blu-ray as part of The Little Rascals: The ClassicFlix Restorations, Volume 6 (1936-1938) from ClassicFlix)
(Length: 10 minutes, 21 seconds)
It’s the first day back to school after a long vacation, but Spanky (George McFarland) and Alfalfa (Carl Switzer) don’t want to go to school. Their new teacher, Miss Lawrence (Rosina Lawrence) overhears their plot to get out of school, and comes up with a plan of her own to get them to stay. It’s an entertaining short that shares a similar plot to the earlier Teacher’s Pet (1930). Spanky and Alfalfa are indeed the fun here as they use a balloon to fake a toothache (which later affects Alfalfa’s singing a little bit). Personally, I enjoyed it, and I would heartily recommend it!
Coming Up Shorts! with… The Christmas Party (1931)
(Available as an extra on the A Christmas Carol Blu-ray from Warner Home Video)
(9 minutes, 2 seconds)
Jackie (Jackie Cooper) hopes to host a Christmas party at his house for his football team. However, when the guest list gets bigger than he imagined, he gets permission to use a soundstage at the MGM studio to host the party. Once you get past the whole opening, there really isn’t much plot to this short. Most of it is the dinner at the soundstage, with some of the big MGM stars of the time like Clark Gable, Marion Davies and others serving the kids their meal. That doesn’t necessarily make for a great short, but it’s at least an interesting holiday short anyways.
Coming Up Shorts! with… Peace On Earth (1939)
(Available as an extra on the A Christmas Carol Blu-ray from Warner Home Video)
(8 minutes, 50 seconds)
Around Christmastime, a grandpa squirrel comes to visit his grandchildren. When they ask him about the phrase “goodwill to men,” he relates the story of how mankind destroyed themselves in their last war. It’s an interesting antiwar cartoon, made just as the second World War was starting to ramp up. I can’t deny that it still feels way too relevant, as I watch how everybody has to fight over every single thing even today. It’s beautifully animated, and certainly echoes the right holiday spirit for this time of the year, which makes it worth seeing every now and again.
And Now For The Main Feature…
It’s Christmas Eve, and young Fred (Barry MacKay) has come to see his uncle Ebenezer Scrooge (Reginald Owen) at his counting-house. Fred hopes to invite his uncle to Christmas dinner with his fiancée, but Scrooge turns him down, considering Christmas to be nothing more than a humbug. Scrooge begrudgingly gives his employee, Bob Cratchit (Gene Lockhart), the day of Christmas off, but ends up firing him later when Bob accidentally wrecks Scrooge’s top hat in the streets. At his home later that evening, Scrooge is visited by the spectre of his dead partner, Marley (Leo G. Carroll), who warns him that he must change his ways or he will suffer in the afterlife, even more than Marley is. Marley further informs him that three ghosts will visit him that night. At one o’clock, Scrooge is visited by the Spirit Of Christmas Past (Ann Rutherford), who shows him what Christmas looked like for him in the past, when his sister was sent to bring him home from school, and later when he was apprenticed to Fezziwig (Forrester Harvey). At two o’clock (after the Spirit of Christmas Past had left him), he meets the Spirit Of Christmas Present (Lionel Braham), who shows him how his nephew is celebrating Christmas, as well as how Bob Cratchit is enjoying the day with his family, including his young and ill son, Tiny Tim (Terry Kilburn). After he is warned that Tiny Tim may not survive his illness, Scrooge then meets the Spirit Of Christmas Future (D’Arcy Corrigan). The Spirit shows him a future in which Tiny Tim does not survive, and Scrooge himself dies alone with nobody to care about him. Finally, he awakes to find that the Spirits had shown him all this in one night. Will their message take hold and help him to become a better man, or will he continue to be a selfish miser?
Nowadays, Charles Dickens’ tale of A Christmas Carol has been adapted for the big and small screen many, many times. However, back when the 1938 film version was done, that wasn’t quite the case, as it had mainly been done for a few shorts and one film (mostly in Britain). In the 1930s, actor Lionel Barrymore was well-known for playing the role of Ebenezer Scrooge every year on the radio, and when MGM wanted to make a film version of the tale, he was their first choice for the role. However, he had been struggling with arthritis for some time, and that plus two recent hip injuries resulted in him being unable to walk (having already been on crutches for the same year’s You Can’t Take It With You). So he declined the role, but suggested Reginald Owen for the part. To help audiences accept Reginald Owen in the part, Lionel Barrymore appeared in a special trailer for the film, and let Reginald Owen perform as Scrooge on the radio that year. Production on the film had already been delayed, and they rushed to get through filming in about six weeks. The film did decently at the box office, and would be the go-to version of the tale for a number of years, until more faithful versions of the tale appeared.
First off, I should say that I’ve never had the chance to actually read Charles Dickens’ story yet (although it’s one that I would like to get to one of these days), so I can only compare it against other film versions. I actually first saw this movie somewhere around ten to fifteen years ago. It was part of the four-film Classic Holiday DVD Collection from Warner Brothers, which I had bought for a film I had already seen, Boys Town (1938), with plans to try out the rest of the group (which also included the previously reviewed 1945 film Christmas In Connecticut). I can tell you right now, even then I had seen a huge number of adaptions of Dickens’ classic story, and was feeling burnt out on the whole story, so this was probably the film in that set that I least looked forward to seeing. I would definitely say that the movie changed my opinion and made me a fan! Reginald Owen makes for a very good Scrooge in my opinion, as we see his journey from miserable miser to the kind and giving man at the end of the tale. And he’s supported well by a number of other actors and actress, especially Gene Lockhart as Bob Cratchit.
To me, this film is as much about embracing your inner child even as an adult. Scrooge seems to have forgotten, and it’s only when he is given a reminder that he changes. Barry MacKay’s Fred fits this idea well with some of the film’s more memorable moments (for me). When we first meet him, he is sliding on the ice with some of the kids, having just as much fun as them. Later on, he tries to convince his fiancée Bess (Lynne Carver) to join in, and initially she resists. It’s only after they see the minister shoo away some of the kids sliding in front of the church and then, when he thinks nobody’s looking, enjoy a quick slide himself, that she joins in. Also, we get to see the Cratchits’ Christmas almost entirely from the kids’ viewpoint, without seeing much of the sorrow that their father is dealing with. Even Bob Cratchit cheers up (after he was fired) when he starts doing what he can to make his family’s Christmas a good one, anyways.
Now, is this film flawed? Yes. In my opinion, where it seems to falter the most is in the writing. To me, this Scrooge seems to change too quickly, and almost makes me feel like they had at least one ghost too many. To make things worse, they skip over too much of Scrooge’s past, ignoring his romance with Belle almost completely (and in the process, they don’t show any of Scrooge’s gradual descent into greed). And the section with the Spirit Of Christmas Present almost seems questionable, as we don’t really see how Scrooge is affecting those around him (especially Gene Lockhart’s Bob Cratchit, who looks too well-fed for the role, even if his performance is otherwise flawless). That being said, none of these flaws detract from the story enough to stop me from watching it. It may not be my favorite version of the story, but it’s one that I will gladly watch (and recommend)!
This movie is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Warner Home Video.
With this being my last post before the holiday itself, I want to wish you all a merry Christmas (and to those who don’t celebrate it, I wish you happy holidays), and I wish you peace on earth, and goodwill to ALL, and to quote Tiny Tim, “God bless us, everyone!”
Film Length: 1 hour, 9 minutes
My Rating: 9/10
List Of Actor/Actress Filmographies/Collections
Rose-Marie (1936) – Reginald Owen – The Pirate (1948)
Wedding Present (1936) – Gene Lockhart – Jesse James (1939)
Leo G. Carroll – Father Of The Bride (1950)
Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938) – Ann Rutherford
As an Amazon Affiliate, this site gets a small percentage for every purchase made upon using one of the Amazon links, even if it’s not the movie I linked to (and it’s at no extra cost to you). If you like what I’m doing with the blog, please consider using them so that I can continue to do more!