Off-topic: You will be visited by three Spirits


There isn’t anything in here about food, but since it’s the holidays I hope you don’t mind me sharing a little.

I watch the 1951 version of Scrooge every single year.  I don’t care whether I come across some horrifying colorized version, whether it’s on at midnight and I have to be up to catch the 6:55 train, or if there is something far more important to do — there are very few definitive performances in film, but Alistair Sim as Scrooge is unavoidably one of them.  Everyone gets compared to his performance, not because it comes from a classic era of cinema but precisely because it is so damned good.

The movie itself isn’t, in a lot of places.  Ebeneezer’s girlfriend is absolutely hilarious, for example, and listening to the coal miner’s chorus sing like escapees from a cathedral never fails to amuse.  But for that, the casting in so many other places is note-perfect; Sim himself is only the best example.  That as a physical actor he could convey the terror, incomprehension and resistance of a man who really thought he had his act together is something that few since have captured. It’s all too easy to depict Scrooge as a man who’s simply finds his jollies in being a jerk; Sim is able to play him as a man who has seen a truth in the world as cold, vicious and uncompromising — himself finding opportunity and reward in being so — and spending his life building defenses against others such as himself… only to find he has become buried.

The film never flinches from the most brutal moments of Scrooge’s life, in a way that few films have since, and none with such thoroughness.  Does anyone remember a recent version that illustrates with such vigor Scrooge’s life as a cast-aside child, spending Christmas in solitude as his boarding school?  Or even bothering to cast his sister as his only champion, just to see her die in her prime?  Is it even possible to hang onto optimism, in the face of this?  What’s left to someone like this Scrooge, except to endure and ensure that he is not “crushed under with the weak and the infirm”?

All the parties Fezziwig ever threw couldn’t guarantee that, not when the world can be what it is.

This is a film that spends the majority of its time looking at Scrooge’s past, and Sim never fails at his opportunities to express remorse, disgust or even open denial at the events he witnesses.  As he is forced to review the losses he saw in his life, first in his beloved sibling and then again in his only trusted friend, he hears for the first time the words he was too stricken to absorb in the moment.  Sim’s portrayal silently conveys in these a combination of horror and amazement, as Scrooge has seen but never truly understood what these moments were meant to convey — and as he sees what this denial has done to the life he is living, he cannot deny what his ignorance has wrought.

When the ghost of Christmas Future comes around, it needs only the briefest of attention.  There is tragedy in seeing Tiny Tim’s crutch on the wall, and pathos in seeing Scrooge’s value summarized in the items harvested from his corpse; but there is triumph in Scrooge standing before his own grave, because here is his re-birth.  The Scrooge who was is undeniably dead, but even as he falls upon his hole in the ground Scrooge is speaking the truth:  “I’m not the man I was.”

And so, the liberation of being someone entirely new.

The joy and bubbling near-insanity that Sim invests into Scrooge is contagious, and has less to do with a man discovering generosity as it does with someone discovering a whole new way of being.  It is not simply Christian virtue that Scrooge has found, but rather the potential to experience life in the absence of fear, for the first time that he can remember.

To my mind, this is the story that Scrooge tells better than any other adaptation of A Christmas Carol.  Not the redemption of a grouchy, shitty old penny-pincher into a generous giving everyman — instead, it’s the reversal of a person who found rewards in loathing himself as much as everyone, into someone who sees some hope in trust.  I can’t actually remember any version of this story (except maybe the Muppets one) that ends in Ebeneezer seeking redemption in his family, aside from this one.

Plus, POLKA DANCE NUMBER!  Look at Scrooge cut a rug, sucka!

I love this movie for its cheesy moments as much as its classic ones, but most of all for how human it makes Scrooge from the get-go.  It’s only too easy to see how a hard life can shape a hard person, and all the more uplifting to see even the angriest, frightened soul break free.  Say what you want about George Bailey being sad, but Scrooge had him beaten by a country mile.

It gives a little hope to the rest of us, and helps us feel a bit more grateful for our full bellies and happy families and spontaneous polka dances (as is applicable to your own traditions).

But c’mon now and share!  Is this your favorite Christmas movie?  What would you propose instead?  Share in the comments!

  • srh

    I was JUST reading A Christmas Carol last night. I love the story so much (I know your post is about the movie, but I felt the need to share)!

    I think Elf (though far less meaningful and deep) is my favorite Christmas movie. The first time I watched it it was summertime at an outdoor movie night, but it was so funny, I’ve gone back to it over and over!

  • quesadelia

    wow, that old scrooge sure is light on his feet! i love xmas carol, and thanks for helping me remember this one. it is the best. i always watch wonderful life on xmas eve, but i think i’m going to plug this one in instead.

  • kristie

    I second the motion for ELF, but also submit Home Alone and Home Alone 2, because they were the first movies my baby brother could recite the words to when he was small. And he looked just like a four year old Macaulay Culkin. Ah, memories.

    Scrooge always scared me when I was a kid because of the ghosts. I wasn’t made of very sturdy stuff–still am not.

  • Alan

    This is hands-down the best version of A Christmas Carol and my favorite Christmas movie. I have a DVD version (in black and white) that has an introduction by Patrick MacNee who played Young Jacob Marley (and went on to play John Steed in The Avengers).

    The movie is filled with nice subtle scenes that illustrate your point. Two such scenes are in the last clip above: The silent exchange between Scrooge and the maid at nephew Fred’s house, and during the ending voiceover where Scrooge is obviously going one direction but easily is led away by an excited (and healthy) Tiny Tim.

    • Mike

      Aww, I love that little scene with the maid. She has such a sweet expression as she encourages Scrooge to go on, and Sim’s self-aware smile in response feels totally genuine.

  • we are never full

    k, gotta love ralphie (shout out to ralphie on my latest post!) but i’ve gotta say i also am a sucker for the george c.scott version of scrooge. but, rudolph makes me warm and fuzzy inside and reminds me of a simpler time when i was young and my mom made me go straight to bed after rudolph was over.

  • Tina

    Ooh, for someone who is as much of a grinch as I am, I have a number of must-see movies as well!@ A Christmas Story, Elf, Rudolph (of course – I’m a sucker for “silver and gold”), and Love Actually. It’s okay, you can judge me. I understand.

  • Stephanie

    The Bishop’s Wife, A Muppet Christmas Carol, The Ref, and Holiday Inn.