24 December 2011

DVD: "A Christmas Carol"

Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol
with Reginald Owen, Gene Lockhart, Kathleen Lockhart, Terry Gilburn, Barry MacKay, Lynne Carver
Screen Play by Hugo Butler
Directed by Edwin L. Marin
DVD Release Date: 8 November 2005
List Price: $9.98

My love for Dickens' story is well documented, so I decided this Christmas season I would hit several adaptations of it. The first up was this 1938 screen version I'd not seen before. It turned up in a $5 bin at Walmart last year, but we never got around to watching it--largely because I simply had no interest in Christmas at all.

Anyway, I quite enjoyed this adaptation. It felt to me very much like a filmed play, in large part due to Reginald Owen's theatrical performance as Ebenezer Scrooge. For many this is likely to be bothersome; it may feel "hokey" or "hackneyed," but it's an aesthetic that I thought worked well here. But then, I came to this as a fan of A Christmas Carol rather than as a film viewer. It was far more important to me that they get the essence of the story right than it was that it be impressive as a work of cinema. Others may not be so forgiving.

Contributing to the play-like feel of this adaptation is the abridgment of many of the harsher story elements (woefully absent are Ignorance and Want, the grotesque personifications of man's wicked ways). Some object to this sanitizing of the source material. I can certainly appreciate their objections. Also, Scrooge's nephew Fred is engaged here, rather than already married. It's a minor thing in general, but that peripheral element of Dickens's novel is expanded into a subplot here. Again, purists may balk at this unnecessary infusion of romance into the story.

Every adaptation has its unique quirks, however, and I think this is why I'm so accepting of most of them. My favorite deviation in this one was their twist on the scene after the close of the business day, when Scrooge encounters Bob Cratchit making merry with the snowball-fighting kids. Bob accidentally knocks off Scrooge's top hat and is fired on the spot for it! Bob protests, insisting his contract calls for a one-week notice. Scrooge counters that Bob will instead forfeit his remaining salary to replace the hat (having been run over by a horse-drawn carriage). The icing on the cake, though, is that it then crosses Scrooge's mind that his hat cost more than Bob's weekly salary...and forces Bob to pay the difference, then and there!

The DVD

Warner Bros. did a nice job with this DVD release. Firstly, they have presented a pretty clean and clear-sounded version of the film in its original black and white form, rather than the colorized version (though, oddly, the back of the DVD case insert shows still images from that version). There is no commentary track, I'm afraid, but they did include the original theatrical trailer, which I rather enjoyed. It's presented as A Fireside Chat with Lionel Barrymore, in which the venerable actor presents an introduction to the film. It reminded me of the beginning to Masterpiece Theatre, which was nice, and it's one of the rare instances I recommend watching the trailer before the film.

Beyond that, Warner included a short film, The Christmas Party ("Jackie Cooper's Christmas Party" on the DVD menu). Young Jackie Cooper organizes a lavish Christmas party for his playmates, put on by various MGM stars of the era. The whole thing was nothing more than a pretext for MGM to flaunt their star power, so those looking for an interesting narrative will be sorely disappointed but those who enjoy star-gazing should have fun spotting the celebs of yesteryear. (In case you're wondering, Warner Bros. has ownership of a vast portion of the MGM catalog.)

They also included an animated short film, Peace on Earth, in which post-apocalyptic anthropomorphic squirrels celebrate Christmas and talk about how mankind killed itself off in war. I am totally serious about this. It's not very subtle, but it's quite bold--particularly to have been released in 1939 as Hitler was already marching across Europe. Cynics may mistake it for naivete, but I think its earnestness redeems it.

Lastly, there is a video clip of Judy Garland performing "Silent Night." It's tangential at best--Garland was a contract player for MGM at the time of the performance--but it's hard to complain about its inclusion.

I would have liked a commentary track or some kind of featurette about the production of this screen adaptation, but I can also appreciate why Warner Bros. didn't feel it prudent to invest in such content. A shame, though, because this is precisely the kind of film that I think invites viewer curiosity. Reginald Owen is hardly a household name today (or even in 2005, when this DVD was released) so it's not like his name conjures...well, anything. I suspect I'm not alone in wishing there was something here to provide some context for the production and its participants, but c'est la vie. Well worth the $5 I paid for it!

Look for A Christmas Carol on DVD in my Amazon aStore. Just click on the "Go Shopping!" tab at the top of this page!

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