This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Travis McClain’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
There are few things as aggravating as the realization, at the end of a marathon viewing session, that you missed and skipped something. I had that realization when I put the '99 Christmas Carol DVD on the shelf and noted that I had failed entirely to grab and watch this '38 version - which should have been second in my viewing order, but would instead have to suffice at fifth.
Unquestionably, coming at the end hurt the viewing. Reginald Owen's Scrooge is simply too cartoonish, almost like a Saturday Night Live sketch character. I keep looking to see the line of his bald cap. He actually kind of reminds me of when Brent Spiner would play Dr. Soong on Star Trek: The Next Generation, but crabby instead of playful.
This film is highly conscious of both the Great Depression and the repeal of Prohibition, and there are some hefty changes to the narrative; some work, some don't. Bob is actually fired by Scrooge after mistakenly hitting him with a snowball while playing with some kids after leaving work; he carries on the deception throughout the film, only confiding for some reason in his oldest daughter before Christmas dinner. I'm sure a lot of families identified with that charade, and it's one that I think audiences today can understand better than we would have a decade ago. Bob's character arc is ultimately still the same, but it's radically different just for us knowing his secret.
The Cratchit family dominates this adaptation in general, really, but aside from the curiosity of the aforementioned change to Bob's situation, their segments aren't particularly engaging. Gene Lockhart, like Mervyn Jones, doesn't look sufficiently meager or worn to be Bob Cratchit. Lockhart, instead, beams through a scene in which he spends his final earnings on Christmas dinner, as though he hasn't a care in the world.
I can understand the character's thinking; go all-in, have a wonderful dinner and then break the news. The problem is that Lockhart doesn't convey that desperation at all. In fact, if anyone came to the movie late and missed that he'd been fired, there's no indication from the actor's congenital smiling to indicate anything is amiss whatsoever. His breezy performance undermines what is actually one of the more fascinating - and certainly, bolder - alterations to Dickens's story.
There's also one more matter to Bob that stood out to me, though in fairness it's present in just about every version (including the original story), and that's in the Yet to Come era, when Bob recounts to his family that he ran into Fred, who "said he was heartily sorry for [Bob], and heartily sorry for [Bob's] good wife." It never occurred to me until this viewing of this adaptation at the end of this marathon, but Fred has just learned that his last relative has now died. Bob doesn't say a single thing about offering any consolation to him, or indicating anything whatsoever about Fred being affected by the news of Scrooge's death.
Bob's kinda selfish, now that I think about it. I mean, this guy you didn't even know very well and haven't seen in at least a year can offer you and your family condolences, but you can't be bothered to say something to him about his own loss? Jerk.
As for the rest of the film, too much of Scrooge's back story is truncated or omitted entirely (such as his relationship with Belle), but there are still several nice individual moments. Though the wires and rear projection work are entirely obvious, I give credit to the film for even trying to show Scrooge flying with the Ghost of Christmas Past (who, by the way, is pretty hot); even the '84 version went with the "touch my robe" quick cut cop-out.
Watching young Ebenezer rationalize to his classmate about why he's at boarding school and staying through the holidays, too prideful to admit that he's devastated by it, is a very well played scene. This was also the first time I ever noticed that Dick Wilkins, his classmate, becomes his fellow apprentice under Fezziwig. It's a nice bit of continuity, and if someone ever followed up on my Mad Men-style Scrooge & Marley TV series idea, Dick Wilkins would present a lot of interesting character dynamics.
I also enjoyed watching the Ghost of Christmas Present intercede in a spat between two guys on the street, splashing them with "cheer". It's a moment in Dickens's story, and we see it in the '99 version, but here it is very clearly a jab about the repeal of Prohibition. It's not hard to imagine this Ghost of Christmas Present wheeling around an entire keg of "cheer".
The Yet-to-Come passage and Christmas Day finale are heavily truncated and rushed through the film's final fifteen minutes, further relegating Scrooge to an almost peripheral character in the Cratchit family story that dominates this adaptation. Perhaps if I had watched it in proper production order I wouldn't be as harsh on it, but it just isn't as satisfying as any of the other four versions that I watched in my Scrooge-athon.
A Christmas Carol Re-Ranked on My Flickchart (#1026/1609)
A Christmas Carol < Shrek --> #1026
A Christmas Carol > Comedian --> #1026
A Christmas Carol > Scorched --> #1006
A Christmas Carol > Kick-Ass --> #906
A Christmas Carol < Wayne's World 2 --> #906
A Christmas Carol > Vertigo --> #880
A Christmas Carol < Family Business --> #880
A Christmas Carol < The Social Network --> #880
A Christmas Carol > White Christmas --> #876
A Christmas Carol < The Birdcage --> #876
A Christmas Carol was re-ranked on my Flickchart to #876/1609