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Warner Home Video presents
"I shall change my way of living. I shall try to keep Christmas all the year. I will live in the past, the present, and the future—the spirit of all three shall be in my heart. I shall never forget the lessons that they teach. Tell me that this will change my future. Tell me that this is not my end! Please! Please!"
DVD ReviewOver the years, dozens of actors have embodied Charles Dickens' dour, greedy, holiday-hating miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, but most movie lovers agree Alastair Sim's 1951 portrait leads the pack. Yet before Sim became the Scrooge standard-bearer, Reginald Owen crafted his own take on the cantankerous old crank who's transformed by three ghosts into a giddily benevolent softie one memorable Christmas Eve. His performance in MGM's 1938 version of A Christmas Carol may look a bit cartoonish when compared to his successors, but Owen nevertheless captures the character's essence, and makes Scrooge's climactic transformation typically wondrous and heartwarming.
Owen, however, was not MGM's first choice for the coveted role. For years, Lionel Barrymore regaled audiences with his interpretation of Scrooge on an annual radio broadcast, and MGM hoped A Christmas Carol would immortalize that classic portrayal on celluloid. Sadly, a hip injury that would later confine the actor to a wheelchair forced him to bow out of the production. Barrymore hand-picked Owen to replace him, and though his theatrical makeup and fake-looking bald cap detract somewhat from his performance, Owen seizes the opportunity and makes Scrooge his own. Best known for dapper, often dim-witted supporting characters, Owen seems a bit ill-at-ease as the gruff, ornery miser, but as the ice around Scrooge’s frozen heart begins to melt, the actor relaxes and allows his natural warmth to infuse the film. When he delivers the prize turkey to the stunned Cratchit family on Christmas morning, and gives his very first holiday toast, it’s difficult to suppress a lump in the throat.
At a mere 69 minutes, A Christmas Carol breezes by, yet truncates Dickens' story somewhat to achieve its brevity. Among the casualties is young Scrooge's fiancée, Belle, who is deleted entirely. Also gone is the evolution of Ebenezer from an enthusiastic, fun-loving apprentice in Albert Fezziwig's office to a cold, avaricious businessman who abhors Christmas, and browbeats and belittles all who approach him. Those unfamiliar with the tale won’t notice the omissions, but purists will understandably (and rightfully) decry them. After all, MGM had recently mounted lavish and lengthy adaptations of two Dickens classics—David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities—to great critical and popular acclaim, so the studio’s decision to present a trimmed down A Christmas Carol seems odd. MGM also trimmed the film’s budget after Barrymore’s withdrawal, which accounts for the movie’s unfortunate bargain basement look.
Owen may not be the finest screen Scrooge, but without a doubt Gene Lockhart is the quintessential Bob Cratchit. No actor in any other version can top his robust portrayal of this lovable character. With his butterball physique, bouncy demeanor, and mile-wide smile, Lockhart oozes heart, and helps the tightly-knit Cratchit family supply A Christmas Carol with its warmest moments. Of course, it helps when your real-life wife (Kathleen) and daughter (13-year-old June, in her film debut) play those same roles in the movie, but director Edwin L. Marin's depiction of the Cratchits’ sparse, simple Christmas—and how the family reaps tremendous joy from the most meager offerings—forms a beautiful centerpiece for the film.
So often, Tiny Tim is portrayed as a wimpy, wussy invalid, but Terry Kilburn lends the character admirable spirit and strength. As the Ghost of Christmas Past, Andy Hardy’s Polly Benedict (Ann Rutherford) acquits herself well, while Leo G. Carroll brings stone-faced resolve to Jacob Marley, and Barry Mackay makes a jovial impression as Scrooge’s big-hearted nephew, Fred.
The MGM film version of A Christmas Carol never quite eclipses the 1951 British effort, but this sincere, reverent telling of Dickens’ immortal yuletide yarn should please just about everyone. Reginald Owen may be a poor man's Alastair Sim, but he files a rich performance that decades later still brims with holiday cheer.
Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: A
Image Transfer Review: Like Santa's toy sack, the black-and-white transfer is a mixed bag. Some scenes look remarkably clean and crisp, while others sport an unsettling amount of grain, grit, and murkiness. A bit of instability occasionally jiggles the image, and blacks aren't quite as rich and deep as one would like, but gray levels are nicely varied and many close-ups enjoy fine clarity—so much so that the lines and seams of Owen's heavy theatrical makeup are all too evident. If anything, the ragged elements of the transfer augment the movie's Dickensian feel, and in the spirit of Christmas, we forgive them.
Image Transfer Grade: B
Audio Transfer Review: The mono track makes a pleasing transition to DVD, with a minimum of pops, crackles, and hiss cluttering the audio. Dialogue is quite clear, and Franz Waxman's music score enhances the atmospheric mood.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasStatic menu with music
Scene Access with 18 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Up next, another rising MGM personality, 15-year-old Judy Garland, takes center stage singing a single chorus of the traditional carol, Silent Night. The 1937 clip lasts a scant 90 seconds, but Garland fans will relish this beautiful rarity, which features an angelic-looking (and sounding) Judy bathed in heavenly light and fronting a children's church choir. Garland's tones are so pure and heartfelt, it makes one wish more choruses could have been filmed.
The 1939 Technicolor cartoon, Peace on Earth, follows, and presents a surprisingly sober and effective anti-war message in—of all places—a post-apocalyptic setting. Chipmunks have constructed a comfy-cozy city amid military debris, and on Christmas Eve, an elderly chipmunk tells his grandkids the story of how the human race became extinct. The cautionary tale—which thankfully ends on an uplifting note—still resonates today, and reminds us to respect and embrace our fellow man, and pursue that most clichéd yet vital holiday theme—peace on earth.
A Fireside Chat with Lionel Barrymore, in which the crusty actor previews A Christmas Carol, completes the extras package.
Extras Grade: B
Final CommentsThe 1938 version of A Christmas Carol at last arrives on DVD, and though it may lack the atmosphere and depth of later tellings, it remains a faithful, involving adaptation. Reginald Owen makes a satisfying Scrooge, and Gene Lockhart's exceptional portrayal of Bob Cratchit can't be beat. Warner provides a trio of marvelous supplements, sealing our recommendation of this festive disc.
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