Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Old Sinner: Alastair Sim (1951)

In spite of the extreme importance that Dickens places on Marley's death right away in his story, all the film versions so far have left Marley out of the earliest scenes. Alastair Sim's is the first to introduce him this soon.

From the beginning of the film we get a sense that it’s trying to mimic the reading experience. Ominous music plays as a hand pulls a leather-bound volume of A Christmas Carol off a shelf full of other Dickens work. The hand opens the book and we see the credits go by on the pages inside. To let us know it’s a Christmas story, the music eventually changes into, you guessed it, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”

After the credits, we get a close up of the first page of the story with “Stave I.” (Dickens liked to be clever with his chapters, especially in his Christmas books. A Christmas Carol has “staves,” The Chimes is broken into "quarters" of an hour, etc.) A voice then begins to read an abbreviated version of Dickens’ opening, “Old Marley was dead as a doornail…”

When the narrator gets to the part about Scrooge’s signing Marley’s death certificate, the scene shifts to the Exchange where Scrooge is getting ready to leave after conducting business. A couple of other businessmen ask if he’s going home for Christmas, to which Scrooge replies that “Christmas is a humbug.” The men laugh rather smugly, enjoying Scrooge’s misery, but also seeming to admire him for the extent to which he worships at the altar of Business. He likes money so much that he resents Christmas for keeping him from making any. The two men are like Star Wars fans who make fun of the guy who spends all of his money on expensive statues and replicas, all the while secretly envying him his collection.

Outside the Exchange, one of Scrooge’s customers is waiting for him to plead for more time to pay off a debt. “Did I ask you for more time to lend you the money?” Scrooge asks. “Then why do you ask for more time to pay it back?” Scrooge demands that the man make payment by the agreed upon time or – Christmas or no Christmas – he’ll put the poor fellow into debtors’ prison.Though Scrooge is obviously a moneylender in this version, later scenes with the Ghost of Christmas Past will show that he wasn't always that way, but got his start in some kind of manufacturing. One of the things this movie does really well is show the transition from Scrooge the apprentice in Fezziwig's warehouse to Scrooge the financier, but I'm getting way ahead of myself.

For now, it's enough to know that Sim's Scrooge is cold and horrifying. He’s tall like McDermott, but even more imposing. McDermott wags his finger like a cranky old man, but Sim – while old – is vital. He has energy; every bit of it focused on increasing his fortune. He’s miserable, but he doesn’t know it. I think that’s why he’s my favorite.

The opening section of this film ends as Scrooge arrives at his office, chasing off some carolers singing “Silent Night” from in front of the building.

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