Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Old Sinner: Reginald Owen (1938)

The Reginald Owen version of A Christmas Carol sets the stage with a title card (“More Than a Century Ago…in London…on Christmas Eve.”) over the London cityscape (including Saint Paul's, of course) accompanied by a men's choir singing "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing." It follows this with various scenes of Victorian people enjoying their Christmas. It's one of my favorite openings.

Whereas the 1935 version is immediately gloomy, I love that this one - rather than go right to wretched, old Scrooge’s place - provides contrast first by showing people having a good time and reveling in the holiday. We see shoppers and vendors and kids sliding on ice. (Pretty much every version of A Christmas Carol has an ice-sliding scene. I think I remember Dickens’ mentioning the sport briefly in the book, but it’s kind of amazing that so many film-makers included it in their versions.)

Into this scene walks a cheerful, young gentleman who joins the children in their sliding. He’s cheered on by a lame boy who’s watching the fun from the sidelines. The boy of course is Tiny Tim and he’s there with his older brother Peter. The gentleman puts Tim on his back for a slide, but gets accidentally bowled over by Peter in the process. Rather than getting angry about it, the gentleman good-naturedly announces that his only regret is that Peter broke his sliding record.

The gentleman learns that the boys are waiting for their father, Bob Cratchit, the clerk who works for Mister Scrooge. When he says that he’s on his way to see Scrooge himself, the boys ask if he’ll deliver a message to their dad. The gentleman asks why they don’t want to see their dad and they reply that it’s not him, but Scrooge they’re afraid of. He’s “not fond of small boys.” That’s when the gentleman reveals that he knows that all too well. He’s Scrooge’s nephew Fred and he experienced the old man’s wrath first-hand as a child himself. Embarrassed and afraid, Peter and Tim flee, but Fred grins and winks after them.

Like I said, I love the uniqueness of this opening. Without meeting Scrooge at all, we get a feel for who he is and what he does to other people. Technically, it’s a lot of telling instead of showing, but it works. Even though people are talking about Scrooge rather than letting us see first-hand how he is, it’s not like we’re going to be deprived of plenty of examples of Scrooge’s meanness in the rest of the film. In fact, this version of Scrooge will turn out to be one of the nastiest.

What this opening does do is give us a nice look at Tim and Fred, two of the most important members of the supporting cast. We learn everything we need to know about them by watching them interact in this scene. And we learn everything we need to know about Scrooge by listening to them talk about him.

Still nothing about Marley though.

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