The hottest-selling book of the 1843 holiday season was a hastily-written novella concerned with society’s treatment of the poor.
Yup, you guessed it: Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol sold 6,000 copies that season – not bad, considering it didn’t arrive in bookstores until December 17. They say it’s not been out of print since.
You likely have a favourite movie version of A Christmas Carol, but we think you may be interested in Scrooge (1935). This film, from Britain’s Twickenham Studios, was the first sound adaptation of Dickens’ novella.
Seymour Hicks stars as Ebenezer Scrooge, a sour man with disorderly hair and a soul as hard as cement. He has no patience for inefficiency or waste. Don’t ask him about the poverty-stricken; everyone knows if you’re poor it’s your own stupid fault.
Example: when two men arrive at his office seeking donations for the poor, Scrooge is immediately irritated. “Are there no prisons?” he growls. (He is likely referring to workhouses, often called “prisons”, where the poor worked in return for food and clothing.)
Scrooge further shows his exasperation by implying the situation could be solved by decreasing “the surplus population”.
This is the kind of person Scrooge has become.
You’re familiar with the story: On Christmas Eve, Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by apparitions who show him how his decisions have affected others and the inevitable outcome of those decisions.
It’s as grim as it sounds, and it unnerves Scrooge, a hardened man who eschews pleasantness. When he’s visited by the unseen spirit of his deceased partner, Jacob Marley, Scrooge cries, “Speak words of comfort!”
Marley’s reply is bitter: “Comfort? I have none to give.”
The film offers no comfort, either, and very little warmth. The air is frigid, and Scrooge himself is frosty to everyone.
Yet this is nothing compared to the metaphysical adventures in store that night.
It begins when Scrooge arrives home, and sees – or thinks he sees – an unearthly face in his front door. When he enters the house, he convinces himself that there are no ghosts and, just as he calms himself, all the servants’ bells in the house start to ring. This terrifies Scrooge, but also prepares him for Marley’s disturbing visit.
This film has a gothic horror feel. Director Henry Edwards uses shadow as much as dialogue to tell the story. Sinister silhouettes loom across walls, and darkness conceals secrets.
Take the scene where four thieves have looted possessions from recently deceased people. As they meet in a dark subterranean room to examine the loot, Edwards shows their faces in eerily-lit close-ups. These are people Scrooge disparages, but as he observes the little regard they have for human life, he starts to panic.
This is rich coming from a man who is not so different from them.
The movie is not without pathos. When Scrooge discovers Tiny Tim will die, he becomes distraught and begs the apparition to do something. The apparition responds with Scrooge’s own argument: “If Tiny Tim is to die, shouldn’t he just get on with it? Wouldn’t it be better to decrease the surplus population?”
Ultimately, Scrooge is a redemption story. Although Scrooge is rehabilitated, the most encouraging aspect is not his change of heart. It’s the apparitions’ understanding that something in him is worth saving – an unexpected message from a borderline gothic-horror flick.
Notes on A Christmas Carol (the novella):
Scrooge: starring Seymour Hicks, Donald Calthrop, Robert Cochran. Directed by Henry Edwards. Written by H. Fowler Mear. Twickenham Film Studios, 1935, B&W, 78 mins.