Sunday, December 24, 2017

SCROOGE (1935)

It's Christmas Eve, and as I promised, I would still end my series of Christmas reviews by reviewing an adaptation of "A Christmas Carol", and this year I'm deciding to review the 1935 film staring Seymour Hicks.

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Around the time when DVD's were first coming out, I had a copy of the film on DVD that I remember watching a few times, but never found myself able to finish it. I remember finding it to be too boring, slow moving, hardly at all visually interesting, and being disappointed of a certain important element that the film lacked. And having not seen it since childhood, or watching it in full, is there some legitimate good in this film than what my young mind saw, aside from the fact that this is the first film adaptation of the story with sound? ON WITH THE REVIEW!

EBENEEZER SCROOGE

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The main attraction of why I remember wanting to see this movie as a kid (aside from the fact that it's an adaptation to a story that I love), was Seymour Hick's image on the cover, who looked flat-out nasty as Scrooge. My memory of his performance is very vague, but after recently seeing Hick's play the role, he in the very least knocks it out of the park playing a miserable old Scrooge. He looks intimidating; has a bitter old gravelly voice; and some of his dialogue such as his excuse of why Cratchit is not allowed to use his coal is well written and carried out quite bitterly through his delivery. This shouldn't be too surprising that Hick's would give a great performance as mean-old Mister Scrooge, since he's been playing the role on stage for years, and has even played Scrooge in the 1913 silent film titled "Old Scrooge". What I found to be quite amusing about this version of the character is usually with the other Scrooge's I've seen (at least when we first meet him), they're old and frail but look still look good from their appearance of how clean and fixed-up they look. But with Hick's on the other hand, he looks more washed-up, where his nice clothes look a bit old and wrinkly and his wavy white hair is all messy, where he almost looks like a bum who's given up on everything, including his appearance, except for greed. And seeing how cheap this miser is, and how miserable of a past that he's had, it would make sense to make Scrooge a little disheveled.

I don't have anything new to say about the performances from Donald Calthrop as Bob Cratchit, Robert Cochran as Scrooge's nephew Fred, or the actors playing the Portly Gentlemen. They all hit their characters right on the nail by expressing the characteristics that we associate with them. So there's nothing really new given to the performances that we wouldn't see in other adaptations of the story, except for the important fact that these are the first on-screen speaking actors to portray these characters, that's probably been copied or influenced in many of the other films and TV adaptations that followed. And looking at Calthrop as Cratchit, it astounds me of what a striking resemblance he has to the illustrations of Bob as if the character has jumped right out of the pages.

So far the visuals for the film are nice, but I can see why I would find some of it forgettable at an early age. There are some nice shots for the scenes in Scrooge's office that help visually tell the story. For example, I like that we don't see Scrooge right away, but see his back to turned to the camera in a few shots as he's writing in order to build-up what a miserable miser he is. Or when Bob Cratchit is about take some coal, where he is to soon be halted by Scrooge when he notices this action by viewing it from a mirror in-front of him, almost as if that's his rear-view mirror to keep an eye on his employee. It’s little visual touches like that I like, I also admire the use of shadows and fog for the streets of London, and the bright lighting and cheery visuals of a bunch of chef's preparing a Christmas meal and throwing scrapes for the children outside watching. But here's the problem that I have, since all the outdoor scenes are drenched in total darkness as we see some festive activities going on, it takes away a huge chunk of the fun since the environment looks unpleasant where it is at at times hard to see what the people around Scrooge are doing. I know that the era where the story takes place in wasn't so cheerful, but with the story being centered on Christmas and that there’s more than enough dark stuff in the actual story itself, they could’ve made things a little bit brighter. There's also a pointless scene of the rich gathering for a party and toasting to the Queen that could've easily been cut-out. And I get that it’s supposed to establish both classes of the rich and the poor, but personally I wouldn't miss it if the rich portion was cut out for how little it ties to the plot and the Christmas cheer that we're supposed to get out of this dark and dreary environment. We can already figure out from the dialogue and the characters actions of what the relationship between the rich and the poor were like at those times, like in so many other future adaptations of the story. William Trytel's score for this portion of the story part carries that Christmas cheer that you'd expect from a Christmas film made around during the time of the film’s release. The only time when I found the music to ever feel out of place is when Fred tells Scrooge how he feels about Christmas. I just felt that the scene would've been stronger if there wasn't any music playing to obviously signal us to feel happy for Fred’s positive outlook on Christmas.

MARLEY'S GHOST



The build-up to the appearance of Marley's Ghost is as suspenseful as you think it would be for a film drenched in almost nothing but darkness. It's heavy with atmosphere; we think we see Marley's ghost standing in the room that Scrooge is in on one occasion; the bell to Scrooge's door rings rapidly which causes him to look out the window to discover that there's no one at his door step ringing it; and for some strange reason a bucket just magically falls from the ceiling when Scrooge searches the rooms of his home. The creepiest scene during the build-up is the famous scene in the story with Marley's face on Scrooge's door knocker. There's no dialogue, unlike in many other versions of the story; and how his face materialize and dematerialize on the door knocker quickly makes the lack of looking at it for a long period of time spooky, along with the gong sound that's played when we first see him which sends horrific chills.

And after all this great intense build-up, the door opens up by itself and we see absolutely nothing of Marley's ghost! Oh we hear his voice and the rattle of his chains, but we never see him materialize on-screen ever again, which is exactly what I meant when I said earlier that this film has lacked an important element. I remember being awfully disappointed of the fact that we never see Marley's ghost when he talks to Scrooge, and looking at it now, it's just as underwhelming. WHY MAKE HIM INVISIBLE?!! Did the actor voicing him refuse to be filmed? Did they not have the budget to make him appear to look ghostly, and were embarrassed to show Marley on-screen because of it? Or did they think that not showing Marley would be scarier since less is more? It makes no lick of sense at all, especially when you have a scene that's clearly building-up to his full on-screen appearance. The film tries to cover up his on-screen absence up by claiming that Scrooge can only see him, thus we the audience can't see him, but that's still no excuse at all. Not just for being extremely lazy film-making, but because we just caught a glimpse of his face earlier! Oops! Bad time for the film to pull that excuse card out!

It's been rumored that Claude Rains did the voice of Marley's ghost, and while I'm not saying at all that Marley's on-screen absence is plausible, it would be at least a fitting casting choice for him to voice an invisible Marley since he's best known for voicing the Invisible Man. However, it's not officially claimed that it was him, but the voice does sound very identical to his. And to give credit where credit is due, the actor (whoever it is) voicing Marley does bring the chills that we're supposed to feel from this spirit. But Hick's scarred reactions on the other hand, are just a little too goofy at times, which I'm not sure if that's how he's being directed or if that was really what it did on stage. And having him interacting with nothing, and looking at nothing just makes his exaggerated performance even sillier. 

THE GHOST OF CHRISTMAS PAST



As if not seeing Marley wasn't disappointing enough, how about we don't see the Ghost of Christmas Past either? Okay, we do see a blurry bright light to indicate his presence, and at one point he appears as a silhouette of a man, which in the very least we see Scrooge looking at something. But it's still just as lazy as not showing Marley's Ghost. When you first see it as a silhouette of man floating in front of Scrooge, while looking a bit supernatural, it's still far from being visually interesting. And unlike how our mystery actor voicing Marley still managed to bring chills despite that we found ourselves looking at nothing, the actor voicing the first of the three ghosts goes from having a weird monotone voice that doesn't sound ghostly, to eventually having a voice that sounds otherworldly that yet somehow manages to be forgettable for how boring and empty it sounds. I'm sure there are much worse versions of The Ghost of Christmas Past out there, but this is easily the most forgettable one that I've ever seen, that leaves little to no impression on you at all.

And it's not just the fact that there's nothing distinctive about the ghost when it comes to visuals and performance that makes this spirit so forgettable, but literally this whole entire visit runs under 10 minutes where most of it is us just watching Scrooge's past without old Scrooge and the ghost present. And I'm sure you fans of the story are probably thinking that this sequence must be very rushed since there’s so much to see of Scrooge’s past, and yeah that's part of the problem involving Scrooge's visions of the past, but not the heart of the problem, because you see, important events of his life like his childhood, his relationship with his Sister, and the party a Fezziwig's where he meets his lover Belle is all omitted! I can't stress that enough for how great of a downer this is. As I mentioned before about Hick's performance as Scrooge, and how the character is portrayed when we first meet him; he looks like that he's been through a lot of hardships in life for how miserable and disheveled he looks, but we never really learn why he's so miserable and selfish, since the only part of his own past that we see of his is him breaking up with Belle. We don't see him as a lonely child, we don't see him as a young and happy apprentice for one of the richest and jolliest men in England, we just go right to him saying goodbye to Belle after harshly refusing to give a happy couple more time to pay the money that they owe him.  And the scene itself of Belle leaving Scrooge is so rushed and ruined by such melodramatic acting and intense music that the scene could easily do without that it makes the emotions of this scene come off as more of a dramatic ending to a soap opera. But if forced fast-paced drama isn't your thing, then you'll enjoy the large amount of corny cheese when Scrooge sees Belle happily celebrating Christmas with her cheerful romantic husband and large number children that she has playing with her that comes and goes as fast as Scrooge's break-up with Belle.

THE GHOST OF CHRISTMAS PRESENT

 

So far we've had an invisible Marley, and a blurry light that's supposed to be the Ghost of Christmas Past, but now we get an actor on-screen playing the Ghost of Christmas Present. Now wait, you're telling me that the film couldn't get actors to play the previous two ghosts on-screen, and yet they were able to find an actor to play the Ghost of Christmas Present? What sense does that make? Why did they make this choice? I'm not kidding, I seriously want to know why these decisions were made?! Is it really that hard to dress an actor up like a ghost, or were they not able to make the costumes in time? But okay, okay, you've already heard me question this before and I won’t bother repeating the obvious problems that I have with these choices; is the actor playing the ghost any good? Well the ghost (just like our lead) is played by a famous theater of his time Oscar Asche, and though he dresses like the spirit, and acts like the spirit, I found his overall performance to be extremely lacking. I get more of the impression that this is a guy just playing the role, as opposed to him actually being the spirit since he lacks the jolly and sentimental qualities of the character. It overall just feels very half-baked.

Hicks on the other hand begins to hit the sentimental side of Scrooge just right. How he tells the spirit that he's willing to learn from him is touching to the point where it doesn't feel corny or phoned-in; and his reactions of watching Bob's family celebrate Christmas is subtle where you're able to get plenty of emotion out of him. The scene with Bob's Family is as nice and wholesome as you expect it to be, that is with the lacking of one major iconic element to the scene, and that's Tiny Tim exclaiming "God bless us everyone". And no, the line is thankfully not cut out, but the kid's delivery of this iconic quote is a bit robotic given how emotionless he sounds, as if he's just saying the line.

However, the kid playing him begins to nicely sing "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" that soon turns into a choir, as Scrooge is then being shown visions of people celebrating Christmas in the present, including his nephew Fred. At first the montage of Scrooge gazing at all the Christmas festivities seemed fun from the singing and the silhouette of people inside their homes celebrating, but much like how the use of darkness for the film's gritty night time setting takes away from that glorious festive nature that we're supposed to get out of the scenes after when Scrooge locks up his counting house, the same problems unfold here as well. Everything looks so far from enchanting as all this happens so quickly that it makes me question why these scenes couldn't take place during the day. The scene with Bob carrying Tiny Tim from church in broad daylight as they are being surrounded by bright white snow looked so much nicer than everything that we see in this sequence.

Another repeated problem that this montage has is the rushed pacing and corny acting that takes place at Fred's Christmas party. Just like the scene when we see Belle with her family, it comes and goes by so fast as you're getting nothing but unnaturally happy performances that it feels weird, as if that its forcing its Christmas cheer on you. What's even stranger is how this montage and the spirit’s visit ends. After we see Fred, the Ghost begins to laugh as burning flames cover up his face which causes the scene to dissolve to Scrooge being back in his bed. That's such a bizarre way to end the ghost’s appearance that I'm not sure if he's mocking Scrooge, bidding him good-bye by laughing, or trying to scare him given for how menacing this final image looks and even sounds.

GHOST OF CHRISTMAS YET-TO-COME



So after seeing a ghost in its full physical form, the film decides to show very little of the Ghost of Christmas Yet-To-Come like all the other ghosts before the Ghost of Christmas Present. But out of all the things that the film does to show less of the ghosts, what they do with this ghost is actually fitting. Since the final spirit is always known for being the most ominous one of them all since we never usually see its face or its body since its always covered up in a cloak, it would make sense to give him less of an on-screen appearance. And apparently before Zemeckis could make the spirit into a shadow in his adaptation of the story, this film did it before he could, only instead of seeing the spirit's full shadow we just see its hand pointing, which I'll admit is not as scary when compared to how Zemeckis used this shadow concept, but it's still pretty eerie at times that’s supported by a grim score. What I did think that this film did better when compared to how Zemeckis used this concept is that Scrooge himself becomes a shadow as well, where we see his actual face gazing at the things he sees through his own shadow. Yes, the effect is dated, but it's still a chilling and unique concept that I wish was done in more versions of the story. It's definitely better than Zemeckis making Scrooge tiny with a squeaky chipmunk voice.

The scene with the businessmen happily discussing about Scrooge's passing is done just as solid as the other versions that you're familiar with, that's nothing that different apart from this film being the first sound film to do this scene, and how Scrooge is witnessing it. But then things take a bit of a more interesting approach when we get to the Old Joe scene that has to be one of the creepiest version of that particular scene that I've ever seen. The use of darkness and shadows creates a very uncomforting mood as most of the lighting is aimed towards the ugly faces of Joe and the people who stole from Scrooge which nearly makes this scene look like a nightmare. And though the acting and the accents they put on is over the top, it’s the right amount of over the top since they still come across as freaky for how crazy and deranged they are.

Just like how the film kept the wholesomeness of the scene with Bob's Family celebrating Christmas in the present in-spite of Tim's unenthusiastic wish of blessing everybody, this scene hits the sadness of Tiny Tim's death just as hard as it was in the book. I hardly felt emotionally connected to Tiny Tim for when he's supposed to be cute, and yet for some reason I feel sorry that he's dead, even when knowing that everything will turn out fine in the end. The music and the family’s sad reactions about his demise and Bob being late are so depressing that you get the strong emotional feeling of how much they love and miss the poor boy. And when Bob shows up acting happy about finding his son a place to rest, to then seeing him going up stairs to cry, I felt a bit heartbroken. But what really got me emotionally upset is seeing Bob go to his son's bed and cry in front of his corpse as we hear a powerful choir! Holy Christmas, I was not at all expecting to see his dead body! In most versions we'd see either his crutch lying in the spot where he used to sit or a shadow of his dead body, but no he's lying there right in front of us as dead as a door nail, which I was not at all expecting in such an early film version of the story. But just when you think that this is the perfect way to stop this scene, we suddenly cut to Bob going downstairs acting happy again as he holds Tiny Tim's crutch to bid him farewell, which just kills the mood of the scene for how it suddenly becomes bittersweet again, with just a few more ounces of sugar.

Hick's performance of Scrooge throughout the film has been going through some many ups and downs, and his encounter with the third and final spirit is definitely one of the downs of his performance. When he first interacts with the ghost, he gives the same exaggerated reactions that he gave when he encountered Marley, that's once again comical, especially when considering the fact that he's looking at nothing. And as he watches all these terrible events taking place in the future, Hick's just stands there acting unamused by all of this for how causal and unemotional it is. But when we get to the scene when he sees his tombstone, the way he exclaims the name he reads on it is intense, though a tad bit over the top. And as he pleas to the spirit that he will change, we get a cool image of Scrooge's shadow hand preventing the spirits ghost hand from pointing at the stone. The way Hick's delivers these pleas do sound sad and tragic especially when being attached to the image that I just mentioned. However, when we see him on-screen shouting his lines, as sad as his tone sounds, his expressions somehow don't match up with the torment and fear of how the character is feeling.

CHRISTMAS DAY



Though Hick's was lacking so much emotion during his visit with the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come, when we see the character redeem himself by taking part in the Christmas cheer, Hick's hits the emotions that the character is feeling the way it should be. Sure it's over the top, and there are occasions when Hick's delivery would sound odd and even tad bit half-assed at times. But for the majority of his screen-time of playing the reformed Scrooge, I still found him endearing to watch. And upon seeing him finally transform, a detail that I heavily admired is unlike how he looked so disheveled when we first met the character, he now appears to look more presentable which I thought was a nice way of showing his transformation from a visual stand-point. Furthermore, as we get plenty of moments of him joyfully wishing people a Merry Christmas, or doing something as childish as throwing a snowball at a butcher to get his attention, they still manage to bring a bit of emotional tenderness, particularly in the scene when Scrooge gazes at his nephews Christmas tree and thinks of Tiny Tim singing which causes him to cry. Most of the scenes that you are familiar with from the story are carried out as effective as you would hope for them to be, as well as even adding a few nice minor touches to the characters reacting towards Scrooge's behavior, like when Bob is about to hit Scrooge with a cane when Scrooge pretends to angrily snap at him. The only performance that I can think of that totally lacked any kind of charm or joy was the kid who buys the turkey for Scrooge. He's almost as robotic as the kid playing Tiny Tim.

Unlike how most of the cheerful scenes that show the joy of Christmas were drenched in so much darkness that it kills the tone that these scenes were aiming for, everything in this whole entire portion of the film is as bright and cheery as how the visuals looked with Bob carrying Tiny Tim. It's not spectacular or anything, but it's good enough to get you into the Christmas spirit, along with that uplifting Christmas score. The only major gripe that I have with the whole entire portion of the film is how the film ends. Instead of having Scrooge sitting down having a dinner with Bob's family, or him walking away with Tiny Tim in his arms; the film ends with Scrooge and Bob singing together in church. I'm not at all against the idea of ending the story with the characters going to a holy place to be together, but there's one important element missing and that's Tiny Tim! A main part of the reason of why Scrooge changes was to save Tiny Tim's life by being like a "second father to him", and in a place where Tiny Tim loves to go to hopefully inspire people through his disability, we don't see him there at all, let alone not getting a single scene of him and Scrooge interacting with each other. Yes, the actor playing Tiny Tim isn't anything special, but regardless I still expect to see a scene with Scrooge and Tim together after seeing Scrooge being so motivated to help him.

OVERALL THOUGHTS

It's hard for me to call it a "Bah, Humbug" adaptation or a "God Bless Us Everyone" adaptation of the story because there are so many things that the film gets both and right wrong at the same time. The performances from the cast do a solid job at playing their characters, except for when they fail to execute some of the emotions that we're supposed to get out of them (especially Hicks). The film's atmosphere can look nice and fit the mood for a handful of scenes, except for when it looks too dark and gloomy during scenes that are supposed to be pleasant as we get a couple of scenes where the film's score isn't needed. The film does have a few visually interesting ways of telling the story, and yet it for some reason doesn't want to show us most of the ghosts to add the film's visual appeal from an artistic and storytelling stand point. It's overall just a mess of a movie. I'm glad I saw it since there are enough good things in it to keep me invested and at times amazed, but the bad stuff in it can get so degrading that I don't think that this will be something that I'll be watching as many times as other versions of the story. But if you’re remotely interested in seeing this film or are a die hard “Christmas Carol” fan, then I say it’s worth a view!

HAVE A MERRY CHRISTMAS EVERYONE!!! 

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