I have a soft spot for just about every film version of A Christmas Carol. This is partially due to the fact that one of my first and last acting roles was in a stage adaptation of Charles Dickens’ timeless tale mounted by my elementary school where I got the opportunity to play the spooky silent specter of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. And like countless others, I’m also simply enamored with Dickens’ tale of an old miser visited by four phantoms on Christmas Eve who inspire generosity and teach him to love life again. Nearly 175 years have passed since it was originally published but A Christmas Carol still has the power to chill us to the bone and warm our cold hearts during the winter holiday.
Dickens’ novella was first conceived as a political pamphlet designed to arouse the public’s compassion for the plight of the poor but to his credit, the writer realized his strength was in storytelling so instead of hammering out a straightforward screed against social injustice he wrote a ghost story that would haunt sympathetic readers for more than a century.
A Christmas Carol has been adapted for the screen many times beginning with a number of short silent films and most recently as a 3D animated feature produced by Walt Disney Pictures. The 1938 version tends to get overlooked in the glut of screening options available and it’s also burdened by the fact that the late great Lionel Barrymore was supposed to star as Scrooge but was eventually replaced by Reginald Owen due to serious health concerns that had left him wheelchair bound. Critics have cited its gentle nature and point out that many of the darker elements of Dickens’ original story were removed in order to make the film more family friendly but that dismissal overlooks the fact that the 1938 MGM production contains one of the most frightening and disturbing filmed encounters with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. And for that reason, as well as others, it’s a movie well worth recommending.
Director Edwin L. Marin, producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz and scriptwriter Hugo Butler staged Scrooge’s first eerie encounter with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come on a barren hillside littered with dead trees where the wind whips around the two characters generating a sort of spiritual disharmony and overall sense of unease. This is followed by a particularly nightmarish scene that has the old miser and the cloaked phantom pass through a decrepit cemetery filled with overgrown graves and rotting tombstones.
The doom-laden mood of these impressive set pieces is heightened by the rich black and white cinematography of John F. Seitz (DOUBLE INDEMNITY; 1944), THE LOST WEEKEND; 1945, SUNSET BLVD.; 1950, Etc.) and is reminiscent of classic Universal horror films including FRANKENSTEIN (1931) and DRACULA’S DAUGHTER (1936), which featured Gloria Holden wearing a black hooded robe that closely resembles the one worn by D’Arcy Corrigan as the unearthly Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. It’s worth pointing out that D’Arcy Corrigan, an interesting character actor who has eluded careful study due to a lack of available information, had small roles in a number of Universal horror films including MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932), THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933) and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) before he appeared in the 1938 version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL. Even though we never see his face and he doesn’t speak a word of dialogue, Corrigan is perfectly menacing as the last ghost that Scrooge emcounters during his long dark night of the soul.
Besides Scrooge’s memorable meeting with Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, the 1938 version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL benefits from its brevity. I tend to find the longer film versions of Charles Dickens’ enduring yarn too padded for my liking and if I want to experience the complete Dickens’ tale I read the original novella. In fact, my very favorite adaption is Richard Williams’ smart, stylish and incredibly grim 25 minute animated version from 1971. Much like that Oscar winning short film, the brisk pacing of A CHRISTMAS CAROL helps drive the story along while Reginald Owen’s sympathetic portrayal of the old penny pincher encourages viewers to focus on the pertinent aspects of this Christmas classic that reminds us all to heal thyself, treasure family and friends and open our hearts to those in need. See A CHRISTMAS CAROL to enjoy a surprisingly spooky encounter with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come and stay for the holiday cheer!
by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally published at TCM.com in December, 2014