D: J. Searle Dawley, Charles Kent, Ashley Miller / 11m
Cast: Marc McDermott, Charles Ogle, William Bechtel, Viola Dana, Carey Lee, Shirley Mason
Ebenezer Scrooge (McDermott) is a businessman with no time for pleasantries or charitable endeavours. He rebuffs three men looking for aid, and when paid a visit by his nephew Fred (Bechtel), spurns him also. Later, Scrooge arrives at his home and sees the face of his deceased partner, Jacob Marley, on the door knocker. Marley visits Scrooge in his bedroom, warning him of the arrival of a ghost who will show Scrooge the error of his ways.
The ghost appears and shows Scrooge scenes from his youth, including his time at boarding school, working at Fezzywig’s, and his relationship with a young woman whom he rejects. Then the ghost shows him a scene from the present, at the home of Scrooge’s assistant, Bob Cratchit (Ogle), where a party is under full swing and everyone is enjoying themselves.
Then the ghost shows him scenes from the future. Scrooge sees himself die, followed by his headstone, which reads, “Ebenezer Scrooge – he lived and died without a friend”. He also sees his nephew’s fianceé reject him for want of money. Scrooge attempts to help his nephew but of course it’s only a vision.
The next morning, Scrooge awakes to find himself alive and with sufficient motivation to put things right in his life. He makes a donation to the charity fund, makes Fred his partner (thus ensuring his future marriage), and visits the Cratchits accompanied by his nephew and his fianceé and a huge goose for their dinner.
If the above synopsis seems a little too detailed given our familiarity with A Christmas Carol, it’s intended to show just how much of Dickens’ classic tale can be crammed into such a short running time – and still prove effective (even with a few minor adjustments). This version – there’s an earlier adaptation from 1901 but it’s no longer complete – is a marvel of economy, getting to the heart of the story with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of style.
Made by the quaintly named Edison Manufacturing Company, and one of dozens of literary adaptations they released around the time, A Christmas Carol is a great example of how silent cinema condensed often complex novels and plays into one-reel wonders. Using the audience’s awareness of the tale, A Christmas Carol dispenses with title cards and focuses instead on getting the story across by making the visual content as clear and precise as possible (a restored version from 2010 contains title cards but they add little to the movie other than to confirm what we already know). There’s never any doubt as to what’s happening, even when some aspects have been altered to suit the running time. A good example is Scrooge seeing himself die, a much better way of discovering his fate than learning of it by overhearing the conversations of others (and being more difficult to film).
With a variety of different sets, and quite a big cast, the movie appears to have benefited from a larger budget than usual, and under the auspices of Dawley (assisted by Kent and Miller) proves engrossing to watch. As the highlights of the story are ticked off one by one, the movie becomes more and more enjoyable to watch, its depictions of past, present and future presented with an artistry and a skill that even modern audiences can appreciate. As the mean-spirited old miser, McDermott – at the time only twenty-nine years old – plays Scrooge with a great deal of verve, making his transformation from pinchfist to philanthropist with sincerity and conviction. It’s a performance that tones down the usual elaborate theatrical flourishes of the time, and is more measured and realistic.
The special effects employed to show the various scenes from Scrooge’s life – double exposures for the most part – are well done, and the scene where Marley sits opposite Scrooge (prompting him to pass his hand through him) is one of the better examples, and may well have appeared astonishing at the time. Scrooge’s reactions to these images, and the timing of them, are also well realised, adding to the overall effectiveness of the movie, and reinforcing the effect these visions are having on Scrooge’s character.
It’s always interesting to look back and see how movie makers adapted novels in the early silent era, particularly in terms of what they leave out or add in. Here there’s no Tiny Tim and only one ghost to represent the usual three spirits, while the addition of Fred’s less than supportive fianceé is a subtle reflection on the loss of romance in Scrooge’s life. But again, with such a familiar story, these are minor changes that don’t detract in any way, and show Dawley and co working with a greater degree of finesse than might be expected. It all helps to make this version of A Christmas Carol a joy to watch, and a fine example of silent era, one-reel movie making.
Rating: 8/10 – far more subtle and expressive than some of its more expanded successors, A Christmas Carol is a well-conceived and executed version of a classic Christmas tale; “God bless us, everyone!” indeed for such a masterful adaptation.