Pages on this Blog Site

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Mankind Was My Business - A Christmas Carol (1951) and Scrooge (1935)

John Krakowski, Chicopee, Mass., 1911, photo by Lewis Wickes Hine, Library of Congress

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is a novella written in six weeks in 1843 whose power to entertain has lasted over a century and a half.  It has received several film treatments; today we have a look at Scrooge (1935), and A Christmas Carol (1951), but Dickens always invites us to look beyond the tale on the page—or the screen. There is a rich background to our experience with this story, a tale that instructs as much as it entertains.

One year I attended a local community theatre production of A Christmas Carol, which I will always remember for a charming blooper at the very end of the show.  The little boy who played Tiny Tim was lifted onto the shoulders of the man playing his father, Bob Cratchit, and he was to jubilantly shout the last line of the show: “God bless us, everyone!”  He literally stopped the show—by forgetting his line.  The other members of the cast, all dressed in some semblance of Victorian London, as much they could with a limited budget, huddled around with frozen, expectant grins, waiting for him to end the show.  Nothing.  The boy just calmly observed the audience, daydreaming with a pleasant smile from the advantage of his perch.  “Bob Cratchit” grew nervous, and perhaps a little tired, as the boy got heavier with each moment.

Crickets.  Finally, a handful of people in the audience started to shout out, “God bless us…”

And then the rest of the audience, laughing as we did so, finished the sentence, “EVERYONE!”   Then, of course, the little boy remembered he had forgotten to say something, so he quickly blurted it out, “Godblessuseveryone!”  In any other play, the audience probably would have thought that the play ended with silence, and begun to file out after some applause.  This was one of the few plays in existence where every member of the audience KNEW the last line, and we weren’t going anywhere until we heard it.  That we supplied it ourselves made for a lovely, interactive sort of theatre.

I’ve always felt that A Christmas Carol was a very interactive piece of literature.  It does not render us as passive readers or a passive theatre or film audience.  We are intimately involved because we must ponder every nuance of Scrooge’s experiences and wonder at the enormity of the lessons he is learning, and sometimes even wonder if he is actually learning them.  It has been said that author Charles Dickens is the father of the modern Christmas because of this book and its impact, and that may be so in a world where tales of Bethlehem and the Messiah seem diminished in nearly two centuries of an industrialized world where commercialism is the new religion.  I would imagine that there are many homes where the Crèche has been replaced by a ceramic village meant to evoke a largely fictional Victorian Good Old Days where the only thing held sacred is sentimentality.

Despite Tiny Tim’s blessing on us, there is really very little sentimentality in AChristmas Carol, however; it is one of the few modern Christmas tales whose message is redemption—that same powerful point of the First Christmas.  Instead of a biblical setting, we have a claustrophobic brick and mortar jungle during the early years of the Industrial Revolution.

The story has always been a favorite of mine; my twin brother and I read it aloud to each other for years, often making some of the characters sound like Yosemite Sam or Sylvester.  We were cartoon junkies at an early age.  One of my earliest memories is watching Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962), with Jim Backus, of course, as Mr. Magoo; the wonderful Paul Frees supplying several voices; Royal Dano as Marley’s Ghost; and in an interesting bit of casting, Jack Cassidy as Bob Cratchit.  As delightful as this musical cartoon version is, the segment where young Ebenezer is singing about his loneliness in the boys’ school, “I’m All Alone in the World,” destroys me.  Perched on a stool in an empty classroom, trying to draw a hand on the chalkboard to pretend to grasp it—all I can think of are the playground outcasts, those with difficulty being accepted, the shy, the physically or mentally challenged, the different, those who are not approached and find it hard to approach others.  How many autistic children mourn their childhoods as being people to avoid, “A hand for a hand was planned in the world, why can’t my fingers reach?  Millions of grains of sand in the world, why such a lonely beach?”  I’ve been watching it for fifty years; it still brings tears.

This is the power of Dickens’ masterful tale, and his exquisite telling of it.  Even in a Mr. Magoo cartoon, it is not sentimental.  But neither is it so cynical that we are given a villain to despise and destroy.  It would be so easy to have Scrooge vanquished and let everyone live happily ever after, but Dickens doesn’t do that.  He shows us a sad boy who became a greedy man, and then allows him to be redeemed.

But the path to redemption is not easy.

Speaking of cartoons, I also recall watching the 1971 animated version (which you can watch on YouTube here) that is the scariest and most bleak telling of the story I have ever seen.  It haunted us as kids.  Ebenezer Scrooge is voiced by Alastair Sim.

Which brings us to the 1951 film, A Christmas Carol. Sim played Scrooge here as well, in a British-produced film that was the standard for a generation.  Movies would not revisit the story again until 1970 and the musical Scrooge.  Sim pastes a continual sneer across his face as an expression of Scrooge’s distaste for others and his sarcasm for his kindly nephew; to the many poverty-stricken renters who owe him money and whom he evicts; to his longsuffering clerk, Bob Cratchit, whom he berates for using more coal to bank the fire in their chilly office.  He even humiliates Bob by suggesting he is a fool for celebrating Christmas on the meager salary he pays him.

At the end of the movie, however, when Scrooge embraces the meaning of Christmas and the idea of charity to others, he erupts into hearty giggles, laughing at himself for trying to suppress them, which, more than other actors who have played the role, lets us see that Scrooge all along has had a sense of irony, a latent sense of humor.  Who but a man with a sense of humor could knock out, “There’s more of gravy than of grave in you,” to Marley’s Ghost.

The movie also presents us a textbook telling of the ills of capitalism, the end game of which we’re witnessing today, which seems to indicate that AChristmas Carol is in some ways as prescient as Jeremy Rifkin’s The End of Work.  When the Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge to Fezziwig’s, the company where he was apprenticed as a young man, he witnesses a venture capitalist of the day trying to get Mr. Fezziwig to invest in a new scheme where machine manufacturing takes the place of humans.  Fezziwig is a bit of a Luddite, perhaps, because he will not change his business to the new model.  “There’s more to life than money,” he replies.

The venture capitalist makes an impression on young Scrooge, and he and his partner Marley will buy out Fezziwig’s.  When one of the young clerks anxiously asks Scrooge if he will be retaining him under the new management, Scrooge replies that yes, he can keep his job—for four shillings instead of the five Fezziwig had been paying him.  And so it goes.  Even today, we know the pattern.  Scrooge learns, “control the cashbox and you control the world.”  How many in the current Republican-held Congress and White House would agree?

Dwight mill gate, Chicopee, Mass., photo by J.T. Lynch

Looking back, I suspect another reason I was always so taken with this story as a child is because it seemed real and true to me, its setting and circumstances was something that was familiar to me and with which I could identify. I grew up in a New England factory town.  Enormous manufacturing bastions of soot-stained red brick were the backdrop of my childhood, and since some of them, as well as some commercial buildings in town, date from the early 1840s when A Christmas Carol was written, you can easily, on a cold, grey, foggy December evening, imagine yourself back in the days of Charles Dickens—the scene was, as they say, Dickensian.  Generations of my family worked in these factories.  We had a few farmers, craftsmen, small business owners as well, but it was the factory workers for whom I felt the most affinity.  They seemed to have endured much, and yet enjoyed a zest for life that belied their limited opportunities.  I’ve done factory work as well, and appreciated having the opportunity to know something firsthand of their experience. 

Sophie, Chicopee, Mass., 1911, photo by Lewis Wickes Hine,
Library of Congress
The sociologist and photographer Lewis Wickes Hine, who documented child labor in the early twentieth century, came to my town and shot this photo, now in the Library of Congress, of a girl named Sophie, who tended the bobbins in a cotton textile mill here, in 1911.  The venture capitalists in Boston made a mint off her.  The dreaded poorhouse was just down the street for those—perhaps like Tiny Tim—who would never have the strength to work 13-hour days at the mill.

Much of those nineteenth century and early twentieth century industries in my town closed during the Great Depression, though some factories closed because the corporations moved their operations to the South, where there were no unions and they could pay their employees much less.  The union to which my father belonged in his 40-year factory job fought—over many, many strikes—to grant him the peace of mind in my parents’ old age they would not have otherwise had:  A modest monthly pension and decent health insurance.  They had little else at the end of their lives, but they had that.  These came from the union’s bulldog efforts; the corporation would never have been so generous otherwise.  That was a lesson from my childhood, and one that I take into my reading of A Christmas Carol.

But even Scrooge knew the importance of an employer’s benevolence, when he comes to the defense of his employer Fezziwig when the Ghost of Christmas Past chides him for his praise of a simple Christmas party at work:

“He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil.”

Mr. Dickens came to New England on his first American book tour and was taken to Lowell, Massachusetts—a planned industrial city that was the model for my own town—and marveled at how the English-born Industrial Revolution exploded with a new American vigor.  He also came to my area to give readings from A Christmas Carol.  See my New England Travels blog next Tuesday the 19th for more on Dickens’ trip through New England.

Because Dickens had been sent to a workhouse as a young man to pay off his father’s debt, some of the most poignant and politically charged passages of A Christmas Carol are borne of his firsthand knowledge of getting squashed in the cogs of the Industrial Revolution.

In A Christmas Carol, those pesky “snowflake” social do-gooders come to Scrooge asking for a donation to their fund for the poor:

"At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge, it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir."

"Are there no prisons?"
"Plenty of prisons..."
"And the union workhouses." demanded Scrooge. "Are they still in operation?"
"Both very busy, sir..."
"Those who are badly off must go there."
"Many can't go there; and many would rather die."
"If they would rather die," said Scrooge, "they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."

Soon, Marley’s Ghost will chastise him for his soul-destroying greed, and warns him not to fall into the same otherworld of everlasting torment that Marley has earned:

"Business!" cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. "Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!"

In Scrooge (1935), another British-produced film, we have Seymour Hicks in the title role, who had a long history of playing the character.  He’d been Scrooge on stage since the late 1800s, so we have an authentic bit of theatre history in this actor who’d practically originated the role on stage.  This movie also, quite interestingly, is filmed in a simplistic theatrical manner, with some scenes almost like the tableau of nineteenth century theatre, or reminiscent of silent film techniques.  The ghosts who visit him are mere shadows, we have no actors playing them, and Mr. Hicks remains center stage for most of the film—though look for a brief scene with Shakespearean actor and future father of Samantha Stevens on television’s Bewitched, Maurice Evans, in the role of a poor fellow whom Scrooge evicts.

Scrooge is more nervous in this interpretation, more eccentric and less evil than in Alastair Sim’s crusty characterization.

When Cratchit’s poor, struggling family toast Scrooge as “the founder of the feast” we are reminded that the under classes acknowledge that there are masters and there are servants—especially in the then rather rigid caste system of British society.  Particularly touching is the scene where a large banquet is held by some wealthy folk and they toast the Queen, singing “God Save the Queen.”

The camera pans back to the dark, cold, alley where a mob of poor—children and adults—wait for scraps.  They immediately stand to attention and sing the anthem as well, just as reverently and as proudly.  They are not seeking revolution.  Perhaps they cannot even imagine equity.

What these two films omit is the searing message Dickens puts in the scene where the Ghost of Christmas Present confronts Scrooge with his own arrogant assumption that the wealthy are more important than the poor. It is a lesson that the greedy need to learn over and over again.  For some, like a stupid man who would install gold toilets in his gaudy home, the lesson is too difficult to learn.

This scene was played out, however, in the excellent 1984 television version starring George C. Scott.  The Ghost refers not only to the rapacious Scrooge, but those who prop up their own power by dismissing the humanity of others:

"There are some upon this earth of yours," returned the Spirit, "who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us… Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man's child."

There is a suggestion of revolution, perhaps, as well, when the ghost shows him two child specters:

"This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased."

That is probably the most important, most profound passage in the book.

Scrooge’s conversion is the crux of the story that really links the Modern Christmas with the Biblical One.  Dickens approached the Christian idea of salvation and loss of salvation through his world of the Industrial Revolution, and deftly merges Scrooge’s redemption—a greedy guy who has a change of heart for the sake of his fellow man, and a guy who recognizes his sins and tries to atone for them for his own sake.  The story becomes appealing for both those who are religious and those who are not.  It reaches us on all levels.  His salvation is based largely on his newfound empathy, for that is what leads to his atonement, perhaps equally if not more than his fear of eternal retribution for his behavior.  The arrogant don’t fear hell—they feel they are omnipotent, and those lacking in empathy cannot imagine the distress of others. 

But Dickens gives us a Scrooge who can change—for most of us, a herculean task. A villain who becomes a hero.  Alastair Sim and Seymour Hicks marvel that they made it to Christmas Day and a new, clean slate is before them.  Because of Scrooge's change of heart, maybe Bob Cratchit and his kids can soldier on through the Industrial Revolution a little easier.

God bless us.  Everyone.

photo by Lewis Wickes Hine, Library of Congress


  1. Great post, Jacqueline! Hard to imagine Maurice Evans, with that ringing aristocratic voice, as a poor man. I think I've seen the Alastair Sim film, many years ago. Lovely story about the child who forgot his line. We performed the play when I was at school(I did Mrs Cratchit and Scrooge's nephew's wife) and of course, we were all the same age, more or less, so Tiny Tim was played by a teenager. But yes, it has become enough a part of our culture that everyone knows the lines.

    It must be fascinating to live in a town where there are still Dickensian factory buildings and know that Dickens was actually there, or nearby. We don't have many factories left here - they have all gone overseas to countries in Asia where, as you say, there is no union trouble and the workers do long days for peanuts. Our local textile industry was lost when a government removed import tariffs, and those garments still made locally are made at home for low wages by migrants whose English is not good enough to know they are bring ripped off, mostly by the middlemen. I can almost imagine Scrooge happy to run such a business with out workers.

    Did you ever see the telemovie with Patrick Stewart as Scrooge? It showed him as already beginning to understand his folly during the Christmas Past scenes. I believe he did a one man show of it at one time.

  2. Thank you, Sue, and thank you for sharing the perspective on your own town. Outsourcing is everywhere. I think I did see the Patrick Stewart Scrooge version, or at least part of it. I'm going to see if I can track that one down so I can see it again.

    My town actually dates back to the 1640s, and was a farming community for 200 years until the industrialists realized how power could be generated off the river. Things changed pretty quickly, almost overnight, when the Industrial Revolution came here. Now, as you say, most of the industry has been sent overseas.

  3. You had to do it, didn't you? You had to bring up "I'm All Alone in the World". I'm a mess.

    The Alastair Sim version of A Christmas Carol is a Canadian television tradition. It has been shown on Christmas Eve for as long as I can remember. It isn't Christmas to me unless it is watched on that night. You would think that a story so perennially told would lose some of its power. It does not. It never will.

    A surprising new favourite version has joined Sim and Sir Hicks in my heart. I am not a fan of the motion-capture photography, but a few years ago was intrigued by a scene from the Robert Zemeckis version and determined to watch the entire thing. The adaption was quite moving and Jim Carrey is outstanding as Scrooge. As a Canadian boy, I don't think he could help channeling some Sim into his performance.

    Merry Christmas to you and John. I hope some Pickwickian excess makes its way into your celebrations.

  4. And Merry Christmas to you and yours, CW. I haven't seen the Zemeckis version, but maybe I'll catch up with it someday. I also like the Muppet version, and there's a little Scrooge McDuck ornament on my tree, because he's my favorite Disney character. I guess there's enough Scrooge to go around. Pickwickian excess, I like that. I'll try to do you proud.

  5. You have mentioned two of Gavin's favourites and, therefore, favourites of the whole family. When we left the Christmas party at his group home last week, he was in the living room watching The Muppet Christmas Carol. He has also asked for a copy of Mickey's Christmas Carol for a present. He already has many copies, but perhaps he doesn't feel they are in good shape. Santa has bought him the latest release because Santa knows Gavin never asks for much.

    All hail Pickwick!

  6. I'm glad Gavin will get to celebrate Christmas Day with a shiny new copy of Mickey's Christmas Carol. I actually saw that when it first came out in my neighborhood movie house, a small circa 1913 theater with a battered marquee in the center of town, long since closed down. I remember that, too, when I see the short, which we watch faithfully every year.

  7. Nice blog. Too bad you had to ruin it with your completely inappropriate "IMPEACH TRUMP" banner. If your intent is to alienate potential readers with your irrelevant political views (which evidently are quite extreme), you have succeeded.

  8. Dear Nervous (my sympathies for your emotional state), you feel my political views as expressed in this post are both irrelevant and extreme because you disagree with them. If you are a supporter of Trump and had I put a message on this blog that applauded him, you would not feel the need of my removing message. That some readers, like yourself, may take offense at the IMPEACH TRUMP banner, or any of my analysis of classic films as they pertain to social influences (read the subheader of the blog - this is about films in the social and historical context of their times, not a review site) I am quite willing to accept. It is only logical that, in a society as blessedly diverse as ours, not everyone will be of the same frame of mind. Your response, a suggestion that I have alienated you and others of your apparent political persuasion, is politely put, and for that, I thank you. At least one other such person of similar political bent to yours was so angered by the banner IMPEACH TRUMP that he proposed physical violence upon me. It is because of his thuggish ilk, sir, that I put the IMPEACH TRUMP banner on my blog, and it is because of his thuggish ilk that I will continue to post the banner IMPEACH TRUMP until that morally corrupt racist crooked failed businessman of a traitor to our country is impeached.
    As it happens, I have had thus far no other complaints about the IMPEACH TRUMP banner, and I can only suppose it is because regular readers of this blog agree with the IMPEACH TRUMP sentiment, or if they do not, they are more willing to live and let live in a society where that is become tragically rare.
    Have a good day, Nervous. I hope you feel better.