Every Christmas season, I set aside the horror and sci-fi movies and dive into a healthy stack of Christmas classics. The holidays are never complete without seeing Rudolph save the day or Charlie Brown save that poor, little tree. One tradition I have is to watch numerous versions of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. And I guess it definitely fits into this blog as it does have not one, not two but four ghosts. Some versions, such as Patrick Stewart’s 1999 television adaptation and Alastair Sims’ classic from 1951, get yearly viewings. Others are revisited every two or three years. This year, it was time to take a look at the 1938 version starring Reginald Owen.
I can never watch this version without wondering what might have been. Lionel Barrymore is better remembered these days as old man Potter in another Christmas classic, It’s A Wonderful Life (1946). However, in the 1930s, he was best known as Ebenezer Scrooge, a role he played every Christmas Eve to radio listening audiences. By 1938, he was primed and ready to take the role to the big screen. Although we had numerous silent versions and a British version in 1935, the story was ready to be brought to life in grand fashion and who better than MGM to do it. However, Lionel Barrymore reluctantly had to step down from the role due to crippling arthritis that would eventually confine him to a wheelchair. He recommended actor Reginald Owen to take the role and, showing what a class act he truly was, he refused to play the role on the radio that year so as not to take away from Owen’s performance. He returned to the role in 1939 and continued to play Scrooge every year until his death. But in 1938, Reginald Owen was to be the definitive Ebenezer Scrooge.
However, what we were given was a sanitized family version of the story, clocking in at only 70 minutes. For starters, London is too clean and cheery, not grim and dark as depicted in other versions. From his first appearance, Owens just doesn’t seem right for the part. He doesn’t seem gruff enough and his look is, again, too clean. Gene Lockhart does a fine job as Bob Cratchit but, quite honestly, he looks to be eating rather well for being so poor off. Also, the Cratchit home looks far too spacious and grand to fit the role that Cratchit is supposedly filling, that of a lowly clerk. Kathleen Lockhart plays Mrs. Cratchit adequately and we are treated to a very young June Lockhart as Belinda. Barry MacKay is good as nephew Fred but he just has the feel of a good looking MGM studio singer. I half expected him to break out in a typical MGM musical number. One of the biggest miscasts came in Leo G. Carroll as Marley. He seems to sleepwalk his way through the role. When he moans there is no passion or foreboding in it at all. Our Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future also are less than impressive, especially Ann Rutherford as Christmas Past. She too seemed far too pretty for the role, nothing like Dickens described the ghost. Terry Kilburn as Tiny Tim is okay if you don’t compare his portrayal to other superior performances in other versions. His ailments and fate is quickly overshadowed. The rest of the cast is good at what they do but suffer from my biggest complaint of the movie. It’s too short, too cleaned up and missing far too much from the overall story.
There is so much of the storyline that is rushed or skipped over entirely. This is where I relentlessly kept comparing this version to my personal favorite, the 1951 Alastair Sim version. Here we are given expanded roles for Fred and Elizabeth, allowing for some romance that Dickens clearly did not write. The wailing ghosts outside Scrooge’s window are not here. Even the key moment where Scrooge’s fiancée leaves him and he devotes his attention to money is entirely gone here, erasing the big reason as to why Scrooge did what he did and the heartbreak he would feel at losing her. His partnership with Marley seems an afterthought. And when Scrooge goes through the transformation at the end of the movie, it really doesn’t seem like Owens is playing the role all that differently. There is no scene at the office the next day where Scrooge confronts Cratchit. That whole scenario is played out at the Cratchit home and rushed through too quickly. Again, the story feels rushed and sanitized. The truly scary and horrific moments are gone.
With so many different versions readily available and out there for almost instant viewing, it is indeed very hard to watch this movie subjectively as audiences of 1938 would have. For many years, this version was considered by many to be the most definitive as it was played on TV with great regularity. However, by 1970, the 1951 version was more widely available to television audiences and it easily surpassed its 1938 predecessor as the definitive version of the Charles Dickens’ classic. There simply is no comparing Reginald Owen to Alastair Sim. That said, I really can’t recommend the 1938 version. With lackluster performances and key storylines missing, there are far better versions to spend your time with this holiday season.