Scrooge Comes to Life in the Silent Film Era – Part 1

“Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a doornail.”

The immortal opening paragraph of Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol sets the stage by establishing the death of Jacob Marley, who is, ultimately, a very key character in Ebenezer Scrooge’s life and in the journey that awaits him. A Christmas Carol is one of the most beloved tales of the holiday season, having been told countless times on stage, screen and radio since its’ first publication in December 1843. Charles Dickens himself even began public readings of his story in 1849, further cementing the fact that it would never be out of print.

Every December, I listen to several different audio adaptations, but nothing ever seems to surpass the 1939 Campbell Playhouse broadcast featuring Lionel Barrymore in the lead role. He would portray Scrooge on radio for 20 years from 1934 to 1953 with only two exceptions. In 1936, he elected to skip the performance when his wife died and, in 1938, he let Reginald Owen have the spotlight for his performance in MGM’s film adaptation. In fact, Barrymore was cast to play Scrooge in that 1938 film. However, poor health due to arthritis forced him to pass on the role, robbing generations to come of what could have been an iconic performance. Barrymore died on Nov. 15, 1954, a little more than a month before what would have been his 21st performance.

While Barrymore is rightfully credited with making Scrooge a household name in the 1930s and influencing MGM to produce their own film version, old Ebenezer had already been seen countless times on the big screen. In fact, there were nine different adaptations made in the silent film era, from 1901 to 1929, with varying degrees of success. In those early days of film, most productions were often quite short, lasting anywhere from mere seconds to less than five minutes.

The very first adaptation came in 1901 and was entitled Scrooge, or Marley’s Ghost. Directed in the UK by Walter R. Booth, it boldly attempted to tell the tale in just over six minutes, with the emphasis on Jacob Marley. Rather than being shown the errors of his ways by the three visiting ghosts, it’s Marley, wearing a stereotypical ghostly white sheet, who presents the visions to Scrooge. Despite having limited resources, the film actually has some impressive special effects and some scenes were enhanced with early color tinting. Daniel Smith does an adequate job of portraying Scrooge, despite the fact that the overall presentation seems more like a stage play, which was a common story telling device in early cinema. Thankfully, this earliest film version, only 30 years removed from the death of Dickens himself, still exists more than a century later. Despite that it is missing much of the classic story, it remains a nice curiosity and a glimpse into Christmas past.

The next adaptation came in 1908 from Essanay Studios, marking the first American adaptation. Unfortunately, this film has been lost to the ravages of time, so very little is known of this early production. It is believed to have been approximately 15 minutes long and starred Thomas Ricketts as Scrooge. Early scene descriptions give us an idea of what we could have seen and it appears that the three ghosts were actually present on screen this time. Unlike the 1901 film, it doesn’t appear that the film ended on Scrooge helping Tiny Tim. Rather, it concludes with Scrooge simply realizing the errors of his ways. The film received high praise from the critics of the day, so we can only hope that a print resurfaces someday so that modern audiences can once again experience the first American version of Scrooge.

Two years later, in 1910, another film version was produced in the United States. This time, the legendary Edison Manufacturing Company gave us a ten-minute adaptation featuring Marc Dermott in the lead role. McDermott is actually well-known amongst silent film aficionados for his roles in such classics as The Sea Hawk (1924) and He Who Gets Slapped (1924) alongside Lon Chaney. This 1910 film is just one of over 140 films McDermott would do for Edison, establishing him as a star in early Hollywood. McDermott does quite well in the role of Scrooge, for as much as we can tell without being able to hear his voice. The extra running time allows more of the ghostly interactions to play out with greater detail. Early special effects help give the past visions a more spectral appearance, rather than being a limitation. This is really the first time we get to witness the longer redemption of Scrooge on screen. Once again, Tiny Tim is less of a presence here, due most likely to the limited running time. However, it doesn’t hurt the overall presentation, which is well-worth watching.

Three years later, A Christmas Carol is finally adapted into a film with a longer running time and Seymour Hicks would give us the first of his two cinematic versions of Scrooge. Return tomorrow as Scrooge enters the twilight of the silent film era.

I’ve created a special Scrooge: A Christmas Carol playlist on my YouTube channel to make it easier for you to find these early adaptations of the much beloved Christmas classic.

A previous version of this article was published in December 2017.

1843 illustration by John Leech


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