Holiday Classics: “A Christmas Carol” (1938)

MGM’s low budget 1938 version of Charles Dickens’ classic “A Christmas Carol” is probably the most glamorized version of this dark tale. You all know the story: grouchy Ebenezer Scrooge (here played by Reginald Owen) is visited on Christmas Eve by the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, prompting him to change his ways. While this film is still a delightful holiday classic, it’s one of the least faithful adaptations of the original work.

Scrooge (Reginald Owen) with the ghost of Jacob Marley (Leo G. Carroll)

MGM was known in the 1930s for producing family-friendly films, many of which were based on literary classics. To keep this movie to that standard, the studio made numerous changes to the story to make Scrooge appear as not quite such a bad person and to make the overall tone of the film less disturbing. The starving children named “Want” and “Ignorance”—the creepiest part of the story by far—were dropped from the film, while the romance between Scrooge’s nephew Fred (Barry MacKay) and his fiancée Bess (Lynne Carver) was expanded upon. Scrooge’s fiancée—whom he lost to his greedy when he was a young man—is also not present in this version. Ann Rutherford’s Ghost of Christmas Past appears beautifully ethereal if a bit too glamorous, while Gene Lockhart’s Bob Cratchit looks awfully well-fed for such a poor man.

Ann Rutherford as the Ghost of Christmas Past

There is still much to be admired about the film though, and while it isn’t the strongest adaptation of this story, it’s still a favorite of mine. The special effects are admirable, particularly when used to portray the ghosts. Gene Lockhart gives a good performance opposite his real life wife Kathleen and daughter June in her film debut. Lionel Barrymore, who had played Scrooge on the radio annually for years, was supposed to play him in this film as well, but had to drop out due to his increasingly painful arthritis. He suggested that his friend Reginald Owen play the role. He does a great job, embodying both Scrooge’s appearance and personality, while Barrymore still got in on the action, introducing and narrating the film’s trailer.

“A Christmas Carol” is available to rent or purchase on all digital platforms, and is airing on Turner Classic Movies on the following dates:

Monday, December 21st at 9 AM EST

Friday, December 25th at 12 AM EST

Runtime: 69 minutes.

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