Most Christmas films bash us over the heads with how festive they are. It can be exhausting to sit through another yarn of the Yule, and rare is the Christmas film worth watching any time of the year.
There’s no greater exception than 1951’s Scrooge, the best Christmas film ever made which pulls off the Christmas miracle of featuring none of the trappings of the season: no bonhomous fireside scenes, sprigs of holly, tables piled high with turkeys and pies. It’s about things beyond the world of accoutrements, and you need to get it into your viewing rotation.
The consensus among the cognoscenti is that Scrooge is the definitive version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The chipper, plummy 1938 version is commonly shown on TV, but for many decades, Scrooge aired primarily in the witching hours. It was dark, real—even if it was a hardcore ghost story—and a legit horror film (it premiered on Halloween for a reason) that also made you feel good.
Scrooge is played by Alastair Sim, and in the daring screenplay by Noel Langley—who wrote 1939’s The Wizard of Oz—that adds a new backstory to Dickens’ novella, we see Scrooge emerge as a pre-Twitter troll. That can make him pretty funny, but no one wants him around. Even Scrooge himself.
The miser haunts himself. The scene when Marley’s ghost visits Scrooge is shocking in the raw power of its terror and the stateliness of that terror. It’s like the creation sequence in Frankenstein, minus the electricity. The two ghosts—for Scrooge is a living ghost—sit in restive abeyance, tension thick as terms of eternal damnation are laid out. It’s the ultimate uncomfortable holiday gathering.
Studies have shown that people are often at their most productive when they’re not trying as hard. A Christmas movie can be the most Christmas-y when it doesn’t insist upon piling Christmas on thick. It becomes about ideas and goals relevant all year. This Scrooge is easy to identify with because he’s not all that bad, but he’s defeated and scared. Sarcasm is one of his defense mechanisms. When faced with something he can’t handle, he takes to his bed. He hurts people to avoid being hurt himself.
Christmas is about carrying on in a better way than one had before. That means doing right by one’s self, and thus being able to better help one’s fellow human. I believe that’s the essence of Christmas, which is often lost amongst the symbolic blur of so much cinematic tinsel. Holiday movies tend to have a built-in disclaimer of “Well, it’s only a Christmas picture,” but Scrooge is a life movie, and life is about range. Where there is horror, there can next be hope.
There’s a moment at the end which I think is the most Christmas-y in all of cinema, but if you turned on the TV at this late stage, you wouldn’t even know you were watching a Christmas movie. Scrooge goes to the house of his nephew Fred, and he peeks through the door where everyone is gathered, having a gay time. He’s too scared to go in, so he turns to the maid, who gives him this encouraging little nod—for she’s obviously heard the gossip about him—which is the strength he needs.
That look—of knowledge and empathy—is everything. She’s done that for Scrooge, as Scrooge can do so for others. We’re watching him as he starts. It’s the Christmas beyond Christmas, which is what Christmas most is. Sometimes we just have to take the rest of it away to realize it.