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A Christmas Carol (1938)

Charles Dickens’ 1843 Christmas classic is such well tread territory it’s paved into the brains of audiences everywhere. Countless adaptations of the book abound on the small and silver screens, and both Warner and VCI are releasing their respective versions on Blu-ray. VCI is releasing the better known 1951 version starring Alistair Sim, but Warner has put out an equally sparkling transfer of the smaller, in cast and runtime, 1938 production. Reginald Owen may not be Sim, but Warner’s A Christmas Carol presents the abridged version of the text in a clipped 69-minute package.

There should be no need to rehash the plot, but in case you fell asleep in class during the holidays: Ebenezer Scrooge (Reginald Owen) is a miserly bank owner who, on Christmas Eve, is visited by three spirits who attempt to teach him the error of his ways.

There’s always an air of the familiar with A Christmas Carol, regardless of cast and quality, because every version presents the same basic plot tenets with little deviation other than possibly modernizing or gender-swapping Scrooge. With minuscule unpredictability many tend to enjoy the version they saw first. The Sim version’s place as the de facto version of Dickens’ tale isn’t in dispute (although I tend to make the argument that the Muppets did it best), but Reginald Owen’s version tells the movie’s highlights quickly, again, barely clocking in at an hour.

Owen wasn’t director Edwin L. Marin’s first choice. Marin wanted Lionel Barrymore, who passed on the role due to health problems and recommended his friend Owen. The film’s new Blu-ray transfer tends to poorly highlight Owen’s bald cap on his head, but that’s the only complaint I have toward his performance. He plays Scrooge no better or worse than Sim, Michael Caine, or Bill Murray (okay, Owen isn’t as unsympathetic as Murray). Any failings on Owen’s part are due to the plot’s rushing nature. Scrooge’s brief moments with the ghosts allow Owen to give off the requisite emotion required before he immediately moves onto the next. It’s amazing watching him go from miserable to happy to terrified to grateful in what plays out as a very, very quick evening.

The hasty preparation of the narrative lends a Sparks Notes atmosphere to the film without giving off the overt feeling it’s rushing through topics too quickly. The ghosts themselves are given approximately fifteen minutes a piece to make their argument to Scrooge, limiting the intimacy you’d find in longer versions, but the stories remain compelling through their presence alone.

The two ghosts with discernible name recognition are Leo G. Carroll as Marley and Ann Rutherford as the Ghost of Christmas Past. The presentation of Marley’s Ghost remains a creepy bit of special effects wizardry, albeit not of the clanking chains and overt terror seen with other versions. Anne Rutherford’s angelic Ghost of Christmas Past presents an almost Rockwellian depiction of Scrooge’s past, complete with a little sister rocking a bad “‘ello, guvnor” interpretation of a British accent. The Ghost of Christmas Present, jovially played by Lionel Braham, creates a compelling enough argument to turn anyone into a Christmas fanatic, even if Scrooge’s confirmation feels too sudden. In fact, the Ghost of Christmas Present does such a good job that the arrival of the Ghost of Christmas Future is pointless. The film seems to believe this, as well, as there’s a pause after Scrooge goes home, like the film has reached its natural conclusion. The Ghost of Christmas Future is there out of obligation.

Along with the shrugging necessity for The Ghost of Christmas Future, the brief runtime also removes other humanizing elements for Scrooge, particularly Belle, the girl Scrooge is madly in love with in the novel and other interpretations. It’s understandable why Hugo Butler’s screenplay removed her, though; the focus of the film leans heavily towards appreciating family, and it’s better playing up Scrooge’s relationship with his sister than a romantic interest that would tie the movie into romantic love as opposed to familial love.

The Blu-ray boasts a crisp transfer and comes with a few bonus features: two featurettes – “Jackie Cooper’s Christmas Party” and “Judy Garland Sings ‘Silent Night'” – which are self-explanatory; the Oscar nominated cartoon short “Peace on Earth,” and the film’s theatrical trailer.

This may not be the version of A Christmas Carol you grew up. The truncated timing keeps things moving, but it moves quickly enough that much of the intimacy dissipates before the film truly concludes. Regardless, Reginald Owen leads a great cast of lesser known stars to present Dickens’ classic in a jovial, lighthearted way you’ll enjoy.

Ronnie Rating:


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A Christmas Carol [Blu-ray]

Kristen Lopez View All

A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.

3 thoughts on “A Christmas Carol (1938) Leave a comment

  1. I find pleasure in seeing the three Lockharts on screen together as the Cratchits, but even that is too little of a treat to place this movie on my annual Christmas watch list. Maybe it is the type of thing one has to develop a fondness for over the years. Maybe.

    • I definitely think A Christmas Carol – with its numerous permutations – leaves many suffering from cutesy fatigue. I know there are better versions of this tale that I like more so you’re in good company.

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