Holiday Viewing: A Christmas Carol

In this season of giving, who is the best Scrooge?

Scrooge (Reginald Owen, right) deals with the first of a multitude of spirits as Marley (Leo G. Carroll) comes a-calling in the 1938 adaptation of A Christmas Carol. But who was the finest cinematic Scrooge?

Christmas is about …
The season of giving …
I said humbug!
Charity begi …
I said humbug, sir, humbug!

Ah, Ebenezer Scrooge. Charles Dickens' finest, most terrible and most redeemed creation. The bane of Victorian London, greed personified, who finally becomes as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew.

A Christmas Carol is Dickens' most beloved book, and his most adapted. He started the tradition by performing it publicly onstage (no mere reading, but a full-blown performance), and ever since it has become a dream role for aging actors, up there with Macbeth and Lear.

This Christmas Eve, Turner Classic Movies stays up late for one of the first great adaptations, the 1938 version starring Reginald Owen. At the same time on the big screen, Christopher Plummer brings a cunning genius as both Scrooge and the man who inspired him in The Man Who Invented Christmas. Both are great starting points, but there are so many more options to explore, like the winding little back streets of Central London.

A great Scrooge may exceed the film in which they find themselves (case in point, Patrick Stewart's glorious gnarled snarl in the perfectly serviceable 1999 TNT television version). It would be easy to spend all of the long Christmas weekend and most of January to watch them all, so who are the unmissable versions of the old miser?

Honorable mentions:

Tom Ricketts in A Christmas Carol (1908): The original cinematic Scrooge. Sadly, this silent version from Chicago's Essanay Studios is missing, lost deep in the folds of the robes of the Spirit of Christmas Past.

Bill Murray in Scrooged (1988): Still hilarious, but we can all admit that he's really doing the Bill Murray laconic act, just with a Christmas twist.

Albert Finney in Scrooge (1970): A fine incorrigible old rascal, but then again, if you were being pursued by hordes of children singing in terrible fake Cockney accents, tin-eared enough to make Mary Poppins-era Dick Van Dyke flinch, you'd be surly too.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who recently proclaimed that "I have a rough time wanting to spend billions and billions and trillions of dollars to help people who won’t help themselves, won’t lift a finger and expect the federal government to do everything." He then probably went on to ask if there are no workhouses before complaining about giving his staff Christmas Day off.

Scrooge McDuck: Mickey's Christmas Carol (1983)

Scrooge may have become the literary personification of acquisitiveness, but it's his animated namesake, Scrooge McDuck, who defined deep pockets and short arms in comics and cartoons. Forget the Duck Tales PR spin: this water fowl was more foul than most: after all, who could be so mean as to deny Mickey Mouse a lump of coal to keep the cold away? This animated version is a Disney all-star extravaganza, with Goofy falling over his chains as Marley, and even Basil, the great mouse detective, dropping by for a charitable donation. But this was old McDuck's finest hour: so cheap that, when his old business partner left him money to pay for a tombstone, he had him buried at sea. Voiced by Alan Young, he may have peddled the old stereotype about Scotsmen being cheap, but he made sure to head to the toy store, so Tiny Tim would have something under his tree on Christmas morn.

Scrooge Score: Three parties at Old Man Fezziwig's.

Michael Caine: A Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

Most Scrooges are frail and feeble: not Mr. Get Carter, Mr. The Italian Job. When Caine was announced as the human lead among Jim Henson's fuzzy ensemble, a few eyebrows were raised. Isn't Scrooge a boney old geezer? Not this Scrooge. Yes, he's still cheap and avaricious, but he's not just a monster on the inside. When he looms into view, he's a mountain over all, striding with no wasted cash or wasted intention.

This isn't Scrooge the investor: This is Scrooge the slumlord. Behind with the rent? In his younger days, Caine's Scrooge would be on your doorstep with a big stick and a harsh word, and he'd throw you out himself. That was in his younger days, though, and the charm of seeing the sparks of compassion shine through make the reborn Scrooge, singing flat as a pancake with Kermit and Fozzy, all the more endearing.

Scrooge score: Four cheeses for meeces.

Alastair Sim: Scrooge! (1951) and A Christmas Carol (1971)

Every Scrooge has their defenders, but when it comes to live-action interpretations, there is one who throws them all out into the snow. The most squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner will always and inevitably be the great British comedy actor Sim. A Scrooge so perfect that he played the part twice: first, in 1951, when he perfected the merciless old skinflint; then again in 1971, when animation legend Chuck Jones and director Richard Williams brought him into the recording studio to voice their half-hour cartoon adaptation.

In the intervening 20 years, he came closer to the wizened antiquity of the senior Scrooge, but the younger Sim's interpretation – merciless, yet boyish at times, and aching for redemption – will never be bettered. Noel Langley's script brings out all the tragedy and the twinkle of the man who becomes the walking, talking embodiment of Victorian charity.

Scrooge score: Five turkeys too big to carry to Camden Town.

A Christmas Carol (1938) screens on Christmas Eve at 2am on TCM.

Throughout December, the Chronicle film team is highlighting some of our favorite seasonal film and TV offerings. Find a new recommendation every day at our Holiday Movie Advent Calendar.

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