Humbug to all the rest: Why the 1951 Scrooge film is considered 'the gold standard'

For many critics and fans, the 1951 film adaptation of Dickens's A Christmas Carol, with British actor Alastair Sim in the titular role, is the definitive version.

Dickens's classic tale has seen many cinematic adaptations

The 1951 film Scrooge, or A Christmas Carol, adapted from the Charles Dickens classic, is considered by many to be the definitive screen adaptation. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

British director Brian Desmond Hurst made dozens of films over his career, but he is best known for his 1951 adaptation of Dickens's A Christmas Carol.

"He was immensely proud of [the film]," said Allan Esler Smith, one of the director's nephews. "He talked about it being shown endlessly, which he was also proud of, because you can't say that of very many films."

Dickens's story, about a wealthy miser who thinks Christmas is a humbug until three ghosts show him the error of his ways, was published in December 1843.

It has spawned a number of film adaptations, with actors such as Reginald Owen, Albert Finney, George C. Scott and Patrick Stewart taking on the lead role. There are also animated versions with characters like Mickey Mouse and Mr. Magoo, as well as the 2009 3D animated film starring Jim Carrey.

Some versions, like the 1998 comedy Scrooged starring Bill Murray, offer a modern retelling, following the same basic plot but modifying the characters. (For example, Murray plays a miserly television executive rather than a businessman.)

But for many fans, Hurst's black-and-white version, starring British actor Alastair Sim in the titular role, is the very best.

In a 2007 review in Entertainment Weekly, Leah Reisman-Senes wrote, "Other Christmas Carols need not apply. The definitive version of the Dickens tale is ... not only the gold standard against which all other holiday films should be measured, but also one of the greatest films ever made, period."

A relatively short film with a running time of 86 minutes, Scrooge, as it was called in the U.K., was filmed in London and written by Noel Langley, who had gained fame as one of the screenwriters on The Wizard of Oz.

Scrooge was quite popular, commercially and critically in Britain. But when it was released in the U.S. — under the title A Christmas Carol — it received mixed reviews and failed at the box office.

The New York Times praised the film's "phantasmagoric creation of a sombre and chilly atmosphere," but Time magazine called it only "a serviceable new edition of Charles Dickens's evergreen story," and said "Hurst's direction is too often heavy."

It really wasn't until the film was released on television — much like another Christmas classic, It's a Wonderful Life — that it began to gain popularity.

'It's really great to watch'

Film critics generally hail Sim's performance. He was 51 at the time he took on the part of Scrooge, and was better known for his comedic roles. 

Sim "underplays it nicely. He's sort of this reserved, crotchety old man, and somehow he's more scary in his reserve than he would be if he went over the top," said writer Gina Dalfonzo, who is also editor of the Dickensblog.

"When Scrooge is transformed and then he just goes berserk, [Sim] goes goofy. It's really great to watch. I think that tends to stick in people's minds."

Sim was always Hurst's first choice to play Scrooge, said Smith, who oversees the Brian Desmond Hurst legacy website.

Hurst saw Sim as a very disciplined artist, a fine actor and a delight to work with, said Smith.

"Brian wasn't very kind to very many actors," Smith said. So that type of praise from Hurst is "probably about as glowing as it gets."

Sim's background in comedy served him well, particularly in the scenes of Scrooge on the morning of his transformation.

"We believe him at every step of this story — when he's being mean, nasty, when he's being scared to death, and when he sees the light and becomes giddy with joy at this new world that had opened up to him," said veteran film critic Leonard Maltin, in an introduction to the 60th Anniversary Blu-ray and DVD of the film.

Maltin said he didn't think he'd seen "any other actor portray that aspect of Scrooge so beautifully, or so convincingly."

Shakespearean in its staging

Journalist Colin Fleming, who is writing a book on Hurst's film, said the movie combines different visual styles, including realism, film noir and German expressionism. Fleming says the result is an effective horror movie.

For example, Fleming said the visit by Scrooge's former business partner Jacob Marley, now a tortured and wailing spirit played by British Shakespearean actor Michael Hordern, is "absolutely terrifying." That's because the scene combines a cacophony of sounds with a haunting, atonal musical score that reaches a crescendo as a fearful Scrooge looks outside his window to see Marley surrounded by other tormented spirits. 

Fleming said the production team was "smart enough to write the film, shoot the film, act the film, score the film" in a way "that Shakespeare would do it."

He said the film also benefits from tweaks to the source material, giving characters like Scrooge more of a backstory.

Like Dalfonzo, Fleming believes the key to the film's success is that Sim portrays Scrooge as someone who is "not so much different than a lot of people we deal with all the time — maybe not much different than who we might be."

A memorable experience on set

Most of the cast of this holiday favourite is gone now — but not Teresa Cozens-Hardy.

British actor Teresa Cozens-Hardy, who was 20 at the time, played 'Fred's maid' in the 1951 film.

Fans of the film may remember "Fred's maid," the character who, with a nod and a smile, encouraged the apprehensive miser near the end of the movie to walk through the doors of his nephew's home and continue on his path of redemption.

Cozens-Hardy was 20 at the time she played the role. She speaks no lines and appears on the screen for less than a minute. She was paid about six pounds a day for three days of work; it was her second and last film.

Now 87, Cozens-Hardy has fond memories of the experience, although she also remembers being barked at by the director.

"[Hurst] wasn't very nice. He was quite rude to me," Cozens-Hardy said in a phone interview with CBC from Chester, England. "'Smile at him!,' he kept shouting at me. He hadn't given me any instruction."

Nonetheless, Cozens-Hardy said she "enjoyed" working on the film, even though she was "stuck in my dressing room for most of the time."

In a surprising twist, no one in the small community she now lives in knows the part she played in a Christmas classic — or even seems all that interested in the film.

"Nobody around here cares about it at all," Cozens-Hardy says, laughing. "It's amazing."