Alastair Sim as ScroogeAlastair Sim as Scrooge
If I’m going to watch a holiday movie, I generally avoid the classics. It’s a Wonderful Life, while excellently done and wonderfully touching, is a victim of its own popularity and thus seems overly sentimental during the holiday season. I do have children, of course, so a viewing of Elf is standard fare, but Will Ferrell and company work as much against the genre as they do for it, resulting in a genuinely funny film that is almost good for year-round viewing. Christmas movies are possibly the hardest genre to attempt; there are only so many themes available for the filmmaker. So imagine my surprise when I was recently introduced to a classic holiday film, one that works outside of traditional convention by remaining true to the source material. Filmmaker and Chattanooga Film Society member Daniel Griffith examines the dark undertones of 1951’s A Christmas Carol in his special feature documentaries included on the 60th anniversary release of the film.
Ballyhoo Motion Pictures, Griffith’s one-man production company, appears to revel in the obscure. He makes his living creating special features for DVD releases of some of the strangest films in history. His documentaries include films like The Beast of Yucca Flats and Dark Night of the Scarecrow, as well as some of the notoriously laughable horror films that have been featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000.
“I guess what attracts me to obscure ‘cult’ films is that they are often labeled or misunderstood,” Griffith says. “I found that very few documentarians would step up to the plate and seriously give these productions the benefit of the doubt.” As a filmmaker who has struggled (and film-history fanatic), these not-quite-classic cult films endlessly fascinate him. “I often discover that the filmmakers were operating under duress from the producers or under budgetary strains that were beyond their control,” Griffith says. “The fact is, they did the best they could with what they had, and I respect that.” But this respect for impassioned filmmaking isn’t the only draw. Griffith hopes to preserve film history. “I personally love documentaries, especially those delving into subjects such as the supernatural,” Griffith says. “I also love film history. So, by fusing these elements together, I could visually explore historical subjects that I felt were in danger of being lost to the ages.”
While there is little danger of A Christmas Carol being lost to the ages, the film is as curious a creation as anything Ballyhoo Motion Pictures has investigated. Starring Alastair Sim, the film is moody and ethereal, full of wide corridors, empty streets, and deep shadows. The title screens are set to bombastic orchestral brass, music that fits a gothic horror film more than the prototypical Christmas standard. What I enjoyed most about the film was the commitment to the original themes of the Dickens story. Dickens wasn’t writing about the redemptive powers of Christmas as much as he is exploring the consequences of human selfishness. It is a ghost story, a cautionary tale, a commentary on Victorian mores. Director Brian Desmond Hurst’s vision focuses on the suffering that exists in alleyways and the fate of those that ignore it.
In the special feature documentary Dead to Begin With, British film historian and culturalist Sir Christopher Frayling examines the relationship between the film and the parallels found in 1950s British society. The ’50s marked the beginning of the welfare state in Great Britain, a shift in public policy towards alleviating the suffering of the downtrodden underclass. Hurst was keenly aware of his subject matter and subtly referenced the changes surrounding him in small ways, like the personification of want and ignorance under the folds of robes of the Ghost of Christmas Present.
The documentary allows Frayling to tell the story, without interjecting or guiding, which enhances the understanding of the film and the time period. The best documentaries are the ones that allow experts to shine. One of the more interesting facts revealed in the documentary is that Alastair Sim was known as a comic actor, one with especially great timing and poise. When I was watching the film, I frequently laughed at his delivery of certain lines; Sim’s characterization of Scrooge was wonderfully sardonic, full of bitter wit and acid. His joyful conversion at the end of the film was even more striking given where the character began. It was a conscious choice by a veteran actor.
Griffith believes that this is a film that “[yearns] for rediscovery.” I tend to agree. I discovered it for the first time and may rediscover it on a yearly basis. Maybe you’ll see this version on late-night cable sometime this season. If you do, you should watch it. But it won’t have the story behind the film. It won’t have the passion for the obscure that Daniel Griffith pours into every documentary he does. If you like the film, pick up the 60th anniversary edition. Not only will you gain insight into the minds of the filmmakers, you’ll be supporting a Chattanooga native pursuing his art. You can’t lose.
A Christmas Carol: 60th Anniversary Diamond Edition
Two-disc set; $14.99