I have written before about Dickens’ marvelous story. It is time to write about Sim’s marvelous performance.
Perhaps a cable TV channel will show Sim’s version of A Christmas Carol. If not, watch it here. Watch it — not just for old time’s sake, but because everyone needs to remind himself that good things happen, but they must start from within.
That is also the message of that other Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life.
In both movies, the bad guy is a money-lender. In both movies, the crucial agents of transforming self-awareness are supernatural. This is also true in the second-tier Christmas film, The Bishop’s Wife. If the range of angels really is from Henry Travers’ Clarence to Cary Grant’s Dudley, then there is a bell-shaped curve in heaven, too. (As an aside, Carol Kane’s ghost of Christmas present set the standard in Scrooged. Her winged angel is surely at the far end of the bell-shaped curve for angels.)
I can remember where I first saw the film. I sat alone in a theater in 1951. My parents rarely took me to the movies, but they let me go, and in 1951, I went a lot. We had moved to Denver that year, and there was no television in Denver yet. I was nine years old. I had become a TV addict, beginning in 1949. We had TV in Los Angeles. So, I had learned the delights of moving shadows on a screen. I used movies as a kind of artistic methadone in 1951. Movies reduced the withdrawal symptoms.
That same year, I had been captivated by José Ferrer, Ferrer’s portrayal of Cyrano. I went back to see it several times. The year closed with Sim’s Scrooge. My standards for acting were set by those two films. Ferrer won the Oscar. Sim was not mentioned. But Sim’s performance is the greatest in any Christmas movie, so it endures and will endure.
What makes Sim’s portrayal so memorable is his ability to move before our eyes from seemingly inveterate spiritual darkness through regret to sympathy to fear to redemption. He becomes a changed man. Sim’s portrayal of this transformation is believable. We do not perceive that we are watching a masterful performance. We are watching a man go from darkness to light.
Scrooge is a man who is driven by economic concerns. These concerns have consumed him. Yet there is deliverance. His environment does not change overnight. His self-awareness does.
What is striking in the story but especially on the screen is the degree to which the environment does not change. This setting is the heart of the story. His economic environment on the day before Christmas is just like the day after Christmas. But Scrooge is not the same. Personal redemption takes place within the context of economic continuity. The economy does not change. Scrooge changes.
I know of no example in popular literature that is more hostile to Marxism’s economic determinism than this story. Published in the same year (1843) that Moses Hess converted both Marx and Engels to communism, A Christmas Carol reminds us that it is not the economic mode of production that serves as the substructure of society, with religion, art, culture, and philosophy as the superstructure built on top. It is the other way around. Men change dramatically. Environments change slowly.
Year after year, Scrooge’s nephew invites him to a Christmas dinner: continuity. Year after year, he declines: continuity. Then he shows up: discontinuity. Why? A greater discontinuity. A revolution. But not a social revolution.
If Marx and Engels had been converted by Charles Dickens rather than Moses Hess, our world would be a very different place. There would have been no Lenin and therefore no Hitler. There would have been no Mao.
Both men had celebrated Christmas in their youth. Both went through a two-stage conversion: first to materialism (Feuerbach), then to communism (Hess). This produced a series of political revolutions that changed the world. The superstructure was a pair of very bad ideas.
Continuity prevails, 1843-2011. No cable station will be showing Reds this weekend.
There is no Christmas carol in the story. No one sings a song of the birth of Christ. Yet Dickens saw the story as having the major function of a Christmas carol. It is a song of an overnight transformation. It is a secular Christmas carol.
Scrooge is transformed in his cotton nightshirt. He sees representative days of Christmas past, present, and future as an onlooker in a nightshirt. A nightshirt was a mark of wealth in 1843. Not many people in the world could afford a nightshirt. We do not think of this when we see the movie. In 1823, an American poem, A Visit from St. Nicholas, had described the wealth:
‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled down for a long winter’s nap,
A cheap cotton nightcap was the product of the Industrial revolution. By 1823, this wealth was becoming visible. It affected Christmas. It made Christmas celebrations more bountiful. It lowered the cost of celebrating . . . and everything else.
Sim does not let us forget the magnitude of the transformation. There was never a greater master of the scowl. The scene in the restaurant where he will not pay for another piece of bread has been etched into my mind for 60 years. The contrast between that scowl and his leaping up and down the next morning could not be greater. “I’m as giddy as a drunken man.”
(This scene has so infused me with the Christmas spirit that I have decided not to curse the churl who colorized it. Merry Christmas, you humbug. But I am not going to wish you a happy New Year. There are limits.)
This emotional contrast is why Sim’s portrayal set the standard for the role.
If you have ever seen George C. Scott’s performance, you see the extent to which Sim set the standard. The scene where Scott calls out the window to the boy, to get him to go buy a turkey, is a knock-off of Sim’s performance. Scott was no artistic thief. But in this case, he just could not improve on the scene.
This role was Sim’s greatest. I loved him in The Green Man — the most delightful comedy portrayal of a paid assassin that I have ever seen. But Sim is Scrooge. I think he will still be Scrooge in a hundred years.