A Christmas Carol (1910)
I don’t know for certain whether this was the first adaptation of Charles Dickens’s classic tale to the screen, but certainly it is the oldest I’ve seen. It wouldn’t surprise me if a British filmmaker had beaten the Americans to the punch, but this version is directed for Edison by J. Searle Dawley, the same man who brought us “Frankenstein” in the same year and directed D.W. Griffith’s performance in “Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest.”
Marc McDermott chews the scenery as Ebenezer Scrooge, a tight-fisted miser without a friend in the world. We see him berate Bob Cratchit (played by Charles Ogle) at his office before he rudely receives and then turns out petitioners from a charitable society and his own nephew. He yells at Cratchit for leaving early on Christmas Eve, then goes home himself. He is confronted by the transparent face of the deceased Jacob Marley on his door knocker. Then, as he prepares for bed Marley comes to warn him that he needs to change his ways or be condemned, as he is. The “Spirit of Christmas” (singular) shows him images of his past, present, and likely future. The images of the past are quite detailed and show a young Scrooge in happier times, the present is limited to images of Cratchit’s family and his nephew’s party, and the future shows him a tombstone which reads: “Ebenezer Scrooge, He Lived and Died Without a Friend.” Scrooge awakes the next morning to children caroling at his doorstep and throws money at them. He meets the charitable society people and hands them bills. He goes to find his nephew and makes him his business partner. And he brings him and his fiancé over to Bob Cratchit’s, where he pretends to be furious, then surprises the family with a huge goose. Scrooge and nephew are invited to dinner and everyone is happy.
Like many movies of this period, the success of this one largely depends upon one’s familiarity with the story. Fortunately this story is as familiar today (especially after its many screen versions) as it was then. I thought McDermott did a great job of conveying the necessary emotions: meanness at the beginning, then fear and remorse, followed by the jolly pranksterism of his reformed self. We never got to hear, or read in Intertitles, his famous “Bah, humbug” line, but he makes up for it by curtly dismissing his visitors with a bow. At times, it looks like he might hit poor Cratchit with his cane, he’s so furious about him leaving early on Christmas Eve. We do see Tiny Tim, but only briefly. We see him limping with a crutch, but there isn’t much emphasis on him as a point of interest for Scrooge or Cratchit. We only get one ghost, but at least all aspects of the story are retained in the short run time.
The ghostly effects are probably the part of this movie that interest most viewers today (and possibly at the time as well). They are accomplished through multiple-exposure, and required fairly precise editing and staging techniques to work. Still, for 1910 they are hardly innovative; Georges Méliès had done for more complex multiple exposures well before this. They do work well enough for the story, however. The other question they raise is whether I should count this as part of my history of horror, always a tricky question in terms of this story, which is both warm hearted and filled with horrific imagery. Because fright plays such a major role in the story arc (it’s the whole reason for Scrooge’s change), I’m labeling it as such.
Director: J. Searle Dawley
Run Time: 10 Min
You can watch it for free: here (no music).