A Christmas Carol (1938 film)

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A Christmas Carol
CCPoster art-1938.jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Edwin L. Marin
Produced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Screenplay by Hugo Butler
Based on A Christmas Carol 
by Charles Dickens
Starring Reginald Owen
Gene Lockhart
Kathleen Lockhart
Terry Kilburn
Barry MacKay
Music by Franz Waxman
Cinematography Sidney Wagner
John F. Seitz
Edited by George Boemler
Distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release dates
  • December 16, 1938 (1938-12-16)
Running time
69 minutes
Country United States
Language English

A Christmas Carol is a 1938 American film adaptation of Charles Dickens's 1843 novelette A Christmas Carol, about Ebenezer Scrooge (Reginald Owen), an elderly miser, who learns the error of his ways on Christmas Eve after visitations by four spirits, prompting a radical change in his personality on Christmas morning.[1]

Plot summary[edit]

The film opens on Christmas Eve in early Victorian London where Fred (Barry Mackay) arrives at the counting-house of his maternal uncle, Ebenezer Scrooge (Reginald Owen). Despite being invited to dine with his nephew the next day, Scrooge refuses. He then turns away two men who are collecting money for the poor, instead supporting the prisons and workhouses. That night Scrooge allows his clerk Bob Cratchit (Gene Lockhart) the next day off with pay but orders him back all the earlier the day after. After Bob accidentally knocks Scrooge's hat off with a snowball Scrooge sacks him on the spot, and deducts him a shilling. Bob spends the last of his wages on food for his family's Christmas dinner.

At home Scrooge is confronted by the ghost of his seven-years-deceased partner, Jacob Marley (Leo G.Carroll), who in his life, was also mean and greedy and as a result, his spirit is forced to carry a chain as a reminder of all the deeds he did in his life instead of helping others as well as not getting to rest in peace. He tells Scrooge he will be haunted by three spirits and is to expect the first at one in the morning.

As Marley warned the Ghost of Christmas Past (Ann Rutherford) shows Scrooge his youthful years. Scrooge is shown when he was left to spend the holidays alone at school until his sister, Fan, came to take him home for Christmas. Fan would die years after her son Fred was born. Scrooge is then shown when he worked for Fezziwig before he became obsessed with money and profit (which Scrooge refuses to witness).

The second spirit the Ghost of Christmas Present (Lionel Braham) shows Scrooge how others keep Christmas. At a church service the spirit predicts that Fred may not be able to marry his fiancée, Bess, (Lynn Carver) as despite not living in poverty Fred simply hasn't the money to pay for the wedding and their love may end (just how Scrooge lost his unnamed fiancée in his youth). Scrooge is shown Bob dining with his family. Despite being happy Bob is deep down still crestfallen he lost his job (though nobody except Martha knows this). The spirit then hints that Bob's youngest son, Timothy "Tiny Tim" (Terry Kilburn), will die of his unknown illness if the future does not change.

The final spirit the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (D'arcy Corrigan) shows Scrooge what will happen if he does not change. Scrooge discovers Tiny Tim is dead and his family mourn for him. Scrooge also discovers the dead man some other men spoke of and was on the bed was himself after seeing his gravestone. Scrooge promises to repent and returns home.

Back home Scrooge now a changed man orders a boy to buy a turkey for him and decides to take it to the Cratchits. Scrooge gives a donation to the same two men and makes Fred his new partner. He then goes to the Cratchit house where he rehires Bob and increases his wages and ends the film wishing everyone a "Merry Christmas".



Made by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and originally intended to star Lionel Barrymore (who played the role of Scrooge annually on radio but was forced to drop out of the film because of his arthritis, though he narrated its trailer), the movie starred Reginald Owen as Scrooge and the married couple Gene and Kathleen Lockhart as the Cratchits. Terry Kilburn, better known for his portrayal of Colley in Goodbye, Mr. Chips, costarred as Tiny Tim and a young June Lockhart (Gene and Kathleen's daughter) appeared as one of the Cratchit daughters. Leo G. Carroll played Marley's Ghost. The characters of Fred (Scrooge's nephew), and Elizabeth, his fianceé (his wife in the novelette), were greatly expanded in order to work in a romantic angle to the story that Dickens did not intend. The couple was played by Barry MacKay and Lynne Carver. Ann Rutherford, better known as Polly Benedict in the Andy Hardy films and as Carreen O'Hara in Gone with the Wind, was a young and attractive Ghost of Christmas Past, rather than the somewhat unusual creation that Dickens described. The music for the film was composed by Franz Waxman, in contrast to most MGM films of the period, whose scores were composed by Herbert Stothart.

Some of the grimmer aspects of the story went completely unmentioned or unseen, in order to make this a "family film" in the style of other MGM literary adaptations, and also to accommodate a 69-minute run time. Although Marley's Ghost did appear, the phantoms wailing outside Scrooge's window were not shown. Scrooge's fiancee, who eventually leaves him because of his miserly ways, was completely dropped from the film, as were the two starving children "Want" and "Ignorance", who hid within the folds of the Ghost of Christmas Present's robe. Also gone were the thieves who ransack Scrooge's belongings after he "dies" in the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come segment. While Gene Lockhart's performance as Bob Cratchit is admired, he is often criticized for looking too "well-fed" for the role. In this production, unlike Dickens' original story, Scrooge actually fires Cratchit rather than just threatening to do so. Interestingly, unlike other portrayals on film, and in spite of Cratchit's job termination, the Cratchits' Christmas Eve dinner is fairly bountiful.

One of the changes made in this film that differs from the novel is the arrival of the ghosts. While the first still arrives at 1:00, the second appears at 2:00 and the third appears at 3:00. In the original novel, the second appears the next night at 1:00 and the third appears the next night when the last stroke of 12:00 has ceased to vibrate. This change was also used in other versions such as Scrooge (1970), Mickey's Christmas Carol (1983), and A Christmas Carol (1984), and many others.

Theatrical release[edit]

Originally intended as a 1939 release, A Christmas Carol was immediately rushed into production in October 1938 and was finished in a matter of weeks. It opened in December 1938 at New York City's Radio City Music Hall where it did moderately well. One of many adaptations of the work, it was frequently revived in theaters by MGM.

Television broadcast[edit]

The film was shown on local television stations in the United States throughout the 1960s and '70s, and was a staple of Chicago's WGN television's Family Classics. It also became a Christmas Eve tradition when it was telecast annually on WCBS-TV Channel 2 as part of their Late Late Show installment beginning in the early 1960s. By the early 1970s, WCBS-TV had acquired the 1951 film version and at that time ran both versions back to back. The MGM version would move to WNEW-TV, while the 1951 version had already moved back to WOR-TV (which first telecast it in the U.S.) in 1975. It ran in syndication throughout the United States from the 1960s to the 1990s until the advent of Cable Television. Since the late 1990s the MGM version has been almost exclusively broadcast on the Turner Classic Movies cable network, airing several times during December. In Los Angeles, this film aired on KTLA-TV while the 1951 version aired on KTTV. In later years, KTTV, today co-owned with FXM which holds the U.S. TV rights to the 1951 version, aired both versions of A Christmas Carol, especially after the 1938 version was colorized (the 1951 version was likewise colorized in the late 1980s), while KCOP, today sister to KTTV, aired the 1970 version.

For years the 1938 movie remained the most famous film version of the story in the United States, but its popularity was eventually eclipsed by Scrooge, the 1951 film, after that version began to receive wide television exposure starting in 1970. This may be due in part by those who have found Reginald Owen's portrayal of Scrooge to be lacking, especially in comparison to later ones which are deemed more faithful to the original story.[2]

Home media releases[edit]

In 1988, MGM/UA Home Video and Turner Entertainment released A Christmas Carol on VHS celebrating its 50th anniversary, for the first time in a colorized version. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter in 1988 promoting the film's release on home video, actress June Lockhart admitted that, despite the film being made by MGM, it was "a 'B' picture". The colorized version was released once again on VHS by Warner Home Video in 2000. On November 8, 2005, the black and white version was released on DVD in a "Classic Holiday Collection" box set including Boys Town and Christmas in Connecticut, two other MGM titles with a holiday/family theme; it was also released as an individual title. Since its first DVD release, it has seen multiple releases in various Christmas movie collection box sets. A Blu-ray version was released in November 2014.


While uncredited, June Lockhart made her screen debut playing Belinda Cratchit.[3][4]

See also[edit]



  • Guida, Fred. "A Christmas Carol" and Its Adaptations (Publisher: McFarland & Company; New Edition, August 2, 2006)

External links[edit]