No, not the Travolta movie with the face transplant, but a new format where I take two similar films and review them side by side to discover which one is better.
The methodology, like a boxing match, is based on rounds scored on a 10 point system. To illustrate: a score of 5-5 indicates a tie; 6-4 is a slight advantage; 10-0 a real butt kicking. Of course, these films won’t really be duking it out for our viewing pleasure so the “rounds” will consist of categories with some tailored specifically to the movies in question. You’ll see how it works below.
Since it’s the Christmas season, there can be only one choice of films to review. Charles Dicken’s A CHRISTMAS STORY is undoubtedly the most well-known ghost story in the English language. It’s also one of the most popular subjects for film adaptation, being made I don’t know how many times (but it’s a lot). The two versions considered here are the Reginald Owen (1938) version and the Alastair Sim (1951; originally titled SCROOGE).
Screenplay. The Sim version has the advantage of clocking in at 86 minutes, while the Owen’s is 70. But do they use the extra time to good advantage? The answer is a resounding yes. Even at its slim running time, V:O wastes a lot of film on silly and basically unessential scenes with snow ball fights and kids (and adults) sliding on sidewalks. V:S uses its extra minutes to flesh out Scrooge’s back story, adding to our understanding of the character. V:O also is often too cute for its own good; V:S, while a little edgier is by no means a dark film, but the added bite is appropriate and satisfying. Edge to V:S, 7/3.
Scrooge-Off. The single most vital element necessary for the success of this film is a believable (both in bad and redeemed versions) Scrooge, who, if you’re just in from Mars, is a miserable old miser in desperate need of redemption. Reginald Owen is a genial old duffer, a long-time British born character actor. He plays Scrooge with a not entirely convincing bald wig and moves in a hunched-over, kind of crab-like fashion thereby, I guess, revealing his inner meanness. He also gets converted from the Dark Side much too easily. One visit from the Ghost of Christmas past and he’s babbling about how much he loves Christmas. Sim is a much more accomplished actor. His bad-Scrooge is more sinister, his good-Scrooge is initially almost as frightening in his giddy state of redemption. Edge to V:S, 7/3
Best Tiny Tim: Tim is the second most important character as he serves as a focus for the film’s pathos. I won’t mention the V:O character’s name (because the director must take a lot of the blame for his performance) but the kid is downright creepy. He over-acts atrociously (more later) and he’s ungodly big for Tiny Tim. He looks like some sort of ape parasite when he perches on Bob Cratchit’s shoulder. The kid in V:S is smaller, a tad cuter, and much more in control. He doesn’t ACT. He just acts. Big win for V:S, 9/1 [I would be remiss here if I didn’t mention the best Tiny Tim, ever, the robot Tinny Tim on FUTURAMA.]
Supporting Cast: V;O has a bunch of people you’ve never heard of, Gene Lockhart (who does a decent Bob Cratchit, but plays him as too feckless and rather immature), his daughter June (of LASSIE and LOST IN SPACE) as one of the kid actors who screech and giggle and screw-up their faces a lot, and Leo G. Carroll (Mr. Waverly himself) as Marley, Scrooge’s sidekick, who does well with the little he’s given. V:S has Michael Hordern who is excellent in an expanded Marley role, a very young Patrick Macnee (John Steed), and Ernest Thesiger (Dr. Praetorius) as the way creepy undertaker. Others also excel in minor roles (more later). V:S, 7/3
Ghosts of Christmas: The three spirits who visit Scrooge on Christmas Eve are remarkably similar in their looks (except for the first pair) and roles. 5/5
Pathos Meter: We’re all supposed to cry when we see Tiny Tim’s abandoned crutch by the side of the fireplace. This was probably the best scene in V:O and it was also well done in V:S. But V:S offers us more. There’s the death scene of Scrooge’s beloved sister Fan; Scrooge’s aged lost love working among the poor; and, finally a most extraordinary scene where a maid meets Scrooge at the door of his nephew Fred’s house and silently encourages him to join the revelry when he seems ready to bolt. It may be the most effective scene in a very effective movie. The actress is uncredited and there’s a four year long thread at IMDB trying to track down who she is. V:S, 7/3
Most Terrifying Scene: V:O is quite light on terror. To my mind, the most disturbing scenes are Tiny Tim stroking the corpse of the goose they’re going to cook for dinner, and then the crazed, slavering expression on his face when the bird’s actually served. Haunting. V:S isn’t terribly frightening either, though Sim plays Scrooge darker, the sets are grimmer and more realistic, and more suffering of the general populous is shown. One scene does stand out, when Christmas Present opens his cloak and shows two gaunt, hollowed-eyed children crouched at his feet, personifying Ignorance and Want. Amazing for it’s very unexpectedness. V:S, 6/4
Well, I could go on, but it seems a pretty foregone conclusion. Toting up the count I see that the Sim version takes six rounds, with one tied, ultimately pummeling the Owen version 48 to 22, a score illustrative of my rating scale of 8+ for Sim, 6+ for Owen.
What’s the score on your card?
Happy Holidays To All!