Friday, December 24, 2010

Edison's "A Christmas Carol" (1910)

Produced in 1910, the Edison company’s version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is one of the earliest adaptations of the classic holiday story, and demonstrates a high degree of production values, particularly in its use of double exposure to present the visions of Christmases past, present and yet to come. It was directed by J. Searle Dawley, one of the finest filmmakers working for Edison during this period (along with men like Wallace McCutcheon and John Collins). Marc McDermott turns in a very effective performance as Scrooge, predating Sir Seymour Hicks, Reginald Owen, Alistair Sim, Albert Finney, George C. Scott, Michael Caine, Kelsey Grammer and countless other screen Scrooges. He captures the character transformation remarkably well considering how heavily condensed this version of the story is. Charles Ogle, a staple of the Edison company during this period who would later turn in supporting performances in Paramount’s The Covered Wagon and The Ten Commandments (both 1923), does the most he can with his performance as Bob Cratchit, who only appears briefly in the beginning of the film, and then again in a flashback, before the final Christmas dinner sequence. Viola Dana, then a child actress with the Edison company, is also in the cast.

The events of the story are heavily condensed into the ten minutes’ running time, reflective of the way in which narrative films, even as late as 1910, continued to offer viewers a series of familiar tableaux from stories they would have already been familiar with from other media (either literary or theatrical sources, most often). From a narrative standpoint, there is little in the film that couldn’t have been done in 1903, when Edwin S. Porter was first expanding film narratives through the possibilities of editing. This is most evident in the cutaway shots to the carolers outside of Scrooge’s window.

The film opens as Scrooge is receiving “an appeal from the Charity Relief Committee”. The three men from the committee enter Scrooge’s office and are promptly turned away. Next, his nephew comes to wish him a merry Christmas, and is ordered out. Returning home that night, the face of his deceased business partner, Jacob Marley, appears superimposed over the front of his door. Marley’s ghost appears, warning Scrooge of “punishment hereafter unless he comes a different man”. The Spirit of Christmas appears, showing Scrooge his own youthful merrymaking; the family dinner of his employee Bob Cratchit, who offers “a toast to all the world – even Scrooge”; and finally, a frightening vision of his own death. He pleads with the spirit to allow him to change his ways. Awakening in his room, Scrooge is shaken, but is overjoyed to realize there’s still time to change his ways. He tosses a few shillings to some carolers outside his window, offers a generous donation to the members of the Charity Relief committee, gives his nephew his blessing for his forthcoming marriage, and finally, surprises the Cratchit family with a goose for Christmas dinner.

The Edison films of the latter half of the 1900s (particularly after Griffith’s directorial debut at Biograph) are too frequently criticized for their “primitive” or “stagy” qualities. Perhaps because Dickens’ story lends itself well to theatrical adaptation, the “proscenium framing” of this film does not cause it to suffer for a lack of cinematic flourish. The trick photography, including the superimposition of Marley’s face over Scrooge’s door, Marley’s Ghost and the Christmas Spirit, and of course the different visions of Christmas, all make effective use of double exposure. These effects are all the more remarkable for having been achieved in-camera, before the advent of optical printing. Dickens’ timeless tale is so moving, so essential to the spirit of Christmas, that even in this heavily abridged version, one cannot help being moved by Scrooge’s transformation, and the eagerness of those close to him to accept him and celebrate in his newfound joy.