We’ve looked at the worst Christmas movies and the most underrated. This week, with the day in question almost upon us, I’ll keep it simple: What is the best Christmas movie ever made? One you can fire up on the DVD player at Easter time, if you like, or in the dog days of the summer, and not feel like you’ve dislodged yourself from the holiday space-time continuum?
Even good Christmas movies tend to be so resolutely of their season that a TCM showing of, say, Christmas in Connecticut in late February can make you wonder if you pulled a Rip Van Winkle and missed a few months. But there is one that I can watch at any time of year, confident that the experience will be just as potent as it is this week, with the candles in the window, the frost on the lawn, and a glass of eggnog by my side. Just as the Ghost of Christmas Past advised Ebenezer Scrooge to come and know him better, I’d advise anyone who’s not seen it to come and know the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol, the king of holiday films.
There have, of course, been many versions of the Dickens classic. The role of everybody’s favorite miser has proven especially malleable, with everyone from Mr. Magoo to Albert Finney to George C. Scott putting in solid performances. For a long time, the 1938 version, starring Reginald Owen, was the one most familiar to holiday viewers. It’s a genteel, big-studio production piece, crammed with scenery—and very much of its time. The same cannot be said for the ’51 iteration, with Alastair Sim fashioning the role of his life. Watching it feels less to me like watching a movie, and more like standing before some kind of magic visual portal, one that could have existed in the actual Victorian age (when our story takes place), with the assistance of a few haunts.
Sim’s Scrooge is, naturally, a prig and then some, but with a morbid, cutting humor that may cause you to gag on your hot toddy a time or two. As a mid-century British production—it was called Scrooge in the U.K.—the mise-en-scène is threadbare at times, but it feels fitting that Scrooge’s everyday surroundings mirror the few mean sticks of his heart. And what a joy it is when Scrooge’s world becomes positively verdant as a most wispy Ghost of Christmas Past escorts him back to his youth. You get to see the definitive Fezziwig party scene (with some rough-and-ready dancing)—and, in a singular turn, Fezziwig’s own story is continued: We watch a young-adult Scrooge partner up with Jacob Marley, as the two unleash themselves upon the businessmen of Olde London.
The film’s ability to stray from the strict contours of the season help to make it evergreen viewing, but the movie also takes the best aspects of Christmas—fellowship, sacrifice, a moment’s self-awareness—and extends them well past the holiday. Sim’s Scrooge, by the end, is so fully transformed that, for the first and only time, you really believe that transformation has less to do with a particular holiday than with a genuinely shared humanity, equally in place on May 1 as it is on December 25. And for any Christmas-movie miser wanting a special challenge, see if you can resist the scene where Scrooge pays a call to his nephew Fred, approaches Fred’s wife, and attempts to dance.
To paraphrase someone else from another seasonal film: I double-dog dare you to watch this one and not have it shoot to the top of your list of all-time favorite movies, Christmas-related or otherwise. Kick up those heels, Fezziwig!