Saturday, 16 February 2013

A Christmas Carol [1914]

Director: Harold Shaw
Year of release: 1914
Country: UK
Reviewed from: UK festival screening (British Silent Cinema Weekend 2001)

Not the first version of Dickens’ classic, but certainly one of the earliest which still survives in a viewable print, this is a terrific one-reeler which combines all that’s best about silent cinema with the real spirit of Dickens’ story.

The plot is, perforce, heavily condensed, but then it was never the most complicated story in the first place: Scrooge is a miser; Marley’s ghost visits him, followed by the three spirits of Christmas who show him visions of what was, is and may yet be; Scrooge repents his miserly ways; the end. Perfect for a 15-minute silent film.

What really impresses here are the effects - double exposure ghosts as good as anything being done fifty or sixty year later. Not just a novelty, hoping to impress audiences by their existence, they are seamlessly integrated with the main action and must have amazed audiences back in 1914. Cinema advanced quickly in its early days. This was made only 20 years after the Lumieres were screening their train station film in the Cafe de Paris, yet already all the basics of plot, pacing and cinematography are there.

To those for whom A Christmas Carol means singing and dancing and jokes, it’s worth remembering that it is a ghost story and supposed to be creepy, which this film undoubtedly is, even 86 years later. Although one might think that British audiences in 1914 would have wanted something to cheer them up, in fact what they wanted was a traditional Christmas ghost story with a strong moral message - and that’s what they got.

Various lists of Christmas Carol film adaptations exist around the web and most don’t even mention this film, directed in the UK at Twickenham Studios by American ex-pat Harold Shaw, formerly a director for the Edison Company. (Shaw made a version of Trilby the same year which seems to be much better known.) Sadly, unless the BFI digs out this print for another festival, it’s likely to remain unseen (though hopefully not for another 85 years...).

MJS rating: A-
review originally posted before November 2004

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