Edison, 1910. Director: J. Searle Dawley. Cast: Marc MacDermott, Charles Ogle, William Bechtel, Carey Lee, Viola Dana, Shirley Mason.
Every December a familiar host of “Christmas films”—classic films that celebrate the warmth and joy of the season—are dusted off and presented again, in a beloved holiday ritual as eagerly anticipated as carols and decorations. Like most film enthusiasts, I’m always happy to renew my acquaintance with the universal favorites like The Bishop’s Wife and Miracle on 34th Street (not to mention Remember the Night, which has catapulted to new status as a cult favorite just within the last few years). But of course there are many other, lesser-known films that fit into the same category, and searching them out can be a rewarding pursuit in its own right.
Movie adaptations of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol might almost qualify as a separate genre in their own right, so numerous are they. There again, a handful of cinematic Carols have become established as particular favorites, and their stars, Seymour Hicks, Reginald Owen, and Alastair Sim, have become celebrated Scrooges. But the many other adaptations of Dickens’ story, especially the early ones, will also reward a closer look. This Edison version of 1910, having been shown as part of the Dickens retrospective at the 2012 Giornate del Cinema Muto and also being available on DVD , is a good example.
One of the most striking things about the Edison Christmas Carol is how effectively it conveys the story, within the tight limits of a one-reel film. Highly compressed film versions of literary classics were of course a familiar convention in 1910; Dickens, Hugo, and other long-winded authors were regularly condensed into one-reel packages according to current exhibition practice. But in many cases, that compression took its toll on the film’s storytelling; many literary adaptations relied on the audience’s familiarity with the source novel and illustrated scenes from the original, rather than actually trying to retell the story. A Christmas Carol, admittedly based on one of Dickens’ shorter works, is compressed (and that compression is reinforced in the DVD transfer, which gallops along at a projection rate far more rapid than the 16 fps recommended for this title), but, all things considered, it is strikingly self-contained and relates Dickens’ plot clearly and engagingly, with a fine, dark sense of atmosphere.
The condensation itself is accomplished by means of creative devices. Here the three Spirits who visit Scrooge are conflated into a single, all-purpose “Spirit of Christmas” who guides the hapless Scrooge through scenes of past, present, and future. The film’s ending dispenses with Dickens’ coda on the day after Christmas: here Scrooge visits the Cratchits’ home on Christmas Day, accompanied by his nephew and the nephew’s fiancée, and effects a quick wrapup ending that conveys the spirit of the tale, if not the details. The film manages the plot so adroitly that, as Michael Eaton pointed out in his excellent program note for the Giornate showing, it manages to make room for some of Dickens’ social commentary: a quick glimpse of “Want and Misery” during the visions of Christmas Present. In fact, this film ventures a modest creative departure of its own: Scrooge’s nephew—who is already married at the beginning of Dickens’ original—is here prevented by his lack of finances from marrying the girl of his choice, a difficulty that Scrooge rectifies after his reformation.
Charles Ogle, who had appeared as Frankenstein’s monster in the legendary Edison version of Frankenstein earlier in 1910, is seen here as Bob Cratchit. Better eyes than mine have identified the young sisters Viola and Leonie Flugrath, who would later become famous as Viola Dana and Shirley Mason, as two of the Cratchit children. And the Scrooge in this Carol is Marc MacDermott, a hard-working member of Edison’s stock company. MacDermott would in fact continue his distinguished career throughout the silent years, but during this early period he was particularly busy at Edison, appearing in a wide range of roles.
With its many ghostly comings and goings, A Christmas Carol has been a ripe vehicle for special camera effects in all its film versions. The Edison company, characteristically, delivers handsomely on visual effects in this 1910 edition: the ghostly spirits and visions are pictured by means of superimposition. Perhaps most impressive in this regard are Scrooge’s visions of Christmas past, present, and future. Each of these complicated shots requires multiple layers of exposures: first Scrooge alone in his rooms, then a double exposure for the “Spirit of Christmas” who invokes the vision, then the superimposed vision itself, staged in an area which is otherwise occupied by Scrooge’s bed or fireplace in the original shot. MacDermott interacts with unseen actors in each of these superimposed takes, some of which feature MacDermott himself in “younger” makeup, representing an earlier period in Scrooge’s life. In 1910, of course, director J. Searle Dawley and his unidentified cameraman were obliged to construct these elaborate combinations in the camera, shooting one part of the scene and then winding the film back to exactly the same starting point to overlay the next element on the same piece of film—an intricate exercise in staging, masking, and timing. Once or twice the timing goes awry—Scrooge can be seen reacting to something that hasn’t occurred yet—but, all in all, the effect is beautifully pulled off and quite satisfying. And all in all, for the early-cinema devotee, the Edison Christmas Carol is well worth a return visit each December, a welcome delicacy of the season.