Silent Movie Review: “A Christmas Carol” (Edison Studios, Jolly Jinglings Special)

Welcome back to Jolly Jinglings, The Splintering’s month-long celebration of all things humbug.

Today we’re bringing you another Silent Film Review, this time taking a look at A Christmas Carol produced by Edison Studios (Yes – that Edison) and released on Christmas Day, 1910. Directed by J. Searle Dawley, this was the second known surviving film adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic 1843 novella (after the 1901 British production Scrooge – aka Marley’s Ghost), but the first version produced by an American studio – so the first one that counts.

Marc McDermott assumes the role of Ebenezer Scrooge, a miserly old businessman who rediscovers the spirit of Christmas and his love for his fellow man following a visit by three Christmas ghosts: Past, Present and Future. 

It’s a story that is already familiar to many, and that’s a very good thing should you choose to watch this version of it. At only ten minutes in length, the film only has time to hit the most significant of plot points, such as the charity committee, Scrooge’s nephew, Bob Cratchit and his family, Jacob Marley and the three Christmas ghosts. With so much ground to cover, there is very little room for any dialogue or title cards. In fact, the only story told using any kind of text is some skeletal narration to set each scene and to remind viewer what is happening- or what is about to happen. There are zero dialogue cards, which means no “God bless us everyone.” No rationalizations about bad cheese. Not even a “Bah! Humbug!”

Jacob Marley reveals himself to Ebenezer

That leaves the audience’s ubiquitous familiarity with the source material and the players’ pantomime acting skills to tell the story, and truth be told, the actors do a pretty good job at being engaging. The Christmas “Ghosts” are perhaps duller and more static than you may expect, but Marc McDermott delivers a dynamic performance of Scrooge himself. From his chastising finger wags to his giddy dance on Christmas morning, Scrooge is a compelling character with a fairly convincing character arc, even with only ten minutes of development to work with. I will say that he struggles a bit when trying to react in a realistic way to other actors who aren’t directly on stage with him (but still onscreen as a transparent ghost, like the Jacob Marley scene).

The only other actor specifically credited is Charles S. Ogle as Bob Cratchit, but the entire cast does a solid job melodramatically reacting to Scrooge as the central character of the movie. Cratchit looked wide-eyed and horrified when Scrooge visited his house and was acting so bizarrely, and it was genuinely funny when he grabbed what looked like a fireplace shovel, ready to drive it into the side of Scrooge’s skull if need be.

Aside from the performances, this version of A Christmas Carol has some impressive special effects for 1910. The ghosts and visions are presented using double exposure, resulting in a haunting transparency effect. The sets are tight and there are no significant camera movements, but the sets themselves are well-constructed and adequately frame the Dickensian world. The costumes all fit the era well enough, too, though the Ghosts of Past, Present and Future may not match more modern visualizations of them. The Ghost of Christmas Future looks more like a sorcerer than he does the Grim Reaper, for instance.

Mr. Scrooge giving Bob Cratchit a firm finger-wagging

Overall, the Edison production of A Christmas Carol is a better visual companion piece to the original story than it is a standalone film. It absolutely requires a full understanding of the story to fully enjoy it, though the amount of ground covered in only ten minutes is a feat in itself. You still get to experience the heartbreak of Scrooge’s lost love, the poor state of the Cratchit family, and even a death scene of Scrooge himself, which isn’t often replicated in more contemporary interpretations of the story. I expect that it was probably a worthwhile watch for 1910 audiences for the ghostly effects alone, but it’s mostly a curio now.

If you want to check out Edison Studios’ production of A Christmas Carol, you can watch it for free on streaming devices via Tubi. This print of the film is in pretty good condition and is accompanied by a looped, lighthearted soundtrack of songs performed on bells, which honestly gets a bit droning by the end. You can also watch multiple uploads of this 1910 version of A Christmas Carol of it (or download it for yourself) via the Internet Archive. Among the versions available include a 100th anniversary restored edition with an updated soundtrack and additional title cards, which extends the run time to roughly thirteen minutes. So give it a watch if you have a few minutes. Think of it as a special kind of Christmas present from Thomas Edison himself. Plus – you know – light bulbs.

Thanks for reading!

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