27 December 2012

A Charles Dickens Denouement

Yes, I’m still Celebrating the Dickens’ Bicentennial!
By Kristin Battestella

One would think I’d eventually run out of Dickensian material to review in this 200 year party, but no! So what better time but the Christmas season to end our Victorian conversations?

The Christmas Carol – I stumbled upon this 1949 half hour on one of our new retro channels- love them- and wow, found two of my favorite things together: Vincent Price reading Charles Dickens! Price is so young indeed for this very early television production, but he’s animated, suave, and even cheeky during his onscreen transitions. He’s clearly enjoying this little holiday dramatization! Though black and white, there’s also a fittingly aged, green patina to the video, which retroactively creates a further vintage.  Arthur Pierson’s (Hometown Story) adaptation has all the quintessential dialogue and memorable iconography even if the acting is the dated with the expected but put on British-ness. The direction feels stilted as well, with bare bones sets, awkward cues, some choppy editing, and simple camera filming.  However, most of this is forgivable considering the budding television concepts and infancy of the medium post-war. Though few, the ghostly effects are surprisingly well done for the time.  With such a short time frame, the work is considerably condensed, too. The unusual looking Ghost of Christmas Past and subsequent two ghostly visitors only receive one essential scene each. Thankfully, fun music accents the paired down design, and the quick simplicity makes this one just right for the Dickensian classroom.

Great Expectations – A dynamite ensemble- including the endearing John Mills (Swiss Family Robinson) as Pip, a wonderful Martita Hunt (Brides of Dracula) as the freaky Miss Havisham, an enchanting Jean Simmons (Guys and Dolls) debuting as the young Estella, and of course, Alec Guinness again – makes this award winning 1946 black and white Dickens adaptation glorious. From the scary Magwitch entrance and childhood abuses to Miss Havisham’s decrepit house and London refinement, the pace, emotion, likeable people, and ironic circumstances are all here. Naturally, the timeline and some condensing are necessary for these two hours, and it looks as though there are some weird sped up actions in some scenes. However, this film doesn’t look dated and old as some might expect, but rather perfectly period. The mood and atmosphere are excellent, be it the depressed or the festive, and stunning d├ęcor recreates splendid London heights and demented Victorian lows. Subtitles will be a must for some to catch all the accents and old speak, granted. But who needs modern adaptation drivel coughgwynethpaltrowcough when this version is still damn near spectacular?

Oliver Twist – This once lost 1922 silent adaptation is obviously not for everyone thanks to the early jumpiness and over emoting players of the time. However, the sepia tones, blue evening tints, and even red chrome work accent the jovial scoring and add to the poor London setting onscreen.  Jackie Coogan (Fester from The Addams Family!) as Oliver is also tiny and cute against horror pimp Lon Chaney as Fagin. Chaney is wonderfully hunched and decrepit, yet bemusing and seemingly feeble – but we know better! Despite some of the primitive presentation, it’s still very easy to root for Oliver and his goodness in the battle against deceit and the criminal underbelly. I’m sure there are people today who can relate. There isn’t a lot of rewatchability here, however, and this 70-minute charmer would be nice for kids – except you need to really know the story or pay serious attention to the title cards. The intertitles pack in a lot of the tale- even for a silent film, they seem, well, wordy if I may say so! The length and pace also feel long, but Dickensian scholars and film historians will enjoy a thorough study.

 The Light of Faith It’s not Dickensian but rather a Lon Chaney connection, but this surprising 1922 short is included on the Oliver Twist DVD.  This frame within a frame story of the Holy Grail is a little heavy handed and again of its time with then-contemporary settings and drama.   However, this also once lost and only partially rediscovered tale is very colorful, with numerous rainbow tints and pleasant musical arrangements. Some segments are perhaps too sweet with typical action, but the medieval insert looks good. It’s fun to see Chaney in the then-modern style, too. He’s simple and eventually desperate- but it’s for the right reasons. The pre-code, pre-Depression depictions of poverty and hunger are also intriguing.  If you can get over the over accentuated theatrics, Chaney fans and film students should give this little piece the attention it deserves. 

On the literary front, this year I’ve also received two special Dickens related books. Although at this rate, I probably won’t get to novel Drood by Dan Simmons or the illustrated The Life of Charles Dickens by John Forster until next Christmas!  For more Victorian viewing and Dickensian rants, don’t forget to follow our Charles Dickens label. Now what the heck am I to do with myself for 2013?

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