Friday, December 18, 2015

His Usual Melancholy Tavern | Reginald Owen (1938)



Index of other entries in The Christmas Carol Project

Like I mentioned last year, the 1938 Christmas Carol follows Bob Cratchit outside, but it's not to watch him slide with the boys. Instead, he gets caught up in a snowball fight and soon begins teaching the lads his technique for a perfect snowball. The kids' lookout lets them know that there's a fellow coming with a top hat, so Cratchit sees an opportunity to continue the boys' education in proper throwing. Unfortunately, he lets fly and knocks the man's hat off before realizing that it's Scrooge himself. Apparently the boss didn't stick around too long at the office.

Scrooge looks positively shocked that Cratchit would behave this way. I've always read that as simple indignation, but after measuring up Scrooge last year, I now either detect or imagine some actual hurt in his expression. My working theory is that Owen's Scrooge sort of sees some promise in Cratchit, but is constantly disappointed by the man's choices. This insult is one step too far and - in a shocking move for those familiar with the story - Scrooge fires Cratchit right there. I used to think he's just being mean, but now I believe Scrooge is acting out of distress. He feels betrayed and responds in his typically nasty way.

The movie continues to follow Cratchit, who's despondent at first, but quickly recovers his Christmas cheer. He's just been paid (minus what Scrooge charged him for the ruined top hat) and it's fun to watch him go on a Christmas shopping spree, collecting the food for tomorrow's feast. Over and over again he announces to a vendor that he's willing to spend x amount, but then increases it in keeping with the celebration. I don't know if he blows his whole payday, but he doesn't seem to care if he does. He's determined that whatever happens on December 26th, this is going to be an awesome Christmas.

This version follows Cratchit all the way home and we get to meet his family earlier than in most adaptations. (Of course, we've already met Peter and Tiny Tim in the first scene.) He doesn't tell anyone that he was sacked; he's intent on their enjoying the holiday without letting Scrooge ruin it.

The film then dissolves into Scrooge's lonely dinner at the tavern where he's reading a banker's book. Like in the Seymour Hicks version, this one communicates melancholy by having Scrooge be the only patron in the place. Curiously, he leaves the banker's book on the table when he leaves, as if it belongs to the tavern. Maybe I misunderstood what a banker's book is (my annotated Christmas Carol and Google don't elaborate) or maybe it's a mistake of the movie, but it's interesting to think of it as possibly not Scrooge's own accounting records, but some sort of publication circulated by the finance industry. Perhaps Scrooge doesn't own a copy himself, but comes to this tavern to read theirs. It's a weird theory and doesn't seem likely, but it's the best I have.

After dinner, Scrooge makes his way home. The streets aren't as empty as in some of the other versions we've looked at so far, but they're lonelier near Scrooge's house. This version has the big gate, but a small yard. Still, the large, old house looks plenty withdrawn and desolate.
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