Friday, December 16, 2016

“More of Gravy than of Grave” | Alastair Sim (1951)



Index of other entries in The Christmas Carol Project

The 1951 Scrooge is straightforward with the knocker scene. A lion-shaped knocker gets super-imposed with Marley's head and Scrooge is taken aback. One interesting change though is that Marley doesn't have the bandage at this point. He will when he appears inside, but this vision of him is exactly how Scrooge would remember him from life.

Inside, the house is well lit by an enormous window that lets in the moonlight. It's a lonely house, but not really spooky. Scrooge starts to close the door, then opens it again for another look at the knocker, then closes it for good. He double-bolts it, too. The whole place clearly belongs to Scrooge and the movie will state that explicitly later on.

Curiously, there's already a candle burning on a little table. Scrooge does have a woman who cleans the place though - something else that we'll learn later - so maybe it's part of her job to get the place into a certain state of welcoming for when he comes home. As he goes upstairs, I notice that the stairs are nice, but only wide enough for one person. There's certainly no hearse going up them and the atmosphere of the house doesn't seem like it would play tricks on Scrooge's mind. But then he does hear Marley's voice calling his name. He finishes the stairs more quickly, shouting, "Humbug!" In his room, he double-bolts that door, too.

The movie fades to Scrooge in his dressing gown, sitting down to a bowl of hot gruel. My wife pointed out to me last year that since Scrooge passed up extra bread for dinner because it cost extra, and because it's not clear that the gruel is for medicinal purposes, it looks like Scrooge is still hungry and has to supplement when he gets home. I like that reading a lot.

He's about to take a sip when he hears Marley call his name again. Convinced now that something's actually going on, he lets the spoon drop back into his bowl. He's still trying to figure out what's up when the bells start ringing. The movie does something cool with them, though. We hear the servant bell, but a shot of it reveals that it's perfectly still. Then a smaller bell joins it and Scrooge looks down at the little bell on his table, also not moving. A grandfather clock does the same thing. Scrooge tries to clean his ears with his fingers, but the motionless bells just get louder.

They finally stop and Scrooge has just about convinced himself to go back to his gruel when he hears a clanking from somewhere in the house. It gets louder and louder until finally the hallway door throws itself open and Scrooge drops his bowl and springs out of his chair. He's mostly looked disgusted up to this point - possibly at his own senses - but now he's terrified. It's then that Marley's ghost appears in the open door.

Marley is transparent and wearing the bandage. Not much new there, but he does remove the bandage early to make it easier to talk. When he does, he goes a little slackjawed and his whole demeanor is very tired, almost drugged, through the first part of the scene. Scrooge puts up a brave front for his part, fussing at Marley and giving him orders, but it's clear that this is all bluster. He keeps wiping his face, trembling, and he has a hard time looking at Marley. He does make jokes about indigestion, but this is also obvious bravado.

Marley gets frustrated with Scrooge's protests and shrieks loudly, which causes Scrooge to fall out of his chair and kneel before the ghost. He can no longer pretend not to believe and his "I do! I do! I do! I do! I must!" is totally sincere. Marley doesn't calm down. He continues shrieking, making Scrooge more and more terrified. As Marley, Michael Hordern sells the pain of his existence and the suffering that's waiting for Scrooge if he doesn't change. And Sim's Scrooge seems to honestly mourn Marley's fate and want to comfort him. Scrooge is miserable and petty, but I'm reminded that he wasn't always alone in that. He used to be able to be miserable and petty with Marley and I sense that he misses that camaraderie.

Marley can't be comforted, but he does offer comfort to Scrooge who seems grateful. Or he does until he hears what this second chance involves. He reluctantly declines, pretty sure that he can't go through this three more times. Of course, Marley isn't really offering him a choice. He tells Scrooge to expect the first ghost at 1:00 am (but doesn't mention a schedule for the other two).

Before he goes, Marley leads Scrooge to the window and opens it supernaturally. Outside, the mother and child sit in the snow against Scrooge's fence, surrounded by transparent phantoms on the ground and in the sky, all trying to throw money at her. The movie offers a good look at the woman's sorrowful face, which is a great way to increase empathy for her. Other versions have kept her distant; an idea more than a human being.

As Scrooge watches, Marley disappears from his side and reappears in the street below. But instead of tossing his own spectral money at her, he motions to her as if he's inviting Scrooge to do something. But Scrooge is far too frightened. He trembles and pants and shuts the window, then runs to his bedroom to jump in bed, pull the curtains closed, and hide under the covers.
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