Thursday, December 15, 2016

“More of Gravy than of Grave” | Reginald Owen (1938)



Index of other entries in The Christmas Carol Project

The 1938 Christmas Carol continues to make some interesting changes to the story with this scene. For one thing, Marley's face doesn't appear on the knocker right away. Scrooge has already opened the door, lit his candle, and is turning to close the door again when Marley shows up (superimposed over the already demonic-looking knocker). I have a theory about why Marley might delay his appearance, but I'll get to that in a minute.

The face fades as quickly as it showed up, but Scrooge is visibly shaken. He recovers quickly though and heads up the grand, old staircase. It's pretty wide, but there's no hearse. Instead, the set design has cobwebs everywhere, giving the place a haunted house look. It's doubtful that any businesses are leasing offices in this place. Scrooge appears to be the only tenant and he's not exactly keeping up the place.

He's a little unnerved, but not exactly cowering in fear. Some spooky music accompanies him as he walks and it cuts out every now and then for him to stop and look around. It's as if he notices the music and it's messing with him by shutting up whenever he tries to pinpoint its source, then starting again when he resumes his walk.

In his rooms, he checks around, but with an attitude of actually trying to catch an intruder. He's not scared, he's irritated. When he locks the door, he's scowling and doing it more forcefully than he needs to, as if he's saying, "There! Try to get through that!"

He stokes his fire a little (apparently its been burning all day, but barely) and grabs a bottle from the mantle. Since this Scrooge already ate dinner at the tavern, the movie doesn't confuse viewers with an extra bowl of gruel. Dickens explained that the gruel was for Scrooge's cold anyway, so this movie substitutes a bottle of medicine. Or maybe "medicine." Earlier, Cratchit made a joke to Scrooge's nephew about Scrooge's "cough medicine" that seemed to imply that that's how Scrooge referred to liquor. Or maybe it really was medicine, but Scrooge - too cheap to buy real alcohol - used it as a substitute. Whatever the case, we see it in action here. Scrooge pours himself a spoonful, takes it, then licks his fingers where some spilled onto them. He's not missing a drop.

That done, he continues checking out the room. The bed is in here, but he goes through another door to get dressed. While he's out, a bell rope begins swinging back and forth, sounding the bell that it's attached to. Scrooge pokes his head back into the room (he's wearing a nightcap now) and the rope immediately stops. Someone's messing with Scrooge. He whispers, "Humbug," and closes the door again, which signals the rope to start moving and clanging again. The next time Scrooge comes out (in his robe this time), the bells in the house go nuts.

Scrooge's attitude during all this is more "what the hell's going on?" than fear. He's trying to figure this out, but he doesn't look worried. The bells stop, there's an immediate slamming of a door somewhere, and then Marley appears. He's transparent and wearing the bandage, but there's no sign of his personal atmosphere blowing his hair or anything.

Scrooge is a little taken aback when Marley confirms who he is, but Scrooge quickly recovers and the conversation takes a very unusual tone. In Seymour Hicks' version, I got the feeling that Marley was the stronger of the two partners. Scrooge not only deferred to him during their talk, he also seemed upset when Marley left. Reginald Owen's Scrooge is the opposite of that. He fusses at Marley the way he fussed at Cratchit earlier, giving the impression that it was Scrooge who dominated the relationship when Marley was alive. This makes me wonder if Marley's delayed appearance at the door may have been evidence that Marley himself is a little afraid of Scrooge. Or at least not super eager to have this conversation with him. He could be doing it out of compassion (or penance, if we're less charitable towards him), but still not look forward to it.

Scrooge talks about Marley's possibly being a digestive issue, but there's no humor in it. He doesn't even use the gravy pun. Marley's answering moan is pitiful, not threatening, and Scrooge orders the ghost to be quiet.

At this point, the film adds something completely new to the scene. Scrooge hears the night watch in the street below, so he goes to the window to call them up. They come to his room to investigate, but of course Marley has disappeared. After the watchmen make some jokes about Scrooge and spirits ("of one kind or another"), they leave and Marley returns. The effect of the incident is to break whatever spell Scrooge thought he might be under. Somehow, having Marley still there after the sobering conversation with the watchmen makes Scrooge realize that he's not hallucinating.

Scrooge concedes that he must believe in Marley, but he's still not afraid. He's just as grumpy and demanding as before. To be fair, Marley doesn't appear to be afraid of Scrooge either. He's confident in his mission and he forges ahead, but it's so odd to see Scrooge stand up to him. As they continue talking, Scrooge begins to soften towards his old partner some, perhaps taking some comfort in the renewed relationship. This version of Scrooge has already showed signs of wanting some human connection. He seems to hear what Marley is saying about the future and the need for Scrooge to change. But unlike the other versions, it's Marley's words that are having the biggest impact, not the way that he's delivering them. It's like he's confirming something that Scrooge has already known or suspected about himself.

Scrooge never drops his wall though. He dismisses Marley and his chance at redemption. At least until Marley mentions the three spirits that are coming. That unnerves Scrooge a little and he asks Marley to stay, presumably to explain further. Marley's already heading for the window, but he reveals that the spirits will all come that evening: one an hour between 1:00 and 3:00 am. He even repeats the schedule, accompanied by bells chiming the times as he says them. And then, standing by the open window, he disappears.

This version cuts out the phantoms in the street. Scrooge is nervous now, mopping his forehead with his handkerchief and quickly closing the window. He doesn't even try for half a "Humbug," but jumps in bed and pulls the curtains. He could deal with Marley okay, but he's not at all excited to see what's coming next.
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