Sunday, December 18, 2011

Old Sinner: George C Scott (1984)

George C. Scott's version of A Christmas Carol opens not with a Christmas theme at all. There's a snowy, bustling, London street, but it's very foggy and there aren't enough decorations to immediately know it's Christmastime. The music is also ominous and we quickly focus on a horse-drawn hearse transporting a coffin. The people in the street move aside to let it pass and the men take off their hats in respect.

As the camera cuts to a closer shot to let us see the coffin up close, a narrator tells us, "Old Marley was as dead as a doornail. This must be distinctly understood or nothing wonderful can come of this story I am going to relate." It's a unique choice among adaptations, going for the spooky tone before introducing the Christmas elements.

Immediately though, we cut to a close shot of a squeeze box and the Christmas music begins, sung by street carolers. It's not the traditional "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing," but either an original song or a very old carol that I've never heard. [EDITED TO ADD: In the comments, reader Rosie identifies this as "The Sussex Carol." Thanks, Rosie!]

On Christmas night all Christians sing
To hear the news the angels bring.
On Christmas night all Christians sing
To hear the news the angels bring.

Either way, it further prepares us for an unusual take on the story as the scene changes back to the earlier street shot - now without the hearse - and the music morphs into a triumphantly festive orchestral overture for the credits. As we read (George C. Scott's name, incidentally, comes before the title) the film cuts to traditional Christmas scenes: vendors selling hot potatoes, stores decorated with snow-trimmed greenery, children staring through windows at toy displays, and shoppers greeting each other with "Merry Christmas!"

Even after the credits stop, the Christmas music and street scenes continue. Now it's a band playing another traditional-sounding tune as children listen. But pains are taken to make the scene feel realistic. As hinted at earlier by details like the obscuring fog and the potato vendor (not chestnuts?), this version veers just enough from typical to give it an authentic flavor. It feels like real, Victorian London instead of a Hollywood version of it. Children don't just listen to the Christmas band, they blow in their hands and stamp their feet, freezing as they presumably wait for their mothers to finish shopping.

There are other, great details like a young girl counting wrapped packages as they're handed to her in a carriage. There's a cart loaded with holly for sale. A poulterer pulls down a still-feathered goose for a customer, forcing us to imagine the grisly work ahead in order to get it ready to eat. A man lights his cigar on an open gas-flame.

Watching all this from the window of a storefront labeled "Scrooge & Marley" is a man. We cut inside just as he turns from the scene and announces, "Seven years ago today..."

"What's that you say?" growls the voice of his unseen companion.

"Mr. Marley died. Seven years ago this very day."

The unseen man isn't impressed and orders his clerk back to work. Instead, the clerk heads to the fireplace and reaches for the tongs to add another piece of coal. That's when he says it.


Alastair Sim will probably always be my favorite Scrooge, but George C. Scott is close behind him thanks largely to his ability to deliver those two words with such power and frustrated rage. Before we even see him, Scrooge is revealed as a man who feels put upon by the sheer incompetence of his employee. And we can't exactly fault him for it. David Warner's Cratchit is something of a goof-off: daydreaming out the window; not going immediately back to work when he's called on it.

As Cratchit explains that the fire's gone cold, we finally see Scrooge. He sits at his desk and sighs, putting his hands to his temples. Cratchit's given him a headache. "Come over here, Mr. Cratchit."

Cratchit dutifully walks over, seemingly clueless to what he's done.

"What is this?" Scrooge asks, pulling at his cuff.

"A shirt."

"And this?"

"A waistcoat."

"And this?"

"A coat."

"These are garments, Mr. Cratchit. Garments were invented by the human race as protection against the cold. Once purchased, they may be used indefinitely for the purpose for which they are intended.

"Coal," he continues, looking at the fire, "burns. Coal is momentary. And coal is costly." Scrooge, it appears, runs a green business. "There will be no more coal burnt in this office today."

There's one of two things going on here. One possibility is that we're supposed to be so familiar with these two characters that we're filling in the blanks on the interaction. Cratchit is the good guy; Scrooge is the bad guy. Poor Mr. Cratchit - as usual - gets no coal for his fire.

But based on the efforts already displayed at re-interpreting the story, I think the second possibility is more likely and that the roles are - at least temporarily - reversed. Cratchit is sort of lazy; Scrooge is simply a good businessman understandably exercising his right to try to get his money's worth from his hired man. Whether or not those roles will stick for the rest of the movie is something we'll have to see, but it seems to be the starting place.

This part of the scene ends with Scrooge's sending Cratchit back to work "before I am forced to conclude that your services are no longer required." Cratchit looks hurt as he obeys, but I have to admit that I don't feel completely sorry for him.


Mitchell Craig said...

This is my favorite version of A Christmas Carol, primarily because everyone involved took pains to invoke the feel of a Victorian Era Christmas. There's also some wonderful casting (Edward Woodward as the Ghost of Christmas Present, Doctor Who stalwart Mark Strickson as young Ebenezer), and a script that suggests Dickens himself adapted his own work (allowing for some wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff, seeing that he's been dead for over a century and change).

Michael May said...

Edward Woodward is hands down my favorite Ghost of Christmas Present.

And I knew I recognized that Young Scrooge!

Unknown said...

I'm coming in four years later - reading through all of these posts for the first time in 2015, and really enjoying them! - so you may well know this now, but the song you quoted that you hadn't heard before is a fairly popular Christmas carol in the UK, called the Sussex Carol (apparently because the first people to write it down first heard it themselves in Sussex).

Michael May said...

Thanks, Rosie! I've heard of the Sussex Carol, but didn't realize that I'd actually heard it sung. That's super helpful!


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