Friday, December 02, 2011

Old Sinner: Mark McDermott (1910)

I love silent films for a few reasons, but one of them is that there’s such economy to the way the stories have to be told. For that reason, adaptations also tend to be really faithful to their source material. They don’t add a lot of extra stuff.

The first-ever adaptation of Christmas Carol opens with the intertitle: “The day before Christmas. Scrooge, a hard fisted miser, receives an appeal from the Charity Relief Committee.” The CRC doesn’t figure into this post, so we’ll leave it alone until later. In this version, all you really need to know about Scrooge is that he’s “a hard fisted miser.” After the intertitle, we see Scrooge enter his office and yell at his as-yet-unnamed clerk, adding to the unpleasant image.

Mark McDermott is a tall man and his Scrooge is an imposing character. That’s really all we can tell about him at this point. His height and posture doesn't mesh well with the image I form from Dickens' description of the "squeezing, wrenching, grasping, clutching, covetous old sinner," but I realize that Dickens is talking about character traits, not physical ones. The picture in my head is influenced as much by Gollum as anything Dickens wrote, but it's still difficult to look at McDermott and come up with "wrenching" and "grasping" as adjectives. I notice that the intertitle changes Dickens' "tight-fisted" to "hard fisted;" a more appropriate description for McDermott's presence.

Anyone familiar with the story can speculate that he’s fussing about coal-use, but it’s not clear yet in this film. All the movie lets us know is that he’s a “miser” and that he’s cranky. There's nothing in the visuals yet to suggest Christmas; just the intertitle letting us know what day it is. We also get nothing about Scrooge's business or Marley. Because of the film's short length, it's going to have to be economical about how it shares that information, wrapping it into other character interactions.

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