Monday, December 03, 2012

‘Merry Christmas, Uncle!’ | Alastair Sim (1951)

Like the 1910 silent version, the ’51 Alastair Sim adaptation puts the Charity Relief Committee in front of the nephew. I wasn’t sure what the purpose of that was in 1910, but it makes more sense in this one. The Sim’s version began by showing us Scrooge at work, interacting with other businessmen. When he gets back to his office, he has more ‘business’ to conduct, but with people looking for handouts. Seeing how he reacts to them makes a nice transition from the business world to the purely personal visit of Scrooge’s nephew.

The two solicitors have just left Scrooge’s office and he’s started working when he hears a noise and looks up, startled. In this version, Scrooge has a separate office from Cratchit with its own door, so we never see Fred burst in from outside. He still manages to surprise Scrooge though, and Scrooge never fully recovers for the rest of the scene.

Fred comes in from the outer office and Scrooge tries to go back to work, dismissing his nephew. “Oh, it’s you, is it? What do you want?”

Fred offers his hand and assures Scrooge that he’s not there to borrow money (interestingly, he phrases this in a businesslike way, not even entertaining the idea that he could possibly be there for a handout), but simply to wish Scrooge a “Merry Christmas.” Fred’s not particularly cheery. In fact, he’s quite serious. He doesn’t expect Scrooge to receive him very well and looks like he’s politely going through the motions. Ignoring Fred’s hand and not even looking up, Scrooge skips most of Dickens’ dialogue for the scene and goes right to, “Keep Christmas in your own way and let me keep it in mine.”

The conversation proceeds like the book for a couple of lines until Scrooge points out that not “much good [Christmas] has ever done you.” The nephew protests that it’s certainly never done him any harm either, which gives Scrooge the opening to voice his objections about his nephew. “No, your wayward nature has done that. And your marriage.”

They argue for a second about whether Fred’s marriage was the making or the ruin of him, and Fred sees his opening. “Why don’t you come and see for yourself if you won’t take my word for it? Come and dine with us tomorrow.”

That finally gets Scrooge to look up from his work. He actually looks hurt by the suggestion, as if surely Fred knows Scrooge’s answer already and how dare he make them both go through this conversation. Scrooge shakes his head, but is surprisingly polite. “No, thank you.” No mention of seeing Fred in Hell first. Though there’s an obvious rift between Sim’s Scrooge and Fred, Scrooge seems oddly vulnerable around his sister’s son.

Fred is baffled by the degenerated relationship and goes back to Dickens’ text. “But why? Why?”

As in Dickens, the issue is Fred’s marriage (though we’ll learn later in a non-Dickensian scene that there’s actually more to it than that). The conversation proceeds more or less according to Dickens from there, with a couple of noticeable variations. First, when Fred says that he married because he fell in love, Scrooge doesn’t growl at the idea, he simply mocks it, pointing out that Fred’s wife is “a woman as penniless as yourself.”

As they continue to argue, Fred becomes angrier at Scrooge’s stubbornness. He more or less shouts his final “And a Happy New Year!” The affect this has on Scrooge is startling. He’s visibly shaken as he raises his own voice to bid Fred, “Good afternoon!” His hand is still trembling as Fred goes back to the outer office and Scrooge shouts a lame “Humbug!” at the retreating nephew and attempts to return to work.

The Scrooge we saw on the Exchange and Scrooge as he is around his nephew are very different characters. On the Exchange, Scrooge is energetic and dangerous. Where his sister’s boy is concerned, Sim’s Scrooge is much less sure of himself. It’s the first chink we see in the armor he so effectively wears around other people of business, including the charity solicitors. By switching Fred and the solicitors around, the film can head into the next events with Scrooge less at ease and less on his guard. It’s a great piece of character development.

The scene’s not quite over when Fred leaves the inner office. We get to see him stop and chat with Cratchit a bit, which is important since this is the first real look at Cratchit the film offers. Cratchit was all business with the solicitors, just taking their coats and whatnot. With Fred, we learn a little more about the clerk as Fred asks after the various Cratchits, including “the little lame boy” Tim.

Fred’s demeanor with Cratchit is pleasant and warm, as if he’s relieved to be away from his uncle and interacting with a normal person. Cratchit seems a bit nervous though. Scrooge is in the other room and not paying attention as far as we can tell, so maybe Cratchit simply feels socially inferior to Fred. That fits with the way he talks about Fred later on during the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, when he acts pleased and grateful that Fred would condescend to offer condolences about Tim and again ask after Cratchit’s family. In spite of Scrooge’s insult about Fred’s being penniless, Fred and Company celebrate Christmas much more luxuriously than the Cratchits, so there’s something of a class difference there. You don’t feel it from Fred, but Cratchit may have a different view.

Another explanation for Cratchit’s unease though could be that it’s just the way he generally is at work. We haven’t seen any real interaction yet between him and Scrooge, but knowing the kind of businessman Scrooge is, it’s not surprising that his clerk would be a nervous fellow. We’ll see more of their relationship in coming scenes, but I like how the film gives us hints already without our having to see them so much as speak to each other. Unfortunately, the movie cuts out Fred’s big speech and Cratchit’s comical reaction to it, but by doing that it adds a subtle, sinister element to the Scrooge-Cratchit relationship that’s quite effective.


Wings1295 said...

Great recap. The relationship is more strained and through the great acting you can just feel it.

One thing about how Cratchit reacts: Maybe he is just nervous that Scrooge will see him and Fred being amiable towards each other and Cratchit fears Scrooge would count that as a mark against him, divided loyalty, in a way? Just a thought.

Michael May said...

I hadn't even considered that, but it's a great way to read that scene. Cool!

Anonymous said...

This version of A Christmas Carol is my favorite.
Hey...when are you and I going to adapt a graphic novel of it?! ;)
-Jess H.

Michael May said...

Check yer email.


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