Friday, December 14, 2012

'Merry Christmas, Uncle!' | George C. Scott (1984)

I loved him as Robin Colcord on Cheers, but Roger Rees is my least favorite Fred ever. Rather than joyous and exuberant, he's sappy and sentimental. One could point out that Dickens too is sappy and sentimental, but Dickens also has an awesome sense of humor that Rees' Fred never delivers.

Even his entrance is subdued. There's no bursting in, and no surprise. As Cratchit humbly makes his way back to his desk after getting chewed out in the last scene, the shop door opens and Fred comes in. He has to walk through a windowed vestibule to get to the inner door, so we see him do that too. It's a very long entrance already, but it's dragged out even more by Fred's stopping to greet Cratchit at his desk before talking to Scrooge. Both men are very warm in their Christmas greetings, but there's no joy in it.

Though he's in the same room, Scrooge ignores them until Fred comes over to repeat his "Merry Christmas" for his uncle. Surprisingly, Scott's Scrooge doesn't get upset. He just stares at Fred like he's crazy until Fred repeats the wish. Then - even more surprisingly - Scrooge laughs.

Scott's Scrooge is arguably the most relatable version there is. In the previous scene, he wasn't a horror of a boss, but simply a man who'd just about reached the limits of his patience with his lazy, wasteful clerk. In this scene, he's the one with the sense of humor, not mushy old Fred. He chuckles when he says "Humbug" and downright guffaws when he comes up with "buried with a stake of holly through his heart." He's obviously the only one in the room who thinks he's funny, but he's also the only one in the room making any attempt at humor. Fred, meanwhile, takes Scrooge's remarks about Christmas personally and looks genuinely hurt by them. I keep finding myself able to see the story through Scrooge's eyes, which is remarkable.

Rees is good with Fred's speech - after all, that's the part where Fred is supposed to be passionately sincere - and Scrooge's line about his being "a powerful speaker" is well-earned. Cratchit's clapping at the speech is funny in a way that's different from the book. He doesn't try to cover it up by poking in the fire, but he does stop quickly at a glare from Scrooge and then completely disappears behind his desk as he tries to return to work. The sense I get is that Scrooge is feeling ganged up on by Fred and Cratchit, but knows that he can control at least one of those men. He does, then turns back to Fred.

It's interesting that Fred's the one who brings up his marriage in this version. After Scrooge says (with another laugh) that he'll see himself in Hell (I think that's the first time we've gotten the whole line without euphemisms) before having Christmas dinner with Fred, his nephew says that entertaining Scrooge would be a great joy to him. "And to my wife," he adds.

Scrooge doesn't seem affected by it. He acts like he's just remembered that Fred's married and says that he's "told" that Fred's wife brought very little to the marriage. He disapproves, but only when he's reminded. He doesn't have any strong feelings about it. Obviously, the marriage isn't the reason Scrooge has a bad relationship with Fred.

What seems to be the problem is that Scrooge just doesn't care. Not about Christmas, and not about Fred. He's engrossed in his own stuff and nothing else really matters to him. Unfortunately, I can relate to that all too well, too, in some moments. Hopefully never to the extent that Scrooge has separated himself from the people around him, but I still know what it's like to get selfishly wrapped up in my own business and forget the needs of people around me.

There's a hint of something that's contributed to Scrooge's detachment. In response to Scrooge's crack about Mrs. Fred's lack of fortune, Fred simply smiles wistfully and says, "I love her. And she loves me." That makes Scrooge pause. "Love," he says, nodding knowingly and looking away.

It's not that he disbelieves Fred. In fact, it appears to be the one time that they're completely on the same page and that Fred has actually reached his uncle. But Scrooge wants nothing to do with it. He looks Fred in the eye, but can't hold it. His "good afternoon" is dismissive, but calm. He's defeated, but he's also done. There are no further, shouted "good afternoons" in this version. Scrooge substitutes, "You're wasting my time," and "Good bye," and he's in complete control of his emotions. Or rather, he's trying very hard to look like he's in complete control.

As Fred gives up and leaves, he extends wishes to Cratchit and his family. Scrooge simply shakes his head at his departing nephew and proclaims him, "Idiot."

It's a great scene and beautifully acted by both Scott and Rees. (I may not like Rees' interpretation of Fred, but there's no denying that he's perfectly effective in conveying what he's trying to convey.) By refusing to let Scrooge become a caricature, Scott's performance makes sure that I'm never able to simply judge and then dismiss him. Instead, he takes me on Scrooge's journey with him and serves as a powerful warning against becoming too much like him.


Wings1295 said...

Interesting. Maybe in not wanting to make Scrooge a caricature, they did the same with Fred, or attempted to, but ultimately harmed the Dickens' version of how Fred should act?

Michael May said...

Hmm. Could be. Fred doesn't have to be all serious to be real though. In fact, the main reason Fred's usually my favorite is because he's usually the one I relate to most.

What this version does is to transfer my affection from Fred to Scrooge. I can't tell how much of that is intentional, but even if it's a miscalculation by the filmmakers, it's a happy accident. I wouldn't want every adaptation to be this way, but I VERY much like it in this one.


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