Monday, December 10, 2012
Merry Christmas, Uncle: Walter Matthau (1978)
As we noticed last time we looked at The Stingiest Man in Town, Cratchit announces Scrooge's nephew as a diversionary tactic to get the boss' attention off himself. Since this happens before Fred can get to the door, some of the nephew's boisterousness is lost, but Cratchit's strategy supports an idea introduced in the previous scene that the clerk has a deceptive side. B.A.H. Humbug has already revealed that he and Cratchit have been smuggling coal behind Scrooge's back for some time. This Cratchit is a wily character, but Matthau's Scrooge is so dull and unpleasant that I don't care.
Fred's jolly enough. In fact, he's literally skipping up the street as he approaches the counting house. Scrooge of course thinks he's a fool, but Cratchit boldly states that he likes Fred. "His smile warms my heart."
What bluster was lost by Cratchit's announcing Fred is picked up again when the nephew (looking sort of like Bilbo Baggins from Rankin-Bass' The Hobbit) bursts through the door, singing. Scrooge turns the number into a duet by disagreeing as often as possible. I'll put Scrooge's lines in parenthesis:
Merry Christmas, Uncle Scrooge!
Oh, be merry, Uncle Scrooge!
(Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!)
(What's so merry on Christmas Day?
The merry money you throw away?
The merry bills you have to pay?
When you say "Merry Christmas," I say "Bah!")
Here's a present, Uncle Scrooge!
(Humbug! I think you are a fool to waste your cash.)
(What's the present you always buy?
A handkerchief or an awful tie?
Look at this tie and you'll know why
When I get Christmas presents, I say, "Trash!")
But everything at Christmas is so jolly
The Christmas trees and wreaths of holly...
The boys and girls who dream about St. Nicholas!
(Saint Nicholas? Ridiculous!)
Don't you like him, Uncle Scrooge?
Good old Nicholas?
(That's a lot of slush!)
(I abominate old Saint Nick.
His reckless spending makes me sick!
I think St. Nick's a lunatic!
When you say, "Old Saint Nicholas," I say, "Bosh!)
As they sing, Fred does indeed give Scrooge a tie that Scrooge tosses at Cratchit. The nephew also offers a poinsettia and Scrooge throws that to the ground, smashing it. The gift-giving is an interesting addition to Dickens' story and I almost wish that some of the other versions tried it just to see how their Scrooges would've reacted. Matthau's reaction sort of makes sense in light of Scrooge's principles, but I could also believe a Scrooge who selfishly kept the gifts rather than refusing or destroying them.
I also like what the gift-giving does to Fred's reason for coming to see Scrooge. This isn't some half-hearted attempt made from habit (as in Richard Williams' cartoon). It's obviously an annual occurrence, but a sincere one. Even if his gifts do kind of suck.
The song takes a short break while Fred invites Scrooge to Christmas dinner. Scrooge refuses, but his reason is again all about the occasion, not about Fred himself. In this simplified version, his only beef with his nephew seems to be about the holiday, but it defines their relationship.
Oh, don't you like a juicy Christmas turkey?
Plum pudding with a brandy sauce?
(Can't digest it!)
You'll get a mellow feeling for humanity.
You'll enjoy it, Uncle Scrooge!
(Humbug! It may be fun for you, but not for me!)
(I'm not merry on Christmas Day.
I'm never happy; I'm never gay.
If you think I could feel that way,
Then you are just as stupid as can be.)
(If you think I'd be merry
And chirp like a canary,
Then you are even dumber than a dumb bug.
When you say, "Merry Christmas," I say, "Nonsense! Fiddlesticks! Poppycock!"
And just plain, "Humbug! Humbug! Humbug! Humbug! Humbug!")
Fred gives up after that, but tells Scrooge that he pities him. "Maybe I'll never be as rich as you," he says, "but I'll go to my grave still believing in a Merry Christmas."
That's where Scrooge starts his "Good Afternoons" as Fred continues throwing laudatory adjectives in front of Christmas until Scrooge throws him out. All the best lines have been cut out of their conversation in favor of the song. Disappointing, but not surprising.