Friday, December 19, 2014
“If Quite Convenient, Sir" | Fredric March (1954)
Index of other entries in The Christmas Carol Project
Fredric March's Scrooge is a pitiable old fart. It's hard to take him seriously. March was in his late 50s when he made this version, but he gives Scrooge a lot of energy and a weird sense of humor (like smiling broadly at things that aren't that funny). It feels like a young person playing an old person, even though that's not actually the case. The result is a Scrooge who's just slightly unhinged. He's not dangerous; just cantankerous and a little strange.
Fred certainly didn't take Scrooge seriously, but Cratchit has to and Bob Sweeney sells it with his sweetly timid performance. He has to approach Scrooge at quitting time to remind him of the hour and he does it with hat literally in hand. He's hunched over as if to make himself a smaller target and he stammers a little when he talks.
After being yelled at by Scrooge for wanting the whole next day off, Cratchit manages a little smile and turns to go, but he stops at the door. Scrooge has already gone back to work - staying behind to get more done - and sees none of this, but Cratchit looks back at his boss and smiles once more. That reminds me of the smile that Dickens wrote into this scene, something that most of the versions have ignored up to now. In this case, it's a smile of humble gratitude with maybe a some genuine affection mixed in. Sweeney's Cratchit wants a better relationship with his boss, but he has no hope that that will ever come to be. As he's standing there at the door, looking back at Scrooge, he clearly wants to say something (probably to wish Scrooge a "Merry Christmas"), but he doesn't and instead just leaves quietly.
Bernard Hermann's music during this scene has been somber and almost dreadful as if something bad is about to happen. Nothing does, but it creates an awesomely tense mood that lasts until Cratchit goes outside. As he closes the door behind himself, the score gives way to the carollers from the opening scene who are still in the street entertaining the crowds.
This is no ragtag band of amateurs belting out Christmas standards. They're a legitimate chorus with angelic voices singing original material while traveling with a festively decorated, horse-drawn carriage. Their effect on Cratchit is immediate. He blinks a few times as if waking up and begins to look around with curiosity. He straightens up and you can almost see the oppressiveness of Scrooge's office fall off of Crachit's shoulders. There's no sliding scene, but the carollers fill the same function and Cratchit is all full of smiles as he moves through them to head home.
It's a wonderful use of music and it reminds me to talk about something I realized the other day about the sliding scene. In the Reginald Owen version, sliding is a big deal for Scrooge's nephew Fred. He does it a couple of times in that movie and convinces other people to do it too. Rewatching that film this year and thinking especially about the sliding, it hit me that it's a metaphor for giving up control. I've been thinking about control a lot this year and how it's an illusion.
When Fred slides - or when anyone slides on the ice - it's a complete abandoning of that illusion. You can see it on their ecstatic faces. They're having an adventure, even though it's only a few seconds long. Giving up control transports them and puts them in a mindset that embraces life. It's something that Scrooge knows nothing about, but Fred - or in Dickens' story, Cratchit - does. The music in this adaptation does something similar. It's not a physical abandonment of control, but it has a similar effect on Cratchit in a spiritual way as it transports him to a different mindset that allows him to enjoy life.
It has the opposite effect on Scrooge, of course. As the carollers move down the street past his office, he comes to the window and scowls at them. They're far too big and professional a group for him to go after with a ruler, but he slams his shutters to keep their singing out. Scrooge is all about control and he's as uninterested in giving himself over to music as he would be giving himself over to the ice.
The same, oppressive score from before returns as Scrooge decides it's time to go. He grumbles to himself as he closes up shop. There are quite a few "humbugs" in there, but he's also cursing Kris Kringle (whom the carollers were singing about). He calls Santa "St. Hypocrite" and launches into a weird poem. Because he's muttering, it's tough to tell exactly what he's saying, but the gist seems to be that he doesn't trust Santa's generosity. He either believes that Santa's making a profit somehow and is hiding the fact, or that Santa should be making a profit and isn't to be trusted if he's not. Either way, Scrooge's primary issue is economic.
All the Scrooges are overly fiscally-minded, but the fuller depictions of him don't stop there. They suggest that there's something deeper in Scrooge that's broken. But this is the version that rephrased Fred's appreciation of Christmas from broader, humanitarian concerns to simply economic ones. That's too bad, because this version has a lot of other things going for it.