Saturday, December 19, 2015

His Usual Melancholy Tavern | Alastair Sim (1951)

Index of other entries in The Christmas Carol Project

The 1951 Scrooge is famous for adding to Dickens' story, but it stays pretty trim in this scene. Cutting away from Cratchit's positively bouncing as he wraps up to leave the office, the movie follows Scrooge into the street. People bustle all around him. They're not really all that merry (no one's wishing anyone "Merry Christmas," for instance); they're just busy. Scrooge moves silently and determinedly through them and there's a funny bit where a blind guy (conveniently labeled with a sign around his neck) is pulled out of Scrooge's way by his dog.

Scrooge's tavern doesn't feel especially melancholy. There are people in the street outside, so it's not in an isolated part of town. And more important, there are people in the restaurant, eating and talking and smiling. The conversations are all quiet, so it's not a raucous place, but it's clear that Scrooge - sitting by himself with a partition between him and the others - is the melancholy element.

The interactions between Scrooge and the server have been silent in the last couple of versions, but it's different this time. In Matthau, Hicks, and Owen's adaptations, the focus is on how stingy Scrooge is. Matthau tips his server with a dirty spoon, Hicks scowls at his as if he expects to be cheated on the change, and Owen actually bites into a coin from his change to make sure it's good. There's none of that with Sim.

Instead, his Scrooge asks the server for more bread and is told that there isn't any extra. Scrooge pouts disappointedly and then barks, "No more bread!" as if it's his decision. That's a perfect fit with the way Sim has been playing the character. [EDITED TO ADD: Reader Gene comments below that I've been hearing the server wrong and I agree. He supports something that Diane has been trying to tell me for years. It doesn't fundamentally change my understanding of Sim's character, but it does make more sense and adds to the reading of Scrooge as petty and miserly.] 

His Scrooge isn't mean and miserly for the sake of being mean and miserly. He's simply got a very small worldview and is irritated, but also continually disappointed whenever it's challenged. He feels entitled to some things. And some of them, like people paying their loans back on time, aren't so unreasonable. But he also feels entitled not to be imposed on for charity and not to be robbed of a day's work by his clerk. These are understandable viewpoints, but they're very selfish and petty. And he reacts to the inconvenience the same way he reacts to getting no extra bread, like it's a personal attack. Every aggravation is further proof that the world hates him and that he's right for despising it. Every day is a bad day for Ebenezer Scrooge.

After dinner, Scrooge heads home. There's no gate or yard in this version; sort of like Scrooge McDuck's house in Mickey's Christmas Carol, his front door is right on the sidewalk. I don't remember that we ever get a look at Scrooge's street during the daytime in this version, but it's a wide street and I imagine that it gets a fair amount of traffic. His house isn't really tucked out of the way at all, but it does feel lonely this time of night with snow everywhere and no one else around.


Wings1295 said...

It seems to me this version of Scrooge is more of like the realistic result of a person who took the selfish, grumpy path and became even more selfish and constantly irritated at life. Deeper and deeper, optimism and Christmas cheer are too far to be seen or enjoyed.

Michael May said...

Exactly. I think this is why he's one of my Top Two favorites. He and George C Scott are the most relatable - and so, the most cautionary - of Scrooges.

Gene Hendricks said...

I'm going to have to disagree with you on one point. The server doesn't say, "Ain't any extra," he says "Ha'penny extra." So, Scrooge can have his extra bread but it will cost him a half a penny more. He actually considers it, then revokes his choice, because it's not worth the half a penny more to spend.

Michael May said...

My wife will be very happy to hear that. We've been disagreeing on the gist of that scene for years, but I couldn't make the server's response sound like what Diane was hearing. I was hearing, "Ain't any extra," but "ha'penny extra" does make more sense.

Diane also points out that since it's not clear in the movie that Scrooge's second meal is for medicinal purposes, it looks like Scrooge passes up the extra bread, but is still hungry and has to supplement when he gets home. That says a lot about him, too, and I'm delighted to be wrong. Thanks!

Gene Hendricks said...

I'm happy to end the marital strife. :D


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