Monday, December 19, 2016

“More of Gravy than of Grave” | George C Scott (1984)

Index of other entries in The Christmas Carol Project

Director Clive Donner's TV movie really plays up the scares. By the time Scrooge gets to his front door, he's already seen the hearse, which seems much more supernatural than imaginary in this version. He's also heard Marley's voice calling his name already. And he hears it again as he approaches the door.

Donner cuts to Scrooge's shocked face and then zooms in on the knocker where the lion's head is superimposed behind a transparent, blue Marley. The ghost calls Scrooge's name a third time before it disappears.

Inside, Scrooge locks the door and lights a candle as the soundtrack gets creepy. The music is discordant and there are also clicks and creaks that could be just old-house sounds... or something else. This is one of my favorite versions precisely because it's so good at putting me in Scrooge's shoes and that applies to making me feel creeped out in this scene.

This is also a movie in which Scrooge is very used to being in control. I think I'm more scared in this scene than he is. Marley's face took him aback, but he's quite brave by the time he gets to his rooms. He doesn't even bolt the sitting room door; he just moves through it about his business, looking alert, but not freaked out. When he goes into his bedroom though, he does triple-lock that door, so clearly he's not entirely at ease. Something's going on and he's taking precautions, but he seems to think he can handle whatever it is.

The scene then cuts to Scrooge - now in his dressing gown and robe - picking up his gruel from the fireplace hob. There's not any fire that I can see, but the embers must be putting off some heat by the way Scrooge gingerly handles his bowl and blows into it. As he's eating, Marley calls his name a fourth time. Scrooge's fireplace does have Dutch tiles, but they all show a single scene of Jesus' Last Supper. As Scrooge watches, Marley's face appears and disappears from tile to tile. Scrooge goes over for a close look, but Marley's gone now. "Humbug," Scrooge whispers.

That's when the servant bell - covered in cobwebs to show its disuse - starts to ring and now Scrooge is more worried. He looks shaken as he puts a hand to his ear and sits down. Cue the not-distant-enough chains and other knocking sounds and Scrooge is all but frozen. He's not shaking; he's very very still. But there's horror in his eyes as one by one the door latches undo themselves. Now there's nothing between Scrooge and whatever's making the clanking, dragging sound from the hallway. He turns away and insists gruffly that it's humbug, but he's turning away for a reason. He can't stand to look at the door.

The door flies open and Scrooge has to get up and turn to look. There's nothing at first, but then the transparent, blue shape of Marley clanks and drags into the room. And as Marley solidifies, the music does something very interesting. It changes from the shrill, terrifying shriek that has accompanied the scene so far and becomes a melancholy violin. It feels like something out of memory and Marley - still pale and cold, but having some substance now - becomes not so scary, but sad and oddly comforting.

When Scrooge addresses Marley, the ghost has to undo his bandage before he can answer. His bottom jaw opens grotesquely and with a strange click, but Marley gets it under control enough to carry on the conversation.

Scrooge also seems comforted by the sight of his friend. He's not so scared now and even laughs when Marley insists that Scrooge "ask me who I was." He clearly distrusts the situation, but is willing to play along with whatever's going on. Even when Marley screams in frustration and sends Scrooge shaking to his knees, it's not immediately clear even then that Scrooge believes there's an actual ghost. It could just be that Scrooge is frightened because the situation - real or imagined - has turned violent. But Marley pushes the issue and Scrooge finally has to admit that he does, he must believe.

Frank Finlay is a great Marley. He stares blankly and tries to deliver his message efficiently, but when he speaks about his own missed opportunities to help the helpless he's overcome by the heartbreak of it. It's also overwhelming to me as a viewer, and to Scrooge who seems genuinely concerned and sorry for his friend. He asks if he can do anything to help and is touched when Marley says, "no," but that there's something that Marley can offer him.

In this version, Scrooge's hope and chance is not of Marley's procuring, but something that Marley says he's doing as penance. It's the one thing I don't like about this version of this scene, because it raises unanswerable questions like "why now?" and "why Scrooge?" I like to ignore that change and remember that Dickens explained it well enough in the book.

Of course, Scrooge isn't excited about the proposition of three more spirits. He tries to pass with a smile, but Marley won't negotiate. He announces that they'll all arrive that night; at least, two of them will. The first is coming at one and the second at two, but the third, "more mercurial, shall appear in his own good time." It's another change from Dickens, but one I really like since it sets up the third ghost as something more dangerous than the others.

His message done, Marley beckons Scrooge to the window and then reties his bandage with another weird click. The window opens on its own, letting in screams and shrieks from outside. Marley becomes transparent again and flies out, but the screams have faded and the street is empty when Scrooge goes over to close the window. "Humbug," he says, getting both syllables out.

Scrooge was clearly touched by his conversation with Marley, but I don't see in him any real desire to change. Seeds have been planted, but this Scrooge is going to be a tough nut to crack. He's not as extremely miserable as most of the other versions, so it's going to take more to break him before he can be built back up again. He goes to check his door again and sees that the locks are still in place. Nodding knowingly, he declares, "Something I ate," and heads to bed.


Wings1295 said...

I always thought Scott's Scrooge was a very realistic portrayal of a person. Like not too overly greedy or comically miserly. Just a real man who slowly became numb to the world around him.

Michael May said...

Right! That's why I love him so much. The other versions are so outlandish that it's easy to smugly think, "There's no way I could ever be like that." I can see something of myself in Scott's Scrooge, which makes him very useful as a cautionary character.


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