Saturday, December 10, 2016

“More of Gravy than of Grave” | Walter Matthau (1978)

Index of other entries in The Christmas Carol Project

Rankin-Bass' The Stingiest Man in Town uses the knocker to go to a commercial break, with its transitioning quickly to Marley's face and then fade to black. The actual knocker is also shaped like the face of an elderly man (weird design) and like Dickens says, there's no intermediary stages of change. The animation just superimposes Marley's face and the switch back is just as abrupt. So it makes sense that Scrooge doubts what he sees. "Just my imagination," he says.

This version skips the walk upstairs and even Scrooge at the fireplace. He's already had dinner at the tavern, so there's no need to show him eating gruel, too. He doesn't search the place or seem scared at all. He goes straight to bed and it's there that Marley's ghost appears in a repeat of the teaser scene at the beginning of the show.

Marley's entrance is different from the way Dickens wrote it, but it's still scary. There are no bells to announce Marley's coming, but Tom Bosley's Humbug character sings about the clanking of chains and the arrival of the ghost.

That night when Ebenezer Scrooge 
Lay dreaming in his room,
He heard the sound of rattling chains
Come clanking through the gloom.

And while he lay there shivering
In the icy wind of fear,
The ghost of Scrooge's partner
Jacob Marley did appear.

As Humbug sings, the candle next to Scrooge's bed takes the place of the fireplace in Dickens and reacts to Marley by lighting itself with an unnatural, green flame. Rather than walk through a closed door, Marley manifests first as a sort of dark blot on the wall that shapes itself into a silhouette and then Marley's shadow before it becomes the blue, transparent ghost of Marley himself.

The animation isn't sophisticated enough to give Marley his own, personal atmosphere that blows his hair, but Marley does pull some scary tricks like making his body disappear and enlarging his head to fill the whole room. That takes the place of his pulling off the bandage, too. Maybe Rankin-Bass figured the gaping mouth would be too much for kids.

Scrooge tries to deny his senses at first, but there's no humor in it. That would humanize him too much and this version isn't at all interested in that. Scrooge is to be judged as an object lesson, not related to or pitied as an actual person. But after seeing the giant head trick, Scrooge begins to believe that he's not just hallucinating.

Since this is a musical, Marley's warning takes the form of a song:

I wear a chain.
A heavy chain
Is wound around my soul
A chain of sin and vices
That I could not control.

Repent your crime.
Repent in time
Or you'll repent in vain.
For if you wait
Until too late, 
You'll never break your chain.

Although my chain is very strong,
The one you wear is stronger.
My chain of wrong is very long,
But yours is even longer.

You must escape.
Escape my fate.
Cast off the sins that bind you
Or you will find when you pass on,
You'll drag your chain behind you.

As Marley sings, there's a montage showing him and Scrooge conducting business, evicting poor families, and eventually Marley's tombstone and Scrooge's continuing to worship money.

Scrooge resists Marley's message at first. He even defends Marley, saying that Marley didn't deserve what's happened to him. But of course he's actually defending himself. When Marley suggests that Scrooge still has a chance at a different outcome though, Scrooge is interested. "How?" he asks.

That's an interesting question to me. Marley's terminology has been overtly religious, repeatedly using words like "sin" and "repentance." By putting it in those terms, he's giving Scrooge some very specific instructions that most people in Scrooge's culture would know how to follow. It means getting to a church, seeing a priest, and starting to work on becoming a better person.

That Scrooge asks "how" tells me that he's rejecting a simple, ritual, surface repentance as his answer. He seems to intuit that Marley's calling for a deeper transformation than that. But he has no idea how to go about it.

Marley's answer of course is that Scrooge will have help. "Tonight you will be haunted by three spirits." No confusing three-day schedule for this children's show. Scrooge says he'd rather not. He's not that interested. He's clearly terrified, but he's going to need some more convincing. And Marley's solution is to terrify Scrooge even further.

Marley goes to the window and beckons Scrooge to join him, but Scrooge refuses to get any closer to the ghost. So Marley waves a hand and Scrooge is floated from his bed and over to the window where Marley shows him an army of spirits who are standing in ranks in the street, staring up at the window. "We seek to do good in human matters," Marley says, "but have lost the power forever." There's no woman and child out there; that's not the point. The scene isn't meant to tug on our hearts; it's meant to scare the crap out of Scrooge. "Repent!" Marley cries, and the army of the damned repeats it. "Repent! Repent!"

Scrooge screams, "No! No!" and runs to hide in his bed as Humbug - trapped outside with the army - pounds on the window to be let back in. It's a chilling scene and the most effectively frightening one we've looked at so far. I have some strong, negative feelings about fear as a motivator, but that's exactly Marley's job and he does it really well in this version.

1 comment:

Wings1295 said...

Funny how a Rankin-Bass cartoon musical version can still take the material and turn it into a deep and scary scene. As for Scrooge and his "how?" - maybe he has thought on the confessing his sins route in the past and chalked it up to nonsense. He seems genuinely curious as to how to actually go the route of becoming a better person, for real. Again, deep for this sort of take on the whole thing, but it seems like the behind-the-scenes creators here took it seriously.


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