Friday, December 21, 2018

“I Was a Boy Here!” | George C Scott (1984)

Director Clive Donner likes using close ups of the spirits' icons to represent transitions. For Christmas Past, its her snuffing cap, so when she transports Scrooge to the country, Donner shows us the hat with a snowy forest and building projected onto it. This fades into Scrooge and the Ghost standing in some trees on the side of a snowy road.

Scrooge recognizes the place as where he was bred and grew up. Some boys ride by on horseback and Scrooge recognizes them, too. There's no mention that they've come from the school, but the building is in the background and clearly they're childhood friends of Scrooge. He mentions them by name and calls out to them. Daniel, Robert, and David are their first names, but Scrooge also gives them last names that I can't fully make out. I've always wondered if those are real people, though. Maybe friends of the screenwriter?

Scrooge is excited to see his friends, but he's not going to be as deeply affected by any of this as what Dickens described. Scott's Scrooge is a powerful and ruthless businessman. It's going to take a lot more than memories to help him. These are a necessary first step for what the Ghost is trying to do, but we'll get no trembling or crying.

As the boys ride on, the Ghost tells Scrooge that it's time for them to move, too. We cut to the exterior of the school and then inside to a hallway leading into a classroom. The camera shows us Scrooge's point of view as he moves into the room where Boy Scrooge is sitting on a bench, reading. The Ghost tries to nudge Scrooge's emotions with observations like, "It's your school," and "It's Christmas Day." Scrooge acknowledges the truth of these facts, but isn't shook by them. Rather, he sounds like he's enjoying the memories.

He does note that the boy is "neglected," but he doesn't say by whom. The Spirit provides that, saying that he's been "deserted by his friends and his family." I like the word "deserted," because it's as ambiguous as "neglected" in describing intent. Scrooge's friends have physically deserted him and the school for their own families, but that doesn't imply that they're malicious about it. For Scrooge to be deserted by his family, though, especially at Christmastime, is another matter.

Scrooge explains the situation. "His mother is dead. His father holds him a grudge." He goes on to reveal the same situation as in Alastair Sim's version: That Scrooge's mother died giving birth to him.

The Spirit continues trying to push Scrooge into an emotional reaction. "Weep for the boy if the tears will come." But Scrooge isn't having it. He doesn't feel pity for his former self, but pride in how he adapted and overcame his suffering. "He has his friends," Scrooge explains, "even on this day," referring to the book his young self is reading. Old Scrooge calls out some specific examples that Dickens mentioned: Ali Baba and other characters from the Arabian Nights. And then I love what the script does next. Instead of having these characters make some kind of hallucinatory appearance, the film has the Spirit continue goading Scrooge.

"But not a real child to talk to. Not a living person," she says.

Scrooge disagrees. "Robinson Crusoe, not real? And Friday? And the parrot?" Scott delivers the line with such calm conviction and I want to high five him. As an introvert who spent a lot of time in books as a kid, I totally relate. They are real to Scrooge and this simple argument makes the point Dickens was after, but better.

Scrooge goes on being proud of himself. "He made do, this boy." Once again, this is a Scrooge that I deeply relate to.

The Spirit gives up on this one and suggests that they look at another Christmas Day. She looks towards the door and a young woman walks in. Fan.

She looks to be about the same age as Young Man Scrooge, but we know from Scrooge's earlier comments that she has to be older than him. She tells Scrooge that she's come to bring him home and has to repeat it a couple of times. That's how Dickens wrote it:
"I have come to bring you home, dear brother!" said the child, clapping her tiny hands, and bending down to laugh. "To bring you home, home, home!"
But it takes on a different tone in this version. When she says it the first time, Scrooge's face - initially excited to see her - falls as he tries to process what she's said. Her repeating "home" doesn't make it any better though and he looks disappointed as he sinks back down to his bench. As the conversation goes on, I start to realize that he's not just trying to wrap his head around the news. He's actually dreading the thought of going home. His father's grudge must be severe indeed.

Fan tries to set Scrooge at ease by saying that Father is much kinder than he used to be, but of course that's a relative statement. Scrooge clearly doesn't know what to expect, but he puts on a smile for his sister's sake. "You're quite a woman, Little Fan."

"And you are to be a man," she says, "and never come back here." That's straight from Dickens, too, but we'll get some detail to that statement shortly. Because Fan hasn't come alone. She takes Scrooge's hand and says, "We mustn't keep Father waiting." Dun dun DUUUN!

Cut to the exterior of the school and a stern-faced older man is standing by the carriage. He has a severe, black hat and he's holding a cane that he uses to stop Scrooge from running up to embrace him. It seems weird that Scrooge would run up to his dad, but he and Fan have both rushed out of the building holding hands and Fan's excitement has temporarily infected Scrooge.

Father looks over Scrooge judgmentally and declares, "They haven't been overfeeding you, that's certain." Rationally, that's a complaint about the school, but it comes across as critical of Scrooge himself and I suspect represents a lot of interactions between these two. Scrooge tries to make small talk with, "I've grown, I think," but his father's only response is, "Yes, most boys do."

Father explains that Scrooge is indeed not returning to school. He's arranged an apprenticeship with Mr Fezziwig, who expects Scrooge in three days. Fan complains that she wanted more time with Scrooge, but Father insists that "three days is quite long enough for both of us." He adds, "Don't you think, Ebenezer?" To which Scrooge replies that it will be "quite long enough."

During this conversation, Scott's Old Scrooge has moved behind Young Scrooge and is looking over his shoulder at Father. Old Scrooge is hard-faced and disapproving. It's a powerful, fascinating image. Scott's Scrooge is older now than this memory of his father, and likely more wealthy and powerful. (There's no evidence that this is a cheap, rundown school. If anything, Father's comment about the food implies that he expects a certain level of value from it that he may not be getting, but I might be reading too much into that.) Scrooge is likely hating the fact that these are but shadows right now, because he clearly has something to say to this man. He continues glaring as the family gets into the carriage and drives off.

Once the carriage is gone, the spell is broken and Scrooge talks to the Ghost about Fan. He appreciates her generous nature and says that she died too young. "Old enough to bear a child," says the Ghost, not confusing the quantity in this version. The conversation turns to Fred and Scrooge is matter-of-fact about it. He acknowledges Fred's existence, but doesn't seem to have any feelings about his nephew one way or another.

The Ghost tries to change that by pointing out that Fred bears a strong resemblance to Fan. Thinking about it, I don't know how true that is in terms of facial structure or whatever, but Fred's sincerity and earnestness does seem like the product of being raised by someone as kind and gentle as Scrooge's sister. I think that's what the Ghost is trying to point out, anyway. That Fan still lives through her son if only Scrooge will see it.

Scrooge briefly entertains the idea, but then brushes it off by saying that he never noticed. The Spirt expresses surprise and says that she's beginning to think that Scrooge has gone through life with his eyes closed. "Open them," she commands. "Open them wide." And with that I think she gets at the heart of this Scrooge's problem. These memories aren't trying to reboot old emotions, but an attempt to show Scrooge things that he's missed because he was so inwardly focused. As she said when they first met, her light isn't just the light of recollection; it's the light of Truth.

1 comment:

Caffeinated Joe said...

I know two of the last names of the boys are Costas and Estes. Not sure why or for what reason, but I did pick them up when I watched this the other day.

I like this version almost as much as I like Patrick Stewart's Scrooge. He seems very competent, even if he is misguided in how he is going about his life. He seems like a real person who has just gone down a dark path for far too long.


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