Monday, December 17, 2018

“I Was a Boy Here!” | Reginald Owen (1938)

The 1938 Christmas Carol has the Spirit leading Scrooge out of his window and in a flight, first over the city of London, but that fades and becomes a snowy country scene. (I don't know how this section was shot, but I assume the filmmakers created miniatures and they are amazing.) Scrooge is already smiling while still in the air. He's got no fear of falling at this point and seems to be enjoying himself. I don't know if he recognizes the specific places yet, but it may be bringing back childhood memories already.

They hone in on a particular building: a large mansion surrounded by a walled estate. The camera lowers as it slowly zooms in, indicating that Scrooge and Spirit are landing here. There's a clever fade from the miniature to the front gates of a location shot where the camera is still lowering from a high angle to ground level. Through the gate, we see a crowd gathered around a large carriage. There's a lot of pleasant conversation as people direct the loading of their things and make their goodbyes to each other.

Another fade and we're looking at Scrooge and the Spirit standing near the wall. This is where Scrooge exclaims that he recognizes the place, but he doesn't say that he was bred here. He just says that it's his old school. By tweaking the line, the film has already made a statement about Scrooge's experience. In Dickens, the area of the country is a source of joy for Scrooge, while the school is a symbol of loneliness for him. Now, the school is a joyful memory, as Owen clearly indicates through his acting. He's smiling and leads the Spirit through the gate and into the yard for a closer look.

The full carriage pulls away from the school with lots of shouting, waving boys aboard. As it leaves, another pulls up for the next load of kids. Scrooge waves at the first carriage, recognizing several of the students on it. These are his friends and he has good feelings about them. He calls out a bunch of names (Harry, Joe, Tommy, and Percy) before getting to one that I recognize: Dick Wilkins (Scrooge includes the last name as he calls, extra excited by seeing his particular kid). If I'm not misremembering, Dick is Scrooge's fellow apprentice at Fezziwig's, but this version has him and Scrooge also being classmates. I like that. School was generally a happy place for this Scrooge and the place where he formed one of his longest lasting friendships.

Scrooge is deeply affected by being here and the Spirit notices that he's trembling. He blames it on the cold, as he also does later when she notices something on his cheek (which is good, because in Dickens, Scrooge tries to claim that the thing on his cheek is a pimple instead of a tear and that's super lame). I really enjoy their interactions in this version. Scrooge has a huge smile on his face and is enjoying this, only sobering when the Spirit tosses straight-faced zingers at him to make him think. She sets him up ("You remember this way?"), lets him respond enthusiastically ("Remember it? I could walk it blindfold!"), then sweetly nails him ("Strange to have forgotten it for so many years") before leading the way herself. Maybe I'm just in love with Ann Rutherford, but the way she plays Scrooge and his emotions is beautiful to watch. It doesn't appear to bother Scrooge, either. She's so gentle about it that he's smiling even after she's stung him.

Owen's Scrooge is going to be an easy transformation, I think. The early scenes showed him to be a lonely man who seems to be interested in human connection, but doesn't know how to appropriately ask for it. He may even think that he's putting signals out, but his abrasiveness keeps people away. The Ghost is showing him a time when he had that connection and it's rebooting his system. If he can remember how he used to relate to people before he erected some of the barriers he's currently got in place, he can be saved.

The Spirit leads Scrooge to the front door of the school where Scrooge recognizes his younger self saying goodbye to a boy named Jack. Young Scrooge is in his early teens, because this version is combining Dickens' two visions at school into one. That means that we lose the Ali Baba and Robinson Crusoe references, but I don't miss them. This version is making a different point and it sticks to it marvelously well.

Scrooge and Jack are friendly with each and Jack asks if Scrooge's parents are coming for him. Scrooge explains that he's staying at school (and that he always does), but describes it as a mutual decision reached by him and his father. He's not very convincing about it though and Jack criticizes Scrooge's dad. Surprisingly, Scrooge defends the old man and gets a little huffy. Jack apologizes and then has to leave because he's being called to the carriage. Once he's aboard, he and the other departing students wave goodbye to Scrooge and wish him Merry Christmas.

So in this version, Young Scrooge isn't neglected by his friends at all. They seem to like him and his only problem is that his father doesn't seem to want him around, which stings especially hard this time of year. Scrooge gives a sad wave to his classmates, then walks dejectedly back into the building. He wanders into a classroom where he looks out the window and breaks down into tears. The score is lovely in this version and grows especially beautiful and heart-wrenching during this scene.

The classroom looks nice and not at all rundown. This may or may not suggest anything about the finances of Scrooge's dad. The point seems to be just that this is generally a happy place for Scrooge, though no substitute for family. He wants to be home and is heartbroken that he's not welcome there.

He's already composed himself though by the time the schoolmaster appears. This isn't a sad, pathetic character like in Dickens, but a jolly-looking man with a kindly voice who announces that Scrooge's sister has come to see him.

Fan is younger than Scrooge; about nine years old. And the little actor who plays her (Ira Stevens) is wonderfully accurate to Scrooge's description. She's bubbly and joyful about bringing Scrooge home; almost annoyingly so, but Scrooge is so delighted to see her and to hear her message that it's impossible to be irritated. She's young, so she's focused on Scrooge's coming home for Christmas, but she does throw in the line about his going to work after the holiday and not returning to school. That sounds like a kindness in Dickens, but I can't help but think that this Scrooge may not see it that way. He looks understandably confused by Fan's announcement. There's a lot for him to process in there.

I don't know if Scrooge ever got any answers about why his father has changed his plans for Scrooge. The film doesn't suggest any and the point of the scene is that Scrooge more or less had a decent childhood except for the lack of this one, very important relationship with his dad.

As Young Scrooge leaves the room with Fan, Old Scrooge and the Spirit talk about Fan's love for Scrooge and the Spirit brings up her "children."

"One child," Scrooge corrects, absent-mindedly because he's still thinking about his sister.

"Your nephew, Fred," the Spirit pokes. Scrooge looks at her, getting what she's saying and doubtlessly remembering his last interaction with his awesomely jovial relative. Her point made, the Spirit sweetly, almost shyly invites Scrooge to come with her to the next scene.

1 comment:

Caffeinated Joe said...

Seems like this might be the best version of the scene, so far. Even with the subtle changes or omissions. Haven't seen this one in ages, myself. I want to now, though.


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