Monday, December 19, 2011

Old Sinner: Michael Caine (1992)

The Muppet Christmas Carol opens with an overture of the music it'll feature throughout the movie, but there are some sleigh bells early on - and of course the name of the movie - to put you in the holiday spirit.

It also, like so many of the other adaptations, starts with the London skyline, including Saint Paul's cathedral off in the distance. As the credits and the orchestra play, the camera pulls back farther and farther, but instead of revealing the expanse of the old city it stays low over the rooftops, creating intimacy with the place. As the camera skims over buildings, barely clearing some of them, it creates a mystery about what's going on inside or in the street below.

Finally, the shot pulls down next to a roof and pans enough to reveal the street. It's a Christmas scene with lots of Victorian shoppers walking around and cheerfully greeting each other. The camera keeps panning though and on a low arch we see a small, frog-like creature eating a carrot. If you didn't already know about the Muppets, this would be your first hint that this isn't "our" London. The camera keeps moving down, getting us closer to the street, and we see a couple of pigs in Victorian clothing talking about their last meal while planning their next. (Sounds like post-dinner conversation at my parents' house, actually.) As the camera keeps moving, we notice that among London's human population a pig is driving a carriage full of talking melons, a dog throws snowballs at a frog and a chicken, and creepy monsters lurk on rooftops. All of this is apparently normal.

If you do know the Muppets, the first recognizable face is Lew Zealand who's on the street hawking his boomerang fish. Near him though are Gonzo the Great and Rizzo the Rat, running an apple stand. Rizzo's making it difficult by eating most of the stock, but the two stop arguing once they notice the audience. Gonzo welcomes us to the movie and claims to be Charles Dickens, something that Rizzo finds hard to believe. They argue about this until Rizzo tells Gonzo to prove his identity by telling us the story of A Christmas Carol, something that Gonzo is happy to do.

"The Marleys were dead to begin with," he says before being interrupted by Rizzo. There are a lot of interruptions in Gonzo's intro, with Rizzo playing the part of an audience unfamiliar with the story. He shivers at the creepiness of the death theme and expresses curiosity about the Marleys' surviving business partner. (We'll critique the decision to pluralize Scrooge's late partner another year.) Gonzo also identifies Scrooge's occupation for us: "a shrewd moneylender." Gonzo points him out as he comes around a corner and the music begins again.

"There he is," Gonzo says. "Mr. Ebenezer Scrooge." Michael Caine's version, mostly in shadow at first, stalks London's streets with the entitlement of an English Lord and the menace of Jack the Ripper. His black cloak snaps in the wind as he passes.

"Say," asks Rizzo, "is it getting colder out here?" He shivers again.

Scrooge strikes the cobblestones with his cane in loud raps. He doesn't need it to walk, but it succeeds in making him look powerful and important. Between it and the tapping of his shoes, he's keeping time to the music as a couple of human-looking Muppets watch him and begin to sing. Soon, the entire neighborhood is joining in, canorously complaining about how mean and nasty Scrooge is.

The song does most of the work of introducing Scrooge's personality, though Gonzo jumps in at one point with some quotes from Dickens. The song finally ends with Scrooge at his place of business, spinning towards the crowd so that we can finally see his face as he disperses the crowd with a glare.

"Humbug," he says; mostly to himself.

He enters the building and we linger on the sign next to the door. It still says Scrooge & Marley, but it's a nice sign. Scrooge is well-dressed too. Caine's version isn't such a miser that he's unwilling to show off a little.

After some more quoting and color-commentary by Gonzo and Rizzo, we join Scrooge inside where he confronts a customer. Behind Scrooge, Kermit the Frog scribbles away with a quill.

"Bob Cratchit?" says Scrooge. He looks bored by the shaking, fearful client. He points his cane in the unfortunate man's face. "Who is this?"

Cratchit explains that it's Mr. Applegate here to talk about his mortgage. Kermit's Cratchit seems unaffected by Scrooge's posturing. He pauses before the word mortgage, knowing what Scrooge's response will be and not really relishing it, but for the most part he keeps scribbling away. He's seen all this before.

Mr. Applegate begins to ramble on with excuses and apologies and requests not to be yelled at. Scrooge ignores him and lets him babble, going into his office to put away his cape, hat, and cane. When Scrooge is done, he says not a word, but returns to pick up Applegate - who's still explaining - and toss him into the street. During this, we see that Cratchit's not the only clerk in the business. There's also quite a large staff of rats who are considerably more nervous than Cratchit.

Scrooge tells Cratchit he wants to deal with the eviction notices for tomorrow. When Cratchit complains that tomorrow is Christmas, Scrooge says, "Very well. You may gift-wrap them."

The rats take the huge stack of notices and some slapstick ensues as Scrooge explains why Christmas is such a busy time for them. "People preparing feasts; giving parties; spending the mortgage money on frivolities." He's working as he says it; barely looking up. It's almost as if he's coaching Cratchit. Caine's is an arrogant Scrooge, so he obviously doesn't see Cratchit as a peer, but he does seem to think of Cratchit as a trusted employee. Or at least a valuable member of the team. "One might say that December is the Foreclosure Season." He looks up at Cratchit with an ugly smile. "Harvest time for the moneylenders."

At this point the rats encourage Kermit to ask for an extra shovelful of coal for the fire. Once he's broken the ice about it they jump in and explain how cold they all are, being pretty obnoxious about it. Scrooge snaps at them and asks how they'd like to be unemployed, roaring the last word. Any tolerance he shows the competent Cratchit isn't shared with the rats. They get all the venom that most versions of the story reserve for poor Bob.

When Cratchit observes, "I believe you've convinced them once again, Mr. Scrooge," Scrooge actually laughs. Partly because he's cowed the poor bookkeepers, sure, but it also looks like he's genuinely amused by Cratchit's dry humor.

I'm not sure I want to be talking about this yet, but one of the things that's most interesting to track from adaptation to adaptation is Scrooge's transformation. We've already started to notice the differences in portrayals of Scrooge's misery and I suspect that how Scrooge is introduced will affect the point at which he begins to change. I don't want to make any predictions yet except to notice that Caine's Scrooge - while in no way kind - starts with a bit of a leg up on the others thanks to his relative softness towards Cratchit. Having noticed this, I'd expect this Scrooge's biggest change to occur when he finally sees Cratchit's family. But it'll be a while before we see if I'm right.

I guess this is as good a time as any to mention that while this isn't one of my favorite Muppet movies, it is a solid Christmas Carol adaptation. A lot of it is played for laughs of course, but the essence of the story doesn't change and the movie makes some interesting choices to talk about. Cratchit is obviously more competent because he's being played by Kermit who always provides that kind of calmness in the midst of chaos, but it's also a legitimate way of interpreting the character. Such a fascinating contrast with David Warner's Cratchit from yesterday.


Ken O said...

I'm a big fan of this one. I wouldn't put it above The Muppet Movie or Great Muppet Caper, but for me it is above Take Manhattan and the others.

So it is pretty much my favorite adaption of the Christmas Carol.

And incase I don't get to it later this week. Merry Christmas to you and your family Michael. I hope its a good one.

Michael May said...

Thanks, Ken! Merry Christmas to you guys, too!


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