Thursday, November 29, 2012
'Merry Christmas, Uncle!' | Reginald Owen (1938)
In Reginald Owen's Christmas Carol, the story opened not with Scrooge in his counting-house, but with his nephew's meeting a couple of Bob Cratchit's kids on the street. We got to see how good-natured Fred is and - through his conversation with Peter and Tiny Tim - learned a little about what people think of his Uncle Scrooge.
After leaving the boys, Fred continues his walk towards Scrooge's office, grinning at shoppers and cheerfully brushing snow from his coat after being knocked into a snowdrift in the last scene. He soon arrives at the building with the Scrooge & Marley sign and it's humanizing to see him pause to look up at the sign and collect himself. He looks worried for a second, but then visibly shakes it off, smiles sadly, and goes inside.
He doesn't burst in and force his cheerfulness on the place. He opens the door and Cratchit - who's sitting right there - doesn't even look up. He sort of half-acknowledges that someone's just come in, but doesn't turn to see who it is. When Fred calls him on it and asks, "Aren't you going to wish me a Merry Christmas?" Cratchit looks stressed, but tears himself away from his work to greet his visitor. He quickly explains that he thought it was Scrooge coming in, implying that he was trying to look busy.
A quick word about Gene Lockhart, who plays Cratchit in this version. Not a thin man. I like his performance quite a bit - his Cratchit is persecuted, but refuses to lose his Christmas spirit - but it kind of goes against the idea that he's so poor when he looks so well-fed.
Fred and Cratchit exchange Christmas greetings and Fred explains that he's already seen Peter and Tim. He passes along the grocery list that they asked him to deliver to Cratchit, which embarrasses the clerk a little, but Fred says that he was pleased to do it.
Fred notices how cold it is in the room and wonders about the small fire. I like that there is actually a small fire in Cratchit's room. It's obviously not big enough to warm the area, but it's not so small as to be humorous. Fred says that he foresaw the need for warmth at Scrooge's and provided for it. Eyes sparkling, he produces a bottle of port from his coat pocket. You can probably tell that Barry MacKay is my favorite Fred. He remains consistently cheerful and charming throughout his performance without ever becoming obnoxious with it. I want to celebrate Christmas with his Fred.
When he and Cratchit realize that they don't have a cup to drink from, Cratchit is emboldened to go get one from Scrooge's office. Fred sniffs it when Cratchit hands it to him and turns up his nose. "What is this?" he asks.
"Cough medicine," replies Cratchit.
Fred laughs, but you can tell he's a little disgusted as he cleans out the glass with his handkerchief. "I thought so."
The merriment makes Cratchit even more brave and he declares that they will have some more coal for the fire. Egged on by Fred, he goes back into Scrooge's office and emerges with a heaping shovel full of coal that he throws onto the fire.
Providing fodder for all those Christmas Carol slash writers, Fred declares, "Come on now, Bob! Let's drink a loving cup! You sweeten it!"
Cratchit takes the cup and has it to his lips when ominous music sets in and the door opens to reveal Reginald Owen as Ebenezer Scrooge. He stands still for a moment, taking in the scene with no expression.
As Scrooge silently closes the door, Fred puts the wine bottle on Cratchit's desk with a bemused look on his face that says, "Oh crap. We've been caught." Cratchit, of course, is considerably more worried. As Fred reaches to shake hands with his uncle and wish him a Merry Christmas, Cratchit sets down the glass and hurries to the fire to pick out as much unburnt coal as he can with his poor hands. Scrooge, calling Christmas a humbug, walks into his office, casually noticing what Cratchit's doing as he passes.
Fred follows Scrooge into the office and the conversation continues. Scrooge takes off his hat and coat, revealing a ridiculous tuft of hair on top of his bald head. I've always assumed this a bad bald wig, but it does make Owen's otherwise powerful Scrooge rather pitiable, so maybe it's intentional.
The conversation goes more or less as Dickens wrote it, with Scrooge's continuing to settle into his office throughout. I love the staging here. It's not just Scrooge and Fred talking to each other over a desk. They're both moving around the room the whole time, giving the scene energy that it doesn't usually have in other versions. I wonder if that'll continue throughout the movie.
When Scrooge says that he'd like to bury Christmas celebrants with a stake of holly through their hearts, he means it. Owen's Scrooge shows none of the subliminal humanity that Seymour Hicks gave his version. At least, not at this stage.
Fred - for once - is shocked by Scrooge. "Uncle!"
Scrooge looks pissed. "Nephew!" He'd physically remove Fred from the building if he was strong enough. Since he's not, he orders Fred to let him keep Christmas in his own way.
That softens Fred a little as he says, "But you don't keep it."
Scrooge turns his back on his nephew. "Let me leave it alone then."
The conversation seems to be over, but as an afterthought, Scrooge looks back at Fred and says, "Much good it has ever done you." In the novel, this flows naturally out of Scrooge's last comment, but the way it's done here, Scrooge has suddenly re-engaged with the discussion. We're not sure why. Probably, he's still angry and is just being mean. There's something in his eyes though - and maybe I'm reading too much into it or seeing softness that isn't really there - that makes me wonder if he's not challenging Fred to convince him.
If so, Fred rises to the challenge. His "It has done me good" speech isn't word-for-word what Dickens wrote, but it captures the spirit well enough, assisted by sentimental, heavenly background music. MacKay's delivery of the speech is skillful. It's gentle and warm; never cloying or cheesy. Scrooge really does visibly soften during this. He keeps trying to turn away, but can't. And while he's drawn in to Fred's speech, he can't maintain eye contact the whole time. This is a Scrooge who's bitterly angry about the world, but searching - deep, deep down - for a reason to engage with it.
We also get a shot of Cratchit, listening gratefully from the other room and being emotionally stirred. By the end of the speech, he's clapping enthusiastically. Like in the novel, he suddenly realizes what he's doing and rushes from his chair to go poke the fire. He doesn't extinguish it the process - probably because it's still got some of that extra coal on it - but it's still quite funny thanks to Lockhart's comedic ability.
Scrooge, already looking for a way to escape Fred's speech, comes into Cratchit's room and threatens his job. Cratchit seems genuinely concerned about the threat (this is the first he's received in this version) and can't get back to his desk quickly enough.
The mood of the speech broken, Scrooge returns to his office and compliments Fred on the power of his speaking. He's not looking at Fred though; he seems to want to dismiss him quickly. Fred realizes this and comes to the reason for his visit, introducing his wife's name in the process. "Come and dine with Bess and me tomorrow."
Scrooge doesn't seem to know who Bess is, so Fred clarifies that she's his fiancé. He also reveals that he's dining with "her people," but that he's sure they'd welcome a visit from Scrooge as well.
Scrooge expresses surprise that Fred's engaged, so we skip the whole "I'll see you in Hell" part. Instead, the conversation goes immediately to why Fred's getting married. Fred's being engaged instead of already married is a significant change from Dickens' text. As is Scrooge's ignorance about the relationship. It eliminates that as a reason for Scrooge to be angry at Fred. In fact, Fred would please the literary Scrooge when he says that Bess and he are waiting to be married until after Fred can afford to support her.
Another change is that Scrooge hasn't yet declined the invitation, having been sidetracked by Fred's news. Nor is there any indication that this is an annual request. The implication is that Fred's inviting Scrooge because he's recently engaged and wants the families to meet.
Scrooge suspects other motives though and accuses Fred of wanting money so that he can get married. Fred laughs and says that wasn't it, but Scrooge doesn't believe him. "Good afternoon," he says, picking up Dickens' version of the conversation.
We don't know what Scrooge and Fred's previous relationship was. We can be sure that they've never been friends, but there's no indication that Scrooge holds him any special ill will. All we can tell is that Scrooge resents his nephew's holiday spirit and now thinks he's after Scrooge's money. (Though it's possible that he's pretending to be suspicious because he's afraid to connect, especially after Fred's speech.)
Fred - refusing to lose his cool - laughs heartily and tries to part on friendly terms, but Scrooge keeps good-afternooning him until he gives up and leaves, pausing to exchange some last, warm wishes with Cratchit. On his way out, he has the opportunity to wish a Merry Christmas to two other gentlemen who are just coming in.