Sunday, December 18, 2016

“More of Gravy than of Grave” | Albert Finney (1970)



Index of other entries in The Christmas Carol Project

I like how the musical Scrooge does the knocker scene. Scrooge is unlocking his door and being rather slow about it when Marley's face slowly imposes itself over the lion-faced knocker. It's such a gradual transition (not faithful to Dickens, but who cares?) that Scrooge isn't startled by it; he's intrigued. And Marley's eyes are closed as if he's sleeping (or dead, sure), so there's no threat there. Scrooge is drawn to the face, not sure what it is, because obviously it can't be what it looks like.

Eventually, Marley's eyes slowly open and turn to Scrooge. He quietly exhales Scrooge's name and then goes back to resting. Scrooge says, "Marley?" and actually reaches out a hand to touch the face, but it's already disappearing. I like the implication that Marley isn't waiting at the door to "get" Scrooge. He's asked for the opportunity to help Scrooge (it's a chance and hope of Marley's "procuring," remember), but he isn't in charge of how it goes down. In this version, I get the feeling that Marley is placed at the door knocker by whatever forces have allowed him this visit. He's not as surprised as Scrooge, obviously, but he's also not 100% prepared.

Scrooge goes on inside and does the thing from Dickens that only a version or two have even hinted at. He checks the back of the door. In fact, he looks at the back, looks at the front again, and then again at the back. Albert Finney's Scrooge is pitifully mean, but he's also smart. He's trying to figure this out. Seeing nothing, he declares it "humbug."

His house is similar to Reginald Owen's, with cobwebs everywhere. But it doesn't just look like a haunted house. At the top of the stairs, Scrooge sees the ghostly hearse. It's not going up the stairs; it comes out of a dark room and into the hall before disappearing through another door. As it passes Scrooge, the driver lifts his hat and says, "Merry Christmas, Guv'ner! Merry Christmas!" Hard to write this one off as a figment of Scrooge's imagination. Maybe the Powers That Be were disappointed with Marley's mild introduction and decided to spook Scrooge up a bit more.

Scrooge is quick to get inside his rooms after that. He rushes in, locks the door, and listens at it for a second before moving on. There's no maid waiting for this Scrooge and he hasn't left his fire smoldering all day, either. He lights his own fire and puts a jar of broth (procured by one of the vendors he threatened on the way home) on the grate to warm. There's a bowl already on the hob, but Scrooge doesn't eat gruel from it. He pours the broth in and that's how he's planning to finish off his meager supper.

He's still pouring though when smoke cascades out of the chimney and he hears Marley's voice call his name again. "It's humbug still," Scrooge declares. Then shouts up the chimney, "I'll not believe it!" And in keeping with that, I notice that this Scrooge hasn't searched his apartment like the rest of them have done. He's a determined one, this Scrooge.

He begins to eat, but a strong wind from another room calls his attention over there and he goes to investigate. In the other room, a servant's bell begins to ring and is quickly joined by its two partners. Other bells start noising off, too, and Scrooge is forced to cover his ears. He may not believe what's going on, but he can't ignore it, either. They cut off abruptly, so Scrooge humphs and sits back down again to eat. That's when he hears the chains.

Most of the animated and live-action versions are skipping the suspense of having the chains begin in the cellar and work their way upstairs. Just a few clanks in the hallway and then Marley's there. Or almost there. It sounds like Marley's right outside the door, but he doesn't come in right away. First, Scrooge's candle goes out as a nod to Marley's influence over the fire in the book. Then Scrooge rushes over to the door to double- and triple-lock it. This gets another "Scroooooooge!" out of the still unseen Marley. Scrooge is good and freaked out now, so he rushes over to the fireplace, grabs a poker, and brandishes it like a very shakily held rapier.

One, two, three, the locks on Scrooge's door undo themselves and the door creaks open to reveal Marley standing there. He's not transparent, but is pale and dressed entirely in white. Instead of having a personal wind blow his hair, Alec Guinness (getting in some early practice as a Force Ghost) moves as if he's in a different atmosphere from the real world. He holds his arms loose and his whole body looks like its being pushed around as if he's walking under water.

Guinness' Marley continues to be otherworldly as the scene continues. Some of the other versions have Marley and Scrooge interacting as I imagine they did before Marley's death, but this Marley is very separated from what he used to be. When Scrooge asks who he is, Marley stresses that "in life... I was your partner." He isn't anymore. He isn't even human anymore. Scrooge invites/orders him to sit down and Marley supernaturally draws a chair over towards him and then sits on empty air next to it. It's funny, but yet another reminder that this ain't what Scrooge is used to.

This unnaturalness seems to work against Marley at first. Scrooge of course continues claiming not to believe. It's just too unreal. In this version, he says that he's already been experiencing a stomach disorder, so he declares that it's causing him hallucinations. He goes back to eating his broth, fussing at Marley about all the things Scrooge may have eaten that are causing him to see things. When he finally decides that "you are an old potato!" Marley loses his cool.

He floats into the air and screams horribly, clanging two cash boxes together. Scrooge tosses his broth away and cowers before Marley, finally admitting that he believes. From here, the dynamic has changed. Marley is still very floaty in the way he moves, but dealing with Scrooge seems to have grounded his thoughts at least. He speaks strongly and with authority and Scrooge seems willing to listen. At one point, Scrooge says, "Tell me more, Marley, but speak comfort to me."

Marley of course has none to give. He said so in Dickens, too, but most versions skip those lines and go straight to talking about the three spirits. This Marley wickedly points out that "comfort comes from other sources" and is given "to other kinds of men than you." As he says it, he holds up both hands to block Scrooge's face and basically dismiss him. Not that he's judging Scrooge though, because he goes back to including himself in Scrooge's group. Marley has no comfort either. Comfort is outside of his power or experience. Instead, he wraps his chain around Scrooge's arm as a preview of Scrooge's future. "Mankind should be our business," he says, "but we seldom attend to it." And then he adds ominously, "As you soon shall see..."

At that, a moaning wind picks up outside the house and the window flings itself open to make it even louder. His chain still wrapped around Scrooge, Marley flies out with Scrooge and up into the air. This is where the host of phantoms are, moaning eerily as Marley begins a quick song:

See the phantoms filling the sky around you.
They astound you,
I can tell,
These inhabitants of Hell.

Poor wretches whom the hand of Heaven ignores.
Beware! Beware! Beware
Lest their dreadful fate be yours!

"As you soon shall see" apparently refers to the throng of spirits. Scrooge and Marley aren't the only ones who have ignored humanity. And the price for doing that is the same for everyone. Marley and Scrooge fly against the flow of ghostly traffic and Scrooge gets a good look at the specters. The special effects aren't great - they're just people in white rags and rubber masks - but the masks are scary enough and Scrooge covers his eyes.

When he pulls his hands down, he's back at his fire. There's no sign of Marley and first-time viewers would think that the scene is over. No mention of what the other phantoms are after or even that three more spirits are coming to visit Scrooge. But Marley isn't done with Scrooge yet. He's just giving Scrooge a breather and the opportunity to declare the whole experience a dream.

Scrooge's candle is still out, so he takes a tallow wick to the fireplace and lights it. When he brings it back to the candle though, the candle is lit and Marley is standing there. "It's not a dream, Ebenezer." He declares that pity for Scrooge is why he's come and that there is a chance for Scrooge to escape the fate that Marley and the others suffer.

Marley says that all three spirits will come that night staring at 1:00 am and on the hour for the next two after that. By the end of his instructions though, Marley's mind is starting to wander. He's taken too long and is being called back to the spirit world to continue his punishment. He backs out of the room and the door closes itself behind him.

Instead of being scared, Scrooge seems eager to hear more. He goes to the door to follow Marley, but is surprised that the door is still triple-locked, just as Scrooge had it before Marley appeared. Suspicious now, he goes over to the window that he and Marley flew out of earlier. It's also closed and bolted. Now Scrooge is starting to feel like a sucker again. He goes to his bedroom, shouts, "Three ghosts? Three humbugs!" and closes the door. When he gets into bed and draws the curtains, he's ready to forget the whole thing.

1 comment:

Caffeinated Joe said...

For some reason, the term "musical" makes me think people would toss this version off as "not as serious" stuff. But from what you have written, it seems to me like the writers paid attention to the text in detail and worked to get it on screen. Maybe a bit different, but the heart is there.

Sort of weird, I guess, to come here and comment on this post. Sort of a Guinness-Star Wars-Carrie Fisher connection. Sad day indeed.

Hope you had a Merry Christmas.

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