Saturday, December 31, 2016

Out with the Old



For a lot of folks, 2016 can't end quickly enough. And I'm not going to argue otherwise. It's been a dark year. There have been more deaths (both celebrity and personal) than seems possible to deal with. And the US Presidential election accentuated how divided the country has become.

I have lots of thoughts on both of those things, but I don't think that this blog is the place for them, except for maybe one exception. Carrie Fisher's death hit me pretty hard.

She was a huge part of my childhood, but one of the things I love most about having new Star Wars movies isn't that I got to see more Leia Organa. It's that all the interviews gave Carrie Fisher so many opportunities to display her fearless honesty about how she saw the world. Whether she was making jokes to Colbert about having to lose a fourth of her weight for Force Awakens (so the "fourth" wasn't with her) or sharing her experiences and wisdom with Daisy Ridley, the Carrie Fisher I saw over the past year is the one I mourn most. That's the lady we need more of. And that's why her death really punched me in the heart.

But for the most part - for me, personally - 2016 has been a pretty good year. I got to take a trip to Tallahassee where I grew up, so I was able to reconnect with a lot of old friends and introduce them to Diane and David. I also got to spend some good (if too little) time with Nerd Lunch's Carlin Trammel and his family and also the ever-awesome Paxton Holley.

And speaking of the Nerd Lunch fellas, 2016 was the year when the podcasting bug bit deep and I co-launched three new shows: Mystery Movie Night (with my pal Erik Johnson and a bunch of my family members), Hellbent for Letterbox (with Pax!), and Greystoked (with my buddy Noel Thingvall).

I didn't get as much writing done as I'd planned to, but I'm working on a pitch with a very talented artist and work is progressing on the Kill All Monsters omnibus re-scheduled for 2017 from Dark Horse. Hopefully, I'll be better next year at integrating writing and podcasting, because I love both of those things.

I saw a bunch of movies, too, but that's a subject for another post. Or series of posts, because that's how I like to spend my January. Here's hoping that 2017 is a better year for everyone. Happy New Year.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Klaus: A Christmas Comic Book Review [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

Comic books featuring Santa Claus go back to the Golden Age. The Funnies, Disney Parade, Santa Claus Funnies; the four color Santa has been drawn by Irvin Tripp, Arthur E Jameson, Walt Kelly, and (much later) even John Byrne. Holiday comics are a guaranteed one-shot sales booster. They come and go like Bing Crosby tunes, Grinch cartoons, and fruit cake. So imagine my surprise when in November 2015 a comic appears called Klaus. It’s written by British comic book writer, Grant Morrison (who gave us Justice League revamps, Dark Knight adventures, and lately 18 Days) and ran until August of 2016. Christmas comics in the summer! Maybe that’s why he was worthy of Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 2010. That takes some writing chops.

The seven-issue mini-series is set in the town of Grimsvig, a Medieval settlement ruled over by a cruel baron. He has made virtual slaves of the men and forbidden toys, merriment, and the Yule holiday. Sound familiar? The baron’s name isn’t Burgermeister Meisterburger. It’s not Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town, the 1970 children’s special written by Romeo Muller. Morrison begins in the same place then deviates into a power struggle between toymaker and baron that is closer to Game of Thrones than kiddie cartoons. We learn about the character of Klaus, who lives alone in the woods with his pet wolf Lilli and uses the magic of the forest, and how he was framed for murder by the baron who has also stolen his love, the beautiful Dagmar.

Klaus’s one-man war on the enemies of Christmas will appeal to comic fans who like their knights dark and their heroes bloody. Again, different than the Rankin-Bass cartoon, this comic has a nice, dark, almost Lovecraftian vein to it. The baron is not a madman, but in league with a demon trapped under the town’s vein of coal. The baron tells everyone the coal is for the king who will visit at Yule, but is in fact being cleared to free the monster. When this creature escapes we are in for a great sword-and-sorcery style fight. The terrible demon is the basis for the anti-Santa, Krampus, who wishes to devour the town’s children.

Morrison describes the comic thusly: “Klaus is the story of our hero’s greatest challenge and how he overcame it. This is the tale of one man and his wolf against a totalitarian state and the ancient evil that sustains it. Part action thriller, part sword-and-sorcery, part romance, part science fiction, Klaus has given us free rein to revamp, reinvent, and re-imagine a classic superhero for the 21st century. He’s making a list and he’s checking it twice. This Christmas it’s all about psychedelic shamanism, anti-authoritarian guerrilla gift-giving, and the jingle bells of freedom!”

The artwork in Klaus was done consistently throughout by Dan Mora, who also did the color. His work has a little Disney appeal, but can do all the realistic stuff it needs to do for a sword-and-sorcery tale, much as European artists like Crisse do. His designs for the evil Big Bad are creepy and believable at the same time that they are utterly fantastic. Mora worked on Hexed, also published by Boom, so he can draw magic stuff well.

Now the idea of writing Santa’s back story is not new with Morrison. L Frank Baum did it in 1902, and pulpster Seabury Quinn was much closer to Morrison’s version with “Roads” in Weird Tales in January 1938. What Morrison does do is write an adult story worthy of where Quinn leaves off. He gives us a hero to cheer for, an underdog with a righteous cause, a love story, and good villains who may at first seem cardboard, but become more interesting as we learn their objectives and struggles. Unlike Romeo Muller’s cartoon, Morrison hints at some origins of Christmas, but isn’t bound too tightly to it. This isn’t really a Christian tale so much as a Yuletide one. There is more of Robert E Howard than Saint Nicholas here: a celebration of love, family, hope, and light that can be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of religious belief; something comic book publishers are more sensitive to today.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Cthulhu Christmas Classics: The Festival [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

I have been re-experiencing HP Lovecraft recently. I read pretty much everything he ever wrote back in the late 1980s when I was obsessed with the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game. I can’t complain. It gave me my first non-fiction and fiction sales: “The City in the Sea” in Cthulhu Now! (1987) and “The Man Who Would Be King” (Eldritch Tales #24, Winter 1990). My reading of HPL was hurried and usually with the intent of finding useful bits to use in the game. So, in re-reading him, I am enjoying his work in a new – and I think – more honest way: as a horror writer.

One of the stories I re-read is “The Festival,” which appeared in Weird Tales, January 1925. I read it from a digital scan of that magazine that included the creepy Andrew Brosnatch illustration. January issues actually sold in December, making this the Christmas issue. “The Festival” is a perfect choice for such an issue since it is a Lovecraftian Christmas story. Now don’t expect anything as tame as a Dickensian ghost. Lovecraft was a complete atheist and so he isn’t trying to retell Jesus’s story or be Clement Moore. (Though HPL was a poet and followed up “The Festival” a year later with the poem “Yule Horror”: “But a light on the hilltops half-seen hints of feastings unhallowed and old.”) Lovecraft wants to take us to the time before Nazareth and “Jolly Old St. Nicholas.”

The plot of “The Festival” will seem familiar to Lovecraft readers. He would use it again in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” and elsewhere: a man who learns of his family’s ancient ties to a decrepit town (inspired by a visit to Marblehead, MA) goes to that place and experiences a terror and a realization of what his family has been involved in. Sometimes they turn out to be people turning into fish-frogs; other times devil-worshipers. The narrator of this tale has come to Kingsport, a rotting little town on the Atlantic coast at Christmas, where he hears no village noise or sees any tracks. Lovecraft indulges his love of antiquarian architecture with a description of the elder town:

…snowy Kingsport with its ancient vanes and steeples, ridgepoles and chimney-pots, wharves and small bridges, willow-trees and graveyards; endless labyrinths of steep, narrow, crooked streets, and dizzy church-crowned central peak that time durst not touch; ceaseless mazes of colonial houses piled and scattered at all angles and levels like a child’s disordered blocks; antiquity hovering on grey wings over winter-whitened gables and gambrel roofs; fanlights and small-paned windows one by one gleaming out in the cold dusk to join Orion and the archaic stars. And against the rotting wharves the sea pounded; the secretive, immemorial sea out of which the people had come in the elder time.

But the master knows that horror fiction works on mood so he gives us the creepy treatment as well:
Beside the road at its crest a still higher summit rose, bleak and windswept, and I saw that it was a burying-ground where black gravestones stuck ghoulishly through the snow like the decayed fingernails of a gigantic corpse. The printless road was very lonely, and sometimes I thought I heard a distant horrible creaking as of a gibbet in the wind. They had hanged four kinsmen of mine for witchcraft in 1692, but I did not know just where.
The wanderer on Christmas tredding the snowy country -- this could be a scene from Bram Stoker’s “Dracula’s Guest” or an MR James tale. But wait! It’s going to get much weirder. Because the narrator goes to an address scavenged from some family record and is introduced to two seemingly bland people, an old man and his wife. They accept him immediately thanks to his lineage and sit him down to wait. Wait for what? The visitor has no idea, but is willing to find out. To pass the time, some light reading: a stack of arcane volumes including nothing less than the dread Necronomicon. HPL is ridiculously close to unintentional humor here, but with his usual deftness manages to make it creepy, with the visitor realizing that this old couple are stranger than they seemed at first. He has the odd feeling that the man is actually wearing some kind of skin mask.



The time arrives and the old couple gives the visitor a cloak to put on and everybody in town is joining in, as they all file to the old church (this is the scene Brosnatch drew). At the church the man realizes nobody, including himself, is leaving any tracks in the snow. The robed acolytes take him down a long, winding stairwell to a pit that emits a cold flame. The man is forced to join in terrible rites and hopes only for escape. Then he finds out that this is only the precursor to worse things, every member of the town jumping onto the back of a winged terror to fly into a dark cavern that contains a vast sea. The old man tries to force him onto a mount and his skin mask falls off. The narrator screams and flees into the water.

The tale ends (where else?) at the loony bin in Arkham, after the narrator is rescued from the freezing water near Kingsport. The shrinks think the best way to cure him is to allow him to read the Necronomicon (again, edging toward the ludicrous) and finishes with a quote that speaks of gigantic caverns beneath the earth, filled with terrors. Not HPL’s best version of these ideas, but this was only 1923. The story, despite two rather silly points, works wonderfully in other ways. HPL parodies many Christmas themes: traveling to be with family, staying with relatives, the silly little customs we observe every year, dressing up for church, worship, and inclusion. The entire story is a black Christmas the narrator would rather forget.

Looking back at my notes from 1985, my only take away from this story was the name Kingsport and the first appearance of the “byakhee,” the flying monsters the cultists rode. It wasn’t even Lovecraft who named the beasts, but August Derleth who made them the ride of choice in The Trail of Cthulhu (1944). I completely missed all the fun Lovecraft was having with his character, like a dupe from Algernon Blackwood’s “Ancient Sorceries” stumbling onto a village of were-cats. I don’t usually think of HPL as a funny guy, but I can’t help but think this tale is meant to be just a little ridiculous even as it is exceptionally strange. It certainly is a change of pace from the Dylan Thomas and Alexander Woollcott chestnuts you find in most anthologies. And remember what old HPL says: “It was the Yuletide, that men call Christmas though they know in their hearts it is older than Bethlehem and Babylon, older than Memphis and mankind.” Merry Cthulhu Christmas!

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

“More of Gravy than of Grave” | Patrick Stewart (1999)



Index of other entries in The Christmas Carol Project

The TNT Christmas Carol did some pre-work on Jacob Marley back in the very first scene, so I was curious to see if that pays off with Marley's appearance here. Patrick Stewart's Scrooge is best characterized as isolated and lonely. That's something that he's apparently welcomed, but it doesn't seem to have always been the case. He showed emotion at Marley's funeral and expressed at least a deep respect for his friend and partner, if not actual fondness. So how is he going to react to Marley now?

With shock, initially, of course. Marley's face appears as Scrooge is approaching the door to unlock it. There's some CG at work, but it's not as blatant as the Muppets version. Marley's face morphs and grows out of the knocker, but the image is formed out of mist. It's clear that we're looking at a face, but its a face that's being thrust here from another world. Even Marley's scream is distant and barely audible. Scrooge can't believe what he's seeing. He says Marley's name aloud, but there's doubt in his eyes. He looks back at the street as if to see if someone's playing a trick on him and his slow "humbuuug" has a tone like, "You're not fooling me..." Even if he's talking to his own mind.

The interior of the house is clean and spartan and there's writing on a wall that I can't quite make out, but looks like it could be a directory of office tenants in the building. If that's right, it's a great touch. He goes upstairs (no hearse or any other spookiness) to his room, but he doesn't search it right away. He gives the interior a good look, but then just hangs up his hat and lights his fire. When he hears some old-house noises though, he gets a little spooked and checks out a tiny closet/lumber room. It's empty, so Scrooge hums a satisfied "mmm," as if to say, "I thought as much."

The scene cuts to him in his dressing gown, double-locking the door to the hallway before pouring himself a watery bowl of gruel. He eats in silence until the Dutch tiles around his fireplace catch his eye. A face on one of the tiles turns into Marley's face (but still drawn in the style of the tile art; very cool) and turns to glare at Scrooge. On another tile, the entire scene becomes Marley's face (still in that same art style). Scrooge blinks and burps, trying to remove pressure from the upset stomach he believes is causing him to see things.

And hear things, because after that the servant's bell starts to clang on its own before being joined by other, unseen bells and then suddenly going quiet again. Far off from somewhere else in the house, a large door opens and Scrooge hears the clunk of footsteps and the clank of chains coming nearer. He sets down his bowl and scooches back in his chair, away from the hallway door that he now can't take his eyes off. The camera moves outside for a ghost's eye view as something comes up the stairs and moves toward the door. Back inside, Scrooge stands up and whispers that he won't believe it.

In another CG effect, Marley morphs through the door like Kitty Pryde. He's all-white and see-through and a strange wind is clearly blowing his hair. Scrooge gasps and jerks back, trying to hide in a corner, but he recovers enough to question the ghost and start the conversation.

Marley looks cool. Bernard Lloyd has a full head of hair and the bandage is wide enough to cover his entire chin and jaw. He looks stylish and purposeful. He carries himself sort of like a cowboy, moving his chains out of the way like Clint Eastwood moves a poncho. He even has an Eastwood squint. These are interesting choices and create a very confident Marley.

Stewart is awesome too, of course. There's doubt in his eyes as he shakes his head. Marley picks up on it. "You don't believe in me." Scrooge goes back to eating his comforting gruel as he explains his indigestion and what he thinks it's doing to him. The action gives him courage, so by the time he gets to "gravy than of grave" he's sneering and adds a mocking, "Jacob!"

This causes Marley to lose his cool. He stands and screams and unties his bandage, which has the apparently unintended effect of causing his jaw to open to an unnatural degree (thanks to more CG). Scrooge has to actually walk over and help Marley shut his mouth. It's this action that seems to help Scrooge overcome his disbelief. So he asks Marley about why he's come.

From here, their conversation is a discussion between equals. And friendly ones at that. I can feel something of their old partnership, with Marley's concernedly warning Scrooge and Scrooge's asking insightful questions. It's a lovely scene with masterful acting. Marley is appropriately heart-broken about his own condition; Scrooge is perfect in not understanding why Marley's being punished. Scrooge doesn't even acknowledge his own guilt so much as concede that Marley at least believes in it.

Because it's so important to Marley, Scrooge is curious about the "chance and hope" that Marley's offering him, but quickly becomes disinterested when he learns that it involves three more ghosts. This Marley is true to Dickens and schedules the coming spirits over a three night period. Scrooge sighs as if he's merely steeling himself for a meeting with an unpleasant client. I think he's enjoyed this visit from his old friend, but he still doesn't really believe it's happening.

Marley reties his bandage with a sickening clack and I realize that it's the tightness of the bandage that was causing him to squint earlier. He walks over to the window, which opens itself, and points outside. When Scrooge goes over, he sees the host of phantoms. Some of them are flying in formation like a giant school of fish, but others are closer and seem to be beckoning to Scrooge. He watches as one, lone ghost - shackled to a huge safe - flies down to the street where a mother and her young child huddle in the cold. The ghost holds his hands out to them, but it's not perfectly clear what he's trying to do until Marley explains it. His message finished, he flies out too to join the stragglers who are making their way to the school of phantoms.

Alone again, Scrooge is contemplative about his experience. It's not clear if he believes any of it, but he's not even trying to convince himself with a "humbug."

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

“More of Gravy than of Grave” | Michael Caine (1992)



Index of other entries in The Christmas Carol Project

The Muppets use CG to provide a great transformation scene with the knocker. No superimposed faces here; we get to see the knocker slowly morph into Marley's face - or a Marley's face - before our eyes. It's Statler of Statler and Waldorf. A spooked Scrooge identifies him as Jacob Marley before the ghost moans Scrooge's name so loudly that he startles the horse pulling Gonzo and Rizzo's carriage. Gonzo and Rizzo spill out and when we cut back to the door, Marley is gone. Scrooge takes a close look on it and decides, "Humbug."

Gonzo narrates some more, focusing on Scrooge's fondness for the dark and generally making Scrooge out to be recovered from the incident, but wary. Scrooge lights some lamps and searches his rooms. He looks determined, but he also picks up a poker from the fireplace to carry as a weapon. And in a great bit, he attacks his own dressing gown, thinking that it might be an intruder. He even pounds on it a couple of times on the floor, before realizing in horror that he's abused a valuable piece of clothing.

The scene then cuts to Scrooge by the fire, wearing the gown and taking some bread and cheese. No gruel for this Scrooge. He's not a spendthrift, but Michael Caine's Scrooge enjoys his wealth. He just doesn't share it with anyone else. As he eats, the servant's bell gives a little jingle. Scrooge looks at it and it goes still, but when he returns to his dinner, the bell goes crazy before settling down once more.

Scrooge's fire doesn't grow larger at Marley's nearness, it goes out completely, which is probably a better visual. We're used to rooms getting cold before spirits appear and that's the sense that I get here. There's some distant creaking and maybe some footsteps, but the music does most of the work in building suspense until the Marleys pop up.

In this version, there's no door separating Scrooge's sitting room from the staircase. There's just a bannister, so the Marleys (Statler and Waldorf this time) fly up the stairwell to hover near the rail. Their moans turn into the duo's trademark heckling laughter and they immediately launch into insults about Scrooge's looks. When the disbelieving Scrooge asks who they are, they introduce themselves as Jacob and Robert (get it?) Marley. They're pale and transparent, but neither wears the traditional bandage for some reason.

Caine's Scrooge has already demonstrated a sense of humor, so it's fitting that he uses it here to convince himself that he's hallucinating. The Marley's are into it, too, chuckling to themselves until Scrooge gets to his gravy quip. That's when they go into full heckling. "What a terrible pun!" Jacob says. And Robert: "Leave the comedy to the bears!" Scrooge's reaction is telling. At first he begs, "Please don't criticize me!" But then he scowls and points. "You always criticized me!"

Of course that would be the case. Statler and Waldorf are horrible people and they make fitting Marleys. I can't imagine working with them and it builds sympathy to think of Scrooge's having to endure them as partners, even as mean as he is.

When he asks why they're there, they launch into a song that explains their plight and how Scrooge is heading down the same path.



I have some of the same problem with this interpretation that I do with Goofy's playing Marley in Mickey's Christmas Carol. Not to that same extent, because an additional part of Goofy's problem is that he's generally known for being a good-natured pal, so he's not a natural fit for Marley. Statler and Waldorf are at least reasonable choices. But they do the same thing that Goofy does, which is to try to balance remorse over their past deeds with a humorous pride. It doesn't work any better for Muppets than it did for Mickey, so I generally don't care for these Marleys at all. I doubt that this visit to Scrooge was their idea. They seem like the kind of guys who had to be forced into it.

Their song is good though and I love that their cash boxes and padlocks join in for a line. It's also great that Caine plays the whole thing straight. He's appropriately frightened and seems to take their warning to heart. It's hard to get a good sense of where he's at, because he's just interjecting lines into a song, but if there's no great insight to Scrooge's mindset, we can at least accept that he's shaken up. There's been no real change in him yet, though. It'll take more than a fun, but silly song.

When the song is done, it's interesting that the Marleys have to be literally dragged back towards the bannister by their own chains. They struggle to get out the last of the message, but manage to tell Scrooge about the coming spirits. They're vague about the timing though and only mention that the first is coming that night at 1:00.

When they reach the stairwell, their chains continue to pull at them, down the well (or into hell, if you're imagination wants to go there). As they descend, they go back to their song, "We're Marley and Marley!" It's just a musical end cap, but there might also be something to their trying to hold onto their identities as they rejoin the nameless forces that have both sent them there and are drawing them back. Maybe that's deeper than you want Muppets to go, but the movie shows some surprising depth in other areas, too, so I'm going with it.

There's no host of phantoms trying to help a homeless mother in this version. As the Marley's disappear with a final command for Scrooge to "Change!" the lamps go out and everything is dark for a couple of seconds. Then Scrooge's fire roars back to life.

The scene shifts outside for some more narration/shenanigans by Gonzo and Rizzo, then back to Scrooge's bed as he climbs in. He's holding the poker again, still unnerved, but he gets out a whole "humbug" as he pulls closed the curtains.

Monday, December 19, 2016

“More of Gravy than of Grave” | George C Scott (1984)



Index of other entries in The Christmas Carol Project

Director Clive Donner's TV movie really plays up the scares. By the time Scrooge gets to his front door, he's already seen the hearse, which seems much more supernatural than imaginary in this version. He's also heard Marley's voice calling his name already. And he hears it again as he approaches the door.

Donner cuts to Scrooge's shocked face and then zooms in on the knocker where the lion's head is superimposed behind a transparent, blue Marley. The ghost calls Scrooge's name a third time before it disappears.

Inside, Scrooge locks the door and lights a candle as the soundtrack gets creepy. The music is discordant and there are also clicks and creaks that could be just old-house sounds... or something else. This is one of my favorite versions precisely because it's so good at putting me in Scrooge's shoes and that applies to making me feel creeped out in this scene.

This is also a movie in which Scrooge is very used to being in control. I think I'm more scared in this scene than he is. Marley's face took him aback, but he's quite brave by the time he gets to his rooms. He doesn't even bolt the sitting room door; he just moves through it about his business, looking alert, but not freaked out. When he goes into his bedroom though, he does triple-lock that door, so clearly he's not entirely at ease. Something's going on and he's taking precautions, but he seems to think he can handle whatever it is.

The scene then cuts to Scrooge - now in his dressing gown and robe - picking up his gruel from the fireplace hob. There's not any fire that I can see, but the embers must be putting off some heat by the way Scrooge gingerly handles his bowl and blows into it. As he's eating, Marley calls his name a fourth time. Scrooge's fireplace does have Dutch tiles, but they all show a single scene of Jesus' Last Supper. As Scrooge watches, Marley's face appears and disappears from tile to tile. Scrooge goes over for a close look, but Marley's gone now. "Humbug," Scrooge whispers.

That's when the servant bell - covered in cobwebs to show its disuse - starts to ring and now Scrooge is more worried. He looks shaken as he puts a hand to his ear and sits down. Cue the not-distant-enough chains and other knocking sounds and Scrooge is all but frozen. He's not shaking; he's very very still. But there's horror in his eyes as one by one the door latches undo themselves. Now there's nothing between Scrooge and whatever's making the clanking, dragging sound from the hallway. He turns away and insists gruffly that it's humbug, but he's turning away for a reason. He can't stand to look at the door.

The door flies open and Scrooge has to get up and turn to look. There's nothing at first, but then the transparent, blue shape of Marley clanks and drags into the room. And as Marley solidifies, the music does something very interesting. It changes from the shrill, terrifying shriek that has accompanied the scene so far and becomes a melancholy violin. It feels like something out of memory and Marley - still pale and cold, but having some substance now - becomes not so scary, but sad and oddly comforting.

When Scrooge addresses Marley, the ghost has to undo his bandage before he can answer. His bottom jaw opens grotesquely and with a strange click, but Marley gets it under control enough to carry on the conversation.

Scrooge also seems comforted by the sight of his friend. He's not so scared now and even laughs when Marley insists that Scrooge "ask me who I was." He clearly distrusts the situation, but is willing to play along with whatever's going on. Even when Marley screams in frustration and sends Scrooge shaking to his knees, it's not immediately clear even then Scrooge believes there's an actual ghost. It could just be that Scrooge is frightened because the situation - real or imagined - has turned violent. But Marley pushes the issue and Scrooge finally has to admit that he does, he must believe.

Frank Finlay is a great Marley. He stares blankly and tries to delivery his message efficiently, but when he speaks about his own missed opportunities to help the helpless... he's overcome by the heartbreak of it. It's also overwhelming to me as a viewer, and to Scrooge who seems genuinely concerned and sorry for his friend. He asks if he can do anything to help and is touched when Marley says, "no," but that there's something that Marley can offer him.

In this version, Scrooge's hope and chance is not of Marley's procuring, but something that Marley says he's doing as penance. It's the one thing I don't like about this version of this scene, because it raises unanswerable questions like "why now?" and "why Scrooge?" I like to ignore that change and remember that Dickens explained it well enough in the book.

Of course, Scrooge isn't excited about the proposition of three more spirits. He tries to pass with a smile, but Marley won't negotiate. He announces that they'll all arrive that night; at least, two of them will. The first is coming at one and the second at two, but the third, "more mercurial, shall appear in his own good time." It's another change from Dickens, but one I really like since it sets up the third ghost as something more dangerous than the others.

His message done, Marley beckons Scrooge to the window and then reties his bandage with another weird click. The window opens on its own, letting in screams and shrieks from outside. Marley becomes transparent again and flies out, but the screams have faded and the street is empty when Scrooge goes over to close the window. "Humbug," he says, getting both syllables out.

Scrooge was clearly touched by his conversation with Marley, but I don't see in him any real desire to change. Seeds have been planted, but this Scrooge is going to be a tough nut to crack. He's not as extremely miserable as most of the other versions, so it's going to take more to break him before he can be built back up again. He goes to check his door again and sees that the locks are still in place. Nodding knowingly, he declares, "Something I ate," and heads to bed.

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.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

“More of Gravy than of Grave” | Fredric March (1954)



Index of other entries in The Christmas Carol Project

Shower of Stars' adaptation makes some unique choices with this year's scene. Right away, instead of following Scrooge home from the office, this version dissolves from Scrooge on the street to the interior of his rooms. Far from being dismal, they're well lit and almost cheerful as a maid goes about her business of getting the place ready for Scrooge to come home. She checks his fire, turns down his bed, and when she hears the sound of carolers outside, she opens the window to let their song in. She's stirring Scrooge's gruel when the old man arrives, having apparently entered his front door without incident.

She and Scrooge exchange some formal greetings and then she's off as quickly as possible. Except that for some weird reason she's compelled to stop at the door to try to wish him a Merry Christmas. He takes it about like you'd expect. He's also none too pleased about the carol coming through the open window, so he closes that, too.

His dinner is gruel, but the maid has also brewed him a pot of tea, so it's a downright homey scene when he sits at a little dinner table to eat. Another dissolve and the fire is now lower and the clock is chiming midnight. Scrooge is done with dinner and is working in his ledger when the clock is joined by other bells from around the house. This confuses Scrooge and he looks all around him, trying to figure out what's going on.

As the bells fade, Scrooge's door becomes transparent and Marley can be seen approaching it from the other side. It's an interesting effect as Marley reaches the door and just keeps walking, entering the room. Scrooge is startled when he notices, but quickly recovers and mutters to himself that he won't believe it. He does soon address Marley, but his tone is like he's entertaining himself. He claims that Marley is "no doubt a bad dream" and Scrooge does act like someone who realizes that he's dreaming and decides to have a little fun with it. Fredric March's Scrooge has already shown a weird sense of humor, so that comes out here, too, as he smiles and chuckles at his own bad jokes.

Marley (played by Basil Rathbone) is distraught at Scrooge's unbelief. In both manner and words he reveals the difficulty of his task and his fear that it's a wasted effort. He has one last trick to pull though and he does it. He's been transparent so far, but now he sits at Scrooge's table and puts a very solid hand on Scrooge's arm.

Scrooge's demeanor changes towards Marley from here, but I still don't think he's fully accepted the reality of Marley yet. He's frightened, but he's more mildly freaked out than terrified. He does get especially squeamish when Marley produces an old ledger that he and Scrooge used to share, but that might be a clue that Scrooge is still trying to convince himself that he's dreaming. I know that when I've had lucid dreams, one hint that I'm dreaming is that books don't have comprehensible words in them. My dreaming brain doesn't fill in that kind of detail. So if Scrooge saw specific, memorable notations in Marley's ledger, it could be strong evidence that Scrooge is awake.

Marley brings up the three spirits, saying that they may help Scrooge to shun Marley's path, but that's all the detail he gives. Nothing about when they'll arrive. He begins to fade again at this point, being called back after delivering his message. But before he disappears, he throws away his ledger like it's disgusting to him. Which it is, I'm sure, but it's strange that it's not chained to him with everything else. Since it's an addition by the filmmakers, they can do whatever they want with it, but it's an inconsistency that I don't like. Especially once I see the reason in another minute that they wanted it thrown away.

Marley disappears, moaning pitifully to God and expressing how there's no help for him. Rathbone sells the desperation of his situation and this seems to have the biggest effect on Scrooge. Once Marley is gone, Scrooge is still at the table with his face buried in his hands.

There's no throng of other phantoms in this version. Instead, the chorus sings eerily and Scrooge reacts as if he can hear it. He stands up and walks around the room, looking all over like he's trying to spot the source of the haunting music. Never finding it, he winds up huddled in a corner.

The music fades and Scrooge looks up, wondering again if he's been having a nightmare. He gets up and begins to move around and has almost convinced himself that none of it was real when he stumbles on the ledger Marley left behind. He picks it up, sees what it is, shrieks, and tosses it away again. Then he scrambles for his bed to hide away behind the curtains and covers.

Friday, December 16, 2016

“More of Gravy than of Grave” | Alastair Sim (1951)



Index of other entries in The Christmas Carol Project

The 1951 Scrooge is straightforward with the knocker scene. A lion-shaped knocker gets super-imposed with Marley's head and Scrooge is taken aback. One interesting change though is that Marley doesn't have the bandage at this point. He will when he appears inside, but this vision of him is exactly how Scrooge would remember him from life.

Inside, the house is well lit by an enormous window that lets in the moonlight. It's a lonely house, but not really spooky. Scrooge starts to close the door, then opens it again for another look at the knocker, then closes it for good. He double-bolts it, too. The whole place clearly belongs to Scrooge and the movie will state that explicitly later on.

Curiously, there's already a candle burning on a little table. Scrooge does have a woman who cleans the place though - something else that we'll learn later - so maybe it's part of her job to get the place into a certain state of welcoming for when he comes home. As he goes upstairs, I notice that the stairs are nice, but only wide enough for one person. There's certainly no hearse going up them and the atmosphere of the house doesn't seem like it would play tricks on Scrooge's mind. But then he does hear Marley's voice calling his name. He finishes the stairs more quickly, shouting, "Humbug!" In his room, he double-bolts that door, too.

The movie fades to Scrooge in his dressing gown, sitting down to a bowl of hot gruel. My wife pointed out to me last year that since Scrooge passed up extra bread for dinner because it cost extra, and because it's not clear that the gruel is for medicinal purposes, it looks like Scrooge is still hungry and has to supplement when he gets home. I like that reading a lot.

He's about to take a sip when he hears Marley call his name again. Convinced now that something's actually going on, he lets the spoon drop back into his bowl. He's still trying to figure out what's up when the bells start ringing. The movie does something cool with them, though. We hear the servant bell, but a shot of it reveals that it's perfectly still. Then a smaller bell joins it and Scrooge looks down at the little bell on his table, also not moving. A grandfather clock does the same thing. Scrooge tries to clean his ears with his fingers, but the motionless bells just get louder.

They finally stop and Scrooge has just about convinced himself to go back to his gruel when he hears a clanking from somewhere in the house. It gets louder and louder until finally the hallway door throws itself open and Scrooge drops his bowl and springs out of his chair. He's mostly looked disgusted up to this point - possibly at his own senses - but now he's terrified. It's then that Marley's ghost appears in the open door.

Marley is transparent and wearing the bandage. Not much new there, but he does remove the bandage early to make it easier to talk. When he does, he goes a little slackjawed and his whole demeanor is very tired, almost drugged, through the first part of the scene. Scrooge puts up a brave front for his part, fussing at Marley and giving him orders, but it's clear that this is all bluster. He keeps wiping his face, trembling, and he has a hard time looking at Marley. He does make jokes about indigestion, but this is also obvious bravado.

Marley gets frustrated with Scrooge's protests and shrieks loudly, which causes Scrooge to fall out of his chair and kneel before the ghost. He can no longer pretend not to believe and his "I do! I do! I do! I do! I must!" is totally sincere. Marley doesn't calm down. He continues shrieking, making Scrooge more and more terrified. As Marley, Michael Hordern sells the pain of his existence and the suffering that's waiting for Scrooge if he doesn't change. And Sim's Scrooge seems to honestly mourn Marley's fate and want to comfort him. Scrooge is miserable and petty, but I'm reminded that he wasn't always alone in that. He used to be able to be miserable and petty with Marley and I sense that he misses that camaraderie.

Marley can't be comforted, but he does offer comfort to Scrooge who seems grateful. Or he does until he hears what this second chance involves. He reluctantly declines, pretty sure that he can't go through this three more times. Of course, Marley isn't really offering him a choice. He tells Scrooge to expect the first ghost at 1:00 am (but doesn't mention a schedule for the other two).

Before he goes, Marley leads Scrooge to the window and opens it supernaturally. Outside, the mother and child sit in the snow against Scrooge's fence, surrounded by transparent phantoms on the ground and in the sky, all trying to throw money at her. The movie offers a good look at the woman's sorrowful face, which is a great way to increase empathy for her. Other versions have kept her distant; an idea more than a human being.

As Scrooge watches, Marley disappears from his side and reappears in the street below. But instead of tossing his own spectral money at her, he motions to her as if he's inviting Scrooge to do something. But Scrooge is far too frightened. He trembles and pants and shuts the window, then runs to his bedroom to jump in bed, pull the curtains closed, and hide under the covers.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

“More of Gravy than of Grave” | Reginald Owen (1938)



Index of other entries in The Christmas Carol Project

The 1938 Christmas Carol continues to make some interesting changes to the story with this scene. For one thing, Marley's face doesn't appear on the knocker right away. Scrooge has already opened the door, lit his candle, and is turning to close the door again when Marley shows up (superimposed over the already demonic-looking knocker). I have a theory about why Marley might delay his appearance, but I'll get to that in a minute.

The face fades as quickly as it showed up, but Scrooge is visibly shaken. He recovers quickly though and heads up the grand, old staircase. It's pretty wide, but there's no hearse. Instead, the set design has cobwebs everywhere, giving the place a haunted house look. It's doubtful that any businesses are leasing offices in this place. Scrooge appears to be the only tenant and he's not exactly keeping up the place.

He's a little unnerved, but not exactly cowering in fear. Some spooky music accompanies him as he walks and it cuts out every now and then for him to stop and look around. It's as if he notices the music and it's messing with him by shutting up whenever he tries to pinpoint its source, then starting again when he resumes his walk.

In his rooms, he checks around, but with an attitude of actually trying to catch an intruder. He's not scared, he's irritated. When he locks the door, he's scowling and doing it more forcefully than he needs to, as if he's saying, "There! Try to get through that!"

He stokes his fire a little (apparently its been burning all day, but barely) and grabs a bottle from the mantle. Since this Scrooge already ate dinner at the tavern, the movie doesn't confuse viewers with an extra bowl of gruel. Dickens explained that the gruel was for Scrooge's cold anyway, so this movie substitutes a bottle of medicine. Or maybe "medicine." Earlier, Cratchit made a joke to Scrooge's nephew about Scrooge's "cough medicine" that seemed to imply that that's how Scrooge referred to liquor. Or maybe it really was medicine, but Scrooge - too cheap to buy real alcohol - used it as a substitute. Whatever the case, we see it in action here. Scrooge pours himself a spoonful, takes it, then licks his fingers where some spilled onto them. He's not missing a drop.

That done, he continues checking out the room. The bed is in here, but he goes through another door to get dressed. While he's out, a bell rope begins swinging back and forth, sounding the bell that it's attached to. Scrooge pokes his head back into the room (he's wearing a nightcap now) and the rope immediately stops. Someone's messing with Scrooge. He whispers, "Humbug," and closes the door again, which signals the rope to start moving and clanging again. The next time Scrooge comes out (in his robe this time), the bells in the house go nuts.

Scrooge's attitude during all this is more "what the hell's going on?" than fear. He's trying to figure this out, but he doesn't look worried. The bells stop, there's an immediate slamming of a door somewhere, and then Marley appears. He's transparent and wearing the bandage, but there's no sign of his personal atmosphere blowing his hair or anything.

Scrooge is a little taken aback when Marley confirms who he is, but Scrooge quickly recovers and the conversation takes a very unusual tone. In Seymour Hicks' version, I got the feeling that Marley was the stronger of the two partners. Scrooge not only deferred to him during their talk, he also seemed upset when Marley left. Reginald Owen's Scrooge is the opposite of that. He fusses at Marley the way he fussed at Cratchit earlier, giving the impression that it was Scrooge who dominated the relationship when Marley was alive. This makes me wonder if Marley's delayed appearance at the door may have been evidence that Marley himself is a little afraid of Scrooge. Or at least not super eager to have this conversation with him. He could be doing it out of compassion (or penance, if we're less charitable towards him), but still not look forward to it.

Scrooge talks about Marley's possibly being a digestive issue, but there's no humor in it. He doesn't even use the gravy pun. Marley's answering moan is pitiful, not threatening, and Scrooge orders the ghost to be quiet.

At this point, the film adds something completely new to the scene. Scrooge hears the night watch in the street below, so he goes to the window to call them up. They come to his room to investigate, but of course Marley has disappeared. After the watchmen make some jokes about Scrooge and spirits ("of one kind or another"), they leave and Marley returns. The effect of the incident is to break whatever spell Scrooge thought he might be under. Somehow, having Marley still there after the sobering conversation with the watchmen makes Scrooge realize that he's not hallucinating.

Scrooge concedes that he must believe in Marley, but he's still not afraid. He's just as grumpy and demanding as before. To be fair, Marley doesn't appear to be afraid of Scrooge either. He's confident in his mission and he forges ahead, but it's so odd to see Scrooge stand up to him. As they continue talking, Scrooge begins to soften towards his old partner some, perhaps taking some comfort in the renewed relationship. This version of Scrooge has already showed signs of wanting some human connection. He seems to hear what Marley is saying about the future and the need for Scrooge to change. But unlike the other versions, it's Marley's words that are having the biggest impact, not the way that he's delivering them. It's like he's confirming something that Scrooge has already known or suspected about himself.

Scrooge never drops his wall though. He dismisses Marley and his chance at redemption. At least until Marley mentions the three spirits that are coming. That unnerves Scrooge a little and he asks Marley to stay, presumably to explain further. Marley's already heading for the window, but he reveals that the spirits will all come that evening: one an hour between 1:00 and 3:00 am. He even repeats the schedule, accompanied by bells chiming the times as he says them. And then, standing by the open window, he disappears.

This version cuts out the phantoms in the street. Scrooge is nervous now, mopping his forehead with his handkerchief and quickly closing the window. He doesn't even try for half a "Humbug," but jumps in bed and pulls the curtains. He could deal with Marley okay, but he's not at all excited to see what's coming next.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

“More of Gravy than of Grave” | Seymour Hicks (1935)



Index of other entries in The Christmas Carol Project

Director Henry Edwards' Scrooge does something similar to Zemeckis' when it comes to the door knocker. Scrooge doesn't drop his keys in this version, but he does stand and fumble for them for a second. As he approached the door, there was a clear view of the ordinary (and rather plain) knocker, but when Scrooge has found his keys and looks up to put them in the lock, he's startled by Marley's face superimposed over an otherwise featureless knocker. It fades away before Scrooge's eyes.

Inside, Scrooge looks kind of suspiciously at the back side of the door, something that Dickens mentions, but most adaptations don't care about. He lights his candle and heads upstairs. There's nothing remarkable about the stairs. They're not wide and nothing happens on them. Scrooge is definitely frightened though. He checks out his rooms with his cane held in front of him like a weapon. He rattles it under a table to make sure no one is hiding there. He pokes it into his bed and uses it to pull back the curtains. And in a great moment, he's spooked by his dressing gown that's hanging by the window and that certainly does look like someone's standing there. Even when he realizes what it is, he pokes it a couple of times to be sure.

Satisfied, he checks out a last, little room that I first thought might be the lumber-room Dickens mentioned, because I hadn't done my research and assumed that a lumber-room was likely used for storing firewood. But a lumber-room was actually used in large, old houses to store furniture that wasn't being used. The extra room in Zemeckis' version is full of covered up furniture, so that's a proper lumber-room. I suppose this tiny closet off of Scrooge's bedroom in Edwards' film could also be a lumber-room, but it's a very humble one if so.

He finally settles in to eat some gruel and the servant bell rings. It's just the one for a while and it starts timidly before picking up energy and eventually being joined by others. None of them are exactly clanging though; in fact, it's a rather pleasant chorus for the most part. Oddly, Scrooge gets up and goes to the window where he can look down at his front steps. It's weird, because none of the bells are door bells, but of course there's no one there and this makes Scrooge even more uncomfortable.

The chimes slowly settle down, but with the last one is the sound of a door slamming shut somewhere else in the house. I like the quiet terror portrayed by Seymour Hicks. He's not visibly shaking and his face is composed, but there's worry in his eyes and he clenches his hands as if he's very cold.

The closing door must have come from down the hall, because we only hear a couple of steps worth of dragging chains before Scrooge's door opens. Surprisingly - for those who know the story - there's no one there, but a voice says, "Look well, Ebenezer Scrooge, for only you can see me." It's a ridiculous thing for Marley to say when Scrooge is alone in the house, but of course he's referring to the viewers. And sadly, the entire scene is played with Scrooge's addressing an invisible Marley. I don't understand why we got Marley's face downstairs and this penny-pinching effect in Scrooge's room.

Hicks' Scrooge has been characterized so far as a weak, miserable, old complainer and that continues in this scene. Confronted with Marley, he's trembling now and even his voice quavers as he begs for an explanation. He wasn't even that strong with Cratchit; he's completely at Marley's mercy. There's no argument about whether Scrooge is hallucinating and Marley never even has to raise his voice. Marley talks to Scrooge like a teacher instructing a disobedient student.

Marley explains that Scrooge will be visited by three ghosts and even explains that they're the "visions of a Christmas Past, a Christmas Present, and a Christmas Yet to Come." He says that the first will arrive that night at midnight (different from Dickens' 1:00 am), but doesn't mention the schedule for the other two.

His message complete, Marley apparently goes into Scrooge's bedroom, because Scrooge cries Marley's name a couple of times and follows the ghost there. The way Scrooge cries, "Marley!" is pitiful, like a child calling for a parent. That may be a better metaphor than the teacher/student one I used before. This Scrooge is so weak and Marley's voice is strong and commanding. Marley had to have been the dominant partner in their relationship and even though Scrooge is terrified, he doesn't want Marley to go. He probably wants Marley to stay and protect him through the coming visits.

The window to Scrooge's bedroom opens by itself and Scrooge rushes to it, still calling for Marley. There are no other phantoms outside (that we can see, anyway), but there's an awful snowstorm going and the music gets quite loud and boisterous. Scrooge tries to rally with a "Bah, Hum--" but the window closes by itself and cuts him off. (Unfortunately, the effect is ruined by some lag between Scrooge's "Hum" and the slamming of the window, but it's obvious what the movie is trying to do there.)

Scrooge goes back to look outside again, but the storm is gone now and the city looks peaceful. It feels like another money-saving effort that the movie cuts out the mourning spirits, but it's not the only adaptation to do that, so I can't be too upset. And the suddenly calmed snowstorm is a nice bit of spookiness to help Scrooge accept that he's not just imaging things. He certainly looks tired and defeated as he turns back towards bed.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

“More of Gravy than of Grave” | Mark McDermott (1910)



Index of other entries in The Christmas Carol Project

Thomas Edison's Christmas Carol goes straight from Scrooge still in the office to his front door. A title card announces that we'll be seeing "the ghostly face of his former partner, Marley." This is the first mention of Marley in the movie and we really haven't seen Scrooge be anything more than justifiably cranky, so this could be rough to understand what's going on. An earlier title card described Scrooge as a "hard-fisted miser," but we haven't actually seen him do anything to justify that label.

Marley's face superimposes over the knocker twice. Scrooge "humbugs" it the first time, but looks more worried after the second. He still manages another "humbug" though. He ain't no fool.

As Scrooge goes inside, another title card tells us, "The ghost of Marley, who was like unto Scrooge, warns him of his punishment hereafter unless he becomes a different man." So we're back to the "hard-fisted miser" description, because otherwise it's unclear what Scrooge needs to change.

Cut to Scrooge sitting next to a fireplace as a transparent Marley enters. Scrooge covers his eyes, disbelieving, but Marley insists that he's real. This is all done through pantomime; there are no title cards in this scene. Marley keeps motioning to himself; Scrooge keeps turning away or putting his hand through Marley to test the ghost's existence. This goes on for a half-minute until Marley loses patience, stands up, gestures, and disappears. He's replaced by another figure.

So Marley comes to warn Scrooge of punishment for vague crimes, but mostly they just argue about Marley's existence until Marley brings in a ringer. The movie doesn't reveal the punishment or what Scrooge needs to do to escape it. Maybe this new figure will explain...

Monday, December 12, 2016

“More of Gravy than of Grave” | Jim Carrey (2009)



Index of other entries in The Christmas Carol Project

Robert Zemeckis' Christmas Carol really plays up the ghost story angle for this scene. It's the only feature-length animated version I'm covering and the extra run time gives it room to draw out the suspense in a powerful way.

I like how it handles the knocker-to-Marley transition too, because we don't actually get to see it. Scrooge drops his keys at the front door and bends down to get them. When he straightens back up, Marley's face is waiting for him, hair blowing in his own, personal wind. It's a cool scare, but I also like how dropping the keys reveals something about Scrooge.

He swears when they fall, then mutters to himself about how everything always happens to him. This Scrooge doesn't play the victim where Christmas is concerned, but he still sees himself as a one. Not just about Christmas, but about everything in his life. Things have not gone the way he wanted or thinks he deserves. As I said in the Fred scene, Scrooge made a horrible decision earlier and lost the love of his life. The Ghost of Christmas Past will reveal that this Scrooge is terrified of the world and seeks desperately to control it. That's why he's so rotten to everyone and why he's so miserable. His life has become a terrible self-fulfilling prophecy: misery begets more misery which begets more misery still.

His fright at seeing Marley's face causes him to stumble and slip on the ice, falling painfully on the doorstep. When he gets up again - in an even worse mood - the knocker is back to normal. He decides that he must have imagined it.

Inside, he lights a candle and heads upstairs. The staircase is enormous, both wide and long. There's no ghostly hearse, but the immensity of the hall and the failure of Scrooge's little candle to illuminate it makes it just as scary.  Anything could be hiding in the shadows and corners.

Cut to Scrooge's room (his fireplace is in the bedroom, not a separate sitting room) where he's quietly eating his gruel. The stirring of his pot and the popping of the fire are the only sounds and they start to play tricks on him. As does his own, flickering shadow cast by the fireplace on the door. Disgusted with himself, he drops the pot on his table and goes over to triple-lock the door. There's one other door that leads to a large, disused room, so Scrooge closes that one, too.

He sits back down, mumbling comfort to himself, then the camera pulls back to reveal a series of servant bells high on a wall. One of them starts to move and Scrooge notices it before it ever makes a sound. I love Carrey's face as he goes cold, seeing evidence that it's not just his imagination. The bell starts to ring softly, then the one next to it joins in and then the others and some clocks and chimes from all over the house. They go crazy for a bit and Scrooge covers his ears, lips trembling.

When the bells stop, Scrooge looks panicked, not sure what's happening to him. Immediately, there's the sound of a large door closing in some other, deep part of the house. That's followed by heavy footsteps and dragging chains. Step. Drag-clank. Step. Drag-clank. Louder and louder, closer and closer, until it stops right outside the door. The doorknob turns back and forth, testing the lock.

Scrooge is scared out of his mind, cowering in his chair, but he's able to muster enough courage to yell, "It's still all a hum--" before a ghostly blue cashbox - attached to a chain - comes flying through the door right at him. It misses his head and goes through his chair, then other boxes follow, attached to other chains. Finally, Marley emerges, transparent and with not just blowing hair, but a blowing mist that surrounds him like an aura.

As the conversation begins, Marley seems like he's not entirely present. I don't mean that he's distracted, but he doesn't make eye contact with Scrooge or even really look in his direction. It's like he's blind or maybe struggling to acclimate to the physical world and doesn't quite have his bearings yet. I quite like it. He gets more focused as the conversation progresses.

This Scrooge isn't a humorous man, so his gravy pun doesn't even come off as a joke. Carrey plays it straight, with some accusation towards Marley as if the "hallucination" is tormenting Scrooge on purpose. Which of course means that Scrooge does believe what he's seeing, but is just trying to convince himself that he doesn't.

Marley continues to be terrifying as they talk. Gary Oldman is playing Marley, but unlike his portrayal of Bob Cratchit, it's impossible to tell. Zemeckis didn't use Oldman's face as the character model this time and Oldman has disappeared into the part. All I can see is a dreadfully effective spirit who really sells the horror of what's awaiting Scrooge after death. He has no patience for Scrooge's defense of his and Marley's actions. He never removes his bandage, but when Scrooge talks about being a good man of business, Marley wails so hard that he dislocates his bottom jaw.

Unfortunately, the scene gets silly for a minute there as Marley tries to fix himself. He uses his hand to bounce his jaw so that he can continue talking. Then he gets annoyed by that and adjusts his bandage so that his bottom lip covers half his face and he can't talk anymore. This is all disgusting to Scrooge, so it doesn't lessen the effect on him, but the goofiness doesn't fit the tone of the rest of the scene.

Once Marley gets himself sorted, the conversation continues and Marley offers Scrooge the chance and hope to avoid Marley's fate. Faithful to Dickens, Scrooge is grateful until he learns that the chance and hope involve being visited by three more ghosts (on the same three-night schedule as the book).

Marley flies out the window to join the other phantoms and Zemeckis does some imaginative things with those poor souls. They're all being tortured in various ways: one is trapped in a padlock and being hit on the head with a key, another is being continuously squashed between two giant coins; yet another is tethered to a giant bag of money that he can never reach. It's all very Dante and simultaneously funny and horrifying, but it misses Dickens' point until Scrooge looks down to the street and sees the woman with the baby. Several spirits are reaching out to her impotently with one even shouting, "I wish I could help you!"

That one notices Scrooge watching and speeds towards Scrooge's window, perhaps intent on trying to help him. But Scrooge runs to his bed and the window slams shut on its own (or perhaps aided by an unseen Marley?). We're left with a very frightened Scrooge who's now more afraid of the afterlife than he is of the world around him. That's not enough to change him, because like Walter Matthau's Scrooge he doesn't know how. But I'm betting that he's willing to learn.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

“More of Gravy than of Grave” | Scrooge McDuck (1983)



Index of other entries in The Christmas Carol Project

In Mickey's Christmas Carol, Scrooge has a lion-faced knocker again. Dickens doesn't describe it that way (or at all, except for its being large), so I did some quick Googling to try to find the first instance where it's depicted as lion-shaped. I didn't have any luck, except to find this cool Brief History of Door Knockers that explains that lions were an incredibly popular shape to put a knocker in. They symbolize strength and honor and they just look darn cool. There's even one on the Prime Minister's house at 10 Downing Street. So this might not be a case of everyone's imitating a particular illustration or movie depiction of Scrooge's knocker. Could just be everyone having similar ideas about what the knocker might have looked like and what's most visually impressive.

Something else visually impressive is ignoring Dickens' "no intermediate process of change" and having the knocker morph into Marley's face. That's what Mickey's does and it looks great. Scrooge also gets to interact with Marley a little here. Marley moans Scrooge's name which leads Scrooge to test his senses by tweaking Marley's nose. Since Marley is played by Goofy, there's plenty of room for silliness. I'll talk in a minute about whether that's a good thing.

Scrooge is a little freaked out by the encounter and rushes inside, but he decides it was his imagination. There's no hearse on the stairs - in fact, the stairs are narrow and creaky in keeping with Scrooge's miserliness - but Marley's shadow follows Scrooge up with some more interaction. It's a pretty funny bit with Marley trying to be sneaky, but his clanking chains give him away. So Scrooge turns to look and Marley disappears, then reappears to mess with Scrooge some more when Scrooge continues walking. Scrooge is getting concerned now and rushes into his room where he bolts the door. No simple double-lock for this version; Scrooge has six locks.

Since Marley's following Scrooge, there's no time for searching the apartment or fixing gruel. Scrooge keeps his coat and hat and hides in a big chair, but Marley comes on through the locked door. He's wearing the bandage (never takes it off though) and is blue and transparent.

Scrooge shivers and quakes comically. None of this is supposed to be actually scary and Marley is even a little hurt that Scrooge is afraid of him. "Don't you recognize me?" he asks. And that calms Scrooge down enough to have a conversation with his old friend, ghost or no ghost. There's no debate about Scrooge's senses. Right away, Scrooge is a believer.

The conversation is weird though, tonally. The problem with having Goofy play Marley - and this casting is the weakest thing about this version - is that he's so likable. It's hard to imagine Goofy doing all the horrible things he and Scrooge talk about. The dialogue even struggles with it, having Marley humorously proud of robbing widows and swindling the poor, then remembering that he's supposed to be sorry about it. It's not really sure how to play Marley, so it goes both ways.

Scrooge is consistent though. This version is a playful, happy miser. When Marley throws his chains and cash boxes (and a piggy bank) at Scrooge for emphasis, Scrooge picks up the bank and jiggles it, wondering how to get at the coins inside. But he's appropriately horrified by the thought that he'll have to share Marley's fate and he's immediately willing to change. When Marley predicts the coming spirits ("tonight," he says, so all in the same evening), Scrooge nods silently. He's not excited about it, but he's compliant.

There's no host of phantoms outside in this economical telling. Marley simply leaves the way he came in, by materializing back through the door. And tripping on a step on the way down. That Goofy.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

“More of Gravy than of Grave” | Walter Matthau (1978)



Index of other entries in The Christmas Carol Project

Rankin-Bass' The Stingiest Man in Town uses the knocker to go to a commercial break, with its transitioning quickly to Marley's face and then fade to black. The actual knocker is also shaped like the face of an elderly man (weird design) and like Dickens says, there's no intermediary stages of change. The animation just superimposes Marley's face and the switch back is just as abrupt. So it makes sense that Scrooge doubts what he sees. "Just my imagination," he says.

This version skips the walk upstairs and even Scrooge at the fireplace. He's already had dinner at the tavern, so there's no need to show him eating gruel, too. He doesn't search the place or seem scared at all. He goes straight to bed and it's there that Marley's ghost appears in a repeat of the teaser scene at the beginning of the show.

Marley's entrance is different from the way Dickens wrote it, but it's still scary. There are no bells to announce Marley's coming, but Tom Bosley's Humbug character sings about the clanking of chains and the arrival of the ghost.

That night when Ebenezer Scrooge 
Lay dreaming in his room,
He heard the sound of rattling chains
Come clanking through the gloom.

And while he lay there shivering
In the icy wind of fear,
The ghost of Scrooge's partner
Jacob Marley did appear.

As Humbug sings, the candle next to Scrooge's bed takes the place of the fireplace in Dickens and reacts to Marley by lighting itself with an unnatural, green flame. Rather than walk through a closed door, Marley manifests first as a sort of dark blot on the wall that shapes itself into a silhouette and then Marley's shadow before it becomes the blue, transparent ghost of Marley himself.

The animation isn't sophisticated enough to give Marley his own, personal atmosphere that blows his hair, but Marley does pull some scary tricks like making his body disappear and enlarging his head to fill the whole room. That takes the place of his pulling off the bandage, too. Maybe Rankin-Bass figured the gaping mouth would be too much for kids.

Scrooge tries to deny his senses at first, but there's no humor in it. That would humanize him too much and this version isn't at all interested in that. Scrooge is to be judged as an object lesson, not related to or pitied as an actual person. But after seeing the giant head trick, Scrooge begins to believe that he's not just hallucinating.

Since this is a musical, Marley's warning takes the form of a song:

I wear a chain.
A heavy chain
Is wound around my soul
A chain of sin and vices
That I could not control.

Repent your crime.
Repent in time
Or you'll repent in vain.
For if you wait
Until too late, 
You'll never break your chain.

Although my chain is very strong,
The one you wear is stronger.
My chain of wrong is very long,
But yours is even longer.

You must escape.
Escape my fate.
Cast off the sins that bind you
Or you will find when you pass on,
You'll drag your chain behind you.

As Marley sings, there's a montage showing him and Scrooge conducting business, evicting poor families, and eventually Marley's tombstone and Scrooge's continuing to worship money.



Scrooge resists Marley's message at first. He even defends Marley, saying that Marley didn't deserve what's happened to him. But of course he's actually defending himself. When Marley suggests that Scrooge still has a chance at a different outcome though, Scrooge is interested. "How?" he asks.

That's an interesting question to me. Marley's terminology has been overtly religious, repeatedly using words like "sin" and "repentance." By putting it in those terms, he's giving Scrooge some very specific instructions that most people in Scrooge's culture would know how to follow. It means getting to a church, seeing a priest, and starting to work on becoming a better person.

That Scrooge asks "how" tells me that he's rejecting a simple, ritual, surface repentance as his answer. He seems to intuit that Marley's calling for a deeper transformation than that. But he has no idea how to go about it.

Marley's answer of course is that Scrooge will have help. "Tonight you will be haunted by three spirits." No confusing three-day schedule for this children's show. Scrooge says he'd rather not. He's not that interested. He's clearly terrified, but he's going to need some more convincing. And Marley's solution is to terrify Scrooge even further.

Marley goes to the window and beckons Scrooge to join him, but Scrooge refuses to get any closer to the ghost. So Marley waves a hand and Scrooge is floated from his bed and over to the window where Marley shows him an army of spirits who are standing in the street like ranks of a ghostly army, staring up at the window. "We seek to do good in human matters," Marley says, "but have lost the power forever." There's no woman and child out there; that's not the point. The scene isn't meant to tug on our hearts; it's meant to scare the crap out of Scrooge. "Repent!" Marley cries, and the army of the damned repeats it. "Repent! Repent!"

Scrooge screams, "No! No!" and runs to hide in his bed as Humbug - trapped outside with the army - pounds on the window to be let back in. It's a chilling scene and the most effectively frightening one we've looked at so far. I have some strong, negative feelings about fear as a motivator, but that's exactly Marley's job and he does it really well in this version.

Friday, December 09, 2016

“More of Gravy than of Grave” | Alastair Sim (1971)



Index of other entries in The Christmas Carol Project

Richard Williams' animated version does have a transition from the knocker (another lion face) to Marley, but it's so quick and subtle that I didn't even notice what was happening until the change was done. The designs of the knocker and Marley's face are so similar that only a few lines have to switch and it might as well have been without "any intermediate process of change." Scrooge is shocked by it, but the transformation back to knocker again is just as quick.

Inside, a ghostly hearse does go up the stairs and Scrooge is startled again. But he quickly recovers with a "humbug" and continues to his rooms. The animation is great in this sequence with most of the screen in darkness except for Scrooge's face, which is illuminated by his candle to an almost spectral appearance itself. Makes the whole house feel very creepy. Scrooge continues to mutter "humbug" all the way to his quarters.

The film doesn't have Scrooge searching his rooms or locking his door, but goes straight to him in his nightclothes, eating gruel by the fireplace. It's a faithful rendition of the room in which Scrooge's fire is nothing more than a glow and the hob is clearly visible with Scrooge's saucepan resting on it. I can't tell that there are any Dutch tiles, but the movie skips the second appearance of Marley's face and goes straight to the ringing bells.

Instead of bells all over the house, it's just a trio of service bells that stop abruptly so that Scrooge can hear the clanking of chains. Instead of Scrooge's fire acting strange, his candle flame flickers unnaturally as Marley materializes through the closed door.

Marley is transparent and does have a personal atmosphere that blows his hair and clothing around. Thanks to Alastair Sim's voice talents, Scrooge's joke about the gravy does come across as whistling in the dark, which causes Marley to take things to the next level. When Marley pulls off his bandage, his jaw gapes to an unholy degree. He screams loudly and Scrooge cowers, terrified.

As the conversation continues, Marley does speak in a spooky monotone, but even spookier is that his mouth never moves. It just continues to yawn widely with Marley's voice coming from deep inside. Scrooge is no longer the cold, passionless man he was in the earlier scenes. He's obviously frightened, but I also detect a hint of respect for his partner in the way Sim has him address Marley.

Scrooge doesn't get to talk much, though. Marley schedules the ghosts (over three nights) and then flies through the window with a shriek. He joins a host of other phantoms as Michael Redgrave's narration kicks back in, describing the ghosts' misery as they uselessly stretch out their arms to a mother and child sitting in the snow below.

Scrooge doesn't even get his allowed half-humbug out. Scared out of his wits, he simply runs to his bed and quickly draws closed the curtains.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

“More of Gravy than of Grave” | Teen Titans #13 (1968)



Index of other entries in The Christmas Carol Project

Hey! We finally have new ground to cover on Teen Titans #13. When we last left the story, Bob Ratchet's son, Tiny Tom had asked the Teen Titans help him uncover a smuggling ring involving Ratchet's boss, Ebenezer Scrounge. But before the young heroes could get involved, the smugglers were startled by another person in Scrounge's junkyard. The villains fought the shadowy figure, but he beat them up and sent them running for their truck. With no evidence of any wrong-doing, the Titans and Tom decided to follow the stranger instead, who led them to Scrounge's house.

The stranger turns out to be Scrounge's old partner, Jacob Farley, who's "as good as dead," because he's escaped from prison and on the run. Apparently, he and Scrounge sold some defective material a while back that got someone hurt. Neither knew that the product was defective, but Scrounge had figured out how to remove any blame from himself and let Farley take the whole fall. Farley wants to murder Scrounge, but the Titans intervene and stop him.

Unfortunately, Farley and the Titans are now all trespassing on Scrounge's property, so Scrounge threatens to call the police if they don't leave. Farley flees out a window into the snowy night and the Titans realize that they have no choice but to leave Scrounge alone.

Finally, Robin - who was reading A Christmas Carol earlier - makes the connection between Dickens' characters and the names of the people involved in this adventure. He comes up with a plan to "get Scrounge to change his miserable ways."

This adaptation is just for fun, so I'm not analyzing it the way I do the others, but there are a couple of things worth noting. Scrounge is a miserable jerk, but the comic goes out of its way to insist that he's not a real criminal. He rents his junkyard to criminals, but he thinks he's found himself a moral loophole because he doesn't actively participate in the smugglers' activities. That means that he can be redeemed at the end without having to go to prison himself.

Farley doesn't really start Scrounge on that path though. All he does is give Robin the final piece he needs to make the Christmas Carol connection. Scrounge is still in complete denial that he's done anything wrong and - as we'll see next year - his attitude towards work and Bob Rachet are as nasty as ever.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

“More of Gravy than of Grave” | Graphic Classics, Volume 19: Christmas Classics (2010)



Alex Burrows and Micah Farritor's severely abridged version of the story goes from Scrooge's standing outside his door (and in front of the knocker so that we can't see it) to Marley's spectral face.

Burrows and Farritor continue letting the art do the work, focusing mostly on mood. There's no text and Scrooge doesn't even speak until Marley appears. He seems unaffected, calmly closing the front door and not even flinching when a ghostly hearse drives up the enormously wide (fairy tale palaces would be envious) staircase. I noticed before that this Scrooge's defining characteristic seems to be his arrogance. He may just be too cocky to spook.

There's no checking of the rooms. He just goes upstairs to his dinner of gruel. (We're never told that it's gruel, but it's white and lumpy.) I also note that Scrooge's bed is in the same room as the fireplace, which is different from Dickens and the other adaptations where Scrooge has at least two, separate rooms in his little suite. This room is ginormous though and well-cared for. It's not at all the dingy, miserly quarters that I'm used to seeing.

There are no bells in this version, just a klank klank and then Marley merges through the door. One close up of Marley's legs reveals him to be transparent (his chains and boxes are visible through his trousers), but for most of the scene he looks fairly solid. There's just a sickly, purple glow around him.

Marley introduces himself - the first indication in this version of who he is - and when he removes his bandage, his jaw falls apart like a decaying zombie. It's a bit of license, but it looks great and I love it.

The conversation is cut extremely short with only the barest of exposition left in. Basically about Marley's chain and how Scrooge is going to have one, too, unless he's haunted by the coming spirits. Scrooge is clearly freaked out by all this, so there's a hole in his snobbish armor. He doesn't say much though, so there's no indication of whether or not he's learning or changing yet. It's enough to know that he's shaken.

Marley says that the three spirits will all visit Scrooge "this night," so there's our first example of a deviation from Dickens' schedule. His warning delivered, Marley flies through the closed window to join a throng of moaning ghosts outside. No sign of a homeless mother and her child.

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