Monday, November 30, 2009

Bah Humblog: Stave the Third - George C. Scott.


(Scott gets one hour of playtime per day. It's in his contract.)

THE GOOD - There’s a lot of little details here and there thrown in from the original novella. Nothing earth-shattering, just some little moments that don’t usually make it into adaptations that give the movie a more fleshed-out feeling. A good example would be Fred offering Peter Cratchit a job, and Scrooge thinking the offer was only made to spite him. Actually, it’s nice to see someone do anything with any of the other Cratchit kids. There’s also some lines and details that weren’t in the old story that similarly expand and improve the story. I’d cite specific examples, but I forgot to write any. Another thing I like about this version is that the ghosts are kind of assholes. Past laughs at Scrooge when he gets upset, and Present directly admonishes him. More detail on those later, but I like that they have more in-depth personalities.

("Spirit, whose grave is... Wait... I.P. Freely?")

THE BAD - Having little details in the movie, and fleshing out scenes and characters is one thing, but there’s some scenes that were just added in entirely that tend to be unnecessary and terrible. Showing the Cratchit family’s reaction to receiving the prize turkey seems like a good idea, but once the writers get out of the framework of Dickens, they have no idea what to do, and the scene is just awkward.

("It costs how much to take off the feathers? Blimey, this charity business is trickier than I thought.")

THE OTHERWISE WORTHY OF MENTION - Some of the little details I mentioned are really… inexplicable. For example, the back of Scrooge’s fireplace has “The Last Supper“ painted on it. I certainly hope they weren’t implying some sort of symbolism there. Also, this first place Present takes Scrooge is a marketplace. I guess the idea was to show that commerce can be friendly and positive, but did we need to start with the lingering closeup of dead fish? Then show those fish being cleaned? Then move on to closeups of a guy butchering a pig? Weird stuff.

("And I'll tell you where you can shove your Oscar, too.")

SCROOGE - A odd tactic is taken here by making Scrooge the only one who has any fun. When Cratchit goes to put another piece of coal on the fire, Scrooge doesn’t just ream him out, he gives him an impromptu lecture on the function of clothes. “Once purchased, they can be used indefinitely for their intended purpose.” This adds an excellent dimension to him, as statements like “Boiled in his own pudding,” and “decrease the surplus population” are delivered with a laugh that makes it clear that in the mind of Scrooge, these are hilarious jokes. And the fact that no one else is laughing just means something is wrong with them. In the mind of Scott’s Scrooge, he is so right and everyone else is so stupid, it’s hilarious. Fantastic way to play Scrooge. Scrooge’s extremely generic profession is gone into more detail here. Rather than a banker or a lender, he appears to be a corn merchant, going to the Exchange to sell to the middlemen. I have to say, this lessens his impact a bit. Threatening to foreclose on a widow is what we want to see in our evil misers, not threatening to jack up grain prices for wholesalers. I also want to mention that this is the first Scrooge we’ve seen fully clothed, wearing a smoking jacket over his shirt, pants, and vest, rather than the traditional nightshirt. Apparently, Scott didn‘t want to film in England in the dead of winter with no pants on. Good for him. It’s a nice look, anyway. My final note for Scrooge reads “Not paying attention. Opens the door.” I forget what I meant when I wrote that.

(An added scene in which Marley walks in on Scrooge changing into his pajamas.)

MARLEY - I think it’s great that in most productions of the story, Marley is kind of vague and mopey and Scrooge acts terrified, but when we actually get a scary-as-hell Marley, he has to go up against George C. Scott. He gets the best of him, though, and well he should. His chains and safes seem to honestly be weighing him down, and he lurches forward with wide, unblinking eyes, his jaw flapping slack when freed from his bandage, screaming with a throaty roar that seems to come from the VERY BOWELS OF HELL ITSELF. I like him, is my point. And no special effects to speak of, too.

(This is Major Ghost of Christmas Past to ground control...)

PAST - Played by some weird androgynous clone of young Judi Dench and David Bowie. Rather than the sweeping flight across time we saw in the past two versions, she… he… it shows Scrooge visions as reflections in her shiny cap. At first all we saw was what they were seeing, with voice over from them watching it, and I was terrified that that would be all it was, with Scrooge narrating over his wonder years like so much Daniel Stern. Thankfully, they soon plant their feet in the past, and go around watching everything like usual. Scott takes a different approach in the past scenes, needless to say. I always hated how regretful and contrite and nostalgic Scrooge seems to get right away in the past, and here, his nostalgia is the same as everything else to him. He’s right, and everyone else is wrong. I never much liked the scene where Lil’ Ebby is reading inside, and the ghost tries to make him look all lonely and wretched, whilst Scrooge dithers nostalgically over all his old books. In this version, Scrooge just says “Screw you, ghosty, my books are awesome.“ Nice. It’s this kind of no-nonsense attitude that leads to the first-in-this-blog appearance of one of my favorite book bits, the murder of Past with its own hat. In this Scrooge crams the hat viciously on its head and all the background instantly vanishes as it screams, “THE PAST LIVES” or some such. Scrooge? Him balls nasty.

("No, that's just what my legs look like. Thanks for bringing it up, asshole.")

PRESENT - For our first full-blown live-action Present, I’m glad they were able to get a real tall guy. He seems at first to be a bit skinny and short-bearded to qualify, but the height helps. And frankly, it all goes a long way to making him look less like Santa. He basically sort of wanders casually through Christmas, enjoying himself, wearing a big ol‘ curtain. Casual, not hugely jovial and all up in Scrooge‘s grill. Rather than simply reminding Scrooge that no one can hear him, we get this delightful admonition: “Don’t talk to them. It’s pointless… and rather tactless.” He does, however, get REALLY pissed at Scrooge, and flat out says that he would murder Scrooge a million times over to save one person like Tiny Tim. See, Past? If you talked that sort of game, you wouldn’t be jammed into your own hat right now.

(I almost typed 'It only hurts when I do this', but then I remembered I used that joke in the Muppet one. I need better writers.)

FUTURE - I’m actually really impressed with the amount of variety directors can get out of a weirdly tall guy in a black robe with no face who never talks. This one, for example, moves a lot, communicating not with a nod, but a full-body droop. His pointing is similarly more elaborate gestures, and he flickers about instead of staying in one place. He tends to be revealed in flashes of lightning, rarely staying in one place for long. His future realm is also wonderfully atmospheric, with stark lighting, deep shadows, and random whispering in the background. There’s also a great moment in the scene where Scrooge sees his things being sold to the bone man. Rather than play him like he’s in denial or legitimately thinks he‘s looking at some random guy‘s death, Scrooge knows damn well he’s dead, he just doesn’t want to see it. This is confirmed when his maid hands Pawny MacFacescab Scrooge’s distinctively-chiming pocket watch. Chilling. If you like your futures bleak and creepy, this is the one for you. Oh, and at the end, instead of being taken to the graveyard after demanding that the spirit show him where he is, he gets taken there after screaming “That‘s enough! Take me home!”. Creeeeeepyyyy.

(Pure badass.)

CRATCHIT - Played by David Warner. I can’t tell you how much I love David Warner. I want to be him. For the unaware, he was the MCP in Tron, Ra’s al Ghul on Batman the Animated Series, Professor Perry in Ninja Turtles 2, Dr. Downey in Hogfather, Gul Madred on the Star Trek episode where Picard gets tortured, and Chancellor Gorkon in Star Trek 6. DO YOU UNDERSTAND HOW AWESOME THIS MAN IS?

(Significantly less badass.)

You may have noticed something about… well, every role up there except Gorkon. As Warner’s Wikipedia article begins, the man “is known for playing sinister or villainous characters.” So how does he do as clinically nice guy Cratchit? Ehh. He’s fine, but there’s nothing really unique going on here, and his bearing is still a bit too powerful. I’d rather see him play Marley or Scrooge, or something similar he can really ham it up in. When you have the gift of hamming without looking stupid, I say use it!

(If Mr. Smlown was a human, he'd look like this.)

TINY TIM - Aah! Sorry. I just looked at a hideous beast. I thought Tiny Tim was going to show up, but I guess AAH! There it is again! Seriously, we’re supposed to feel sorry for the merry little cripple, and that’s really hard when he’s a hideous beast. The actor has grown into a film executive, with a hand in producing some recent major hits, such as Twilight and Tropic Thunder. I am in favor of this, as it keeps him behind the camera. Still, the kid is a decent actor, and I can’t blame him for what the makeup artists did when told to make him look sickly. Character-wise, he’s not just optimistic and loving, but downright chipper in the face of horrible disease, which is an interesting way to play it. Dickens wrote Tim as a suffering saint who knew he was terribly ill and likely to die soon. This kid seems like nobody wanted to tell him. He does, of course, say “God bwess us, evewy one,” but I much prefer his earlier line “Huwwah for Chwistmas!”

(“Then I shall keep my good humor…” If you say so, man.)

FRED - Fred is played by Roger Rees, who we’ve recently seen as the Sheriff in Robin Hood: Men In Tights, making him the first crossover performer between my two long-form blogs. Good for him. What with being classy and talented, he pulls double-duty as the films narrator, but there’s not much narration there. Frankly, I can’t stand movies that just start and end with narration. Narrators are annoying anyway, and if they aren’t going to be sticking around, just give us some damn supertitles. Anyway, Fred! He kind of sucks.

("Get a haircut, hippie.")

The whole point of Fred, it seems to me, is that his relentlessly cheerful Christmas spirit contrasts with his uncle’s cold dismissal of the whole concept. In this movie, I suppose since they made Scrooge a cheerier person, Fred is grim. Rather than an invitation to Christmas dinner, it seems like he’s running an intervention. In addition to his weird direction, Rees has a weird face, well suited to villains, or at least mustaches. His pinched expression of discomfort combined with his weird Ronald McDonald bouffant hairdo make this Fred fail on about every level. The scene where Scrooge spies on his party has one great moment, where everyone says “Bah, humbug” in unison, and one reeeeeealllly long section where Scrooge watches them play party games that wind up mocking him. The word game is one thing, but there’s no need to labor it with charades, musical chairs, and Apples to Apples.

(Winner of the 1837 Christmas Sideburns contest.)

CHARITY CASE - Holy crap, it’s Alfred! Oh, wait, it’s Mr… Poole? And his friend is Mr. Harking. They have names! Good for them.. Anyway, the now-named charity saps in this version are slightly more polite, approaching Scrooge not in his office while he’s working, but in a major public location when everyone’s closed up. This makes them less obnoxious, but also Scrooge’s dismissal more warranted. Well, I guess when you blow off charity panhandlers in Times Square, you’re supposed to do it by just walking by, not by stopping to tell them how much they suck and how you hope everyone they’re trying to help winds up in prison. Yeah, Scrooge is still a jerk.

("Yes my dear! What a delightful dirty limerick!")

FEZZIWIG - The F-wig is described in the book as being a serious tough boss, who still knew the value of fun, and Scrooge learned all the wrong lessons from him. In this movie, we see a very little bit of him at work before the party, and he is a muttering, giggling, funny little hobbit of a man. I like this implication, as well, that Scrooge really started off on the right path with the right mentor, and he strayed on his own. He also directly plays matchmaker with Scrooge and…

("I cannot marry you Ebenezer. You just... You fart so damn much.")

BELLE - Now, unless I miss my guess, the implication is made that she is Miss Belle Fezziwig, daughter of the old boss. It adds a nice extra dimension to what I am increasingly beginning to think is a role that amounts to nothing more than a broken heart, a sharp tongue, and a silly hat. One of the oddest parts of the movie is when she leaves Scrooge, and the soundtrack, which had been very understated though most of the film, suddenly bursts forth in a cacophony of strings and horns. When Belle ends it, she hires an orchestra to let you KNOW it. They actually go on to show the rarely-adapted scene where Scrooge sees Belle, her husband, and their six children, happy and loving at Christmas, the parents reminiscing vaguely about poor old Ebenezer. This, of course, is motivation to provoke the aforementioned grisly spectrecide. Oh, Belle, you still got it.

("Scrooge? You ever think about... You know... Stuff?")

OTHERS Not much in the way of interesting new characters here. There is a bit where a ghost hearse with a ghost driver rides past Scrooge, with Marley’s voice moaning out from inside it. I like that Scrooge is having a weird night before the door knocker. I wish they’d done more with that. Nothing else really to speak of, except that Papa Scrooge seems to have a glass eye or something. That’s about it.

(Oh, it's related. Don't you worry.)


Are you ready for the awe-inspiring fury of the finest lyrics ever committed to the human throat? PREPARE YOURSELF!

We wish you the merriest, the merriest, the merriest, the merriest to you
We wish you the merriest, the merriest, the merriest, yes the merriest,
We wish you the merriest, the merriest, the merriest Yule cheer,


We wish you the happiest, the happiest, the happiest, yes the happiest,
We wish you the happiest, the happiest, the happiest new year.


May your tree be filled with happiness, happiness and friendliness for all
May your heart be filled with cheerfulness,
With happiness and cheerfulness and friendliness for all.


We wish you the happiest, the happiest, the happiest, yes the happiest,
We wish you the merriest, the merriest, the merriest Yule cheer,
And the happiest new year.
The happiest and the friendliest, and the merriest, the cheerfullest,
And the happiest new year.

So, yeah. The most remarkable thing about “We Wish you the Merriest” is that it took three massively famous people to make it. The music and chorus were conducted by radio/TV personality/bandleader/singer Fred Waring. Not really known today, Waring was a huge star back in his time. He actually was the financial backer and namesake of the first ever electric blender, the Waring Blendor. This brings up two important points. First, Fred Waring was the original George Foreman; and second, Blendor would be a kickass He-Man villain. Waring was best known, however, for his TV program, where a bunch of guys would sing songs. Yeah, it took a lot less to impress back in those days. As long as you were on the Tv, you could do pretty much anything, and people would be rapt. I’ve never seen the show, but I’ve heard the singers, and these guys are so white they make “Sing Along With Mitch” look like “Soul Train”.

The other two singers highlighting the track have been slightly better remembered by history. That is because they are Frank Fucking Sinatra and Bing Bloody Crosby. Now, my shock at their appearance in this horrifyingly bad song is entirely based on their legendary fame, not their talent. Frankly, I think both of them are boring and unpleasant to listen to, with smirks and smarm dripping from every word, Crosby far more so than Sinatra. Frankie could put out the occasional song that’s bearable, but frankly, he had a style he would not deviate from. Crosby had the same thing, and since his style was “Smug, immovable-faced douche”, I have less to make me like him. Besides, Sinatra was in The Manchurian Candidate and Crosby beat his kids. So after the extra credit points are tallied, the divide is even more pronounced.

“But Brian,” you say, “Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby are amazingly talented national treasures!” Well, first of all, thanks for reading my blog, college roommate Sean Murphy. And may I point out that the main subject of this little note is “We Wish You the Merriest”. And have you seen those lyrics? I had to harp on the creative team. There’s nothing I could say about the song itself, because it is so self-evidently shitty I can honestly not think of any way to mock it other than just writing the words down. It’s the blog-snarker’s nightmare. It’s so clearly bad it resists all attempts at mockery. When I heard it on Christmas Radio, I just sat in the car, dumbfounded that such a product could exist. And the people singing it! Despite their droning and unpleasant voices, they had made their entire careers out of being groovy, swinging hep cats, and they were just intoning the same words over and over with no thought to rhythm or style… Cheerfullest isn’t even a word! So I give you “We Wish You the Merriest”. A song that begets no scorn, no derision… Just bafflement and wonder.

COMING UP NEXT: A Hallmark movie, you say? Starring a bunch of sitcom and cop show stars that NBC happened to have lying around, you say? A musical, you say? Ah, how could I refuse. Tune in shortly to witness Stave the Fourth - Kelsey Grammer!


Charlemagne said...

I don't know if it's just me, but each picture of scrooge from this post makes me think of when Phil played Scrooge.

Kate said...

I'm amazed that I missed this one when you first posted it, since it's my favorite "Christmas Carol" film. I could talk about this film for hours, probably because when I first started watching it as a kid, Ignorance and Want and Christmas Yet to Come really scared the freakin' bejesus out of me, and Marley... well, you're totally right about him being the best and scariest one, he was usually watched from behind the couch. One fun trivia point - the weird sound effect that happens every time CYTC points is someone drawing a bow across a piano string, which I always thought was cool.

I also particularly enjoyed Susannah York as Mrs. Cratchit, and how hard it is for Scrooge to keep up his old Scroogey facade with Cratchit the day after.

As always, looking forward to the next one!

Jim said...

The presentation of Marley in this one is really the best out there and had such an impact on me as a kid that I landed my first role in the acting world doing the Marley monologue heavily influenced by this one.

The most disappointing part to me is how subdued Scrooge is during his final scene with Fred. I like my Christmas Carols to en on a more joyous note which is one of the reasons I love the Albert Finney version so much.