Screen Scrooges: To Begin With

                                                STAVE ONE: Marley’s Ghost

            Marley was dead, to begin  with.  There is no doubt whatever about that.  The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner.  Scrooge signed it; and Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to.  Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

            Mind!  I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail.  I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade.  But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile, and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for.  You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

            Scrooge knew he was dead?  Of course he did.  How could it be otherwise?  Scrooge and he were partners for I don’t know how many years.  Scrooge was his sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend and sole mourner.  And even Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but that he was an excellent man of business on the very day of the funeral, and solemnised it with an undoubted bargain.

            The mention of Marley’s funeral brings me back to the point I started from.  There is no doubt that Marley was dead.  This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.  If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet’s father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night, in an easterly wind, upon his own ramparts, than there would be in any other middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot—say St. Paul’s churchyard for instance—literally to astonish his son’s weak mind.

            Scrooge never painted out old Marley’s name.  There it stood, years afterwards, above the warehouse door; Scrooge and Marley.  The firm was known as Scrooge and Marley.  Sometimes people new to the business called Scrooge Scrooge and sometimes Marley, but he answered to both names; it was all the same to him.

     So how would you start a ghost story?  Dickens certainly works to let us know what we’re in for.  The subtitle of the book calls it a ghost story, the title of the first chapter is “Marley’s Ghost”, and the first sentence lets us know Marley is dead.  To fix this all in our heads, he works in that quibble about door-nails.  (This is how you can tell at a glance whether you are reading an abridged “Christmas Carol”; if the extended bit about door-nails is missing, put the book right back where you picked it up and slowly back away.)

     This is all very well for prose, but cinema can do only so much with it.  Then too, a movie has to have some place to plunk in the opening credits, the establishing opening shots, the hit theme song for the soundtrack album, and so forth.  At the very least, we need to see pictures which explain that this is winter, in London, long years ago, and that Marley is dead, to begin with.  We may or may not feel a need to mention door-nails.

      Virtually all Carols agree on a proper opening: song or not, narrator or not, we simply must open with an overhead shot in which we gracefully float over the rooftops to a smattering of music and a scattering of snow.  Smoking chimneys serve to give us a hint about the era as we descend to ground level and discover the passersby are clad in solidly Victorian costume.  Gaslights are often a great help.

     Narrators explain things to us in Sim I, even mentioning door-nails, while Scott’s narrator speaks over Marley’s funeral procession, giving us a two-sentence version of Dickens’s opening, reinforced some time later by Bob Cratchit’s remark about Mr. Marley dying “seven years ago today.”  Rathbone has Frederic March read to us, explaining about the door-nail, and allowing the camera to move from a portrait of Jacob Marley to Scrooge at his desk.  Matthau’s insect narrator-cum-Greek-chorus (B.A.H. Humbug is his name) shows us the briefest glimpse of Marley’s Ghost and tells us about the reformed Scrooge before starting the story he has just spiled for us with “Marley was dead; to begin with.”  Caine presents as narrator no less than Charles Dickens himself (Gonzo the Great), who establishes the scene for us with the help of Rizzo the Rat.  In a scene somewhat later, Dickens will explain that we must understand Marley is dead “or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am about to relate.”

      Sometimes the filmmaker prefers to do without a narrator, instead touching on the above details briefly in passing.  These folks probably assumed we saw the title and already know pretty much when and where we are.  All we need now is a brief consideration of Jacob Marley.  The first time we see Quincy Magoo as Scrooge, he is in an office where hangs a portrait of his partner; at one point, he pauses in counting his money to cackle “Wouldn’t old Jacob Marley have been proud!”  McDuck, whom we watch trudge through snow to work, looks up at his shop sign (on which Marley’s name has been crossed out) to note that old Jacob is “dead seven years today.”  We learn that this particular Scrooge made the undoubted bargain Dickens speaks of by saving the money Jacob left for a tombstone by having him buried at seas.

     Some versions bother with none of this.  After all, when the Charity Solicitors arrive later, Scrooge will state categorically that Marley is dead.  Hicks, for example, opens with the text of Dickens’s preface (look it up) and then takes us through London to the counting house.  Owen has a simple title announcing that the scene is “more than a century ago.”  March, Finney, and Curry show us London in winter, and hurry on to Scrooge’s first collision with the holiday.  Sim II, after showing us the lettering of the title page of the first edition of the book, has Michael Redgrave tell us the time and place, whisking us to Scrooge’s without so much as a mention of anyone named Marley.

     On the other hand, two versions have us make our way to Marley’s interment.  After a preview of Marley’s Ghost and a few scenes of London at Christmas, Haddrick shows us Scrooge walking to work past the graveyard.  From the road, he spots Jacob’s tombstone, and thinks back to memory of Marley’s exceedingly cheap last rites.  Marley being dead, the Scrooge of seven years past explains, there is no need to spend much on him.  He ends by offering the gravedigger such an insultingly small amount that the man dashes it to the ground.  Scrooge picks it up, of course.  (The day is rather warm for Christmas; the gravedigger’s coat is off and his sleeves are rolled up.)  A voiceover explains that such hard bargains “is” Scrooge’s stock in trade, and that he has become colder and harder as time has passed.

     Stewart has the most elaborate version, taking us through the burial and aftermath.  We see the plaque on the coffin lid, which reads “Jacob Marley, 1784-1836.”  Snow falls.  Scrooge seems to be in the grip of strong emotion, but keeps a tight rein on himself.  He discusses door-nails with another mourner, but here the quibble changes.  The other mourner wonders why a door-nail should be any deader than a doorbell or a door-knocker.  Scrooge, impatient, snaps “Nail, nob, or knocker, Jacob’s dead, and there’s an end to it.”  (Nice touch, involving the doorknocker.  Comes into the story later.)  The clergyman in attendance remarks that the scanty turnout for the death  of an important businessman can probably be attributed to what day it is; Scrooge seems to be unaware that today is Christmas.  When he is alone, Scrooge waxes nostalgic, recalling the partners’ struggle to establish the business, eventually prospering on the “idleness of others”.  He walks back to work through the snow, ignoring revelers and being greated at the counting house by Bob Cratchit.  Seven years pass, shown by the rusting of the shop sign; later, Bob Cratchit inquires whether Mr. Scrooge will be painting out Mr. Marley’s name from the sign, after seven years.  Scrooge notes that “Time will erase it at no cost to us.”

     However we get there, we have arrived at the counting house, and can consider its CEO.

FUSS FUSS FUSS #1:  When is This?

     Our story takes place in 1843, sorta.  Dickes states this nowhere—why date a story so definitely when you want it to sell every year?—and if you want to get technical about it, Christmas fell on a Monday in 1843, making it very likely that Bob Cratchit would have been in the office on Christmas Eve.

     Anyhow, Hicks, Sim II, and Stewart, among others, come right out and tell us this is 1843.  Other versions yearn to set it later, among the Late Victorians, people we are more familiar with, whom we can see it photo albums handed down by our great-great-grandparents.  Finney, for example, sets the story in 1860, while Caine and Curry take us to some Christmas in the 1890s.  (One can try to date a Carol by the costumes; the quickest way, however, is to wait until the Ghost of Christmas Present mentions how many of his older brother have preceded him.)

     Owen, however, takes us in the other direction, with a title telling us the story takes place “over a century ago”, though the movie appeared in 1938.  Haddrick doesn’t make it easy to date his version, but it probably runs the same direction as Owen.  A grocer/poulterer we pass on the way to the counting house tells his customers that the turkey he’s holding would “feed Good King George and his whole court.”  This places the story either before the death of George IV in 1830 or after the accession of George V in 1910.  (One usually associates slips like this to American writers, but Haddrick’s version is Australian.)

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