SCREEN SCROOGES It’s Cold

            Once upon a time—of all good days in the year, on Christmas Eve—old Scrooge sat busy in his counting-house.  It was cold, bleak, biting weather: foggy withal: and he could hear people in the court outside, go wheezing up and down, beating their hands upon their breasts, and stamping their feet upon the pavement-stones to warm them.   The city clocks had only just gone three, but it qas quite dark already: it had not been light all day: and candles were flaring in the windows of the neighboring offices, like ruddy smears upon the palpable brown air.  The fog came pouring in at every chink and keyhole, and was so intense without, that although the court was of the narrowest, the houses opposite were mere phantoms.  To see the dingy cloud come drooping down, obscuring everything, one might have thought Nature lived hard by, and was brewing on a large scale.

            The door of Scrooge’s counting-house was open that he might keep an eye upon his clerk, who in a dismal little cell beyond, a sort of tank, was copying letters.  Scrooge had a very small fire, but the clerk’s fire was so very much smaller that it looked like one coal.  But he couldn’t replenish it, for Scrooge kept the coal-box in his own room; and so surely as the clerk came in with the shovel, the master would predict that it would be necessary for them to part.  Wherefore the clerk put on his white comforter, and tried to warm himself at the candle, in which effort, not being a man of strong imagination, he failed.

     This is one of Dickens’s gifts to the filmmaker.  He tells us, briefly but with a subliminal chuckle, that it is about three in the afternoon, the weather is cold and dark, and Scrooge keeps an eye on his clerk for wasteful habits like using coal to keep warm.  Note that as written, Bob Cratchit, who doesn’t even have a name yet, doesn’t actually try to snitch any coal.  He knows better.

     But hardly a filmmaker misses the opportunity to amuse or alarm us with Scrooge’s meanness here.  Even in Bugs Bunny’s Looney Christmas tales (1979), which reduces the whole story to seven minutes, there is a coal scene  (Porky Pig makes an exceptionally chilly Bob Cratchit, as he never wears pants anyhow.)

     Some films, notably Magoo, change Scrooge’s character by giving him a comfy, well-heated office while Bob shivers outside in the chill of the Tank.  Caine, at the other extreme, doesn’t seem to have any fire in the whole establishment.  Most versions limit the business to one fire—in Scrooge’s office—though Owen in fact gives Bob a good, roaring blaze.

     In Hicks, we have two fires, as stated; Cratchit’s is not merely low on heat but so low on light he is having trouble squinting at his books, his candle being as inadequate as his fire.  He has no better luck warming his fingers at his mouth.  When he tries to sneak some coal behind his boss’s back, he is spotted in the mirror Scrooge has obviously set up for just that purpose.  Bob starts to explain that his fire is in danger of going out, but Scrooge corrects him.  Since Scrooge’s money pays for the coal, that is certainly NOT Bob Cratchit’s fire.  Bob puts the coal back, grumbling, whereupon Scrooge beckons him over.  As the older man inquires about his family, Cratchit seems to entertain some hopes, but Scrooge is merely warning him to safeguard that family’s future by making sure he is worth his salary.  Wasting coal is not a step in that direction.

     Owen combines the scene with that of nephew Fred’s visit.

     Sim I’s office, located in a fairly dismal and oil-traveled street, looks warmer than most, but Cratchit is doing his best to warm frigid fingers at the candle without attracting the attention of the Charity Solicitors, who are waiting with him in the Tank.  This Cratchit is a small, nervous soul who wishes to offend no one, and accustomed to leaping just before his master cries frog.

     March is one of the few versions which abbreviate the scene, and brings it in after the visit of the Charity Solicitors.  When Cratchit asks for more coal, Scrooge barks that they will be closing in five minutes and the fire can just go out.

     Rathbone skips the scene entirely.

     Magoo’s Scrooge, in his warm, bright office, sings “Ringle Ringle”, a song about what fun it is to have lots and lots of jingling coins, and does not seem to notice Cratchit slipping in from his dark, cobwebby Tank with a coal shovel.  Bob has just reached the glowing stove when there is a cry of “Cratchit!”  The clerk, shivering despite his hat and comforter, asks for a bit more coal in the name of Christmas Eve.  This is quite the wrong strategy; Scrooge informs him that as it is Christmas Eve, this would be a disastrous time for him to be losing his position and then advises him to warm himself by attending to his work.  “Be asking for a feather bed and tea service next,” Scrooge grumbles.  He then continues to sing “Ringle Ringle” counterpointed by Cratchit, in the next room, singing “It’s Cold”.

     Haddrick leaves out the coal.  He demonstrates his personality by kicking a caroler’s doll out of the way as he enters the office and snaps at Cratchit not to chatter when his clerk says “Hello, Sir”.

     Sim II shows us a clock with the hands pointing to three o’clock.  Cratchit is trying to warm his hands at his candle.  The door opens, allowing a cold wind to rustle the papers on Scrooge’s desk.

     As the opening credits finish, Matthau scolds Cratchit for enjoying the opening theme song, “An Old-Fashioned Christmas”, and then threatens him with dismissal.  He thumps Cratchit’s desk for emphasis, dislodging a lump of coal Bob has been concealing.  Scrooge is furious at the attempted theft; B.A.H. Humbug confides to us that Bob has to smuggle coal into the fire lump by lump.  “Next thing you’ll be picking my pockets,” Scrooge snarls.

     Finney’s office is dark, but not too frigid.  His Cratchit seems submissive, but doesn’t cringe.  There is no business here with coal.

     Scrooge McDuck arrives at his office on the morning of Christmas Eve in time to find Bob Cratchit putting a lump of coal into the fire.  Cratchit points out that his ink has frozen (his quill pen, in fact, has turned blue) but Scrooge reminds him that he used a lump of coal just last week.

     In Scott, we see a number of shoppers and passers-by blowing on their hands for warmth.  Cratchit here is not even trying to swipe coal; he is reprimanded for just poking up the fire, which will waste coal by making the fire burn it faster.  He is then treated to a lecture in which Scrooge points out the difference between coal, which can be used up, and warm clothing, which can be useful over and over.  Bob’s face is one of tight-lipped resentment; Scrooge seems not so much angry as weary, perhaps of having to deal with people who do not understand these basics.  This Cratchit does seem more comfortable in his position, perhaps guessing that Scrooge would never find so cooperative a clerk so cheap, and even attempts small talk with his boss.  Scrooge rebuffs this.

     Caine’s Cratchit is in charge of a whole corps of bookkeepers, who are appropriately rats.  This office is the darkest of the lot, its windows caked with dirt and its candles utterly inadequate.  Scrooge’s part of the office is no brighter or warmer.  Scrooge demands the eviction notices for tomorrow and when reminded that tomorrow, responds, “Very well, you may giftwrap them.”  He goes on about Christmas being the foreclosure season, with so many people spending money on frivolities.  His sudden grin of pleasure is unpleasantly cheerful.  This may be as close to a good mood as he ever comes, so the bookkeepers push Bob to request a little more coal to thaw their frozen ink and defrost their frozen assets.  When Scrooge bellows a threat of unemployment, the bookkeepers disavow any feeling of chill, breaking into a chorus of “Island in the Sun”.  Scrooge chuckles to himself as Cratchit admits, “I think you’ve convinced them again, Mr. Scrooge.”

     Curry’s London includes a road-mender’s fire, at which vagrants warm themselves.  One of these is a boy we shall see later as a caroler, and then as a turkey-fetcher.  People are engaged in full holiday frolic on the snow-clad cobblestones; the crowd includes a jester pedaling a unicycle among the revelers as he juggles.  Cratchit watches through the window; he is a squarely handsome man of optimistic mien, though he hides this when Scrooge snaps at him for humming along with the opening theme music.  The business with the coal will be combined with the bit about carolers later.

     Stewart has a well-lit but bleak office.  Most movie Scrooges have polished paneling, which gives off a warm glow, but here the wood is thin, old, and scrubbed to a cheerless blue-grey.  There is a shelf for hats with a row of pegs underneath; the point is to stress Scrooge’s utilitarian attitude over his Victorian picturesqueness.  A lean, mournful Cratchit attempts to rebuild the small fire with which both rooms are heated, and is  met with a sharp look and a command to “Poke it, sir!  Poke it!”  Poking the fire kindles no warming glow; Cratchit shivers, and goes on to fail to warm his fingers either at his candle or his mouth.  This Cratchit has been with the firm at least since the death of Jacob Marley, and seems less afraid to speak to his boss than some of the others.

                        FUSS FUSS FUSS #3: Mr. Robert Cratchit, Esq.

     Bob Cratchit comes on stage more often than any character other than Scrooge himself.  Only in the visions of Christmas Past is he absent, and one wonders why some enterprising filmmaker has done nothing about this.*

     Cratchit is harder to cast, too.  he has hardly a speech where he isn’t reprimanded either by his employer or his wife.  A lot of modern viewers despise him, considering him a spineless cringer without Uriah Heep’s redeeming qualities.  Anti-Carol folks, whose name is legion, point out that Cratchit has been with the firm seven years or better (perhaps he was hired to help with the work load when Marley fell ill) and is still making only 15 bob a week.  He can’t be much of a clerk, goes the argument, since if he was worth more, he’d have been hired away from Scrooge & Marley by now.  These people are entitled to their opinion, of course.  But I wouldn’t sit down to a bowl of smoking bishop with any of them.

     What you need is someone who can convincingly play a likeable chap who lacks ambition and will suffer anything—cold, low pay, abuse from the boss—just to keep a job.  Maybe that’s why some viewers loathe him; his character hits too close to home.

     As far as looks, Dickens is, as usual, no help at all.  He tells us almost nothing about this clerk, not even giving him a name until we are halfway through the story.  The only hint he affords us is to twice call him “little Bob”, surely making him the ideal father for “Tiny Tim.”  (And for once, Dickens has been too subtle for his audience.  “Little Bob” is actually a pun: a bob is a shilling, see, and as he does not get paid many of them, Mr. Cratchit is a man of “little bob”.  Yeah?  Well, go write your own Christmas classic.)

     Naturally, the filmmakers regularly provide a tall, lanky Bob Cratchit, younger than Scrooge but too old to be a mere apprentice.  Magoo’s Cratchit is surely the tallest and thinnest of all, with a long nose on which spectacles are precariously perched.  Sim I’s Cratchit, on the other hand, is surely the smallest to start with and shrinking, rather, the more he gets barked at.  Owen’s version, as Michael Pointer noted, is built more along the lines of Mr. Fezziwig than the traditional Bob Cratchit.

     Hicks’s Cratchit may be the oldest of all.  (Dickens himself portrayed Cratchit, in public readings, as an older man who had lost a few teeth as he aged, whistling when he used the letter S.)  Cratchit seems generally to grow younger as we move to the newer versions.  Finney’s seems the youngest.  March’s has the best hair, while Caine’s is best dressed, as well as being one of the few who does not wear those trademark fingerless gloves.  In Two versions, Cratchit is valued almost as much as Scrooge, the role being handed to major stars (though one is a mouse and the other a frog.)  In March, by Contrast, almost all of Cratchit’s scenes are simply dropped; even the scene at the death of Tiny Tim is cut away.

     Matthau’s Cratchit is the most groveling (he even argues against his own raise at the end) though Rathbone’s may be the most easily frightened.  Sim I’s Bob tries to disavow any interest in Christmas, suggested he’d gladly work through the holiday if it weren’t for his family (this is a lie.)  Finney’s is a Christmas fanatic right up there with Dickens himself.  (Like Owen’s Cratchit, he makes a huge deal out of the punch, for example.)  One gets the feeling that even his family finds this a bit much, and is just humoring him, but, anyway, it beats being at work.

*PSSSST! (footnote)

It is not the purpose of this volume to give hints to screenwriters (at least, not without suitable recompense.)  But here’s one way to do it.

            Fan has just told Ebenezer he is leaving his dreadful school forever, and they run to the coach outside.  On their way, Ebenezer gets tangled with a smaller boy; they both fall down.  The smaller boy scrambles to his feet, all breathless apologies, but young Scrooge grabs hold of his hands and shakes them crying, “It’s all right!  It’s Christmas!  Everything’s all right at Christmas!”  He then runs off with Fan, the smaller boy watching in admiration and growing cheerfulness until a voice calls, “Bob!  Bob Cratchit!  You’ll miss the coach”

            He runs off in the other direction, and we have given Bob a cameo in the vision of a Christmas Past.  You’re welcome.

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