SCREEN SCROOGES: Ebenezer’s Front Door

      Scrooge took his melancholy dinner in his usual melancholy tavern; and having read all the newspapers, and beguiled the rest of the evening with his banker’s book, went home to bed.  He lived in chambers which had once belonged to his deceased partner.  They were a gloomy suite of rooms, in a lowering pile of building up a yard, where it had so little business to be, that one could hardly help fancying it must have run there when it was a young house, playing at hide-and-seek with other houses, and have forgotten the way out again.  It was old enough now, and dreary enough, for nobody lived in it but Scrooge, the other rooms being let out as offices.  The yard was so dark that even Scrooge, who knew its every stone, was faint to grope with his hands.  The fog and frost so hung about the black old gateway of the house, that it seemed as if the Genius of the Weather sat in mournful meditation on the threshold.

     Now, it is a fact, that there was nothing at all particular about the knocker on the door, except that it was very large.  It is also a fact, that Scrooge had seen it night and morning during his whole residence in that place; also that Scrooge had as little of what is called fancy about him as any man in the City of London, even including—which is a bold word—the corporation, aldermen, and livery.  Let it also be borne in mind that Scrooge had not bestowed one thought on Marley, since his last mention of his seven-years’ dead partner that afternoon.  And then let any man explain to me, if he can, how it happened that Scrooge, having his key in the lock of the door, saw in the knocker, without its undergoing any immediate process of change, not a knocker, but Marley’s face.

     Marley’s face.  It was not in impenetrable shadow as the other objects in the yard were, but had a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar.  It was not angry or ferocious, but looked at Scrooge as Marley used to look: with ghostly spectacles turned up upon its ghostly forehead.  The hair was curiously stirred, as if by breath or hot-air; and though the eyes were wide open, they were perfectly motionless.  That, and its livid color, made it horrible; but its horror seemed to be, in spite of the face and beyond its control, rather than a part of its own expression.

      As Scrooge looked fixedly at this phenomenon, it was a knocker again.

     To say that he was not startled, or that his blood was not conscious of a terrible sensation to which it had been a stranger since infancy, would be untrue.  But he put his hand upon the key he had relinquished, turned it sturdily, walked in, and lighted his candle.

     He DID pause, with a moment’s irresolution, before he shut the door; and he DID look cautiously behind it first, as if he half-expected to be terrified with the sight of Marley’s pig-tail sticking out into the hall.  But there was nothing on the back of the door, except the screws and nuts that held the knocker on; so he said “Pooh, pooh!” and closed it with a bang.

     That doorknocker is classic: it is to be found in the very first existing movie Christmas Carol, from 1901.  Most versions do fiddle with the hardware, though.  According to Dickens, the face of Jacob Marley simply takes the place of the knocker for a moment, without fanfare, and does not move, though the hair stirs a bit.  Screenwriters feel the audience expects ghosts to DO something.  (And though Dickens does not specify it, a large number like to make the original knocker a lion’s head, which transmutes neatly into a human face.)

     Only about half the versions bother to have Scrooge stop at a tavern for supper, preferring to feed him only on gruel from his own hob, which seems likelier for a miser.  Hicks and Curry, sixty years apart, do, however, turn this interlude into a major sequence.

     Hicks bah humbugs the merry shopping crowds as he pushes through.  Of all the miserable taverns visited by all the Scrooges in all the movies, he here walks into the most miserable.  He is the only customer, as in some other versions.  His meal is intercut with scenes of a linkboy showing Fred home, of Cratchit carrying a goose and what looks like a small tree, and finally scenes of the Lord Mayor’s holiday dinner.  There is much humorous seasonal bustle here: preparations in the Mayor’s mammoth kitchen, the arrival of guests, assorted examples of The Poor moving here and there on the fringes of the grand affair.  This probably reflects dickens’s mention, earlier, of the Lord Mayor’s Christmas dinner and the little tailor involved in the same sort of preparations.  Eventually, the crowd attending the dinner and the poor outsiders beyond the walls all sing “God Save the King”, reinforcing a sense of common identity.  Meanwhile, set apart in the tavern, Scrooge orders the waiter to go out and shut up the organ grinder playing “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen.”  This is the waiter who grimaces his opinion of Scrooge as the customer departs (certainly without leaving a tip).  Scrooge walks through streets thick with fog.  A dog barks; we find it to be the blind man’s dog mentioned earlier by Dickens.  Scrooge, irritated, snarls back, and moves on to turn in at a small enclosed yard.  A plain knocked with a large ring waits on the door; beneath this are the names Jacob Marley (scratched out) and Ebenezer Scrooge.  Scrooge looks up just as Marley’s face materializes within the ring.  When it vanishes, Scrooge hurries inside and checks the back of the door.

     Curry takes his book and his dog to supper, shaking his head at the sight of Bob and Tim on the ice.  Debit would stay and play, but Scrooge snarls.  A soup seller makes a nasty crack about Scrooge as he passes, and Scrooge scowls at the knot of children—which includes the boy who came to his door earlier—admiring the prize turkey at the poulterer’s.  He enters a warm, bright, busy tavern, filled with cheerful Christmas revelers, and orders the cheapest thing on the menu.  The waitress decides to bring him more than he asked for, and sings a rowdy, rather “Les Miserables” style song about charity and how year’s end is a good time to look back and see whether you committed any “Random Acts of Kindness”.  The point of this song seems to be that if you do charitable deeds without thought of reward, one day you will be rewarded.  Nettled, Scrooge sings back a verse about how charity merely encourages the criminal and indolent.  He finally leaves, casting aspersions on the cooking, and pushes past a freezing mother and child outdoors.  His house is on the street; the door is reached via a short flight of stairs.  A gold lion on the door turns into Marley, startling Scrooge, who trips over Debit.  When Scrooge has gathered himself again, the knocker is a lion.  Scrooge whacks it with his cane to be certain.

     Three versions do without the doorknocker entirely.  (On radio, where the doorknocker scene might have presented difficulties, Lionel Barrymore always saw Marley’s face in the fireplace as he ate his gruel.)

     March leaves the counting house after Cratchit, pinning his coat shut at the throat and nearly forgetting his money-box.  The streets are dark and deserted, the weather much worse.  We do not see his front door.

     In Rathbone, the narrator tells us that Scrooge went home to bed, explaining that Scrooge lived in chambers that belonged to his late partner.  Though we do not see the doorknocker, Scrooge is looking back over his shoulder as he enters.  “Ah, humbug!” he growls.

     Haddrick walks home past the cemetery we saw earlier.  He lives in a rather mean brick building on the corner of the block.  His doorknocker is a lion, which does absolutely nothing.

     Owen uses both the tavern and the doorknocker.  His tavern is empty and cheerless; he bites his change before accepting it, and, in departing, is grimaced at by the waiter.  On his way home, he knocks the hat out of the hand of the director of a group of street carolers.  Entering a small enclosed yard, he opens his front door and sees a new face superimposed on that of the gargoyle on his knocker.  He trembles violently.  “Marley!”

      Sim I is avoided by the blind man’s dog and goes to a fairly cheap tavern.  In the course of his meal, he calls “More bread!”  “Ha’penny extra, sir,” says the waiter.  There is a pause.  “No more bread.”  When he reaches it, his front door is at street level.  After a call of “Scrooge!”, Marley’s face is superimposed over the decorative knocker.  “Jacob Marley,” Scrooge says, making a statement, if one of disbelief.  He hurries inside, pauses, and looks back at the door once more.

     Magoo has a short walk to a door on which a white lion doorknocker suddenly becomes Marley’s face.  Scrooge polishes the face away with his handkerchief, but is still unnerved by it.  “Very strange.  Could I need spectacles?”

     Sim II is avoided by the blind man’s dog; the narrator delivers a few lines from earlier in Dickens about how Scrooge kept all mankind at a distance.  It is very foggy; only Scrooge and one streetlight can be seen, emphasizing his isolation.  A pale lion doorknocker turns into Marley’s face while Scrooge’s gaze is diverted.  When Scrooge does see this, he declares, “Jacob.  Jacob Marley.”  With a shudder, he hurries indoors.

     Finney enters a lonely quarter and walks up to a door with a blackened metal lion doorknocker wearing quite as nasty an expression as Scrooge himself.  While Scrooge has his key in the lock, he looks up to see the lion change into the face of his late partner.  Its eyes open slowly, and it says “Scrooge” before becoming a lion again.  Scrooge goes inside, several times looking back at the knocker and checking the back of the door.  Finally, he declares “Humbug!”

     Matthau locks up his money, after finding himself a coin short and resolving to dock Cratchit’s next payday by that amount.  On his way out, he addresses the sign outdoors, telling Marley that Marley is lucky to be dead as a doornail and no longer burdened with Christmas.  He admits that he is lucky as well, no longer having to share his profits with Marley.  On his way home, he gives more evidence of his nature by cheating a match girl, chasing away a newsboy (and picking a newspaper out of the garbage), eating a meagre supper, and, when the waiter reaches for a tip, handing him the spoon.  B.A.H. Humbug and a chorus of cats and dogs in the street sing the title song “The Stingiest Man In Town” through all this.  When he reaches his house, it is shrouded in fog, looking fairly shabby.  Humbug tells us Scrooge had to grope with his hands in places, and tries to improve on the “Genius of the weather” by suggesting that all the fog and frost made it seem “as if Death sat in meditation on the threshold”.  He also informs us that the doorknocker suddenly turned into Jacob Marley.  The doorknocker has a fairly unfriendly human face to begin with; it now becomes a grinning, gaping demonic ghoul rather in the style of EC Horror comics.  Scrooge cries out that the man “has been dead these seven years!  Oh, why have you come to haunt me?  Away!  Go away!”  It returns to its previous sullen condition.  Peering at it, Scrooge decides, “Just my imagination.  Bosh!  Ghosts!  A lot of humbug!”

     McDuck leaves his office at nine and trudges through streets filled with snow; everyone else seems to have gone home.  At a brick house, a large gold lion doorknocker becomes Jacob Marley (Goofy), and wails “Scrooooooge!”  “Jacob Marley?  No!  That can’t be!”  To prove this, he reaches out and pinches Marley’s nose; when the spirit yelps, he rushes indoors.

     Scott walks down a dark, lonely, foggy lane, fenced in so there is no way to escape when a hearse pulled by four horses drives up behind him.  He does not seem to hear the approaching team, but he does catch a faint cry of “Ebenezer Scrooge!”  When he turns to look, he sees no one, and the hearse and team are now in front of him, vanishing into the fog.  His home sits on an utterly deserted, ramshackle part of the warehouse district, a place no one with sense would enter after dark.  He moves into a small enclosed yard.  The gold lion on the door calls his name; then Marley’s face is superimposed on it.  This phantom is quickly gone.  Scrooges moves inside, locs the door, and lights his candle.

     Caine’s house is on a dark and lonely street; his door sits just two steps up.  The decorative knocker stretches and shifts to become a face.  “Jacob Marley?”  The face howls, scaring Scrooge’s horse.  When Scrooge looks again, the face is a knocker once more.  “Humbug!” he declares, and marches inside.

     Stewart walks through a lonely street sparsely splotched with snow.  His door is four steps up from street level.  The ring of the decorative knocker widens to encircle Marley’s face; it wails.  Scrooge, deadpan, is stunned.  “Jacob.  Jacob Marley.”  The ring narrows and the face is gone.  Scrooge looks around to see if someone has been playing some sort of prank, and concludes “Humbug.”


     No matter what else you do with A Christmas Carol—set it in the Las Vegas Strip, produce it underwater, convert it into an episode of this winter’s hottest sitcom—there is one inviolable rule.  Scrooge must at some point say, or attempt to say, “Bah!  Humbug!”  Scrooge without his Humbug would be like Sherlock Holmes without his Elementary, Spock without his Fascinating, or Santa without his Ho Ho Ho.

     This being an era of statistics, I have attempted to track down how much this expression is used, lest it be like Sherlock’s Elementary,. More used by the movies than the original.  You’ll notice, for example, in Dickens’s rendition of the doorknocker sequence, he actually says “Pooh, pooh!”

     My census gives us, in the original:

     “Bah!  Humbug!” twice, within moments of each other.

     :It’s humbug still!”


     “Humbug, I tell you—humbug!”

     “Hum….”  He lacks the strength of will to finish the word.

     Scrooge uses the phrase not at all in the second half of the story, making it a feature of the original, unrepentant Scrooge, a phrase for anything he doesn’t understand, doesn’t wish to see, or simply doesn’t like.

     It’s a less easy trick to sit through movies counting humbugs, but such things must be attempted.  The census put the Screen Scrooges in this order of usage.

     Sim II gives us three humbugs and one bah humbug.

     Caine has three humbugs and a bah humbug.

     Stewart gives us three humbugs and an “Ah, humbug!”

     Rathbone delivers a bah humbug, two ah humbugs, and one humbug.

      Sim I gives us five humbugs, and delivers one very late in the show, cheerfully calling his own reflection in a mirror that after his reclamation.

     Hicks has five bah humbugs and one “Hum….”

     Curry uses four humbugs and two bah humbugs; he is one of the Scrooges who delivers the latest humbug of disbelief, saying it to the Ghost of Christmas Present.

     Finney gives us six humbugs and one “Hum….”

     McDuck delivers three bahs, four humbugs, and one bah humbug.

     Haddrick gives us four bahs, four humbugs, and two bah humbugs.

     Magoo produces seven humbugs and two bah humbugs.

     Owen uses one bah and nine humbugs.

     Matthau similarly has one bah and nine humbugs (plus the character of B.A.H. Humbug.)

     Scott declaims one bah, eight humbugs (two of which are used toward the end, to describe his former self) and one iconoclastic “Humbug…bah!”

     March makes use of seven humbugs, two bah humbugs, and one ah humbug.

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