Sunday, December 20, 2015

merry christmas, ebenezer


To begin with, I watched “Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol.” I had forgotten it was a stage version that begins with Magoo speeding through city traffic singing a song about Broadway, crashing into a lamp post, hopping out of his vehicle, walking into Stanleys Restaurant because he reads it as “Stage Door Entrance,” causing a crash-and-bang commotion within, coming out the side door escorted by two burly chefs, and finally, finally, with just a mishap or two more, taking the stage as Ebenezer Scrooge, squinty-eyed and mean, singing a merry song while counting his gold coins, too miserly to buy a pair of spectacles. One of the best versions of Scrooge, to be sure,


and I witnessed the best and worst of Scrooges all week.

It was mostly while making candles and packing up boxes that I listened to and watched various productions of A Christmas Carol, that Charles Dickens classic, and each presentation was a bit, if not a lot, different from the next. Different Scrooges and Marleys and ghosts and nephews and Cratchits and songs and eerie music and sappy music and goofy music and Marleys with toothaches and Marleys without toothaches and Marleys not even there, just empty space, and creepy door knockers and none at all, and rag pickers and not, and … so many different ways of telling the same story, so many different get-ups, so many different eras nudging their way in, but then also so many lines spoken the same, time after time, true to Dickens’ prose. And what prose it is. Old Jacob Marley may be dead as a door nail, but the ghost is wise.


This all started when I looked on YouTube for my favorite version of the Carol, the only one I had watched in the recent past, the 1951 movie with Alastair Sim. I found it, and as well quite a few television and radio broadcasts, cartoons, and movies from 1910, 1935, 19701984, and that weird one with the Fonz from 1979, and many of these I watched, but not all, for instance, the Fonzie one I just couldn’t get through. Through all these different tellings, I became curious about a few things, including that rag Marley sometimes ties around his head, the one that makes him look like he has a toothache. I couldn’t figure out what the heck that was about. Finally, in the 1984 George C. Scott TV movie, while talking to Scrooge, Marley unties the rag and his jaw drops to his chest, just as in the book, a version of which I finally got from the library, though it is also online. This dramatic jaw drop is meant to freak us out. In the 1951 movie I am so fond of, Marley doesn’t even have a toothache, let alone a jaw that flops down two stories.

All these various retellings stay true to the gist of Dickens’ tale even while taking on a bit of lint from their own time. Magoo’s Scrooge, from the early 1960s, is a cartoon, of course, and a musical, and it bounces along very much like any 1960s musical driven by a blind miser. But, even so, Belle brings a jolt—meet Judy Jetson. (Belle, of course, is the heart throb of young Ebenezer. She dumps him when she realizes he is swooning over a new love: money.)


The “Shower of Stars” 1954 television production (brought to us by Chrysler Corporation, which, believe me, you will not forget, and brought to us in full living color, but not really, because this video is in black and white) feels very 1950ish despite the Victorian costumes (which struck me as kind of Colonial, but of course, I am no fashion expert). Frederic March is Scrooge and I swear they just plopped a huge mess of Play-Doh on his nose and fashioned it into a beak, a Scroogey beak, I guess, that maybe looked better in color, and if you make it to the end of this show—and I encourage you to try—you will probably wonder (just as I did) if Scrooge—the now happy Scrooge who March plays as some kind of dim half-wit—is about to vomit, to burst into tears, or to get shat on by a pigeon. There is this long 1950s-style close-up of his face as it contorts in the strangest ways, I suppose because Scrooge is taking in and processing all this nearly unbearable good cheer at the Cratchits’ Christmas table, a table to which, I might add, this Scrooge has brought nothing—the only version in which Scrooge contributes nothing to the Cratchits’ Christmas table—and there are blessings and angels singing and in all of television there may never again be such a strange scene. Earlier in the show we are regaled with a weird hymn to Santa Claus, and overall the music is remarkable: spooky singing, doomful singing, sappy singing, robust singing—you will either want to belt it out with the Ghost of Christmas Present or simply slug him—but, also, there are a lot of cool old cars during a couple of smooth commercials, and old Fezziwig is played by Mayor Pike of Mayberry. You’ll probably enjoy Basil Rathbone as Jacob Marley, a Marley with a toothache. He also has this intriguingly long stiff braid, or maybe it’s a stick, all dangled with cobwebs, sticking straight out the back of his head. If somewhere along the way you don’t get the feeling you’re in a bizarre episode of “Father Knows Best,” well


All this, to me, seems ripe fodder for a holiday party. Guests could arrive dressed as their favorite Carol character from their favorite Carol production, and then there could be a game of not only Who Am I? but Which Version Am I? (I’ll arrive wearing a full-length green robe edged in white fluff … ) Anyone who comes without a costume will get a quote pinned to their back and then, as others react to that quote, they will either have to guess who they are or be boiled in their own pudding. There could be a trivia game (In which production did Scrooge’s tombstone show his first name as “Ebeneezer”?) and a version of Charades where you must act out a quote or scene. Of course there will be a game of Similes. In one room, all the different versions of the Carol will play, one after another, and at every “Humbug!” all must raise their glass. Of course there will be much dancing and singing and general merry-making. If hosting such a party, there should be no end to the decorating possibilities—creepy door knockers, tiny crutches and stools, over-burdened Christmas trees, huge dead turkeys, a goose turning on a spit, tombstones, misty graveyards, bags of coin, a coal stove and scuttle—and food is as easy as a potluck of Christmas puddings, roast goose, and gruel.

But I wonder: Why do we remember Ebenezer Scrooge as we do, as he is at the beginning of the story, as a miserable old miser, rather than as the man he is at the end, giddy and giggling, giving away turkeys and raising salaries? How many Scrooges do you think would come to the Carol holiday party muttering


and how many would come chuckling and clicking their heels? I have heard the change in Scrooge referred to in various ways, as a transformation, as a redemption, as a reclamation, and the word that best describes it, I think, is reclamation. Because Scrooge doesn’t just change, and he doesn’t really become someone new, and it’s not like he makes a deal with the Devil or some other. Rather, he just gets back to something he lost, gets back to a person he used to be, and one of the more interesting things that Scrooge says—though certainly not near as funny as that line about Marley being perhaps a bit of undigested beef or underdone potato—is


Another thing I did this week was wait for snow. It finally came, deep as Josie’s chest.


Which reminds me that when I had yet to figure out Josie’s name, I wondered if maybe his name was Ebenezer. What a marvelous name! And what a  joyous man is Ebenezer Scrooge. But Scrooge is, of course, synonymous with miserly drudge, and I would not like having to explain to people that no, I did not name my dog after a miserly drudge, I named him after that other Ebenezer, the reclaimed Ebenezer, the one who jigged and giggled and knew, well,


So Merry Christmas, if Christmas be what you celebrate, and whatever you celebrate, may it be merry. There is a full moon this Christmas, and even though now is the time of year when the sun is lowest in the sky, and today is about the shortest day of the year, the Christmas full moon will be as high in the sky as the sun is in June, and if it is clear, and if the snow sticks around, just think how bright that light will be!