Saturday, December 3, 2022

K.A.C. 2022 - T - 22 Days ...





A Christmas Carol (1908)


From what I’ve read about it, “A Christmas Carol” (1908) is by all accounts a very good little film! It’s a full 15 minutes long--2.5 times as long as “Scrooge; or, Marley’s Ghost” and stars a fellow named Tom Ricketts as Mr. Scrooge; judging by Mr. Rickett’s picture on Wikipedia, he would be quite a harrowing miser or a stiff-backed gentleman on Christmas morning! In fact, he went on to become one of the first directors in Hollywood, including the very first Universal Picture, as well as character acting well into the late 30’s--his final film role being that of the “Burgher” in “Son of Frankenstein” (a picture I rather like a lot).

    But there’s a sad trouble with old films: some are lost to time, and that is the case with “A Christmas Carol” (1908). It was made in Chicago, by Essanay Studios, and was very well-received (the first U.S. film version!). The Wikipedia entry for it is short, and rather than parrot it, I will link it here for your reading pleasure.

A Christmas Carol (1910)

    Moving right along, in 1910 the world got to see Thomas Edison’s version of “A Christmas Carol.” It was actually directed by J. Searle Dawley, a prolific silent film director of over 300 movies, but because it was directed at Edison Studios in The Bronx, the entrepreneur’s name seems to have taken credit. (Indeed, on the split second of a title card for the film, it proudly shows “THOMAS A. EDISON” at the top, followed by the title.) It’s a fascinating version that both updates the 1901 archetype of scenes and completely goes its own way with many choices.

    First and foremost to note is that film had advanced quite a bit in the 9 years between “Scrooge; or Marley’s Ghost” and Dawley’s “A Christmas Carol”. For one thing, this film is twice as long, coming in at an impressive 13 minutes of celluloid. Because it can afford to, it takes particular care in letting scenes play out with more than one event; there are multiple visions of the past and present (as well as a proper Stave V), but weirdly enough the beginning of this film still feels rushed.

    Scrooge, played by Marc McDermott (who’s got a positively smashing mustache in his Wikipedia portrait--and who starred as Scrooge in this as his second film role ever; he would go on to act up until 1928), comes in and pauses to look grumpily at his ever-suffering clerk. Bob Cratchit, played by Charles S. Ogle (best known for starring as the first ever Frankenstein Monster, also for an Edison picture, the same year and only one film role before this one), minces around the background on eggshells. Already, there is a dramatic, lifelike difference: there’s a background to the set! No vaudevillian greasepaint gauzily swathing over the backdrops in imitation wood: there’s a surprising cognitive dissonance watching this. I know for a fact it’s on a soundstage, but it does hold the illusion of being cinéma vérité, very well; all I can see to break the illusion is a lack of light out of the window at the end, on Christmas morning. But then, I’m a cynic about these things--all film students have to be to graduate.

    Scrooge grumbles about, taking off his wintry clothes for some BUSINESS! when three gentlemen, all besotted with flurries of snow spraying off their hats when they take them off (which go everywhere; that made me smile), each one’s shirt-seams bursting more than the last, come accost Scrooge for money on this fine holiday. He stands straight up, bows, and because he’s facing away from the camera probably says something truly unprintable in this here Christmas blog. Scrooge, you rascal!

    Immediately after, nephew Fred comes in--only this time, accompanied by a gaggle of friends? maybe including his nameless fiancée, Topper, and some other lass. They cause a ruckus to which Scrooge again rebukes any friendliness, but on this one I’m rather with him--escorting the raucous three in the background out of his place of BUSINESS! before tending to the dear nephew. He even pulls his cane up from where he set it down and raises his arms out the window, demonstrating how to make yourself large if you’re ever needing to intimidate a black bear. Bob gets ready to go and Scrooge eyes him, but says, “Ah sod it; Mr. Ogle-Cratchit was just birthed as a skeleton in a cauldron only one film ago--I can let him have the whole day, I s’pose.”


An abrupt intertitle smash-cuts us to Marley’s Ghost in the door, and I was reeling because I’d thought there’d be some amount of Scrooge leaving his counting-house. But, nope, here we are; there Marley is, too! I must admit, this is the only film in which I’ve seen Marley waver in and out of of existence twice instead of once. He appears, Scrooge barely catches a glimpse and goes w-wait-- then Marley reappears as Scrooge turns back in alarm to do a double-take. A right prankster, Mr. Marley! Though with a big Sam-the-Eagle frown on his bottom lip.

    It’s here that I realize my first impression of Mr. Scrooge--that he was a much tougher fellow than in 1901--was in large part due to the fact that Marc McDermott didn’t hunch over all crotchety: he stood up tall and impressive and bid them good DAY, sir! Except now, and for the rest of the film, he must’ve gotten a note to hunch; now he’s bent over, sniveling and harrumphing about in not the most memorable way. Though, again, it’s 1910: having only two or so other performances to compete with, it is a far more curmudgeonly take on the character, and does work well here.

    The intertitles exposit the plot--as intertitles do--without quoting Dickens once, now that I realize it. Including the ever-famous “God Bless Us, Every One!” But expediently, they bring us into Scrooge’s quarters, to meet--

    Oh, blimey; Marley shows up in less than a second. He’s all see-through, and not in a bedsheet and black jeans; he’s properly outfitted with chains and waist-coat costuming. No rag about the head to keep his jaw in place, but the actor’s cheekbones are so pronounced that it tricks the eye into thinking him emaciated in a rather upsetting way. I do love how he just kind of-- steps into frame, and begins. Scrooge barely acknowledges him, preferring a meal of gruel (and, again, props to the costuming department for the bathrobe and nightcap straight out of John Leech’s illustrations!), and beckons Marley to sit after the apparition has already sat. There’s a bit of pantomime, and finally Scrooge recoils in mortal fear at the spirit’s proclamations. Then Marley points at the window and--

    Sort of-- phases out? Becomes a statue halfway off-screen? There’s definitely a hand there that wasn’t there, but it’s a part of the set now. I’m as lost as all those unseen ghosts in the night, wailing to help the miserable woman and her baby, I’m afraid. That’s okay; Scrooge looks around with me, just as befuddled.


In a flash, the Spirit of Christmas (played I think by William Bechtel, but every actor sans McDermott and Ogle go uncredited) is just there, trying to get Scrooge to see visions. The Spirit is an awesome effect; a good 1-2 feet over Scrooge’s head, but still see-through: double-imposed over the image but practiced enough that the sight-lines match up perfectly. It’s actually uncanny how, watching it, your brain immediately accepts that there’s just a see-through actor there. It’s definitely the highlight of the viewing experience.

    The costume for the Spirit of Christmas isn’t as grand, in my humble opinion, but I think that’s not to blame on the cape or the robe or crown, but simply the white wig tumbling down to his shoulders, which has a strangely grandmotherly effect.

    Grandmama Christmas shows Scrooge--in some of the best double-exposure framing I’ve ever seen--a slew of visions. The shot composition is exquisite: there they are on the right, a hand above guiding your hand to the image on the left, framed by Scrooge’s bed curtains drawn aside and-- (he rambled on, until finally being hauled away to a hospital, where the doctors pronounced his focus on such details a lost cause but his film teachers gave him A’s…)

    Scrooge gets to see himself fall in love, then we get to see a first encounter with fine Fezziwig and his ball, and Scrooge hobbles up and down gaily (he’s always been hunched over, silly!), and of course the callous heart-break where young Scrooge looks back wistfully with a ring in hand like “but please, though?” and decides not to pursue a woman easily three feet away.

    The Spirit of Christmas (we only have one this time around, but we’ll get to more eventually!) then vanishes and appears after an intertitle upon a throne of feasting foods? too faded to see, to show visions not as well-framed of the Cratchits toasting the whole world, even Mr. Scrooge! Fans of the book might recognize a cameo by an exceptionally tiny Tim and his crutch (but no catchphrase or highlighting of the wee lad).

    Inexplicably, he then sees Fred’s Christmas party, where his girlfriend rejects his marriage proposal because he doesn’t have much money? We’ll circle back to this, but it’s definitely the biggest divergence from the book--and I have no idea why on earth it’s changed. Anyway, you can barely see it because they wander off-frame.

    In an unexpected introduction, Want and Misery--those two bastards of Man under Christmas’s robe--make their screen debut (not counting, perhaps, the Lost film from 1908 but it’s lost, so only Time knows)! They appear as-- well, just-- kind of-- hands? Reaching up? As if someone scrambled in and slid on the floor in front of Scrooge and shot up their arms like, “HEY buddy, put ‘er there!” You can kind of make out heads, but the film stock and the double-exposure make it harder to see. Still, a lovely addition since they’re usually done away with even in longer productions.

    The spirits vanish, and Scrooge does that patented silent-film gesture: two hands on the pecs, face going 8| like a wincing frog. You know what, though; I’d do the same if I just saw incorporeal hands pop up from my corporeal floor like shades of “Day of the Dead”!


A vision of the future comes--along with the Spirit of Christmas dressed in a wedding-like veil. Grandmama’s getting remarried! No--sorry, that’s not the horror. The horror is that we don’t cut to the chase at
all; you might think to yourself “gee, I wonder if we’ll get to see--” and before you can finish that at all, Scrooge in a vision is making the gasping face of a fish on land and convulsing over into bed. His maid even monks it at the camera with a huge nod of “‘E’S DEAD, ‘E IS!” Witchipoo glee before stealing a ring off his not-yet-rigor-mortis’d finger. Grandmama then shows him his grave, which either reads “EREBENZER SGROOGE -- HELL WET AND BIED WAROUSE FRIEND” or probably Ebenezer Scrooge -- He Lived And Died Without Friend, which is blatant Jacob Marley erasure, I say!

    The Spirit of Christmas vanishes and Scrooge gasps away, shaking, pausing to find that he’s not yet at his mark and shaking some more, finally collapsing in his bed. “Oh!” I thought, “has he actually died? What a bemusing change that’d be since he slumped over in the same scared way!”

    Stave V (another cinematic first, for modern audiences viewing these all in order!) begins as it means to go on: not like Dickens’ book. Scrooge is awakened by a Christmas Carol, which I must say is actually a pleasant change; I have always wondered why precisely the book was called that, but this gives some attempt at titular significance.

    Scrooge gets up, hearing the carol, and jigs about happily. Again props to Marc McDermott; he does a fine turn-about as a still-hunched-over Scrooge. He drops some coins out of his pitch-black window to the well-lit set in a different shot, and wanders out to the street, first meeting the well-fed gentlemen collecting for the poor and getting them all hot and bothered with glee of how much he’s giving them (money; giving them money--for God’s sake it’s Christmas! What is this, Mrs. Brown’s Boys???), and by the way all of this conveniently takes place in front of Fred’s door. When Fred comes out, Scrooge gives him--

    A job?

    With a shot inserting a letter saying “hey bro or rather nephew, you can marry because you’ll have money as a partner in my firm!”

    Which makes Fred and girlfriend excited.

    Which makes me wonder what the message here is, besides “yeah it’s Christmas, but MONEY, am I right?” But that’s being too harsh; I just mean it’s an odd change to have the focus of Scrooge’s redemption go from “he’s no longer a dickweed who hoards money; he’s a kind and good-hearted man who happens to use money to enrich others’ lives” to “he’s no longer a dickweed who hoards money; he’s using his money to enrich others’ lives!”

    I don’t know, it just struck me that every single piece of his redemption is strangely money-focused. It’s the American way, I guess.

    We end this all by going to the Cratchits where Scrooge just barges in unannounced, acting miserly, and you expect them to dogpile him and make darn sure he stays hunched over--but it’s all a ruse while Fred and co. bring in the big as heck Chrimbus Goose. Bob, in fine acting, backs up past it but is so focused on Scrooge there that he doesn’t see it until the very end, by which time he rushes back over and shakes Scrooge’s hand and all the fine and happy silent-film diplomacy takes place. I will always wonder how he didn’t see the bird though.

    Maybe Dr. Frankenstein didn’t give him the prescription lenses for his new eyes, and his peripheral vision is shot. Either way, a merry Christmas Bob! And as Tiny Tim says-- well, he’s not here. Never mind!

    In all seriousness, the effects hold up magnificently for a film that’s now over 110 years old. The acting is not at all overdone, like other films from the time viewed in a contemporary light. It’s got brilliant sets and costuming, and marvelous framing--if still a locked camera without any motion to it. Please watch it here and enjoy!




We turn our attention now to the first of this year's UK Christmas ads, with John Lewis taking an impressive lead right out of the gate. Some presents come from experience and finding a common bond. This is one of those times - well done, JL! 




On a cheerier note, we close with the story of two brothers who've exchanged the same Christmas present now with each other for an astounding 35 years! It must be something incredibly valuable, right? Well, about that ... read on! 




More scrumptious tidbits tomorrow! 

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