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Let’s celebrate Scrooge (and a word about gruel) December 22, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol was required reading every Christmas time in our friend Ben’s household. The family would gather by the fireplace basking in the firelight and the glow of the Christmas-tree lights, and take turns reading the Staves of the beloved Christmas classic aloud, frequently interrupted by appreciative roars of laughter at Ebenezer Scrooge’s outrageous behavior.

Our friend Ben’s Mama always feared she had raised a generation of vipers at this point, since she too had grown up with A Christmas Carol and wept over the plight of the crippled Tiny Tim, while her own children were extremely partial to the pre-reformation Scrooge and Marley’s Ghost and had no time for little Tim at all, though we did get a huge kick out of his father, Bob Cratchit, and his ludicrous—to us—attempts to get warm in the face of Scrooge’s disapproving tyranny. (Now that the adult Ben is shivering, with the thermostat set at 60 in an attempt to hold down fuel bills, I have a great deal more fellow feeling for poor Cratchit. But I digress.)

To this day, our friend Ben celebrates the season with my annual Scroogefest, with Silence Dogood, myself, and any friends who are willing watch as many film versions of A Christmas Carol as we can stand. Needless to say, we have an extensive collection, and all have their high and low points. Let me present some favorites so you can choose one or more versions to watch yourself this Christmas season. You might find yourself hosting a Scroogefest of your own! After the movie reviews, I have a book to recommend to true Scrooge enthusiasts, and then I’ll turn the computer over to Silence so she can say a word or two about Scrooge’s famous gruel and even provide a couple of gruel recipes for those daring enough to try it for themselves.

Without more ado, here are a host of Scrooges past and present:

Scrooge: The Albert Finney musical version is my hands-down favorite. It’s colorful, it’s larger than life, it’s hysterical, and it’s a real feel-good version. Our friend Ben will confess that I’m not much for musicals, but the music is actually good in this one, good enough so that Silence and I go around singing it for weeks afterwards. I love the humor, and the additional characters introduced in the film (chiefly poor folks in Scrooge’s debt) are well drawn and enrich the story rather than detracting from it. This version features my favorite Bob Cratchit, and the Cratchit family, including Tiny Tim and his adorable red-haired sister, are endearing rather than nauseating. Finally, the movie manages to provide a nice contrast between the opulence of the Victorian era for the wealthy and the bare-bones options provided for its poor.

Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol: This cartoon version was our friend Ben’s childhood favorite and remains a beloved must-see. Despite the obligatory nod to Magoo’s nearsightedness, and being forced to hear Jim Backus (the voice of Magoo) attempt to sing, I still find it a delight, and it’s true to both the plot and spirit of Dickens’s original. Like “Scrooge,” it’s a musical, and like “Scrooge,” the music is actually and astonishingly excellent. If you have kids or are a kid at heart, this one’s a must.

Scrooge: This 1935 black-and-white version, starring Sir Seymour Hicks as Scrooge, was to my knowledge the first film version made. It’s not a bad production at all, but the film techniques are so primitive it comes across as from the silent-film era, rather than appearing just four years before the lush color epics such as “Gone with the Wind.” Any outdoor action (and there seems to be quite a lot of it, I suppose it was considered quite progressive) causes the screen to go almost completely black. Depicting Marley’s Ghost and the Ghost of Christmas Future proved completely beyond the filmmaker’s talents, so they just did voice-overs; only the Ghost of Christmas Present, who is a much more solid and less ghostly presence, really gets a chance at screen time. Maybe it was just a low-budget issue, but yikes! If you’re an old-film buff, check it out; otherwise, fast-forward to the 1938 version, coming up next.

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: By 1938, Scrooge appeared in color in a gentle, endearing version that young children (and sentimental types of all ages) would love. Reginald Owen plays the old miser rather differently from pretty much everybody else who’s attempted the role. In most cases, the actor does a very convincing job as the clutch-fisted old codger, but is unconvincing and even rather ghastly when he tries to make nice. But with his gentle face and twinkling eyes, Owen makes you believe in the good Scrooge and doubt his evil twin. Scrooge is not the only character who undergoes something of a sea change in this version. If you’re used (like our friend Ben) to seeing the Cratchit family portrayed practically in rags, drinking their Christmas toast out of chipped, mismatched mugs, you’ll get a shock when you see a portly, obviously well-fed Bob Cratchit and his comfortable Victorian family sitting down to dinner, looking more like the Alcotts in Little Women than a family in the poor underbelly of London’s Camden Town. Of interest to film and TV buffs are the appearance of Billie Burke, perhaps best known for her role as Glinda the Good Witch in “The Wizard of Oz,” as the Ghost of Christmas Past, wearing a hat that must be seen to be fully appreciated, and June Lockhart of later “Lassie” and “Lost in Space” fame in her first screen appearance as one of the Cratchit children (her parents, Gene and Kathleen Lockhart, played Bob and Mrs. Cratchit).

A Christmas Carol: For many people, Alistair Sim’s star turn as Scrooge in this 1951 British black-and-white version is the definitive Scrooge of all time. Our friend Ben enjoys Sim’s performance and this version very much, but would never choose it as the only version I could have on a deserted island (in that case, give me Albert Finney’s “Scrooge” so I can sing along). My two-disc DVD gives viewers the option of the original B&W or a colorized version. I enjoy them both. But like many another version, I have a very hard time believing in Scrooge’s conversion; Sim is so convincing as the bad Scrooge that his attempt at being good Scrooge seems forced. Still, it’s a tour-de-force performance. If you’ve never seen a film version of “A Christmas Carol,” this—or the musical “Scrooge”—is the place to start.

A Christmas Carol: George C. Scott, with his hangdog features, seems the perfect actor to play Scrooge, and his 1984 interpretation is quite excellent. At least, it’s excellent while he’s still bad. You’ll love Scott as the crusty old miser. Whether you’ll warm to him as good Scrooge is another matter. One of our friend Ben’s favorite actors, Edward Woodward, plays the Ghost of Christmas Present in this version, and I’d assumed I would love him, but his performance is so self-conscious I was grossly disappointed. (If he thought the role was beneath him, he should have turned it down.) All told, though, I enjoyed this addition to the Christmas Carol canon.

A Christmas Carol: Our friend Ben was excited to hear that Patrick Stewart, who’s become one of the best actors of our age, had taken on the role of Scrooge in a one-man play on Broadway. I was crushed that I didn’t make it into New York during his run. But I was thrilled when I discovered that the play had been expanded into a movie in 1999, and bought the DVD sight unseen. Like George C. Scott, Stewart gives his Scrooge a nuanced interpretation, playing him down rather than playing him for laughs. I think his performance as the heartless Scrooge is perhaps the strongest ever. But his conversion fails to convince me, and you’ll have to see the infamous “heart attack” scene for yourself to decide whether you think it enhances or detracts from the story. I do like the Cratchit family in this version, and the Tiny Tim is the best ever (more like a youthful Harry Potter than a saccharine toothachey type).

Blackadder’s Christmas Carol: Our friend Ben would be remiss not to mention another all-time favorite, starring British comic genius Rowan Atkinson as Ebenezer Blackadder, reprising his role from the hysterical and acclaimed comedy series, along with great support from actors like Hugh Laurie, Robbie Coltrane, Stephen Fry, Jim Broadbent, and Miranda Richardson. In this version, the scene opens on a Victorian Christmas Eve as Ebenezer Blackadder, the kindest man in England, attempts to spread good cheer despite his penurious circumstances. But a midnight visit from the Ghost of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, combined in the portly and fairly intoxicated personage of Robbie Coltrane, changes Ebenezer’s outlook forever, and he wakes a very different man. Like most episodes of “Blackadder,” this film is uneven, but it has enough great moments to make it a must-see if you enjoy parody and love A Christmas Carol. A surprise visit from Queen Victoria and Prince Albert is a special treat, and the first mention of “Humbug!” on Ebenezer’s part ranks as one of the great moments of comedy, if you happen to know what a “humbug” is. Unfortunately, this film is only available on video for U.S. audiences (the DVD is configured for Europe and won’t play on our DVD players, what a great idea to make them incompatible), so unless you still have a VCR or VCR/DVD player, you’ll just have to hope that someday the distributors see the light. Talk about “Bah, humbug!!!”

Now, let’s talk about that book. Scrooge enthusiasts will be delighted to know that there’s a book by Paul Davis, The Lives and Times of Ebenezer Scrooge (Yale University Press, 1990), which discusses how Scrooge and A Christmas Carol have been interpreted from its original publication in 1843 to the present time. Fascinating!

Please note that publication date, 1843: Far from being an out-and-out Victorian, Ebenezer Scrooge was actually a product of the Eighteenth Century, shaped more by the Regency period, the American and French Revolutions, and the Industrial Revolution, by social and societal upheaval, than by the self-satisfied prosperity we tend to associate, rightly or wrongly, with the Victorian era. (Victoria herself had ascended the throne as a slender and lovely 18-year-old in 1837, just six years before A Christmas Carol’s publication.) One last piece of trivia, which you may or may not know: Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, which stands as his most enduring and popular literary work, in two weeks, to raise money to help him pay off a debt.

So there you have it. But as all Scrooge enthusiasts know, one of the most famous scenes in A Christmas Carol is the one in which Scrooge first encounters Marley’s Ghost, while he (Scrooge) is eating a bowl of gruel in front of his fireplace. Our friend Ben asked Silence Dogood, food historian that she is, to tell us more about the famous gruel and to see if she could scare up a recipe for us.

Silence Dogood here. Thanks for that ghastly, if not ghostly, pun, OFB. But let’s try to ignore it and turn our attention to gruel. When we think of Scrooge’s gruel, or any gruel, for that matter, we tend to think of oatmeal, a thick, nourishing porridge beloved of many of us. But oatmeal and gruel are by no means synonymous.

Gruel could be a thin, souplike mix of pretty much anything, from oats to barley or any grain, and combined with shreds of meat, broth, vegetables, or what-have-you. In other words, we moderns like to sweeten our oatmeal with brown sugar, maple syrup, or another syrup or sweetener, and have it with milk or cream, but in Scrooge’s day, gruel was a savory, soupy thing.

Because so many movies show Scrooge heading directly home from his counting-house to his meager fire and parsimonious bowl of gruel, it’s easy to forget that in the actual book, Charles Dickens had Scrooge go to his customary inn or restaurant for a full, hot meal before heading home. The only reason he had a bowl of gruel, as a sort of “nightcap,” was because he was nursing a head cold; it was more like a bowl of chicken noodle soup today, eaten to chase the cold, than actual sustenance.

Want to try your hand at gruel? I can’t say that you’ll love it, since I’ve never had it, but here are two variations, adapted from Helen Nearing’s Simple Food for the Good Life. Serve one up at your next Scroogefest to give your guests a taste of Christmas Past!  

     Fat Brose

Pour boiling vegetable stock over rolled oats and stir until desired thickness is achieved; add butter or oil to flavor and serve.

     Simplest Barley Soup

2 tablespoons butter or oil

4 onions, sliced

1 1/2 cups barley, soaked overnight in water to cover

1 heaping teaspoon dried thyme

dash soy sauce

veggie broth as needed

Heat butter or oil in a large skillet and saute onions until soft. Add the barley and its water (if any), and stir in the dried thyme. Transfer to a heavy stock pot or Dutch oven, and add enough vegetable stock to cover. Cook for an hour, adding more veggie stock as needed. Just before serving, stir in soy sauce.


1. Mr. McGregor's Daughter - December 22, 2008

I like the Patrick Stewart version because all the Crachits have bad teeth & look poor. In the older versions, the Crachits all look well-fed and as if they’ve just been out frolicking in the country after a visit to the dentist and orthodontist.

I noticed the Cratchit teeth in the Patrick Stewart version too, MMD! I couldn’t decide if they’d been doctored for the movie or if the poor souls simply had bad teeth. If the former, a very realistic touch on the part of the makeup stylist!

2. Kathryn/plantwhateverbringsyoujoy.com - December 23, 2008

Every year I used to read A Christmas Carol to my daughter. It seemed like The Right Thing to Do. Now she’s grown and about to arrive, like, any minute, for Christmas, and I really doubt we will be reading A Christmas Carol, but it’s out, nevertheless, in plain view.
Just in case. 🙂 Thanks for the Dickens journey! [Oh, and apparently the Japanese have a maxim, “Heat the body, not the room,” but I do find it wickedly difficult. ]

Ah, Kathryn, I’m such a sybarite. My favorite houses (not mine, need I add) have heated floors. What a luxury, especially in the bathroom! Sigh. Perhaps you and your daughter can read Stave One aloud, anyway. I myself think it’s all downhill from there!

3. Cinj - December 23, 2008

I thought I had seen just about every version of the story that there was, but apparently I was wrong! The kids and I watched the Looney Tunes version this weekend on one of the cartoon channels. Sometime I’ll have to show the children one of the non-cartoon versions of the story.

All in good time, Cinj! After all, the cartoon versions are fun! I seem to recall that Donald Duck’s uncle was named Scrooge McDuck…

4. Cooking Conversion Chart - December 23, 2008

Even I have not yet seen every version of the story. My little bro really liked watching the Looney Tunes version this weekend on Cartoon Network.

I haven’t seen that one (yet), but it sounds like a hit!

5. Joy - December 23, 2008

I have to confess I have watched many versions of a Christmas carol and my absolutely favorite is Alistair Sim’s performance. It was the first one I saw as a child .. and it scared me to death .. compared to what kids see now a days it is a comedy ? LOL
I just love this one though and I have the handy DVD number one son bought for me .. we watched it a few days ago .. it may be time to see it again !
Merry Christmas all of you at Hawk’s Haven .. and a VERY Happy New Years too ! : )

Oh, dear, Joy! I can see how the Alastair Sim version would be terrifying to a child. The one I saw as a child was Mr. Magoo’s, which was hysterical, not scary, and I don’t think I saw the Sim version until about ten years ago, so no doubt my outlook’s a bit warped! And a Merry Christmas and joyous new year to you all and Miss Emma and Sophie and all the gargoyles too!!!

6. Ed V - December 25, 2008

There was no mention of Bill Murray, in Scrooged. I thought it was a pleasant departure from the Victorian era versions, having taken place in modern times.

Hi Ed! I’ve been waiting for someone to mention “Scrooged”! I’m not a Bill Murray fan, so I’ve never seen that version, but I understand that it’s very well regarded.

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