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Is the bell still ringing ’round your house? December 23, 2014

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To paraphrase the two gentlemen who accosted Scrooge on Christmas Eve in Charles Dickens’s beloved A Christmas Carol, at this festive season of the year, the poor feel want more keenly as the cold bites hard and the well-to-do rejoice. Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood love the scene in the musical “Scrooge” where you see poor Bob Cratchit trying to pull together Christmas for his impoverished family against a backdrop of well-to-do Victorians and what they’re able to buy. It would be enough to give even a Scrooge, as Mrs. Cratchit points out, a piece of her mind to think about.

The great divide between the rich and poor in the Victorian era was as great as our own today, but there was a difference: The Scrooges of the past didn’t have to see the poor unless they wanted to. They were shut away in workhouses and poorhouses and coal mines and factories, the Oliver Twists (another great Dickens creation) of the world. Deprivation and dirt were ways of life. (Katniss Everdeen of “The Hunger Games” lives this kind of life at home in District 12.)

Today, the poor aren’t kept away from us. We see them shopping at Wal*Mart or eating a Big Mac, painting their nails and using their electronics just like us. They don’t look thin or hungry—cheap but filling convenience-store food usually makes sure of that—unless they’re homeless, and they’re certainly not begging.

But that doesn’t mean they’re not suffering. Just this week, we read about a grandmother who was caught trying to shoplift a carton of eggs to feed her multigenerational household because the carton cost $1.75 and she only had $1.25 and was desperate. (The policeman called to the scene bought her the eggs, and she tried to give him the $1.25. In the ultimate happy ending scenario, she wasn’t charged and the townspeople started sending in food for her family and other needy people in their area.) Also this week, we read about families who had to choose between food and health care every month.

Pope Francis is building baths in one wing of the Vatican so the poor and homeless can take regular baths and feel better about themselves. And the soup kitchens and rescue missions are as busy as ever, while the rest of us have been documented throwing out an ungodly amount of food—48%, if memory serves—not even bothering to compost it or, say, feed it to the chickens or earthworms. Our friend Ben is sure Pope Francis’s favorite birthday present this year was the massive amount of meat a Spanish meat organization donated for distribution to the poor in his name.

Getting back to the point of this post, for many years around this time, everywhere our friend Ben and Silence went, we would encounter the jolly Santa and the black Salvation Army kettle, his bell ringing furiously as he doubtless froze to death. In front of one local pharmacy, Santa had been replaced by caroling kids. Whatever the size of our offering, we were always happy to give. But for the past three or so years, the black kettles and their tenders have been gone. Whatever happened to them?

We used to have a thriving Goodwill in the shopping mall in the closest little town to us. It was always packed with people, most of whom appeared to be buying clothes, shoes, toys, and the like for their families, most of whom were poor, most of whom spoke a language other than English. Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood loved the Goodwill—going there was like treasure-hunting, you never knew what you’d find—and, as noted, it was as crowded as Cabela’s, a godsend for people for whom Wal*Mart was a luxury. A thriving business. Then one day, it was gone. We were horrified, but what must the people who depended on it to clothe and entertain their children think?

Just yesterday, we went to drop off some clothes at one of those drop-boxes in a pharmacy parking lot, only to find that it, too, was gone, and nobody seemed to know where another one was. Why and where had it gone?

In areas where just getting from one place to another is an issue if you don’t have a car, having stores like Goodwill just pack up and leave is a real hardship. For those of us who’d like to bring a little warmth and good cheer to those in want during the Christmas season, failing to find Santa with his bell and black kettle on every corner is really demoralizing.

If the bell’s still ringing ’round your house, please give to keep it going. For us, it’s one of the happiest sounds of Christmas.

And please, don’t waste food this year while others are going hungry!

Feel-good films. July 17, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben and I were talking just last night about favorite films, and OFB pointed out that many of my favorites were films that made me feel good. I agreed; I love films that cheer me up, that make me feel good, that give me hope, that make me laugh. So OFB challenged me to come up with my “Top Ten Feel-Good Films” list. I accepted the challenge, even though I was sure that I’d forget some of my favorites, and that there were so many more than ten that the list would necessarily be incomplete. But given those limitations, here are the ones that sprang to mind:

Bride and Prejudice. The Bollywood version of “Pride and Prejudice.” I love many adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels, including Gwyneth Paltrow’s “Emma,” Ciaran Hinds’s magnificent performance in “Persuasion,” and Alicia Silverstone’s adorable “Clueless,” but the high energy, hijinks, and general color, lightheartedness, and mayhem of “Bride and Prejudice”—not to mention the gorgeous Naveen Andrews as Balraj (Mr. Bingley)—takes it over the top.

Young Sherlock Holmes. I love all things Sherlock, but for the ultimate feel-good Holmes film, I’ll take “Young Sherlock Holmes” any day. Alan Cox as Watson would be enough to make the film a classic, but the marvelous Anthony Higgins as Moriarty and the hysterical, campy Egyptian stuff really make it priceless. After seeing it, just thinking of the line “My name is Lester Cragwitch!” will make you roar with laughter.

Flashdance. This isn’t the most cheerful of films, but its ultimate message is so uplifting: Go for your dreams and never give up. The heroine, played sensitively by a very young Jennifer Beals, faces a lot of hardship and heartbreak on the way to reaching her dreams, but she succeeds (and her friends don’t) because her inherent optimism, kindness, generosity and drive attract allies that won’t let her down, no matter what. And there’s tons of energy in the music and dancing.

Blow Dry. Like “Flashdance,” “Blow Dry” takes us through the full range of emotions, especially since Natasha Richardson plays a woman dying before her time and we all know what happened to her. But this film is so full of humor as well as sorrow, so full of great actors (like Alan Rickman), so full of hysterical moments (Bill Nighy is priceless, as is his film partner, Louie, and the mayor of the small town in Yorkshire where the hair competition is held). Ultimately, it’s about the triumph of love, but it reaches its end with plenty of humor along the way. Best line: “He looks like bloody Sid Vicious!” Wait ’til you see who it is.

The Full Monty. This riotous film is also overflowing with humor, but the underlying message is uplifting, about the power that comes from sticking together. A bunch of very unlikely, unemployed men from the former booming steel town of Sheffield, England, decide to improve their fortunes—and love lives—by staging a Chippendales-style act of their own. After many misadventures, including being thrown into jail, losing their homes, losing a son through custody issues, a botched suicide attempt, grocery-store burglary, and so on, the guys get it together. And the attack of the garden gnomes during a job interview still makes me laugh so hard I cry.

Julie and Julia. Who doesn’t love Julia Child? Who doesn’t love Dan Aykroyd’s parody of Julia Child? Who wouldn’t love Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci as Julia and Paul Child? Not me. Seeing any of the above onscreen makes me feel good, especially the onion scene. Seeing Julia’s modern-day follower, Julie Powell, trying to make lobster thermidore while her totally adorable husband dances around singing “Lobsta killah, lobsta killah” is the greatest thing ever.

Smoke Signals. Based on Sherman Alexie’s novels of life on the Rez, this film brims over with laugh-out-loud humor and dry wit. The ultimate coming-of-age story and road trip rolled into one, it’s filled with great characters like Lester Fallsapart and the great Gary Farmer as Arnold Joseph, father of one of the protagonists, who ironically really does fall apart. But the true hero of the movie is Thomas Builds-the-Fire, a happy-go-lucky visionary who helps Arnold’s son Victor reconcile his relationship with his father, and with life, over the course of the road trip. As the Rez’s DJ says, “It’s a good day to be Indigenous.”

The Commitments. This movie about some kids in Dublin who form a soul band, “The Commitments,” is hilarious. Many of the best lines are provided by the Elvis-worshipping father of the protagonist, played just brilliantly by Colm Meaney, who has a portrait of Elvis hanging just under his portrait of the Pope. The adorable (and bizarrely named) Outspan Foster, played by Irish musician Glen Hansard, will win your heart, and Maria Doyle (now Maria Doyle Kennedy of “The Tudors” fame) is marvelous. Not to mention that the music is great.

Princess Caraboo. The movie that presumably introduced Phoebe Cates to her husband, Kevin Kline, is simply marvelous all-round. Catesby plays a servant girl in Regency England (the Jane Austen era) who runs away and pretends to be an exotic princess, named Caraboo. She is taken up as a novelty by high society and eventually even meets the Prince Regent himself before being unmasked by an investigative reporter, Gutch. But the film has a happy ending, as Gutch has fallen in love with the girl and arranges for her to make a fresh start in America rather than being hanged, and then joins her. Kline as Frixos, the Greek butler of the house that takes her in, is simply priceless, and a strong supporting cast, including Jim Broadbent, John Lithgow, John Sessions as the Prince Regent, and the marvelous Stephen Rea as the reporter, make this a total feel-good hit. Wait for Kevin Kline’s “Unfortunately.”

Last Holiday. Queen Latifah at her finest, playing Georgia Bird, a gifted cook who worships Emeril and longs to open a restaurant but instead is working in the cookware department of a department store run by a greedy, horrific monster who embodies every moronic, “hot” management trend, much like Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss. When Ms. Bird is misdiagnosed with a terminal illness and told she only has two weeks to live, she decides to chuck it in and spend those two weeks at a super-elite hotel and spa in Switzerland, enjoying the delicious dishes prepared by their outrageously eccentric chef, played marvelously by Gerard Depardieu. When her horrid uber-boss shows up at the same resort, hilarity follows on a grand scale, and Georgia eventually triumphs. Don’t ever forget Depardieu’s secret to happiness: butter. (But he forgot salt.)

Independence Day. What red-blooded Earthling wouldn’t love this movie, where, as star Will Smith says, we “whup ET’s ass”?! Jeff Goldblum is simply priceless as the nerdy genius who saves the day, but it’s his onscreen father, played to perfection by Judd Hirsch, who steals all the scenes. At Hawk’s Haven, we watch “Independence Day” every Fourth of July. But I could probably watch it every week.

Honorable mention:

Scrooge. The musical version of “A Christmas Carol,” starring Albert Finney, is hilarious, and the music is fantastic. David Collings as Bob Cratchit, Karen Scargill as his adorable daughter Kathy, and one of Scrooge’s debtors, Tom Jenkins (Anton Rogers), a soup seller, are so great, and we’re treated to guest appearances by Sir Alec Guinness as Marley’s Ghost, Dame Edith Evans as the Ghost of Christmas Past, and Sir Kenneth More as the Ghost of Christmas Present. But it’s really David Collings who steals the show as Cratchit. My other fave is “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol,” which also has really memorable music. The reason these fall in the “Honorable Mention” category is simply because they’re seasonal.

Conan the Barbarian. Ah, gotta love the two Conan movies, “Conan the Barbarian” and its sequel, “Conan the Destroyer.” These films introduced Arnold Schwarzenegger to the world beyond weightlifting and made him a household name, mainly because they were filled with great Arnold one-liners that came to define his subsequent film roles, such as another favorite feel-good film, “The Running Man.” (“See you at the 25th prison reunion.”) It was “The Running Man” that first gave us Ah-nold’s deathless line, “I’ll be back.” But it was the Conan films that gave him the opening to inject humor and laughs into what could have been just another pair of tedious muscle/fantasy films that took themselves way too seriously.

Bend It Like Beckham. I suppose I’d appreciate any film that allowed an ordinary girl to triumph over the bizarre-looking, anorexic Keira Knightley. The parents of both the heroine and her best friend (played by Ms. Knightley) are marvelous. And like all Jane Austen romances—of which I think this was a modernization—there are plenty of twists and turns before the star-crossed lovers are finally united with a kiss.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. A gentle, delightful film about a bunch of British seniors who are, for a variety of reasons, forced to retire to India to spend their “golden years” in an affordable hotel. Plunged into an exotic culture and less-than-ideal accommodations, they discover who they truly are and even find late-life love and new careers. Meanwhile, the adorable proprietor of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel faces romantic and financial crises of his own, but amid considerable hilarity, all turns out for the best. Super ensemble performances, with standout turns from Dame Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Dame Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson, and Dev Patel (as the proprietor). Impossible not to feel good by the end of this!

Cinema Paradiso. Some sad things happen in this Italian tale of a small town cinema’s rise and fall, but there’s such delightful interplay between a little boy, the man who operates the film equipment, and the village priest that it more than compensates. Lots of laughs and smiles along the way. And, in the end, two delightful surprises for the boy, now grown to become a famous director. Beautifully acted, great music, and totally heartwarming.

The Gods Must Be Crazy. This hysterical film pits a timeless, gentle, primitive culture against modern society, all because a pilot tossed an empty Coke bottle out of his plane. The Kalahari people on whose land the bottle falls at first believe it to be a gift from the Gods, but realize when it stirs up envy and enmity among the people for the first time ever that it is “the evil thing.” One man volunteers to take it away, and in the process has many misadventures as he meets more “advanced” cultures. At the same time, a hapless ranger has ludicrous, hilarious disaster after disaster, especially after he meets the woman of his dreams. Fortunately, all turns out well for the tribesman and the star-crossed lovers.

Sister Act. Okay, okay, I know it’s hokey, but it still cheers me up. Whoopi Goldberg may not be convincing as a casino act, but she’s simply great as a pseudo-nun in the Witness Protection Program. Dame Maggie Smith does a great job as her Mother Superior, and Whoopi’s fellow nuns are priceless, as she turns a hopeless choir into an irresistible act. I dare you not to sing along!

Okay, enough from me for now. That’s 18 movies that make me happy. Which films make you happy?

‘Til nex,t time,


The Santa-free zone?! November 10, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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It’s not even Thanksgiving, and Santa’s already hogging the headlines. Every year, like all of you, our friend Ben witnesses the struggle between those who would like to preserve the magic and/or the religious aspect of Christmas versus those who view it as an opportunity to fill their coffers for another year. “Keep Christ in Christmas” and “Jesus Is the Reason for the Season” billboards crop up around here almost as fast as the “See Santa at the mall!” ads. But going so far as to ban Santa entirely, as a German group, The Bonifatiuswerk of German Catholics, is proposing, strikes our friend Ben as positively Scroogelike.

I was stupefied to see a blog post yesterday, courtesy of our local paper, the Allentown, PA Morning Call, called “Do we need a ‘Santa-Free’ zone?” The post, by Kathy Lauer-Williams, reports on the push by this German group to do away with the Jolly Old Elf entirely, replacing him with the austere but compassionate St. Nicholas, 3rd- and 4th-century Bishop of Myra in modern-day Turkey, who was the inspiration for Santa. Forget “Ho, ho, ho!” and fireside cookies and milk. Forget a sleighful of toys pulled by reindeer. Forget Mrs. Claus, elves, Rudolph, and the whole North Pole thing.

Our friend Ben assumes that most people know that the transformation of the Bishop of Myra into the Jolly Old Elf was the work of Clement Clarke Moore and his 1823 poem, “The Night Before Christmas” (originally called “A Visit from St. Nicholas”). In the poem, the saintly bishop, who was known for secretly giving gifts to parishioners in need (most notably filling poor girls’ shoes with gold so they’d have a dowry and could get married), was transformed into a tiny, plump, red-cheeked, jolly fellow wrapped in furs, who arrived in a sleigh pulled by airborne reindeer, dropped down families’ chimneys on Christmas Eve, and filled their stockings and the space under their Christmas trees with toys.

Say what? Furs? Tiny? ‘Fraid so. Today’s Santa owes his incarnation to the cartoonist Thomas Nast, who created the big, hearty guy with the glistening white beard and pointy hat, the red velvet suit with white ermine trim, and the glossy black boots back in the 1860s. But though Nast and Moore were both Americans, we can’t shoulder all the blame. Instead, let’s blame it on Queen Victoria.

After all, it was Vicky who popularized the German idea of a Christmas celebration, including presents under a trimmed evergreen tree, after marrying her beloved Prince Albert. Christmas became a child-centric holiday of sweets and gifts, of magic and joy, the world of “The Nutcracker Suite.” Cards and cornucopias of treats and sugar plums and sweetmeats became the standard. In the U.S., where times were harder, stockings stuffed with nuts and an orange in the toe—a coveted luxury—and a few handmade toys were the norm. A candy cane of sugar and peppermint was a great treat, a new pair of mittens or skates a real luxury. 

Silence Dogood and I have a copy of a version of Tasha Tudor’s “The Night Before Christmas” in which she depicts Santa as Moore intended, tiny, swathed in furs, red-cheeked, enveloped in pipe smoke. We cherish it, as much for the animals who are having their own celebration on every page as for the depiction of Santa. But we have no problem with today’s corpulent, red-suited version, either. Jolly, joyful, and generous sum up our views of who Santa ought to be.

Okay, we find it annoying—even horrifying—to see Christmas stuff and visits from Santa advertised before it’s even Hallowe’en. Yes, it’s hard for kids to believe when there’s a Santa at every strip mall. But many of those Santas are freezing their behinds off to raise money for charities like The Salvation Army. Our friend Ben and Silence are sure that St. Nicholas would approve, as would our Lord, the Reason for the Season. It’s up to parents to keep kids away from the department-store Santas. And let’s not forget, even those Santas have found seasonal employment at least during the endless recession. Rather than shutting them down, maybe we should be congratulating them for finding a way to stay off food stamps and welfare.

But here’s the part that really shocked our friend Ben: The blog post claimed that the evil force behind today’s Santa phenomenon was… Coca-Cola! Coke featured Santa in its ads around Christmastime in the 1930s and 1940s. Coke’s colors are red and white. The blogger proclaims, “Is it a coincidence that red and white also are Coca-Cola’s colors?”

Well, probably. Maybe the Coke ad moguls were pleased by the coincidence, but they were probably more inspired by a clever ad campaign to link Santa to their famous beverage. Gee, with all that work to do in such a time-valued manner, surely Santa would appreciate a cold, carbonated shot of caffeine and sugar! (Our friend Ben is not sure if cocaine had been deleted from Coke’s ads at that point, but I’d guess so. “The ideal brain food” had been deemed too decadent in the face of two World Wars and the Great Depression.)    

Getting Santa as a frontman for your product would sure be cheaper than, say, Michael Jackson or Michael Jordan. And coming from the South, as Silence Dogood and I do, where Coke is king and Pepsi is revolting, this attack on Coke seems especially grating.

Let’s leave Santa alone, shall we, and take responsibility for keeping the sacred in our Christmases instead of proclaiming ourselves victims: “We’re fat because of McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts!” “TV is sapping our strength!” Oh, please. We’re educated adults who can make our own decisions. We can stay away from the fast-food joints and the remote. We can celebrate Santa without making him a byword for overconsumption. We can enjoy Christmas as a holiday—a time for ceremony as well as celebration—rather than using it as yet another reason for division.

For most of us, Christmas is the best-loved time in all the year, a time when every family’s traditions are celebrated, when each house sparkles with lights and candles, when families come together for festive food, carols, worship, and Christmas stories, be they readings from the Gospel of Luke and Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” or beloved Christmas movies. “Joy” is the word that sums up everything about Christmas. Joy to the world and to each one of us. Surely there’s a place for Santa, the embodiment of joy, in our Christmases? The world would be a bleaker, more joyless and even more diet-driven (“You can lose weight over the holidays! Click here to learn how!”) place without him.

Send out the clowns. August 14, 2009

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Silence Dogood here. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve always found clowns, puppets, and marionettes terrifying rather than funny, lovable, or endearing. I can much more easily relate to Alice Cooper’s epic “Can’t Sleep, the Clowns Will Eat Me” and Chucky as horror-movie icon than the idea that these monstrous pseudo-people are supposed to be harmless. I feel the same way about traditional nutcrackers, as in “The Nutcracker Suite,” too, with their huge, clacking jaws and teeth.

I realized as an adult that my fears were actually well-grounded. Clowns across history and throughout cultures—at least until the age of circuses—were originally created to humiliate, mock, and terrify, not to entertain. From the first appearance of clowns in mediaeval cycle-dramas to the Koshare clowns in Southwest pueblo ceremonies, the original role of clowns was to terrify and humiliate fair and festival attendees in order to draw attention to their shortcomings and bring them back to a sense of humility and obligation to their community and to their belief system. Nothing funny about that!

Ditto, in my view, the ghastly-looking puppet-marionettes, from Punch to Howdy Doody. The popularity of Punch, also of mediaeval origin, was twice punctured in modern times, first in the classic “The Wicker Man,” and again in the musical “Scrooge.”  Dressed as a clown with his nightmarish new-moon face, “Punch” is burned alive in the ghastly, shocking denouement of the original “Wicker Man.” (In “Scrooge,” the puppeteer is merely harassed by an oblivious Ebenezer Scrooge during the middle of a “Punch and Judy” performance.)

The topic of clowns and the like comes up every once in awhile, and I’m relieved to say that Alice Cooper and I aren’t the only people who find them frightening. But the puppet/marionette thing almost never comes up, so what brought it all to mind? I confess, it’s our friend Ben’s and my next-door neighbors, Bill, Fran, and Ollie (their beloved cockapoo). For some reason, this reminded me of Kukla, Fran and Ollie, a marionette show from the 20th century. I not only remembered the name, but remembered that one of the three was a dragon. So finally, I checked them out on Wikipedia, only to find to my surprise that their show had run and ended long before I was born and old enough to watch TV. Urk! Then how do I know their names?!

Ditto for Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop, a ventriloquist/puppet act of almost unrivalled annoyance. I’d be willing to swear I actually saw this act on TV, somewhere, sometime. And frankly, I can’t blame Shari Lewis for annoying the hell out of me with the sickening ooey-gooey voice she contrived for her sheep puppet. In an era when every cartoon character shrieked at top volume in a falsetto soprano that should have broken the glass of the TV screen, the Lamb Chop voice was probably pretty low-key. But I hated it, and I hated all animation for that reason, and I’ve never managed to overcome that ingrained loathing. To this day, I’d rather eat broken glass than watch any form of animation. And if I see a clown, puppet, or marionette, I’ll still run and hide.

“Send in the clowns,” Judy Collins sings, ironically. No, please, send them out. And let them take their puppets, marionettes, and animation with them. Life is scary enough, and annoying enough, without them.

        ‘Til next time,


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

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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.