In the matter of Robert Crachit, Esq.

Dan Crawford


Bob Cratchit was born in 1843 in the mind of Charles Dickens, but it was reincarnation, really. His previous life was in Camden Town, where a young Charles Dickens watched his father deal with a world that was cruel to men who had no sense of money. The observations produced the Bob Cratchit of A Christmas Carol, that good-natured unambitious clerk, who, like his master, has decided that the world is a hard place. Scrooge deals with this by piling up a protective wall of cash, but Bob tries to cope through faith, family, and good humor. For this reason, many critics consider him the archetypal wimp.

This judgment is not only harsh, but irrelevant. Bob is inextricable from the story. We must have him in those fingerless gloves, failing to warm his hands at the candle. We need to hear him plead for the whole day off. And he must, he simply must gallop along the street with Tim on his shoulder. He is our barometer, by whom we measure the emotional atmosphere of Scrooge’s Christmas.

When it came to movies, producers found Dickens had left them plenty of room. Scrooge and the ghosts are described in detail, but hardly anyone else. (Dickens apologized for this in the 25th Anniversary edition; he’d been in a hurry.) Of Robert Cratchit, who doesn’t even have a name in the first quarter of the story, we know only a) that he has no winter coat, b) that he wears a long muffler instead, and c) he is not a larger person. Dickens twice calls him “little Bob”: obviously a fitting parent to Tiny Tim. (Maybe it was a pun, ‘bob” being monetary slang, Cratchit was certainly a man of “little bob”.)

Naturally, the movies generally give us tall, thin Bob Cratchits: in the Mr. Magoo version, Cratchit is nearly three times as tall as Scrooge. In 1938, there was Gene Lockhart, a jolly, roly-poly Cratchit, who would have made an excellent Mr. Pickwick.

Dickens also neglected to mention Cratchit’s age, beyond giving him two teenaged children, one with a job, the other about to start work. In his own performances, Dickens made him an older man, already missing a few front teeth, so that he whistled when he spoke. Some early movie Cratchits followed this line, especially with 1935’s Donald Calthorp, but as time went by, Cratchit and his family were younger and younger, turning Bob from a middle-aged man in a dead-end job to a clerk who, with a few mores years of Scrooge on his resume, might have prospects left.

The Cratchit home underwent just the opposite transformation: the 1935 version is cozy, if shabby, while MGM in 1938 gave Gene Lockhart a middle class American homestead complete with good china on the dining room wall. As time passed, the houses grew smaller, darker, colder: you can almost see the Cratchits’ breath as they talk indoors, and at least one Bob Cratchit still has to wear his fingerless gloves to carve the turkey. (An exception is the 1997 animated version, with Michael York as Cratchit to Tim Curry’s Scrooge; the Cratchit kitchen here is huge and airy. Of course, they have to stage a major musical number there.)

Cratchit’s character was also adapted over the years, in an attempt to make audiences sympathize with a character described by his detractors as cowardly and inept. (The reasoning goes that the 1843 job market was a good one, and Cratchit could easily have gotten a better job if he’d had any real aptitude for the work.) Audiences of the 30s, who understood a man who’d do anything to keep a job, weren’t so hard to convince, but by 1951, even the charity solicitors in Scrooge’s office seem impatient at Mervyn Jones holding his fingers toward the candle.

So from the 70s on, there are attempts to give Bob more backbone, or at least to make excuses for him. Several, like David Warner in the face of George C. Scott’s Scrooge, seethe with barely repressed resentment. Others try to speak up more thoroughly for Scrooge during the Christmas toast, when Mrs. Cratchit objects to his calling the old skinflint “the founder of the feast.” In the original, Cratchit merely pleads the season — it is a time of good will to all — but in amplifying this, movie Cratchits go on to claim that Scrooge is good inside, or that business makes a man hard. This, the writers think, at least shows he understands the situation, even if it doesn’t quiet the critics, who say he’s not only browbeaten at work but hen-pecked at home. (You can’t change the scene, though: Mrs. Cratchit is one of the very few roles for women in the story. Mrs. Cratchit’s name, by the way, is Emily. Unless it’s Mary. Or possibly Bridget. Dickens didn’t say, so the movies are free to choose.)

Sometimes, of course, the scriptwriter agrees with the critics, and makes Bob as spineless as possible. The champion here is probably the Bob Cratchit of “The Stingiest Man in Town” (Dennis Day), who is so cowed by Walter Matthau’s Scrooge that at the end, he actually tries to talk the boss out of giving him a raise.

Bungler or glowing example, witness to Scrooge’s redemption or a dangerous piece of sentimental nonsense (one critic accused Scrooge of undermining the capitalist system by giving a raise to an undeserving clerk simply because the man needed money), Cratchit is one of the little people. Never a mover and shaker, he’s a man who has to live with the results after the moving and shaking is done. No one would call him captain of his fate; he’s clinging to the gunwales, trying to ride out the storm. Maybe that’s what people dislike: fictional characters aren’t supposed to remind us of ourselves that way.

Still, Bob Cratchit, whoever plays him and however he is portrayed, is a part of the season. And I say God bless him, every one.

Editor’s note: Among Dan Crawford’s numerous unpublished books is a study of film versions of A Christmas Carol. It keeps him off the streets.

From the 1935 motion picture version with Donald Calthorp as Cratchit.

From the 1938 motion picture version with Gene Lockhart as Cratchit.

From the 1951 motion picture version with Mervyn Johns as Cratchit.

Scrooge turns his back on Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim in the 1971 Oscar-winning video version.

From the 2002 version of A Christmas Carol, staged by the Goodman Theatre, Chicago, with John Lister as Cratchit, Allen Alvarado as Tiny Tim, and Lisa Dodson as Mrs. Cratchit. Photo by Liz Lauren, courtesy of the Goodman Theatre.

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