Dickens, Carrey and the Beach

“May it haunt their houses pleasantly”
    – Jim Carrey, in A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens.

Around 1981, I saw a young, rubber-faced comic perform in a small club. His wacky impressions wowed the crowd. Jim Carrey went on to become one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. This September he was back in town shooting a superhero sequel with locations in Leaside and on Yonge St. For Carrey Toronto must hold bittersweet memories of a childhood marked by family crisis.

James Eugene Carrey was born in Newmarket on Jan. 17, 1962. His family moved around to Aurora, Willowdale, Burlington, Scarborough and Jackson’s Point. When Jim was a young teen, his father, Percy, a frustrated musician, lost his accounting job. To make ends meet, the whole family took custodial jobs at the Titan Wheels factory on Tapscott Road in Scarborough. In return for living in a historic stone house on the property (Weir House, 1861), everyone had night jobs. At 15 Jim found himself suffering through an eight-hour shift cleaning the factory while attending Agincourt C.I. during the day.

On Inside the Actors Studio Carrey retold the story of his family’s fall into abject poverty: “That was the traumatic, wow, kick in the guts…Straight-A student, and then I didn’t want to know anybody’s name and I didn’t want to make a friend.”

The family was happier when they quit the factory in 1978 and lived out of a VW camper van for eight months.

Feeling like Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Jim used his anger to fuel his comedy. The day he turned 16, Carrey quit school to pursue his dream of becoming a comedian. For the full story read Martin Knelman’s biography The Joker is Wild (1999).

Jim Carrey lived a Dickensian youth of hardship and despair not unlike Charles Dickens himself. Each had talent and desire, driven to succeed by early impoverishment. With their families hounded by creditors, both were forced to work long hours in factories under Scrooge-like bosses. A dislike of authority figures and sympathy for the underdog would colour their careers. By the age of 21, Dickens published his first story and Carrey had his first starring role in The Duck Factory on TV.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens (1812-1870), the greatest writer of the Victorian era. His idyllic childhood was cut short at the age of 12 when his father was imprisoned for debt in 1824. Young Charles had to leave his family and school to work 10-hour shifts in a rat-infested boot-blacking factory pasting labels on pots. This dark experience of poverty and abandonment cast a shadow over the sensitive boy. Dickens later wondered “how I could have been so easily cast away at such a young age.”

Dickens became a tireless proponent of helping the poor through social reform. You can feel that scarred and redeemed boy in his classic novels Great Expectations, David Copperfield, A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist. It’s a hard-knock life.

In 1842 Dickens sailed to North America for a lecture tour, visiting “full of life” Toronto for two days. He dined with the establishment leaders, but his sympathies were with the working class. He disliked the ‘Family Compact’ Tories who ran the province and put down the 1837 rebellion led by William Lyon Mackenzie.

Back in England in 1843, Dickens wanted to make a comment on the materialism and social injustices of the time. He also had many mouths to feed. In six weeks he wrote A Christmas Carol, which became an instant success and revived Christmas traditions, influencing celebrations to this day. (Geese are happy, turkeys are not thrilled). Like the ghosts of Ebenezer Scrooge, Dickens was haunted by disturbing memories of lost childhood. The Cratchit family represent his ideal home life. Through his characters, Dickens urges us to honour Christmas in our hearts all the year.

A Christmas Carol has inspired countless adaptations. In 2009 Jim Carrey starred in a Disney version. Watch for Scrooge (1951) on TCM Dec. 16, also a part of the TIFF Lightbox series Dickens on Screen, Dec. 13 to Jan. 3 (tiff.net).

‘Tis the season when we enjoy classic stories of redemption and hope where an individual rises above difficult times with a fierce determination to succeed. Dickens and Carrey have each touched the spirit of the child in many of us. Is genius forged in the turmoil of childhood chaos, like an irritant creating a pearl in an oyster?

One of the Loyalists who defeated the rebels in 1837 Toronto was James Weir, who became a wealthy landowner in Scarborough. In 1861 he built a fieldstone farmhouse. By 1975 a factory was built, and the house restored for use by the night caretakers – the Carrey family taking jobs at Titan Wheels.

Weir’s son, also James, grew up in that stone farmhouse. In 1892 he stopped at a hotel in the Village of Norway (Kingston and Woodbine) to rest his horses on the long way back to his farm from the St. Lawrence Market. His team was spooked by a falling fence and Weir was killed by a horse’s hoof as he tried to grab the reins on Norway Hill. The horses ran all the way to the Half Way House on Kingston Road at Midland Avenue. James George Weir (1858-1892) left a wife and three young children.

History boring? Bah Humbug!

“God bless us, every one!” said Tiny Tim, the last of all.

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