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There is no more recognizable Christmas story than that of A Christmas Carol, the 1843 novella that has become the gold standard for shaping the traditional meaning of Christmas, arising in a time when many of the features in the book, such as greeting cards and carolers were first popping up. The book has been in print ever since and adapted many times to radio shows, television broadcasts, stage productions, film events and even opera.
By 1988, the story had already been in theaters more than a dozen times, with the first, a 1901 British short film actually titled Scrooge, almost all retaining the original setting and tone. With Scrooged, things were shifted, with the story taking place in modern times and set in the United States (though this is not the first time – a 1949 radio program called Richard Diamond, Private Detective adapted it to New York City as well), but more importantly, made as a comedy. Taking liberties with many details, it nonetheless retained the classic Dickens’ structure and upon release on November 23, had a moderately successful cinematic run, despite some uneven critical responses. However, it never truly gained ground as a Holiday classic and while many enjoy watching it ever year, is often regarded as inferior to the standard classics. That’s mostly because it is misunderstood.
Briefly, the story centers on Francis Xavier “Frank” Cross, played by Bill Murray, a TV executive who is preparing a live, televised reproduction of the Dickens classic, though with a few odd twists, such as The Solid Gold Dancers, and gymnast Mary Lou Retton as Tiny Tim. Frank is arrogant, insensitive and cold to his staff and family until he is visited by ghosts who show him his past, present, and possible futures. While the film does fluctuate tonally, and there are some curious moments that strip away some of the momentum, there is a lot about the film that deserves higher praise. Here are 4 reasons why Scrooged is better than you remember.
Director Richard Donner is famous for populating his films with many other directors, but with Scrooged, he litters the production with one famous face after another, and none are directors. From the afore-mentioned Retton, who does a few gymnastics tumbles to Jamie Farr of M*A*S*H fame, there are lots of quick looks at headliners of the time.
That starts with an epic opening, which includes a walk-on by TV action star Lee Majors who plays himself playing himself in a made-for-TV movie about commandoes raiding The North Pole. Jazz legend Miles Davies shows up as a street performer, but look closer because standing next to him is saxophonist David Sanborn and none other than Paul Schaffer, the long-time band leader for Davie Letterman‘s late night programs. Many more make appearances.
That’s not to mention Robert Mitchum of all people, who has an extended cameo as Frank’s boss, and is as “huh?” inducing as when Charlton Heston pops up in Wayne’s World 2. Sometimes, a film that makes efforts to fill small roles with famous faces can detract from the story, but Donner does right in keeping the faces coming, lending the film a bit of fun and a kind of tongue-in-cheek flavor.
The film is labeled a comedy, and it has plenty of solid laughs, but there is a very dark tone that lingers in the peripheral that gives the movie a sharp edge. Donner had fretted over whether it was the right choice to adapt the classic away from his dramatic roots, and even while he managed to do so, layered it in twisted menace as well, though it could easily be missed.
That begins with Murray’s performance, which appears satirical at first, but is much more. There is a lot of biting social commentary at play here, especially with the character’s desensitized and commercialized approach to Christmas, but moments such as playing up a bit of news about an elderly’s woman’s death to the horrors of a TV spot he produced or his treatment of his own employees (he openly threatens children on the set of his own production) cast this into dark comedy that might get lost in the larger attempts to package this as a straight-up comedy.
The best parts of this aspect lie in the future when Frank is taken on an elevator ride with Death, plunging to untold depths where their first stop is an asylum where Grace Cooley (Alfre Woodard), his secretary, is visiting her now interred, traumatized son, who doesn’t speak. That’s followed by a look at Frank’s love interest Claire Phillips (Karen Allen) who has changed from her sweet, altruistic self into a bitter, shallow, and phony woman who thanks Frank for helping her see the way. It’s disturbing stuff.
These moments highlight a number of moments in the movie that ring dark, making Scrooged a tale more in line with psychological horror than comedy. As the film was mercilessly pitched as an upbeat comedy, even marketed with a Ghostbusters’ connection, it’s no wonder it fell out of grace with audiences expecting something lighthearted. Watch again with a different perspective and it becomes a more engrossing experience.
Just before computer generated images would reshape the movie-making industry, Scrooged was released using classic practical effects that are reminiscent of theatrical stage productions. The make-up effects, led by Thomas R. Burman, who worked on such well-known films as The Goonies, Teen Wolf, and Howard the Duck, does some truly inspiring work here with the ghost characters, especially Lew Hayward (John Forsythe) playing the traditional Marley ghost and Death, the Ghost of Christmas Future, featuring a skeleton housing the souls of the condemned.
Death is a spectacular creation, with its enormous size, TV monitor face, tattered black shroud and bony limbs. While a CGI modern equivalent would no doubt be a beast measured in horror, the Scrooged incarnation is instead a stoic, voiceless presence that fits perfectly into the comic tone while layering it in the proper shades of fear and despair without becoming overdone. It marks a nice shift in the film.
There are other great effects as well in the production, including the sewer level where an important transition occurs for Frank. But there’s the little things as well, such as the flying effects for the Ghost of Christmas Present (Carol Kane), where she is clearly in a harness and swung about. It might seem low-budget, but that misses the point, and it is in fact, one more instance of a clever stage effect that gives deeper context to the appearance of the ghosts. Frank grew up glued to the television, his life shaped by it (a theme that pre-dates Jim Carrey‘s The Cable Guy) and as such, the ghosts and the settings he travels to retain that feel. It’s a clever touch.
We’ve become tainted by the astounding realism CGI produces and a generation of audiences are becoming effects-biased, not giving the art of practical visual effects their due, despite a current trend where may big budgets film are finding better ways to incorporate the two. Watch Scrooged again and discover how solid the puppetry and staging really is and notice how it gives the tone all the more weight.
It might be hard to think that Bill Murray wasn’t always a leading man movie star, but for most of his early career, he was part of an ensemble cast, even if his performances in them remain arguably the most memorable. From Caddyshack to Stripes to Ghostbusters, he was part of a team that gave him leaning room. What’s more, after the success of Ghostbusters in 1984, Murray took a self-imposed break from the business for four years, with only a brief, but galvanizing cameo in the 1986 comedy Little Shop Of Horrors.
With Scrooged, he took his first high-profile role as the lead of a big budget film, having his last leading role in The Razor’s Edge (1984), meet with critical and box office failure. With Scrooged, Murray had a lot of freedom and was allowed to work the script and provide creative feedback, a fact that left he and Donner sometimes at odds. Much of this stemmed from Murray’s habit of improvisation and going off script. Donner commented about the experience:
“It’s like standing on 42nd Street and Broadway, and the lights are out, and you’re the traffic cop.”
That said, Donner also counts this film as the one that made Murray become an actor. And while Murray certainly did some great work before Scrooged, there’s no doubt what he does in this film is something next level. That’s most evident in the final moments of the movie when Frank has his epiphany and emotionally breaks down to world about his redemption. It’s a stirring moment and Murray sells it well, but there’s a lot more in the film that showcases Murray’s stepping up to the plate as it were. While many of his films prior are laid back, Murray-esque roles, full of wise cracks and asides, here, he is a full-blown character with an arc and Murray embraces that transition with truly affecting results. Watch him as he stands alongside the ghosts, revisiting Frank’s past. He is entirely convincing as a man slowly shattering under the crushing weight of regret. But what makes this so good to watch is that it’s a comedy, and Murray hits the jokes as deeply as he nails the emotions.
This is Murray at his best, and while decades later he would reinvent himself, here, he is dynamic and compelling in ways that lift Scrooged to the best of its heights. Yes, the movie has its flaws, with a few too many characters, and some left abandoned, such as Woodard’s turn as Grace (who actually get smacked in the faced by accident when Frank freaks out in seeing what he thinks is a ghost), but these are minor in comparison to the overall result.
With modern Christmas movies becoming nothing more than stale romantic rom-coms, innovation seems left to the past when it comes to giving the seasonal movies their due. Scrooged is all innovation and its message emotional and fun. It’s better than you think.