Film Advent Calendar Day 14: Scrooged

When Dickens wrote his novel A Christmas Carol the practice of celebrating the holiday had all but died out. The industrial revolution and Victorian principals hadn’t made room for family feasts and goodwill toward men. Christmas was more of a day of observance for the church than a festive family holiday. It was Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge who brought about the resurgence in Christmas and helped make it what it is today.

Dickens’ story was an odd offshoot of his typical works of Realism. Instead of the day to day life of England’s upper and lower classes – it had ghosts and time travel and magic. A Christmas Carol was more Gothic than anything else Dickens had written. Yet, it served the same purpose as his stories like Oliver Twist or even A Tale of Two Cities. It showed the human cost of the industrialized world and the errors of a classist society.

As most of our readers will understand, sometimes fantasy is the best way to observe reality. Growing up most of us understood the world through the lens of superheroes or wizards or robots. It makes sense that it makes sense then that a series of ghosts descending upon the epitome of industrial greed and classism would spark such emotion in its Victorian readers. But, it the timelessness of fear, regret, and redemption that makes it endure.

The importance of A Christmas Carol in our holiday traditions cannot be understated. So, it’s no wonder that it is one of the most remade, reimagined, parodied, and imitated holiday stories. There have been over 20 film adaptations, along with countless theater, radio, and tv versions of the story. Among them, one stands high above the rest -1988’s Scrooged.

Helmed by famed director Richard Donner, written by screenwriter Mitch Glazer and SNL writer Michael O’Donoghue and starring the utterly iconic Bill Murray with a supporting cast of amazing talent it is no surprise that this film was destined for greatness. Scrooged tells the tale of big-time television producer Frank Cross who is willing to climb the corporate ladder no matter the cost. His latest chance at a promotion hinges on the success of a live production of a Christmas Carol.

Scrooged succeeds far more than most adaptations because it embodies the spirit with which Dickens wrote his tale. While most viewers can intellectually understand Ebenezer Scrooge, few if any of us worry about heating our office with a single lump of coal. We do worry about health insurance, Christmas bonuses, time off with our family and all the other things Frank Cross infects with his callous greed. Scrooged is a great look at the mentality of corporate greed that has persisted since its rise in the 1980s. That, and it’s funny as hell.

This was Murray’s first starring role in 4 years. After the success of Ghostbusters Murray had moved to Paris and was considering giving up acting. But, something about the script appealed to him. Murray took the gig under the condition that it be rewritten. Reportedly extensive rewrites occurred and still, Murray supposedly went on to ab-lib a great deal of his lines. Director Richard Donner likened the experience of directing Murray as being a traffic cop in times square during a blackout – just chaos. The result is that the movie is full of brilliant lines delivered by Murray. He walks a very Tony Soprano line between lovable and deplorable.

While Murray takes the lion’s share of the credit for this film, he didn’t carry it alone. Karen Allen does a wonderful job of bringing a sense of warmth and strength to her role of Claire. We believe that Frank loves her because we fall in love with her too. She exudes gentility, honesty, compassion, sexuality, love, intelligence in a way that is endearing and approachable. She is the type of person in a relationship that makes you want to be a better person. And yet she never feels like simply an object of desire, she isn’t an archetype or an emotional McGuffin. Allen’s performance makes her feel real.
Frank Cross commands his employees with a fearsome authority, he is a powerful man. And yet, his is nothing in the light of Claire’s compassion and self-determination. She is confident and sure-footed but never cruel and obtuse. She helps drive home the human side of Frank Cross by juxtaposition.

Outside of its two leads the movies crams talent into every nook and cranny with a slew of cameos like Jamie Farr, Lee Marvin, Buddy Hackett, Miles freaking Davis, every single Murray brother and more.

The ghosts are brilliant. Both funny and scary, with some very clever effects thrown in. Chief among all is the brilliant Carol Kane. Kane’s hilarious slapstick routine in the movie is so over the top production actually came to a short hiatus after she injured Murray.

The sleazy corporate world is represented with amazing aplomb here. Screen legend Robert Mitchum brings a great sense of dignity and inscrutable power as the head of the station. John Glover is brilliant as the smarmy little weasel who is gunning for Frank with the most vicious fake smile ever to grace the silver screen. Bobcat Goldthwait shines with his growling idiot shtick that brought him fame as a comedian in the 80s and 90s.

However, it’s Frank’s assistant that steals the show. Alfre Woodard may take Keanu Reeves spot as Hollywood’s unaging immortal. She has hardly aged from being in Scrooged to recently starring in Luke Cage. Her performance as Grace grounds the movie in our reality. She is our Bob Cratchit, our every-man (ever-woman…every-person?) who we can really empathize with. Among these larger than life people, Grace is our first real glimpse of humanity in the movie. There is a duality of strength and weariness that Woodard imbues in the role that is so relatable. In a movie filled with slapstick, over the top antics, and ghosts – she provides a tether to the real world in the most wonderful of ways.

This is where the movie goes beyond a simple comedy. The whole film is punctuated with little moments of humanity. Bits of grief and of joy, frustration and compassion ebb and flow around the comedy. Like real life, they come so unexpectedly and so strong that it really has an emotional impact on the viewer. The movie makes a point to show how mundane the traditional Tiny Tim has become by giving him this huge presentation at the end of the faux Christmas Carol production. Only to show us how impactful it can be a moment later. The movie provides us with one of the most heart-wrenchingly wonderful renditions of the character delivering the famous “God bless us, everyone.” I weep every time I watch the ending. Every. Damn. Time. Hell, I am literally choking up thinking about it as I write this very sentence.

Scrooged really brings out the essence of Dickens timeless tale. As cliched as it sounds – It is a story that has everything. It uproariously funny, poignant, and sickeningly heartwarming. It as well acted, wonderfully directed, and just beautifully crafted film. It is rare to find this degree of talent and skill put into a comedy, let alone a holiday comedy. Which is why I never go a single holiday season without it.