“Cupid’s arrow, right between the eyes”
While there have been countless iterations of Charles Dickens‘ seminal novel A Christmas Carol—with the 1951 Alastair Sim starrer proving the best and modernized retreads like Ghosts of Girlfriends Past supplying the worst—one sometimes overlooked comedic gem from 1988 has always been this writer’s personal favorite. Titled Scrooged, screenwriters Mitch Glazer and Michael O’Donoghue went meta with the concept of its ubiquity by telling us a tale of a man who is quite literally “scrooged” while producing a legitimate adaptation of the real story for the television studio he runs. It takes the mental instability angle and runs with it by causing all those around the selfish, tyrannical Frank Cross (Bill Murray) to think the pressures a massive undertaking like the live show from multiple international cities he’s creating have finally made him snap.
It’s the perfect mirroring to our modern, industrialized world with Cross simply being an executive in a volatile and cutthroat business. Whereas Scrooge himself proved a cheap, ill-tempered, and otherwise evil man specifically for his eventual transformation, Frank is just a run-of-the-mill Fortune 500 guy cutting the fat and turning a profit. His employees fear for their “yes-man” jobs, but that’s the culture they’ve accepted will be found anywhere they go. Heck, even Frank reacts the same way towards his own boss Preston Rhinelander (Robert Mitchum), constantly rolling his eyes and pretending to care when you know he’d rather be drinking in his office or watching the little people he controls get booted into the unemployment line on Christmas Eve. He is the contemporary Scrooge—a man we simultaneously idolize and hate year-round.
The film is therefore both update and homage with its two parallel stories showing us the Dickensian trajectory as rubric for where Cross is next sent. His secretary Grace (Alfre Woodard) becomes his Bob Cratchit, always working when demanded and always underappreciated despite doing so while her son Calvin (Nicholas Phillips) gives us a Tiny Tim-like self-imposed mute courtesy of the tragic death of his father. There’s brother James (John Murray) and his wife Wendie (Wendie Malick) for whom Frank has skipped every Christmas party they’ve thrown; former love and compassionate soul Claire (Karen Allen) whom he let leave when his rise to the top didn’t allow for personal sacrifice; and former party boss/Fezziwig stand-in Lew Hayward (John Forsythe), nicely doubling as Cross’ Jacob Marley to save him from the fate he never escape himself.
There are also additions like Bobcat Goldthwait‘s Eliot Loudermilk, built as a physical embodiment of the temper and disdain we know the original Cratchit buries beneath his optimistic and thankful façade; John Glover‘s Brice Cummings as an intriguing figure of competition, someone whose mere presence should force Frank to be even more vile in his business practices; and a slew of bit parts to add heart (Michael J. Pollard‘s Herman), television world authenticity (Buddy Hackett, Robert Goulet, and Lee Majors), and humor (Brian Doyle-Murray and Rebeca Arthur‘s blasts from the past). Add in the fantastic opening with Christmas spoofs like “The Night the Reindeer Died” and you have a wonderfully subversive look at the TV industry as well as festive comedy for the whole family to enjoy without the stuffiness teens feel from its classic B&W counterpart.
Director Richard Donner and crew also up the production value ante with memorable make-up work and set design that allows for Forsythe’s ghost’s dead decaying arm to break apart while holding Murray through a solid skyscraper window. He thankfully also allows his Ghosts of Christmas (David Johansen‘s Past, Carol Kane‘s Present, and Future’s rather scary mix of puppetry and digital effect) to be physical characters so that only one instance of bad translucency must be endured. It helps that Glazer and O’Donoghue’s humor made Johansen into a less than savory, cigar-smoking cab driver and Kane a ball-busting fairy who packs quite the wallop too because they’re necessary for this story today. Guys like Cross need a couple swift shots to the head with a toaster to wake up when the sentimentality of 1843 literature won’t do.
It is very much a PG-13 film in this way, though, so my saying family-friendly above might not be universally true for all. I personally remember watching it before I was thirteen, but some parents may find jokes about the Kama Sutra and nipple-showing Solid Gold Dancers a bit much for the holidays. And with Eliot’s plan for revenge utilizing a shotgun and a bad attitude, more than a little violence was added to the mix as well. But everything works towards the comedy and story, providing necessary vices/evils for a guy like Frank Cross to partake in for pleasure and fear. After all, we can only watch so many period renditions barely differentiating themselves from the last before a breath of fresh air like this is needed to satisfy our craving for what A Christmas Carol instills.
The real appeal besides its contemporary setting and reworked characterizations, however, comes from the wealth of comic talent involved. Johansen and Kane are brilliant with their hilarious attitudes and penchant for verbal or physical abuse; Allen’s infectious smile provides the epitome of wholesome yet fiercely strong love we crave to make us better; and Goldthwait and Mitchum embody the downtrodden and aristocratic elite respectively with clichéd yet funny performances against Murray’s deadpan sarcasm. And as far as our star is concerned, his Frank Cross is exactly what you’d expect from the actor in the late eighties. You get jovial, cranky, and crazy ranting in alternate doses with his ego proving precisely what makes a modern-day Scrooge. He’s a truly successful Ebenezer not simply copying Sim’s performance from over half a century ago and that itself is worthy praise.