Charles Dickens’ legendary “A Christmas Carol” has be told, re-told, adapted, and referenced in dozens of movies, shows, miniseries and plays over the decades.The first film version stared Reginald Owen, Gene Lockhart, Kathleen Lockhart and Julie Lockhart in 1938. 1951 brought a version starring Alastair Sim, Mervyn Jones, Michael Hordern and Glyn Dearman. Scrooge was released in 1970, starring Albert Finney, Sir Alec Guiness and Edith Evans. 1984 brought an adaptation led by George C. Scott. The Muppets gave it a go in 1992 with “The Muppet Christmas Carol”, with Michael Kaine in the lead role.
1988’s Scrooged puts Bill Murray in the role of the “Bah Humbug” master, though this time he’s named Frank Cross, a delightedly uptight, out-of-touch TV executive hell bent on driving ratings upward, even if it means sacrificing the Christmas spirit.
The opening scene is a montage of TV shows featured on the imaginary IBC network, including a violent war where Lee Majors (TV’s The Fall Guy) is all that stands between terrorists and Santa’s workshop. The hard-hitting lineup continues, right up until the network is set to show the classic telling of Dickens’ tale. That’s when Frank steps in with his Atomic Bomb-driven promo spot. His board of yes-men exit with silent, fearful nods, except for one brave soul. That man, Eliot Loudermilk (stand-up comic and Police Academy veteran Bobcat Goldthwait) speaks his mind against Frank’s version of the classic tale. Frank rewards him by firing him, leading to a great sub-plot of physical comic and pure mania.
Those familiar with the story know what follows. Frank is visited by his former mentor, Lew (Dynasty veteran John Forsythe), who tells him that he will be visited by three ghosts. Only after their visits can he really be saved, not cursed to an eternity in damnation for his mean-spirited lifestyle. Those ghosts arrive as advertised. The ghost of Christmas Past is a loud, show-your-teeth-laughing cab driver, portrayed by David Johansen (aka Buster Poindexter). His scenes reveal some of the softest memories in Frank’s life, including his tumultuous relationship with his father (actually his brother, Brian Doyle-Murray). Johansen steals the comedic tone of all his scenes, leaving the emotion to Murray, and his love interest, Claire (played by Karen Allen (Raiders of the Lost Ark)).
The Ghost of Christmas Present is an air-headed fairy, who is all glitter, except for the moments when she’s beating the crap out of Frank to keep him in the moment. No actress could balance that act as skillfully as Carol Kane (Annie Hall, The Princess Bride). Kane actually hurt Murray on one take, setting principal photography back several days. Her ghost helps to connect Frank with the co-workers he treats as slaves, and to get him in touch with how Claire spends her time among those so less fortunate than him. It’s a touching moment, or at least, a lead-in to one.
Frank is visited by the Ghost of Christmas Future and re-visited by Eliot at the same time, making for a wild series of events that wrecks his office and sets his deadline for death or retribution. Frank stares death in the face, first in modern times and then again in what is yet to come. He faces his ultimate end, even watching his own burial.
Naturally, the film wouldn’t be A Christmas Carol without redemption. Frank emerges joyful and full of Christmas spirit. He and Eliot make the oddest bedfellows in his proclamation to the whole world that Christmas is special, he is a changed man, and that everything important to him in life has been shown to him by his ghosts. The film’s finale’ is hysterical, as Donner hands the reins over to Murray and practically lets him run the show.
Scrooged features tons of in-the-know jokes. At one point, Murray throws water on a man he believes is on fire. When he sees the man isn’t, he says “you’re not Richard Pryor”, a nod to Pryor’s accidental self-immolation on a high in the 70’s. One flashback scene features a line about making a woman “bark like a dog”, which is verbatim from Murray’s signature role in Caddyshack.
Scrooged provides a great mix of dark comedy and feel-good resolution that is supported well by talented director Richard Donner and composer Danny Elfman. The weird blend of Donner (Lethal Weapon, The Goonies, Superman) and Elfman (Batman, Weird Science, Edward Scissorhands, The Simpsons) accentuates the visuals and the sounds consistently throughout the film.
The only knock on this DVD release is that there are no commentary tracks or behind the scenes tracks. Hopefully, a blu-ray release will change all this when the film turns 25 next year.