This time of year, it’s important to remember the true meaning of Christmas. Sure, being all joyful with your closest friends and family is great, but it’s also prime debate season for the greatest holiday films ever made.
While people will acknowledge the likes of It’s a Wonderful Life, Home Alone, Elf, or even Die Hard, one film that fails to get the recognition it deserves is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. It’s based on Charles Dickens’ classic Christmas novel, stars one of the biggest comedians of the ‘80s, and features a script from the original head writer of Saturday Night Live.
I’m talking about Scrooged, and as polarizing, uneven, terrifying, and funny as it may be, its ability to still be memorable three decades later is a testament to Scrooged’s bizarre brilliance.
The Night The Reindeer Died
One of Scrooged’s most memorable scenes comes right at the start of the film. The North Pole is hopping, as Santa and his elves push hard to get all the gifts for the children of the world ready for delivery.
That hustle is why they’re almost too busy to notice that the falling star heading their way isn’t a celestial body at all, but rather a missile aimed square at ol’ Saint Nick. Fortunately for Mr. and Mrs. Claus, Lee Majors happens to be hip to the villains’ plans, and arrives with a massive chaingun to save the holiday.
It’s incredibly absurd, and that viewers don’t know this is merely a commercial within the movie itself makes it that much more hilarious. There’s a television network that, fictional as it may be, believes Lee Majors in an action flick is what people need to make the season brighter. You’ll never forget this or the ads for Robert Goulet’s Cajun Christmas and the grimdark Christmas Carol hype video.
Scrooged hit theaters the same year as Die Hard, albeit a few months later. The timing of such a zinging parody teaser seems all too perfect. Perhaps it’s a testament to the quick wit of writers Michael O’Donaghue (former head writer of SNL) and Mitch Glazer that they were able to skewer the success of Die Hard, right down to the TV-star-turned-action-hero, so fantastically in just a few months. It’s also merely a hint of what’s to come for the remainder of the movie.
Look, Frank, It’s a Toaster
The Ghosts in this particular take on Dickens’ story are much more… extreme than many fans of the original tale may be accustomed to. The lengths to which director Richard Donner goes to modernize this interpretation are apparent when Scrooged’s version of Jacob Marley arrives to warn Frank Cross (Bill Murray) of what’s to come.
Played by John Forsythe, Frank’s former boss Lew Heyward bursts into Frank’s office straight from the casket. Lew looks as if he walked straight off the set of Return of the Living Dead Part II. He’s dusty, crusty, and rotten. His eyes have melted away. It’s a gruesome sight, but actor John Forsythe plays it completely straight, leaving the overacting to Murray.
While the Ghost of Christmas Past is a quirky taxi driver (played by New York Dolls frontman David Johansen), his impact on the film isn’t quite as memorable as that of Carol Kane as the Ghost of Christmas Present.
Her pitched voice and delicate, princess-like mannerisms hide a sinister side, and the juxtaposition of such a sweet-looking spiritual guide with her attitude makes her immediately memorable. That she constantly hits Frank with all manner of objects, including a very large toaster, serves to make her more likable than the cynical character Murray is behind.
In fact, Kane was so violent with Murray, she actually derailed production on the film for a short time after injuring him. At one point in their first meeting, Past grabs Frank by his bottom lip and yanks it to get his absolute attention. During one take, the skin inside Murray’s mouth actually tore, and he was sidelined for a short time since he couldn’t really act with a busted lip.
The Ghost of Christmas Future is a Cronenberg nightmare of a creature, and the less we have to think about that dude, the better. One look at him, and it’s not that hard to understand why Frank was so happy to come face-to-face with a shotgun after departing that vision.
What Are You Doing Watching Television on Christmas Eve?
While Scrooged itself is a meta-tale of a Christmas Carol being told while a live studio performance of Dickens’ goes on in the background, it’s also a fairly scathing take on the capitalist zeitgeist of the mid-’80s. Frank Cross is a network executive that is only concerned with ratings and profits. Previously, Murray had played generally affable characters in ensemble casts, but Frank Cross was easy to root against even if he was the protagonist.
Murray does his best with the material given, but his aggressive delivery of most of his lines (brought on by Richard Donner’s direction) makes Frank more hostile than most redeemable characters. Murray and Donner did not get along during shooting, and that’s present in how disjointed Scrooged is during its runtime.
That doesn’t make it any less enjoyable though. It’s actually part of Scrooged’s charm that Murray is so overcharged throughout the film compared to how all the other non-Ghost characters are much more subdued and authentic.
His redemption may not feel as wholly earned as Scrooge’s was in the classic version, but Murray gives the climax of the story every last bit of energy he has to try and convince us. The final monologue is a manic explosion of emotions, and it comes off a bit unhinged. Given everything Frank has been through over the course of the film, the delivery fits, but it’s still jarring to sit and be accosted by Frank during his moment of realization.
It’s a fascinating bit of filmmaking to leave so much of the film’s conclusion to a lengthy monologue about the spirit of the season, family, love, friendship, compassion, and anything else that jumps into Murray’s stream of conscious. But behind all that uncomfortable frankness, you can see Murray truly buying into what he’s saying. We eventually end up sympathizing with Frank Cross because we can see Murray’s passion for what he’s saying shine through all the shallowness, all the selfishness that Frank stood for earlier in the movie.
The film then ends with a sing-along of “Put a Little Love in Your Heart,” in which Frank (or is it Bill?) breaks the fourth wall and directs viewers to sing with him and the cast, which takes things to another level of strangeness. There’s a lot of heart beneath the somewhat sadistic spin on a Christmas Carol, and that’s helped this film endure for the last 30 years. Scrooged may not get mentioned in the same breath as some true classic holiday features, but it all still comes together to provide a Christmas tale unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.
If you’re looking for more unusual Christmas films to feature in your holiday rotation, check out these Six Christmas Films to Break Tradition.
Will you be celebrating the 30th anniversary of Scrooged with a holiday rewatch this year? Let Your Geek Sideshow and tell us in the comments below!