TFS the Season: Scrooged (1988)
Frank Cross (Bill Murray, at the height of his Bill Murray-ness in the 1980s) is the personal embodiment of everything wrong with 80s corporate culture: he’s crass, greedy, self-serving, fires underlings for disagreeing with him on Christmas Eve, is a total brown-nose, and delights in creating very real-world horror with his fictional broadcast efforts. So, it makes sense that, in this riff on A Christmas Carol, Scrooged focuses on ol’ Frank.
Naturally, the stress of being such an incorrigible fuckwit, combined with the stress of forcing an entire network and its guest stars to put on a live airing of the very story he’s about to live out (plus all the vodka he’s barely diluting with Tab), causes Frank to disbelieve it when Lew Hayward (John Forsythe, hardly recognizable under pounds of desiccated corpse makeup) makes an appearance in his office. This visit occurs, despite Lew’s being dead for several years. Frank cracks wise, shoots from the hip (and a standing posture, as he draws down with a revolver) as Lew explains that the three ghosts of Dickens’ classic story will visit upon him to teach him yadda yadda yadda... we all know where this is going.
BUT! This Christmas Carol is meta, mean, and darker than the wool trench coat Frank wears throughout the movie. Frank’s visitations weed him through his own history, each time dumping him back on the studio stage where IBC is rehearsing (and eventually, filming) its Christmas Carol broadcast, to the confusion and confounding of most of the crew. Frank, ever the professional, switches right on when confronted, telling crew members to staple reindeer antlers on dormice, arguing with brain damaged censors about just how free a nipple can be on network television (the answer is, “just barely,” even when crew members are “really looking”), and going to bat for the concept of Mary Lou Retton playing Tiny Tim because a backward handspring really sells having your bum leg healed.
That’s the lighter stuff in this Christmas movie, and I love it all the more for it.
In contrast, Frank’s more tender moments, which show us where his redemption and true humanity ultimately lie, are positively heartwarming, and honestly earned moments. It’s in these moments we understand how his lost love Claire (Karen Allen, absolutely glowing in the role) could come to love an ambitious, if misguided, corporate ladder-climber she affectionately calls, “Lumpy.” He’s a joker, and a loving if distant brother. And he truly does mean well, damaged by childhood neglect though he may be.
These softer moments are where a viewer can really see how the Richard Donner who directed the first (and a half) Superman movie can find his through line to the material. In its essence, Scrooged isn’t as much a faithful recreation of the old Christmas Carol as it is the story of how one bad choice can be made up for, if you try. If there’s any real knock to the story of Scrooged, and A Christmas Carol for that matter, it’s that in showing the redemption of what is supposed to be a nigh-irredeemable man, we never get to see his progression from decent-if-misguided to out-and-out asshole.
But in the end, we don’t really need to see it, if we can see how that same Frank can be made whole again through his reconnection with humanity. The most telling details here are that in the film’s opening (full of hilariously over-the-top fake ads for Christmas specials such as “The Night the Reindeer Died” and “Robert Goulet’s Cajun Christmas,” complete with live alligator on-set), Frank rejects all around him in favor of a dark, empty, and cold seat at the top. After his awakening, and his rekindled love for Claire (it’s Karen Allen, who could blame him), he’s down in the trenches of the live broadcast IBC is airing. He delivers a ranting, rambling tirade against his own previous values. He even denies himself the control room of the broadcast, sending his rehired underling, Eliot Loudermilk (Bobcat Goldthwait, delightfully unhinged) to keep things going for him.
Scrooged has a mean streak a mile wide, make no mistake—The Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present (David Johansen and Carol Kane, respectively) are trope-subversive, crass and violent in their actions, especially toward the man they mean to redeem. The Ghost of Christmas Future is fucking terrifying and funny at the same time.
But all this sarcasm, all this meanness, all this sense of ironic detachment, strengthens the moments in Scrooged where all of it falls away for the honest and heartfelt, and that’s really the point of the Christmas season. If there’s a more perfect Christmas movie for the shitburger of a year that 2017’s been, I can’t name it.