by Michael B. Hock
There will always be a special place my heart for Bill Murray. He was the first actor I could identify as being an “actor” and he was the first actor I wanted to see in a movie simply because I recognized him. So naturally, when talking about my favorite Christmas Movies, I have to talk about the classic Scrooged.
Let’s face it: on it’s nose, there’s not a lot special about Scrooged. It’s the same classic riff on A Christmas Carol that we get around this time of year. Miserly old dude gets told by a bunch of ghosts that if he doesn’t straighten up and stop being a jerk, he’s going to end up dead and alone. Which is an odd fairy tale to tell around Christmas-time… ghosts tend to fit in more with the holiday that just passed. This one is set in the late 1980’s which makes it incredibly more dated as time goes by. But, as long as Bill Murray is in it, going from cold, corporate sleaze-bag to… well, Bill Murray.
Murray stars as Francis Xavier Cross (who’s office has a sign that let’s us know, helpfully, that a cross is “something you nail people to) our Scrooge, a TV Executive from back in the time before Netflix and a billion and a half channels when TV Executives were something to fear. He wants to put on a live showing of A Christmas Carol on Christmas Eve, complete with celebrity cameos like Mary Lou Retton as Tiny Tim. He’s visited by three ghosts who teach him the true meaning of Christmas is to love everyone, including his ex-wife who takes the form of former Indiana Jones girlfriend, Karen Allen.
And yes, Kimmy Schmidt fans, that is Lillian as the Ghost of Christmas Present.
So, like I said, basically the story we’ve all come to know and parody throughout history, A Christmas Carol. So, other than the actual Bill Murray-ness that have been added to the story by the presence of Bill Murray, why am I pointing this out as one of my favorite Christmas Movies of all time?
Because I feel it reflects the heart of the original story while taking into consideration the sheer ridiculousness of what is going on.
Charles Dickens was known for writing about the poor. He tended to write them in a very sympathetic light, but in the end, they were all trying to get somewhere that quite frankly, wasn’t being poor. A Christmas Carol is an interesting look at someone who is a very un-Dickens like character, a wealthy dude who wants to keep his wealth, and gives us sort of his story. What a lot of people don’t seem to realize in the original Carol story is that we’re looking at a very sympathetic character in Scrooge. He’s not a man who came by his wealth through theft, he came by it by working hard, and by compromising himself to reach that goal. Yes, he needed to lighten up, but Dickens showed us that we don’t get there overnight. We get there by selling bits of our souls until we’re wondering why there aren’t enough workhouses or prisons to take in the poor and those in need.
Scrooged does a fantastic job in capturing this spirit. There’s the fact that the movie is about a guy putting on a version of a Christmas Carol, faithful to the original but with just enough alterations to make it that much more audacious, like the Solid Gold Dancers showing up for some reason early in the movie. The glimpses into the past sort of mirror what we saw in the original tale: Cross’s father giving him the lovely gift of meat and telling him he needs to work more while being raised by the television, losing the love of his life to spend time with his boss instead of his wife and friends, all while watching Bill Murray become more and more unhinged, allowing for the comedy that isn’t really there in a lot of other ones. It mixes a lot of the tragedy of watching a man slowly compromise himself with the hilariousness of getting hit by a toaster.
Because getting hit with a toaster is never not funny.
The movie also never compromises on the hard stuff to watch, such as the fact that it was Cross’s choices that made the man who he was. But what really sets this apart from the others is Bill Murray’s performance while this is happening.
When we first meet Francis Xavier Cross, he’s having someone fired for standing up to him, then watching in glee as the man is tossed out into the cold the day before Christmas. Like many Scrooges before him, he’s a cold man, apparently. But there are littler movements that show that he may not be such an irredeemable soul. That’s where a lot of other versions of this fall flat, they forget this is about Scrooge’s redemption, but we need to see a reason as to why he’s being saved. He’s almost angry at a man who dies of exposure because he should have sought help. He immediately thinks of how he can save the son of his put upon assistant (played by Alfre Woodard in an inspired choice of casting) who hasn’t spoken since her husband was killed. He even got his start working at a kid’s show – we care about this Scrooge.
I could go on… I haven’t touched on the wackiness of two of the three ghosts, played by David Johansen and Carol Kane, who enjoy either scaring or smashing the sense into Cross. But I feel the heart of the movie is captured in Murray’s performance. I feel he gets what is important about this tale, and it’s the reminder that even the worst of us has a reason for being the worst, and we have to understand that there’s a point when we’re not so far gone that we can fix things. The story is a always a hopeful one. This version just takes a closer look into how we may have gotten there, so there’s a path for us to get back.
In a world full of Scrooges, Scrooged stands out.
Next time, on Hamlet’s Movie Countdown: We honor the first of two Alan Rickman movies as we look at the most British movie to ever exist.