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The Nostalgia Files: ‘Scrooged’ (1988)

The Nostalgia Files: ‘Scrooged’ (1988)

Written by Mitch Glazer and Michael O’Donoghue
Directed by Richard Donner
USA, 1988
The story of Scrooge is one of literature’s most enduring and beloved tales. It is a universal tale of redemption and a staple of Christmas lore. The Bill Murray vehicle Scrooged was released in 1988 and it is one of the more unique adaptations of Charles Dickens’ masterpiece. It isn’t your typical take on Scrooge but that’s what makes it all the more fun. There are funny cameos and quirky action sequences all firmly anchored by both Murray’s brilliant lead performance and Richard Donner’s solid direction. With Christmas soon coming upon us, Scrooged is the perfect cinematic gem to be viewed with the whole family.
The film is pretty straightforward and focuses on Frank Cross (Murray), a bitter TV executive, who takes out his frustration on his lowly assistant Grace (Alfre Woodard). He’s distanced himself from his family and he hasn’t spoken to his ex-girlfriend Claire (Karen Allen) in many years. He’s now in charge of putting on a live televised performance of A Christmas Carol and the stress is getting to him. He is soon visited by his old (deceased) boss Lew Hayward (John Forsythe) and is warned that he will be visited by three ghosts, each teaching him a valuable lesson and thus restoring his basic humanity.
With such a colorful and assorted cast, Scrooged is one of those films you just have to enjoy. Bill Murray leads the pack as the modern-day Scrooge, who treats everyone (including those near and dear to him) like absolute dirt. His last name is “Cross” and he even has a sign up in his office that reads “Cross: a thing they nail people to”. This dark brand of humor sums up the character perfectly and Murray takes his signature sarcasm and adapts it to Scrooge who is nothing less than a total and complete jerk. Murray portrays this personality very well and he would basically perfect this “type” five years later in Groundhog Day, a film that also has a strong Scrooge-like flavor. I guess you could say this film provided inspiration for that role. Also worth noting is that Scrooged was Murray’s return to acting after a two year hiatus. The film was also marketed by Paramount Pictures as a “Bill Murray movie with ghosts”, since the same combination yielded much success with Ghostbusters four years prior. Unfortunately, Scrooged wasn’t as big a hit as the Paramount marketing team had hoped.
With the spotlight primarily on Murray, Scrooged features one of the better supporting casts of an 80s comedy. Karen Allen is lovely as Cross’ love interest from his past. Together, they provide some of the film’s more tender moments as Kama Sutra-practicing hippies who have a love/hate relationship with Chinese food. David Johansen plays The Ghost of Christmas Past and he is particularly great here, driving a vintage NYC taxi, swigging a bottle of liquor, smoking a cigar and shouting insults at other Manhattan drivers. His gruff persona fits the character extremely well. The same can be said for Carol Kane, who plays The Ghost of Christmas Present as a life-size and physically-abusive pixie. The scenes she shares with Murray are pure comic gold and feel as though they belong in an SNL skit.
On the more serious side, Alfre Woodard is sensational as Grace, the Jacob Marley of Scrooged, employee of Cross and hapless victim to his constant torment and harshness. Her character has so many layers, including a chaotic family life that contains a young boy who became mute after witnessing his father’s murder (intense much?) and Woodard gives a powerful and downright genuine performance here. Other supporting players include a slimy John Glover, gunning for Cross’ job, Bobcat Goldthwait as a disgruntled employee, with revenge on his mind after being unfairly fired by Cross. Goldthwait actually provides some of the more meaty subplots and yes, he even uses his bizarre but lovable Police Academy voice. Cameos in Scrooged include but aren’t limited to Robert Mitchum, Jamie Farr, Buddy Hackett, Robert Goulet, John Houseman, Lee Majors, Mary Lou Retton and the very 80s Solid Gold Dancers. With so much random entertainment flooding Scrooged, audiences are certainly in for a nice retro treat.
With such a goofy plot and plenty of sight gags, Scrooged is a comedy through and through. It is a bit of odd choice, however, that Richard Donner (Superman, The Goonies, Lethal Weapon) directed it. He’s more known for action-adventures, so Scrooged was a bit outside his wheelhouse. Having said that, Mr. Donner did knock Scrooged out of the park and it sadly remains one of his lesser-appreciated efforts. His action-directing does shine through in certain scenes like in the opening siege on Santa’s workshop and in a later sequence in which Cross goes back in time with The Ghost’s mystical taxi. It is during these moments where you can really spot Donner’s signature style. He has a passion for tackling offbeat scripts and that was very apparent three years prior in The Goonies. He also directs actors very well and it is quite obvious that he and Murray had a blast shooting Scrooged.
Having mentioned the fabulous cast and the tight direction, what stands out the most is Mitch Glazer and Michael O’Donoghue’s beautifully crafted script, which is not only hilarious but warm and heartfelt. While mostly a comedy, there is a scene in Scrooged that is both touching and moving. That scene, of course, is the final monologue Cross has “on live TV” after redeeming himself. It’s a bit over-the-top but Murray sells it and if it doesn’t move you in one way or another, then you probably have no soul. It cements the very positive message of the film and the Scrooge story in general and Murray is perfect. With scenes like this and the wonderful cast and filmmakers, not to mention a very spirited score from newbie at the time, Danny Elfman, Scrooged is not only a cult classic but a holiday classic. Sure, it’s not as well-known as it probably should be but with Netflix, it lives on, not only on our TV sets but in our hearts.