Put a little love in your heart, Tor.com, or we’ll burn you alive in your own coffin! Ha ha ha, just kidding! OR ARE WE?
Coincidentally, today’s entry for the Movie Rewatch of Great Nostalgia is that gleefully gruesome supernatural Christmas classic, 1988’s Scrooged! Huzzah!
Previous entries can be found here. Please note that as with all films covered on the Nostalgia Rewatch, this post will be rife with spoilers for the film.
And now, the post!
Before we begin, short scheduling note: owing to holiday travel and obligations and general madness, the MRGN is going on a wee bit of a hiatus until the dust dies down. Ergo, the Rewatch will make its triumphant return for 2017 on Thursday, January 19th. Be there or be square!
So the first thing to acknowledge about Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is that it is probably the single most adapted novel of all time. No, really; since its original publication in 1843 there have been hundreds, possibly thousands, of versions of it produced, across just about every entertainment medium we have, including at least a couple of dozen feature films alone. For whatever reason, people seem to never tire of seeing the story of Ebenezer Scrooge told and retold over and over again, in every possible style and permutation.
And yet for all that, it seems to me like there is always a certain sameness about the vast majority of these adaptations. Not that I have come anywhere close to seeing/hearing/reading all of them myself, of course, but even in just scrolling through lists of them via Google, most of them just seem to be the same thing with different actors, or with musical numbers added, or whatever. Even the Muppet version follows the original faithfully, both in story and in time period.
I guess it’s mostly a case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, and certainly there’s some merit to that, but the relative lack of adventurousness of most adaptations of A Christmas Carol meant that 1988’s Scrooged stood out even more than it might otherwise have in pop culture memory.
Certainly in my memory. I know it’s not the only version of Dickens’ novel to be set in contemporary times (dark, gruesome vestiges of a Tori Spelling production lurk in the depths of my most repressed entertainment consumption memories), but I feel pretty safe in considering it to be just about the only one so far that’s been worth remembering. Mostly because its particular take on the classic Dickens tale was unique, to say the very least.
Since I am going to go out on a limb here and assume everyone reading this has not been living under a rock their whole lives and is therefore familiar with the basic storyline of A Christmas Carol, I am also going to assume it needs no explanation as to why making the Scrooge character an 80s television producer is inspired. It perhaps would have been slightly more accurate to make him a corporate banking executive, but only slightly.
Frankly, the only real issue with making Frank Cross—aka Scrooge—a TV executive, speaking as someone who worked in the television industry for a good few years, is the implication that Frank Cross’s Scrooge-ness would have made him stand out in any way from his peers.
(Oh, the stories I could tell…)
Anyway, it was a genius decision, is my point, and I don’t say that just because I happen to enjoy Hollywood’s vain fondness for solipsistic parodies of itself. (Though that probably helps, doesn’t it.)
This is not to say the film is perfect; it’s actually kind of a mixed bag overall, in our opinion. But the parts that it did get right, it got brilliantly right.
The casting, for one. Make no mistake, this movie had a stellar cast. Even aside from Bill Murray, you had Robert Mitchum, John Forsythe, Alfre Woodard (yay!), and John Houseman (in his final cameo role before his death). You had the lovely Karen Allen, marking her second appearance in the MRGN.
And even Bobcat Goldthwait gives what is possibly the sole non-annoying performance of his entire career in this movie.
(To young whippersnappers: Bobcat Goldthwait is one of those inexplicable and extremely 80s phenomena, the appeal of which is probably completely impossible to understand in retrospect. Or, for some of us, even at the time. Nevertheless, he was actually funny in Scrooged, so I will allow him. I’m gracious like that.)
LIZ: And lest we forget: Carol Kane.
Carol Kane as the Ghost of Christmas Present is, as far as we are concerned, one of the best things that’s ever been put on film. All three of us fairly squealed in delight when she appeared, and we are not ashamed, because Carol Kane matched up against Bill Murray is comedy gold. In fact, here, just have her entire introduction because it’s pure magic:
(If you’re curious, the other best thing that’s ever been put on film is Carol Kane yelling “Humperdinck!” at Billy Crystal in The Princess Bride. Basically Carol Kane is unicorns and rainbows and giggling puppies and I’ll fight anyone who says different.)
And then there’s Bill Murray himself, who as I’ve said before, is capable of making things hilarious just by existing near them, but does so in a way that makes him possibly uniquely perfect to play this character. I noted in my review of Ghostbusters that Murray’s introduction in that film was basically “a test of how far Bill Murray’s personal charisma extends before his character becomes irredeemably unlikeable”, and a commenter on the post opined that this describes every Bill Murray movie ever made. I don’t know about every Bill Murray movie (though I wouldn’t bet money against it), but it certainly applies to this one.
Basically what you needed to make Scrooged work was an actor who can play an utter asshole and yet make the audience love him anyway, and there are very few actors who can pull that off better than Bill Murray.
The other thing that was great about Scrooged, in my opinion if no one else’s, was the music.
Speaking of a perfect marriage of artist and concept, I’m pretty sure no other composer in the world could have been more apropos to score this film than Danny Elfman. His music has that unique quality of demented cheer and macabre glee that is tailor-made for a score that needs to be Christmas-y and comedic but also freaky, disturbing and just a little bit mean. Like the movie itself.
It should be noted that Elfman himself was disappointed in the movie and his score for it. In the liner notes for his album Music for a Darkened Theater Vol. I, which featured a suite from Scrooged, he comments “The original tone of this film, as you can hear in the music, was much darker than what ended up on screen. Although the score was a pleasure to write, it was pretty much buried in the final film. Another one of ‘life’s bitter pills’… Oh well.”
I’ll have to take his word on the tone of the movie being lightened, but as the final version still includes things like a homeless man freezing to death and Frank Cross getting burned alive in his own coffin, it seems to me like it is still plenty dark enough to justify Elfman’s music. Which I could also pick out perfectly well during the movie, too, so I’m a mite skeptical of Elfman’s grousing overall, really.
But either way, I loved and still love the soundtrack. Even if it highlights one of the most frequently pointed-out flaws of the movie, which is its conflicting tone.
As my affection for the score perhaps indicates, I didn’t really have a problem with the film veering back and forth between lighthearted comedy (well, lighthearted for the 80s, anyway) and morbid, bordering-on-grisly imagery, though I can certainly see how it might be off-putting to other people. I’ve seen reviews which called it “mean-spirited”, which… well, yeah, it kind of is. But the thing is, either you’re going to be able to go with that and enjoy it despite that (or, sometimes, because of that), or you’re not. We, clearly, went with it.
KATE: It should probably bother us more that it was the sappy happy ending that we disliked the most.
LIZ: I liked the ending!
LIZ: …well, but it was sappy because it had to be sappy! It’s not like they could have had Scrooge not be reformed at the end! You can’t go that dark!
ME: Unless you’re Danny Elfman, apparently.
KATE: Eh, even so, the end kind of killed it for me.
I don’t entirely agree with Kate, because watching Bill Murray stumble around ad-libbing his face off during the end bit is entertaining enough that I can get past the inherent cheesiness, mostly. There’s no denying, though, that the entire cast’s instant and whole-hearted acceptance of Frank’s change of heart required way more suspension of belief on my part than any amount of supernatural Christmas ghost activity ever did.
KATE: What, was he a dead elf taxicab driver? Seriously, what the hell.
Speaking of ghosts of the past, one other thing I have to point out is that the references in Scrooged are incredibly dated. They were even dated for 1988, in fact, considering how many of the jokes involved knowledge of 50s-era TV. There’s a couple of jokes in here, in fact, that I still don’t get.
My grandmother laughed at that one, though, so I guess it would have been funny had I had the context for it.
Aaaaand speaking of decades-old jokes:
I’m just gonna… leave that there.
In conclusion, more or less, Scrooged is obviously not a problem-free movie. In fact, it’s probably one of those movies you’re really much better off not thinking about too deeply at all if you want to continue liking it. However, the bits we enjoyed, we really, really enjoyed, now as much as then, and the rest is flawed in such interesting and unique ways that it’s worth it to watch anyway, in my opinion.
And also, Carol Kane is snowflakes and moonbeams and whiskers on adorably violent kittens, and Bill Murray is himself, which is pretty much worth the effort right there.
So! As mostly always, we end with our Nostalgia Love to Reality Love 1-10 Scale of Awesomeness!
And thus ends the post – and the MRGN for 2016! I wish alla y’all a marvelous holiday season, in whatever way you choose to spend it, and come back and rejoin me in the new year for… uh, well, I don’t actually know what movie we’re doing next. But whatever it is, it’ll be up on Thursday, January 19th. See you there!