Thirty years ago this week, Bill Murray made his first (and arguably best) contribution to the holiday season with Scrooged, a maniacal update of Charles Dickens’ oft-remade A Christmas Carol. The light-hearted film remains a classic three decades later thanks to a subtle, but critical update on the source material.
It’s common knowledge that Bill Murray only agreed to make Ghostbusters if he got the go-ahead to film a smaller film based on Somerset Maugham’s contemplative ode to eastern religion, The Razor’s Edge. It’s lesser known, however, that when The Razor’s Edge proved a critical and commercial failure (which is too bad, because it’s not bad), Murray took a self-imposed break from Hollywood. Between 1984 and 1988, Murray clocked only a bit part in the off-beat musical adaptation of Little Shop of Horrors.
So, when it came time to make his grand return to film, it seemed only appropriate to swoop back onto the scene with Dickens’ classic tale of rejuvenation. The update of Ebenezer Scrooge’s tale sees Murray assume the role of Frank Cross, a sociopathic TV executive obsessed with scaring his way to the top of the TV ratings.
Lots of people have adapted A Christmas Carol over the years to varying degrees of success, but few have hit the mark like Scrooged, a self-assured comedy that pays tribute to the original without being afraid to charge into new territory. The humor is on point, the cast if phenomenal (Carol Kane, ftw), and the writers’ modern-day updates to the century-old story work wonderfully.
What makes Scrooged click, however, isn’t its technical brilliance — though that obviously helps — it’s the film’s ability to put viewer’s firmly in the shoes of its star. A cynical viewer may even begin the movie firmly on Murray’s team. Sure, he’s a dick to that sweet, little mute kid, but come on, those kinds of children don’t really exist. The quiet Cooley is a wee Tiny-Tim-style movie creation designed to make you forget that most kids are wailing, self-obsessed monsters. In other words, when the opening credits start, it’s easy to see Frank Cross as we see ourselves, as a person going through the motions of the holiday season just hoping to squeeze whatever material goods we can from the month.
The same can’t be said for Dickens’ novel. Ebenezer Scrooge is a non-Christian outsider who learns the joy of Christmas through an exercise in Christian spirituality. Scrooged, meanwhile, is a full-on satire of materialism and the thin veneer of “good will” we effect but don’t really mean. Frank Cross is a jaded American everyman who discovers that the holiday season doesn’t have to be an unyielding commercial gauntlet.
There’s magic there. You just have to get up off your ass and make it happen. Thirty years after the fact, in the midst of a holiday season that seems to get longer every year, Scrooged is a covert morality tale that remains as bitingly hilarious and undeniably poignant as it was at the end of the Reagan era.