Three decades later, Bill Murray’s dark turn on Ebenezer Scrooge remains as adored by its fans as it was a nightmare to make.
In December of 2015, Netflix aired A Very Murray Christmas, an original holiday special hosted by Bill Murray, who at some point in the past fifteen years or so was upgraded from a likable comedic actor to an inexplicable pop culture demigod, bested in “can’t do no wrong”-ness only by Jeff Goldblum. Not surprisingly, given Murray’s persona, the holiday special was very sly and self-aware, and even during the meant to be sincere moments he makes it clear that he’s much too cool to be doing such a thing. That’s not to pass judgment on Murray: most programs like this are done with a broad wink at the audience these days, as if to suggest that the people responsible for them think they’re at least as corny as you do. Whether it’s because we’re living in the “Age of Irony” (or whatever Salon-appropriate term can be applied to it), or some other as yet to be overthought reason, 21st-century audiences tend to reject overt displays of sincerity, particularly when it comes to Christmas.
Only a couple of decades ago, to put a dark spin on a Christmas story was to risk alienating audiences before they even entered the theater. Some risks paid off: Gremlins, in which the action stops stone dead so that Phoebe Cates can tell a story about her father dying after he dresses up as Santa Claus and gets stuck in a chimney, was a surprise hit. On the other hand, there was Silent Night, Deadly Night, which, when Siskel and Ebert read the names of the entire production crew on air and stated that they were making “blood money,” was pulled from theaters after just one week in release. Scrooged, released thirty years ago today, struck a precarious balance between light-hearted and pitch black, and struggled for a long time to find its audience.
A modern, comedic update on A Christmas Carol, arguably the most famous redemption story of all time, would seem to be an odd choice to bring Bill Murray back after a self-imposed four-year break from acting. But it’s not as odd as the fact that one of Scrooged’s screenwriters was Michael O’Donoghue. A writer for National Lampoon and the early years of Saturday Night Live, O’Donoghue’s sense of humor was aggressively bleak and cynical—he would occasionally appear on SNL doing “impersonations” of people like Tony Orlando and what they would sound like with needles stuck in their eyes, a nod to the agonizing chronic migraines he suffered. It was the participation of friend and former co-worker O’Donoghue, along with co-screenwriter Mitch Glazer, that encouraged Murray to participate, and the three of them worked together to tune up the script.
Though the basic structure of A Christmas Carol remained, a number of key changes were made. Ebenezer Scrooge was now Frank Cross, a workaholic, ill-tempered television executive who, in a clever meta touch, is overseeing a production of A Christmas Carol. He makes life difficult for his quietly suffering secretary, Grace (Alfre Woodard), whose young son is not physically ailing from an unspecified illness but traumatized and unable to speak after witnessing his father’s death. Frank doesn’t have time to spend with his younger brother (John Murray – in fact, all four Murray brothers appear in this), and a chance to reconnect with an old girlfriend, Claire (Karen Allen) is ruined when he belittles her job at a homeless shelter. A late night visit from his long-dead mentor, Lew (John Forsythe), sets off a frantic day of ghostly encounters for Frank, as he struggles to keep his show from being taken over by an officious co-worker.
If Scrooged had some major issues with tone and style (and it did, we’ll get to that), where it unequivocally succeeds is in the design of the ghosts. They’re all wholly unique creations, from David Johansen (billed as his alter ego Buster Poindexter) as a cab-driving Ghost of Christmas Past to the genuinely creepy Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, an enormous Grim Reaper with a TV screen for a face that flashes images of Frank in it like a bad signal. Neither of them, of course, compare to Carol Kane as the Ghost of Christmas Present, she of the “Ballbreaker Suite,” who’s dressed like the Sugarplum Fairy and gets Frank from place to place by punching and kicking him there. Kane reportedly got so into her role that she accidentally injured Murray, shutting down production for a few days.
There was a lot of enthusiasm and quirky talent involved (Bobcat Goldthwait, stage veteran John Glover, and even Robert Mitchum appear in supporting roles), but unfortunately not everyone’s vision for what kind of movie Scrooged was supposed to be aligned with one another. More specifically, director Richard Donner, best known for directing Superman and Lethal Weapon, had no idea what kind of movie Murray wanted to make. The two often clashed, with Murray ad-libbing much of his dialogue and Donner demanding multiple, broader takes, later comparing directing Murray with being a traffic cop. Opposing visions, plus the inevitable studio interference, resulted in a final cut with which no one was happy.
To watch Scrooged is to see the several different hands in the pie. There are some truly inspired moments, such as a commercial for an action movie starring The Night the Reindeer Died, some startlingly bleak moments, such as Frank encountering the frozen corpse of a homeless man, and some moments that probably should have been strongly reconsidered, such as the third act involving a disgruntled ex-employee of Frank’s who goes on a shooting spree at the office (even knowing that it was a different time, this bit being played for laughs is still unnerving to revisit). When it works, it works wonderfully. It’s enough to make it one of the best Christmas movies of all time.
When it doesn’t, well…I’m probably a little more forgiving of it than a lot of other people. A modest box office hit, Scrooged was met with baffled dismay by many critics, who didn’t know what to make of its attempt to combine both a dark and dreary tone with “cute little boy says something precious at the end” mawkishness. Roger Ebert came down particularly hard on it, describing it as “unsettling” and describing Frank’s monologue at the end as resembling a man in the midst of a nervous breakdown.
Frank’s speech (in which he first addresses some of the people in his life that he’s ignored for too long, and then talks about the value of simply caring about other people) was entirely improvised by Murray, reaching a level of heart-on-your-sleeve sentiment that some viewers might find off-putting. There’s just something about the way Murray’s voice breaks, and how exhausted and relieved he sounds to finally rid of himself of years of anger, bitterness, and loneliness that really touches a chord with me, though. Most other iterations of Scrooge wake up on Christmas morning jolly and light-hearted. Frank isn’t just happy, he’s emotional. “I believe in it now. I believe it’s gonna happy to me now. I’m ready for it,” he says. “And it’s great. It’s a good feeling. It’s really better than I’ve felt in a long time.” Frank might be the only Scrooge who truly understands what a rare and marvelous gift he’s been given: a second chance to make things right.