It’s that time of year again when we sit down to watch a beloved Christmas movie with our favorite old fart Bill Murray, I mean Frank Cross, in what is arguably the best adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Directed by Richard Donner, Scrooged follows Frank Cross as he navigates his least favorite time of year, Christmas.
Even though Frank claims he loves the season for all the money to be made from the sad saps who watch his network, really he hates the joyful spirit of the holiday. He takes out his deep-seated rage on every single person he considers less powerful than him. His beleaguered assistant Grace (Alfre Woodard), his younger brother James (Bill Murray’s real-life brother John Murray), and his executive team — one of whom, Eliot Loudermilk (Bobcat Goldthwait), he fires on Christmas Eve for daring to challenge him, all face his wrath. And here we have another element of Scrooged that has withstood the test of time: Frank is a capitalist and an equal opportunity hater. The only person he defers to is his boss Preston Rhinelander (Robert Mitchum), and even that is only because Preston makes more money.
Part of the reason for Scrooged’s staying power is the stellar writing by Mitch Glazer and Michael O’Donoghue. Updating Dickens’ scenario from Scrooge as miserly banker to soulless television executive whose interests are only his own is especially relevant today, where an equally vapid reality star is the president of the USA.
But there is still so much more in Scrooged that has aged along with Americans in particular. Back in the ’80s when this film first came out, people were shocked at the levels of violence, and in particular gun violence. Scrooged even features an office shooting by Eliot Loudermilk, the man Frank fired on Christmas Eve whose world fell apart in the hours since. In today’s world, this kind of violence has been completely normalized to the point where I’m sure younger viewers would be surprised to hear people were upset to see these things in a Christmas movie three decades ago. As a gun crime survivor myself, this aspect has made the film sometimes difficult to stomach, especially in the years directly after the incident. For a while I would have to fast-forward to Frank’s final epiphany, even though Eliot is still holding people hostage in the control room as Frank and company since “Put A Little Love In Your Heart.”
The normalizing of gun violence isn’t the only prophetic aspect of Scrooged. This movie essentially predicted the conservative myth of the “war on Christmas” that’s been used as anti-diversity talking points for years now. Scrooged opens with a promo for a fictional Christmas movie, The Night the Reindeer Died, in which Santa’s village is beset by terrorists. Santa’s cupboards are not filled with treats and presents, but instead an arsenal. “This is one Santa who is going out the front door!” Santa boasts with an AK-47 in his arms. Jeepers.
Further, many of the socioeconomic and racial disparities we see today between high-paid executives and those who work for them are even bigger now than they were in Scrooged’s era. And in today’s parlance, Claire (Karen Allen) is a total social justice warrior.
Frank’s boss Preston even predicted the cat mania that would eventually take over the world. He insists that Frank include “pet programming” since dogs and cats will soon overtake humans in viewership. It sounded bananas back then, but now it’s just the reality we live in where cats are the masters of the Internet. This movie really dug deep into the American social, political, and cultural context and created something timeless.
But one of the coolest things in a long list of Scrooged’s awesome was watching it in HD this year and realizing that the three ghosts aren’t actually ghosts at all, but fairies. The real kinds of Fae folk, mean ones with sharp teeth and claws and fists. If you look closely, you’ll see that the Ghost of Christmas Past (David Johansen) has pointy ears. The Ghost of Christmas Present (Carol Kane) has wings along with her pointy ears and ongoing physical/verbal assaults common to Fae Folk in their dealings with lesser mortals. And the writhing creatures inside the Ghost of Christmas Future are basically goblins and trolls. Some argue that Reapers, or so-called angels of death, are also members of the diverse pantheon of faeries. Scrooged is one of the few times in the history of cinema we see faeries as the complicated, cruel, monstrous, (and sometimes funny) creatures they are — David Bowie’s The Labyrinth being another rare example.
And still there’s more: Eight years before Scream made metatext and self-referentiality an on-screen trope, Scrooged did it first. The script in Frank’s desk for the live Scrooge production uses the same font as the movie poster and title credits. Frank’s encounter with the Ghost of Christmas Future first occurs with an actor from the in-movie live production. His second is the actual reaper, who has mirrored the costume design from Frank’s Scrooge. Grace’s son Calvin (Nicholas Phillips) utters his first words in five years, and they echo Tiny Tim’s, “God bless us, every one.”
It’s this beautiful attention to detail, along with a host of magical performances, that keep Scrooged in an iconic place in Christmas-inspired visual media. Watching it again this year, I felt like Grace and her family are the real heroes of this story. She displays such empathy and compassion, unlike other portrayals of Black women from that era of American visual media. She is loving and strong. Grace doesn’t take Frank’s crap, even as he dishes it out. She’s not Frank’s conscience — she’s an independent voice of reason.
Frank Cross’s damage, like so many people’s, goes back to his childhood. Never processing these foundational traumas in a healthy way has long-term consequences. Frank’s behavior stems directly from feeding his pain with money instead of love to the point where you begin to wonder if it’s possible to reverse it. Will his breakthrough moment last? Or will he revert to type as he sees daily intentional living isn’t as easy as an epiphany? I would love a real-time sequel to Scrooged to see where he is now, but only if Bill Murray is involved. As much of a real-life Grinch I may be, I have my own Christmas tragedies that have dampened my enjoyment of this time of year, I still like to imagine that three decades later, Frank Cross would be finally healed and happy by now.