Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol is one of the most popular Christmas stories ever written. As such, in the 163 years since it was published, it has been adapted into film numerous times. Surprisingly, looking back on all of them, one of the most popular has to be the Bill Murray comedy Scrooged. 2018 celebrates the 30th anniversary of the film and on that occasion, I recently had the opportunity to speak with Karen Allen, who played the role of Claire in the film. I asked her what she thought of the fact that the film had achieved such recognition. Needless to say, she has always been somewhat surprised by it all, mostly because the film’s popularity wasn’t instantaneous. Allen told me…
I just remember suddenly, 15 or 20 years ago people started talking about it as being a Christmas classic and I thought ‘Oh, you know, [laughs] that’s interesting.’ I hadn’t realized that it had gained that kind of stature but now it seems to be solidly, if you’re going to look at the top five or 10 Christmas films of all time, it’s solidly started to crawl into that list of must-see films at Christmas and must share with another generation of kids. That’s kinda great, that’s fun to be a part of something that becomes tradition for a yearly celebration.
It’s certainly true that Scrooged wasn’t an instant hit when it was released on Thanksgiving weekend of 1988. It won that weekend at the box office with a take of $18.6 million, but it wasn’t up against anything significant. It went on to gross a total of $60 million, which made it the 13th highest grossing movie of 1988.
The critics, however, took a bit harsher view of the film, while one would have to call the reviews “mixed,” many of those who didn’t like the movie really didn’t like it. Some thought it was more mean and depressing than uplifting and funny.
However, over the years, Scrooged has clearly become a regular Christmas season movie for a lot of people. Karen Allen told me that she assumes that more people who missed the theatrical run picked up the movie on home video or on cable TV and that grew the audience to a point where the movie became more popular than it ever was when it was new.
As somebody who didn’t see Scrooged in the theaters myself, I can attest to this. I certainly must have seen Scrooged on basic cable at some point, unless my family rented it at the video store first, (because that was a thing once). It’s exactly the sort of movie that would appeal to your average basic cable channel. It would have only required minimal editing, as only language would have been an issue, and not a great deal of it. It had a built-in season to rerun it every year, and an audience looking for a Christmas movie to watch every December would almost certainly give the movie a chance, and watch it again the next year if they liked it.
Many movies have become classics, either broadly, or of the “cult” variety, only after enough time has passed and enough people have come across the material. The Princess Bride mostly bombed in its theatrical run and today it’s such a popular film that Once Upon a Deadpool can build an entire film around poking fun at its framing device, and there’s no worry that the audience won’t get the joke.
Christmas movies finding new life thanks to television is certainly not unusual. The Jimmy Stewart movie It’s a Wonderful Life became a Christmas classic itself largely due to the fact that the film lost it’s copyright in the 1970s and became much cheaper for television stations to air. It began to be incredibly widely broadcast, leading to massive audience exposure.
For many, however, Scrooged might actually be the version of A Christmas Carol for modern generations. If you’re a classic movie fan you might like the Alaister Sim version from the 1950s. There’s also the great classic Scrooge portrayal of George C. Scott from just a few years before Scrooged came out. It’s certainly the case that other, more recent, versions of the story, like the animated Robert Zemeckis film or the TV-movie with Patrick Stewart do not appear to have built an audience the way Scrooged has. Does anybody even remember they made a movie about the writing of A Christmas Carol all of a year ago? I didn’t think so.
Of course, the movie still has to be good to become that popular, but there’s little argument that Scrooged isn’t hilarious. The movie takes the standard premise of A Christmas Carol and modernizes it, (for 1988). Ebeneezer Scrooge is now television network executive Frank Cross, played by Bill Murray. He’s an angry curmudgeon who hates Christmas, except for its financial benefit to him, thus the fact his station is set to air a live version of A Christmas Carol on Christmas Eve.
This makes the fact that he’s visited by three spirits in an attempt to get him to change his ways a joke itself, as Frank Cross is very familiar with the story he seems to have found himself in. Karen Allen plays Claire, Cross’ girlfriend when he was younger, who he split from after he chose his ambition in business over his relationship with her.
Bill Murray is his regularly funny self. Karen Allen confirmed to me that Murray ad-libbed much of his performance with her on the set, often changing up his lines even between takes of the same scene. She clearly had as much fun making the movie as the rest of us had watching it. Add to this a great performance by the always funny Carol Kane and Bobcat Goldthwait in another supporting role and you’ve got the makings of a great cast. And really, how does one go wrong with a movie that opens with the Six Million Dollar Man blowing away terrorists defending Santa Claus in the North Pole in The Night the Reindeer Died?
If you’re one of those people who loves to watch Scrooged every Christmas, but you don’t actually own it yet, the 30th Anniversary edition of Scrooged is available now on Blu-ray and in Digital HD.