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A Beloved Oft-Told Tale - Again
by Jon Schuller

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So much of the world's famous literature, down through the ages, has been told and re-told so many times it's quite a job to count how many exactly. I'd guess that the works of William Shakespeare are at the top of the list for the most widely explored variations after 500 or more years. Many of his plays were actually variations on even older Greek plays, Roman stories and other works. So it seems that no matter how old or dated the originals may be, even today, in our so-called modern, computerized and instantly-accessed times, some stories are timeless. Their lessons and morals stay true and honest because human nature remains the same after centuries. Many old problems are still with us and even if the language was originally Old English, we can easily understand and appreciate what the stories are attempting to tell us. There are literally 1000s of works that are in this category but only a few, like The Bard's, have lasted so long. In the mid-19th Century one of the world's premier writers was England's Charles Dickens. His works were widely popular because he knew exactly what the public wanted and his prose reached into their hearts and consciences. He exposed the daily lives of millions of people – especially in London – and the terrible effects on them of more than 50 years of the Industrial Revolution. How so much of the population lived in poverty even if they worked. Child labor in horrible factories where kids as young 7 or 8 years old toiled alongside grown-ups for little or no wages in horror-movie-like conditions. The vast divide between the wealthy, landed and titled gentry was made public in his novels. I venture to say the world even today has such a divide and our country can see a few people getting rich while many others work for the same money as they did 10 or more years ago. Today, the internet and cable television have partially replaced books and newspapers for the same exposés as in Dickens' time.

On December 19, 1843 (precisely 172 years ago
today) Dickens' A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost-Story of Christmas more familiar as A Christmas Carol, was published in London. He was inspired to write the work based in part on his own miserable childhood and his father being imprisoned when Dickens was 12 years old. Dickens had developed a real sympathy for poor people – especially children – as a result of his experiences. A Christmas Carol was his way of using a Christmas story to make the plight of the poor more understandable and hopefully to make it better. He had written several previous short stories that were the basis for A Christmas Carol. The book would put Dickens back in the public again as by 1842 his own fortunes were dwindling.

Since everyone of you knows the story of Scrooge, Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim by heart, there's certainly no need for me to re-hash it here. Many feel that the 1951 film version with Alastair Sim is the best movie made of the famous tale. There have been at least 185 versions/titles in the movies and on television over the years. Today's column will cover a newer film adaptation, released in November, 1988: Scrooged, starring Bill Murray and a truly marvelous cast.

Frank Cross (Bill Murray) is a top executive at the IBC network in New York who treats everyone around him like low-level workers, regardless of what they do or who they are. He has no patience for human error. He forces the network to put on a huge, expensive version of A Christmas Carol on Christmas Eve, making it impossible for anyone involved to be at home with their families. His own personal assistant, Grace Cooley (Alfre Woodard), can't be with her young, emotionally delicate son, Calvin, as a result. He fires timid Eliot Loudermilk (Bobcat Goldthwait) because he questions Frank's decisions. The network head, Preston Rhinelander (Robert Mitchum), forces another executive, Brice Cummings (John Glover) on to Frank's staff to keep an eye on things and watch the budget.

Frank finds himself alone in his
quiet office later that evening and suddenly his late, ex-boss' ghost, Lew Hayward (John Forsythe) appears and warns him that Cross will be visited by three ghosts during the night. Frank laughs until his phone rings and the only girl he ever loved, Claire Phillips (Karen Allen), is on the line. He says he's busy but she tells him where she works – a homeless shelter. He had abandoned her in the past as he coldly rose up the corporate ladder.

The three ghosts all visit Frank during the course of night. The first is Christmas Past as a taxi driver played wonderfully by David Johansen. He takes Frank to his childhood as we see Frank's working class dad (Brian Doyle Murray) ranting about people who don't work. We see Cross as his younger self when he meets Claire and falls in love. He visits her at the homeless shelter (back in the present) but loses patience with the people she's there to help.

Then we have The Ghost of Christmas Present (Carol Kane) who looks like a gentle, adult-size version of Tinker Bell but turns out to be tough, smart and slaps Frank around to get and keep his attention. She makes sure Frank is watching as we see how Grace struggles to keep her son and herself alive; we see Frank's brother, James (John Murray), as he enjoys a Christmas dinner with his family, knowing that Frank won't come (again) to join them this year. Cross wakes up underneath the sidewalk as he sees a man who's been frozen to death, yet another homeless man, Herman (Michael J. Pollard), from Claire's shelter, whom Frank had refused to give a cup of coffee.

Frank winds up crashing on to the set of the show as he's once again brought back with stunning force to his own realities. The new guy, Brice Cummings, is now in charge of the production and will inevitably take Cross' job due to Frank's erratic, irrational behavior. Frank goes to his office and is shot at by Eliot who's quite upset by being fired. Frank escapes, jumps into an elevator and there he finds, crowded beside him, a
huge Ghost of Christmas Future, dressed in black and portraying everything bad for Cross. He describes how Claire will give up the shelter and all those homeless people will have nowhere to live; young Calvin will be put into a mental institution because his mother cannot work; and Frank will die and be cremated, only witnessed by his brother, James.

Frank is brought back to reality, runs on to the set as the show is actually in progress and tells Eliot he has his job back and will assist in the production. Eliot is keeping Brice at gunpoint as Frank tells Claire and Calvin not to worry. He looks into the camera and tells Claire how he really feels about her. She jumps into the same cab with the Ghost of Christmas Past driving and goes to the studio. He gets everyone to sing "Put a Little Love in Your Heart" as Calvin, speaking for the first time, says, "God bless us, everyone." All of the ghosts are watching as everyone is happy and singing.

We have a wonderful cast of actors and there are cameo appearances that make it even better:
"Jamie Farr as Himself / Jacob Marley Buddy Hackett as Himself / Ebenezer Scrooge Robert Goulet as Himself John Houseman as Himself Lee Majors as Himself Mary Lou Retton as Herself / Tiny Tim Maria Riva as Mrs. Rhinelander Anne Ramsey as homeless woman in shelter Miles Davis, Larry Carlton, David Sanborn, and Paul Shaffer as street musicians."
Murray's own brothers, Brian, John, and Joel, have parts.

Staying true to Dickens' immortal tale, yet making it up-to-date, was done well and Bill Murray makes us believe that Frank Cross has seen the errors of his past and will never go back there again. Despite modern surroundings, we are transported back to an earlier time because people are all the same no matter where, no matter when. Learning to forgive, despite the hurt it may bring, isn't easy but it does work for all of us.

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Cinema Savant
Every other Thursday

My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.

Other Columns
Other columns by Jon Schuller:

Have You Been Spying On Me Lately? For How Long?

But Can She Act? That's What I Want to Know

They're Not the Same People They Used To Be

Time Does Fly When We Watch Movies

Before Minimum or Maximum, There Was Only Prison

All Columns

Jon Schuller
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for almost 30 years. I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I enjoy sharing my love of films with everyone and have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 50 years (as of December 22, 2018) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Jon Schuller by clicking here.

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