When thinking of Scrooged, Richard Donner's 1988 Christmas anti-classic, many will rightly recall Bill Murray's maniacally hilarious performance as IBC Television president Frank Cross (aka Charles Dickens' Ebenezer Scrooge), the guy who would staple antlers to a dormouse if it meant better ratings. Despite the staying power of Murray's performance, without Karen Allen's Claire Phillips, the foil to Frank's misanthropy, the film would likely never have become the must-see yuletide fare it is today. But 30 years ago, that wasn't guaranteed.
"I think Scrooged has done this very interesting, this very gentle takeoff. When it first came out, I think it was well-received, but I wouldn't say that I had a sense that it was kind of an instant classic, or that it was going to become one of those films that everyone wanted to see every single Christmas. But that seems to be where it has landed in the last 10 or 15 years," Allen told SYFY WIRE while promoting the new Scrooged 30th Anniversary Blu-ray. "I suppose it's the other side of all of the really tender, sweet, loving, sentimental films. It's an irreverent, funny film that people can just have a good laugh and enjoy."
Murray's manic energy certainly contributes mightily to that, even after his then four-year hiatus from film acting (save for a memorable cameo in Little Shop of Horrors) following Ghostbusters' massive success. Not that we noticed any rust. Interestingly, neither did Allen — who would likely have been pretty good at reading huge stars at this point in her illustrious career, having already worked opposite Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) Jeff Bridges in Starman (more on her characters in those films below!), and many others.
"I don't remember knowing that he hadn't done a film for four years. All of our early scenes were shot outside in New York, and it was cold, it was bitterly cold, and if he was rusty, I don't know that I felt that it showed," Allen says.
As such, Murray gets all the big laughs in Scrooged, but without the redemption of the relationship between Frank and Claire, which allows the audience to see the lovable Lumpy behind the censor-wooing executive, it's hard to imagine audiences going along for the ride. Even sans rust, that chemistry wasn't there from the get-go, particularly because Allen was coming from a theatre background, where script is sacred, and Murray from comedy, where improv is fuel.
"When I started working in film, I sort of followed the same rules [as theatre] and I felt there was often the same expectation, that you came to the set every day knowing the scene, and knowing the lines, and having done all that work," Allen says. "And of course, working with Bill, he doesn't really work that way. He comes from much more of an improvisational background, and I think comedians, the thing that sparks them and makes them really feel the most alive and vital in a role, are very possibly different things than the way an actor works on a piece, or on a role, or on a given scene.
"So it took us a while for us to kind of get in sync with each other. And a lot of it had to do with me just sort of thinking, 'Ah, great, this is an opportunity!' Because when you train as an actor, you do a lot of improvisatory work, but when you start working professionally, no one will let you do any improvisation, generally," she says. "So I just kind of had to figure out how it was going to go. Like, how we were going to work. How much was going to be improvisation, and how much Bill used improvisation in order to feel kind of alive on working his way back into what was written. And how much we would, at times, just throw out what was written, and kind of create in the moments on camera — things that were maybe similar to what was there, but not necessarily the scenes that had been written."
Regardless of whether they stemmed from Mitch Glazer and Michael O'Donoghue's script or the improv that flowed from it, a lot of those moments pushed the edge of what people were used to seeing from a film's hero, particularly one in a Christmas movie. But while Frank's behavior was certainly suspect, it was never enough to push Claire away. So how did Allen justify that?
"The way I filled it in is, I just somehow always imagined that he was who she loved," she says. "That she never really got married or got into another serious relationship, so when he makes that call, it's sort of, on some level, she was just waiting to hear from him, waiting for something to bring them back together.
"I think it's because she sees underneath all that. She remembers the boy that he was before he became the man he became. And I think my feeling was when we were doing it is that she believes that underneath all of that is this sort of true heart that kind of hasn't shown up. It's what Dickens really wrote about: That underneath all of Scrooge's self-centered behavior and greed and unwillingness to care about other people is this person who is capable of it, who's really kind of lost his way."
But would Allen's most famous role, Raiders' Marion Ravenwood, take him back? "Not a chance!" Allen says, laughing. "I don't think she's quite got that heart of gold. Marion's kind of a tough cookie — I think a good-hearted, ethical tough cookie, but no… no."
When asked the same question about her character in Starman, Jenny Hayden, Allen stopped laughing, as a reflective nostalgia set in. "I just saw that film. I hadn't seen that film for such a long time, and I just saw it on the big screen, and I was really surprised by it somehow. I really like that film. I love Jeff's performance in it. And I just think it's a beautifully made film," Allen says. "I just wish John Carpenter would make a sequel to it, is what I wish. Even if I'm not in it, or even if Jeff's not in it, I just want to meet the babies, the half-alien, half-human baby who would be about 30 years now.
"I want this baby to come back and be this extraordinary being who comes back and shakes the world and stops all this terrible, terrible turmoil from going on, you know, wakes everybody up before it's too late, in terms of climate change, and wakes everybody up from the absurdity and horribleness of all the kinds of violence, and racism, and fighting that's going on in the world. I just think that maybe there's nobody smart enough to write that film. But if there is, I wish they would."
Wouldn't that be a Christmas miracle?
Scrooged is available now as a 30th Anniversary Blu-ray or on Digital HD.