I'm cheating a bit here: this entry is really about two characters, though a single archetype. First, I love Ebenezer Scrooge. I love everything about the Dickensian miser who gets woke to the holiday spirit, who sheds his chains of avarice to learn instead that mankind was his business, and more importantly, that it's never too late to put a little love in your heart. I love the original Christmas Carol text. I love Jacob Marley. I love the terrifying Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (side note: the version of this apparition in the animated Mr. Magoo treatment gave me nightmares as a child). I love that this great tale plays a key role in my favorite novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany. Heck, I even love Scrooge McDuck. There's something so utterly compelling about knowing we all bear within us the capacity to change. More on that later.
My favorite version is without a doubt the twisted 1988 Bill Murray vehicle Scrooged. Murray plays Frank Cross, a heartless, money-grubbing network executive who has long since mailed in his humanity in exchange for filthy lucre. His crass arrogance and pitiless pursuit of profit are showcased brilliantly when he is approached by a propmaster working on his brainchild holiday special who is having difficulty affixing artificial antlers to live dormice. "Have you tried staples?" Frank asks. This is a man devoid of sentiment.
And yet, as with Scrooge, Frank is visited by three spirits (four, if we count his lamented and leaky former mentor), through whom we see the idealistic boy he was, the needlessly cruel man he has become, and the hollow eternity that awaits. Murray is pitch-perfect throughout, equal parts Peter Venkman and Phil Connors, sarcastic and skeptical and yet sympathetic. We root for Frank, in no small measure beacuse Karen Allen's lovely Claire Phillips calls him Lumpy. As we all know, when Karen Allen loves you, you will never be lonely. (Kudos to anyone who can pull that reference!). Frank's transformation from humbug to heartfelt is utterly sincere and authentic, if a bit saccharine. I don't care - his fractured, frantic monologue at the film's conclusion is one of my all-time favorite film moments. Here's a man with everything who learned that he had nothing, who realized his own spiritual bankruptcy with plenty of time to spare.
I can recall my first viewing of this on VHS in 1992, a seminal time in my own life. As some will recall, the politics of my youth were significantly to the right of where they are now. As a comfortable and competent child, I was attracted to the rock-ribbed rhetoric of devil-take-the-hindmost, of a Malthusian ethic that rewarded the talented and ambitious and blamed the poor or disenfranchised for their own hurts. I was young, I was able, and I had no patience for others whom I perceived as inferior. Put more succinctly, I was an asshole. Around 1992 I began to reevaluate many of my cherished yet unexamined philosoophies, and found them wanting. Intellectual prowess and temporal achievement began to weigh less in my value system than service and sacrifice and devotion to community. A journey was underway, one ongoing and challenging. I'm still an asshole, but I'm trying. I don't suggest that a Bill Murray movie changed my life. But it was a catalyst, coming at a time when I was ready to hear the message. Put a little love in your heart, friends. And the world will be a better place.