If there’s one flaw in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol it’s that the woman he left behind is hardly more than a shadow.
Can you even remember her name? (It’s Belle. No last name.)
In the 1843 novel and every stage or screen adaptation since, we remember her as a glow in Ebeneezer Scrooge’s otherwise murky life. They dance at Fezziwig’s holiday party when he was still a bright young man of promise, then we see her miserably breaking off their engagement years later when it’s clear his true love is money and ambition.
Scrooge grieves the loss when shown these moments again by the Ghost of Christmas Past, but he’s remembering a much deeper relationship than the reader or audience gets to see.
One adaptation that gives this character more heart, more life, and more dimension is 1988’s Scrooged — with Karen Allen in the role of Claire Phillips, a ceaseless optimist and homeless shelter advocate who gives of herself until it hurts, but knows she would feel worse if she didn’t.
In the Richard Donner-directed movie, now celebrating its 30th anniversary, Claire is not just relegated to the past, she is also in the present tense — hurrying to the network studio when she receives an alarmed call from her meanspirited ex Frank Cross, the miserly TV executive played by Bill Murray.
Who would do that? Claire would. She has more to do in this story than be a distant, happy memory. She’s the hero who actively helps save this scrooge’s soul.
“When I read it, I really was glad about that because you have a sense that she actually pulls him back to himself, and back to his heart,” Allen tells EW. “That sweet guy that we meet in some of the flashbacks has really gotten completely lost in this egomaniacal version of Frank Cross that we meet.”
But Claire still sees the good man she calls “Lumpy.”
“I just loved what they had done with the character and in my early getting-to-know Bill Murray time, we fell into it, as actors often do,” she says. “You get to know the person as you’re starting to work on something, and you’re working through the actual story and the character. You just find the relationship.”
Murray was notoriously prickly on the set of this movie, and famously clashed with Donner. But Allen says she warmed him up just as Claire thaws Frank.
“He and I just found this kind of sweet relationship between the characters where, I felt that Claire brought out the better half of him, the better parts of him that had gotten lost.”
But … why would someone this nice return so quickly years later to someone who had dismissed her so coldly way back when?
“I always felt like in the way Michael O’Donoghue had written the script that Claire really never quite got over him and, she may not have known what happened, what had become of his life,” Allen says.
Allen believes Claire came to see him after his desperate phone call because she’s curious. “They had parted and gone off in their different directions but, on some level, maybe, there was a little part of her that was waiting and hoping that phone call would come someday,” the actress says.
Isn’t Claire a little too good for Frank, though? Definitely. But she’s so much of a do-gooder that she still considers him unfinished work, a lost soul who still needs saving. Claire never gives up on anything that easily, even after so many years.
Claire also helps Scrooged establish higher stakes for the story than just Frank’s well-being. In addition to being part of his past and present, she also haunts his future.
When the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come takes Frank on his final journey, he sees Claire in the future as a version of herself that finally succumbed into Frank’s cynical worldview.
She’s an icy fashionista, dining at a monochromatic restaurant with smarmy, rich friends — scolding some homeless children who are seeking help.
“Claire, they’re just children,” one of her friends whispers.
“Don’t tell me,” Mean Claire snaps back. “I wasted twenty years of my life on pathetic little creatures like those. Finally, thank God, a friend of mine said to me: ‘Scrape ‘em off, Claire. You want to save someone? Save yourself.’”
Frank can barely speak as he watches. “I’m sorry, Claire …” his whispers.
In this version of A Christmas Carol, the Scrooge not only sees himself sinking into the abyss, he drags her down with him.
“That’s one of my favorite scenes because, I got to dress up like this Fellini character from 8½ and they made these bizarrely wonderful black and white costumes for us all and put tons of makeup on us,” Allen recalls. “If everything had gone wrong, that was who Claire would have become. It’s like Claire’s version of Frank Cross. This is her as the ladies who lunch, the evil women at the Fifth Avenue restaurant.”
Many of the sweeter moments were improvised by Allen and Murray, like the one above when he interrupts the dialogue to fuss with the buttons on her coat. Murray is renowned for ignoring scripts and doing things his own way when the cameras are rolling — one reason for the strained relationship with his filmmaker.
“Bill comes from that place where he’s constantly working on things and trying to perfect them and, I think what keeps things very vital and alive for him is that kind of improvisational quality of it — not so much learning the script word perfect,” Allen says.
“It was unusual for me because I love to rehearse, but Bill didn’t really like to rehearse. He never wanted to rehearse scenes, he wanted just to plow right into it. He’s a bit of an unstoppable force.”
Her job was to join in and throw her own curveballs, and although Donner was sometimes frustrated, Murray would eventually bring it back to where the filmmaker needed the scene to go.
“He would improvise and then sometimes he would have the ability to improvise his way right back into the scene as it was written,” Allen says. “He would be willing to say the words, but it was almost like he had to go away from them in order to be able to come back to them.”
In a way, that’s what happens to every Scrooge, isn’t it? You lose your way, but gradually find your way back.
You’re fortunate if you have a Claire (or a Belle) to guide you.