Comedy can be funny. Some of the biggest hits in movie history haven’t aged as well as they might’ve, because the jokes are too topical or their shtick has become played-out, or because what was commonly accepted as hilarious 50 years ago now seems offensive or overly broad. Meanwhile, some of moviedom’s biggest flops have showed surprising staying power, for the simple reason that they still make people laugh. Maybe their humor was too subtle to sink in the first time, or maybe they play better on a TV than they did in a theater. Whatever the reason, these movies endure, becoming reliable Saturday afternoon cable-fodder and home-video staples.
Both Three Amigos and Scrooged were largely considered disappointments on their respective 1986 and 1988 holiday releases. The Saturday Night Live star-factory had been knocking out one blockbuster after another for almost a decade, but just as the show itself was developing a (mistaken) reputation for being past its prime, so the cast’s movies were frequently being shrugged off as weak and weary. Neither Three Amigos nor Scrooged was a disaster, per se, but they weren’t as well-reviewed or financially successful as the likes of Animal House, Stripes, or Fletch. They found their biggest audience later, on VHS and TV, where they were watched and re-watched and quoted enthusiastically.
It’s not hard to understand why neither film connected right away. Three Amigos in particular is an odd little movie, sticking three boobish silent-movie western stars—played by Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, and Martin Short—in a small Mexican village, where the locals are convinced that these guys are real heroes who can help them fight off the treacherous “El Guapo.” Three Amigos’ depiction of Mexico is steeped in stereotypes, and whenever the Amigos themselves are off-screen, the movie lags. Plus, the story is set in an old-timey showbiz world that filmmakers and comedians often find more fascinating than civilians do. Director John Landis and his cast go in for gags about Lillian Gish’s sister Dorothy—who reportedly once told Short’s character, “Young man... you… have… got it!”—and bits where the boys sway backward in unison, Three Stooges-style, when their studio boss shouts at them.
But Martin’s script—co-written with SNL producer Lorne Michaels and songwriter Randy Newman—is full of inspired bits of comic business, such as Martin making a “lookuphere!” bird call to get his chums’ attention, Chase pouring water all over his face while his mates’ canteens are dry, and the Amigos summoning an invisible swordsman whom Chase accidentally shoots. The fun the actors clearly had while making this movie becomes pretty ingratiating—as do the oft-quoted lines about a “plethora of piñatas,” and how you can always spot a mail-plane by its “little balls.” (Also: “Sew, very old one… sew like the wind!”)
As for Scrooged, it has to overcome a shout-y tone and a muddled message. A manic Bill Murray plays a mean-spirited television executive who’s in the middle of producing a crass live telecast of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol—complete with Solid Gold Dancers and Mary Lou Retton as Tiny Tim—when his own personal ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future arrive to try and transform his miserable heart. Scrooged can never seem to decide whether TV is an inherently awful business or the source of fond family memories, and director Richard Donner’s heavy use of special effects seems to be a strained attempt to recapture the feel of Murray’s massive hit Ghostbusters. Michael O’Donoghue—the hard-edged SNL writer who co-wrote Scrooged with Mitch Glazer—disavowed the movie before he died, saying the script was much funnier than what ended up on the screen.
Yet Scrooged still more or less works. Credit Dickens, in part. The structure of the story takes Murray back to his youth, when he was a sweet-natured network assistant in love with idealistic hippie Karen Allen, and it introduces him to his secretary Alfre Woodard’s mute-but-brilliant son. All of which means that while Scrooged may be overbearing, when Murray reconnects with Allen during the Christmas Carol broadcast, and the little kid walks up and whispers, “God bless us every one?” Well, to quote David Johansen’s cab-driving Ghost Of Christmas Past: It’s “Niagara Falls.” And like Three Amigos, Scrooged is full of weird but funny little digressions, whether it’s Murray being smacked around by Carol Kane’s twittery Ghost Of Christmas Present, Murray doing an impromptu Richard Burton impression at a homeless shelter, or Murray looking down his Christmas list and mumbling, “towel… towel… VCR… towel.” This is why some comedies stick around: Because whenever they’re on TV, fans will sit through all the sludgy parts to get to that one great line.
Key features: A vintage promotional interview and deleted scenes on the Three Amigos Blu-ray; nothing on the Scrooged Blu-ray (not even the featurettes and Donner commentary track from the 2006 special-edition DVD).