Crossing the Streams – Harold Ramis, from Egon to Puxatawney Phil

Crossing the Streams – Harold Ramis, from Egon to Puxatawney Phil

It was with great sadness that I learned today of the death of the actor and director Harold Ramis at the age of 69.

Another fallen soul from a childhood which seems to recede ever quicker into the depths of my memory.

Like many quadragenerians on both sides of the Atlantic, Ramis will forever be immortalised in the guise of Dr Egon Spengler – the quiet, nerdy and clearly most intelligent of New York’s finest paranormal investigators and eliminators; The Ghostbusters.

Harold Ramis

With his thin rimmed spectacles, high hair and funny little PKE ghost-detecting doodad with the little arms, Egon, along with Ray (Dan Ackroyd), Winston (Ernie Hudson) and the delightfully laconic Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) became one of the great icons of 80s cinema as they raced the streets of Manhattan in their converted hearse (ambulance?), battling slimy apparitions, weird devil dogs, unsettlingly sexy demons and enormous marshmallow-based monsters.

And they had a wicked theme tune which was, frankly, impossible not to sing along with when singer Ray Parker Jnr enquired about who we should call.

Going to see Ghostbusters for a friend’s birthday in November 1984 is a treasured memory of my childhood, a celebration of being a kid on the cusp of high school, a celebration of friendship, the 1980s and as powerful a symbol about the unbridled joy of the cinema that it’s possible to conceive.

And it’s why Harold Ramis is, and forever will be Dr Egon Spengler – the one who told us not to cross the streams and the one who, later on – did.


All of the above is a personal memory, a personal tribute to an icon of my own experiences of youth – nothing more perhaps than a bit of a ‘when I were lad’ type thing.

Because, I hope and sincerely believe, Ramis will be remembered not just for his ghostly grappling but also, as the man who brought to life a film that will rank as one of the great romantic comedies, and indeed one of the great films, of all time.

I refer, of course, to Groundhog Day.

When Groundhog Day is mentioned, the name most synonymous with it is that of the other Ghostbuster, Bill Murray. And, I suppose, rightly so; Murray is really quite brilliant as the sourly sarcastic weatherman Phil Conners in the film. In fact, Murray is generally brilliant in everything.

But it’s his old busting pal Ramis to whom the job went for directing this genuine modern classic. And for that, his legend should be cemented in Hollywood’s pantheon.

Groundhog Day is, on the ever changing top 250 list of best ever films (at currently sitting at #216. So, quite a few films ahead of it then. One of which, at an impressively high #26 is the Capra classic and Christmas favourite, It’s A Wonderful Life.

Now, I love It’s A Wonderful Life – in fact, I’d say it’s a wonderful film. Beautifully directed with a toweringly moving performance from leading man James Stewart; a film that is deceptively dark and at times quite tragic before delivering it’s tearfully sweet payoff finale.

For me, Groundhog Day is a film that owes much to the legacy of Capra’s masterpiece, and which, quite remarkably in my opinion, goes on to surpass it.

And I pay that compliment not very lightly indeed, I assure you.

There is a real and lasting filmic genius to Groundhog Day – it’s a film which stays with you, begging for repeat viewings and differing reactions. Which is sort of apt, given the plot.

Phil Conners is the grumpy, world-weary weatherman who has to head, in the company of cheery producer Rita (Andie McDowell) and cameraman Larry (Chris Elliot) to the small town of Puxatawney in Pennsylvania to cover the annual Groundhog Festival in which the town-folk gather to see if resident ‘hog, Puxatawney Phil will see his shadow and condemn all to an extra 6 weeks of winter.

Naturally, Phil finds the whole palaver painfully twee and has no qualms about making his lack of enthusiasm known.

It’s a standard kind of rom-com set-up in a film that is anything but standard. Because, from this set-up we follow the plight – and it really is a plight- of Phil who finds that he’s living out the exact same day over and over again.

Phil wakes at exactly 6am on February 2nd, to the same song – Sonny & Cher’s ‘I Got You Babe’, the same inane radio DJ banter, the same view from the window.

He has the same encounters, the same conversations, same chance meetings – same old same old routine in this picturesque Pennsylvanian town. And, in doing so, we watch as Phil moves through varying stages of crisis, melancholy, mischief, narcissism and, eventual educated redemption.

It’s a rom-com at heart, but a film that can be seen, in turn, as a spiritual journey, a sugar-coated delve into psycho-analysis, a cultural essay on the monotony of modern life or a weird Nietzschean odyssey.

And, despite all of this, it is at every step, very very funny.

This of course is down to Murray’s performance – much as he did in Scrooged, he is simply brilliant at making a bit of a bastard completely likeable. But it’s the script of Danny Rubin and Ramis which offers such rich material for Murray to shine, along with Ramis’ directorial eye allowing him to give his pal licence to take it up to 11.

Funny yes, but like Wonderful Life, there is a real darkness to the journey the hero must take. We see how quickly he descends from patronising smart-ass to manic depressive; from willing loner to lonely; a man with a God complex coming to learn that he’s not a God. As Sonny & Cher burst back into life, or as the Polka band starts back up, so the music whirls around Phil in an ever more mocking manner.

We don’t definitively know how many February 2nds Phil lives through – in the DVD of the movie, Ramis suggests that the original idea was that he’d been alive thousands of years and, while almost certainly that’s not the case, the inference throughout is that it’s a long time. Long enough to know precisely who everyone is, what will happen in the town at any given second, to become a master pianist and sculptor and, in adding the ‘rom’ to the ‘com’, to fall deeply in love with Rita.

And yet, where so many of these genre films fall into the trap of gushing sentiment with a hero who’s changed his ways or grown as a person as they move towards their inevitable climax, so Groundhog Day beautifully handles the delicate path. Love may win out but don’t count on a Murray-inspired Phil to have lost his bristle – it’s just put to more conciliatory effect as he begins to see the potential of the world anew.

Groundhog Day is now more than twenty years old. Since it came out, the very name of the film has slipped into popular usage. Anything of a repetitive nature in our lives is like Groundhog Day. Puxatawney is a tourist attraction and even the kerb from which Murray steps into a puddle has its own plaque (albeit in Woodstock, Illinois which doubled for the town).

It’s a classic film, a, quite literally, timeless film; a film which, like It’s A Wonderful Life, will live on and be enjoyed for years to come and which, if there’s any justice in the business of show, will be a fitting legacy for the late, great Dr Egon Spengler.

Harold Ramis: actor, director, writer (1944-2014)

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