A Carol for Another Christmas: 50 Years Later

Christmaspresent1

Dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1964.

Note: this contains spoilers, but then again it’s based on A Christmas Carol so you probably know what’s going to happen.

This Christmas Eve I was sitting with my parents looking for something Christmas related to watch On Demand. It started out as a search for something genially campy or silly to serve as ambiance to other activities, but then I came across a curious listing under Turner Classic Movies; a 1964 version of A Christmas Carol penned by Rod Serling, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (his only TV work), and starring Sterling Hayden, Ben Gazzara, and Peter Sellers, among many more. Occasionally, I’ve come across movies that seem like, for some reason or another, they should be better known, and this seemed like a prime example of one of those. It turns out that ACFAC was aired only once, on Dec. 28th 1964. Given its political content that’s one more time than I had expected, but I’ll get to that later. It was produced by the Xerox corporation to promote the United Nations and even advertised as a “United Nations Special.” It was not commercially available until last year, when it aired on TCM. I’m sure there were probably some people who remembered watching it, and for years tried to convince people that what they described actually aired on TV and was not a dream or the result of too much egg nog; that’s one of the lost charms and frustrations about live TV (its temporary nature, not the egg nog).

In their 15th Season Christmas episode (the obviously titled “‘Tis the Fifteenth Season’), after Homer has a life-changing experience watching Mr. Magrew’s Christmas Special, Bart notes that “lazy TV writers” have been mining A Christmas Carol for years and then shows examples from Family Matters and Star Trek. For any long-running TV show there’s a good chance that there is probably not only a Christmas episode, but also a Christmas Carol episode (the Simpsons have a couple of them-the throw-away gag with Mr. Burns in the Funzo episode, arguably their finest Christmas episode, being the best). I guess it’s fitting; Dicken’s tale in many ways is responsible for the holiday we know and celebrate as Christmas today, and in other ways it’s the first modern ghost story so it’s responsible for a large swatch of our modern generic storytelling. But templates are also helpful because they allow for deviation. And Serling’s A Carol for Another Christmas uses the standard template to take the tale to new, compelling places.

When I was in 7th grade, Serling was my hero. I was a sci-fi buff, and an aspiring writer, and there’s something about the Twilight Zone that is perfect for someone who is just discovering or attempting to use parable, allegory, and poetic justice. This isn’t to say that the episodes are always simple or didactic, though some are, but there was an added attractive element of rebelliousness or genius in how Serling got away with tackling contentious social issues on television under the thinly veiled disguise of science fiction. But the purpose of his Christmas Carol is not at all thinly veiled. This is Serling at his most political, his most pontifical, and most indignant.

The premise of A Carol for Another Christmas is that Mr. Grudge (Hayden), a powerful jingoistic conservative leader, is visited by his liberal history professor nephew Daniel (Gazzara) on Christmas Eve. Daniel is upset that Grudge has blocked the teaching exchange of a Polish professor of literature. Grudge attacks Daniel for what he sees as bleeding heart naivety and gives his philosophy that the United States shouldn’t help the rest of the world, that it’s the fault of the less-fortunate that they haven’t succeeded, and that the best thing that America can do is to build faster bombers and bigger bombs and tell the rest of the world that we’re “not to chicken to use them.” It is soon revealed that Grudge’s son Marley was a soldier who was killed on Christmas Eve; a loss from which Grudge never recovered and has informed his philosophies.

After Daniel leaves, Grudge thinks he see’s Marley, and in a really effective horror film set-up involving a record player is carried away to foggy troop transport carrying the caskets of fallen soldiers covered by the flags of many nations, surrounded by armed soldiers from different eras. Here, Grudge encounters the Ghost of Christmas past: a harmonica playing WW1 soldier who gives a rather long speech attempting to challenge Grudge’s isolationism. This first encounter is the weakest of the film, composed entirely of Grudge and the Ghost arguing. The two make many of the same points over and over again, and the reveal, that the dead soldiers of wars are forever on a River-Styx like flotilla of transports, isn’t enough to add much dramatic tension. It’s also the part that has held up the least, or was the most uncomfortable for me to watch. The entire thesis of the film is that with the advent of Nuclear and Hydrogen bombs that the next war will most likely mean the destructive end of humanity and that dialogue and cooperation between nations and communities, on any level, will help to prevent the apocalypse (the title can be read as a carol so that we will live to see another Christmas, or future Christmases. This was a salient argument to make, and still an important point even though  any possibility of nuclear destruction we liver under now is more by accident and not threat (despite North Korea’s best imaginings). However, Serling’s impassioned plea for the US to intervene to help alleviate the suffering of the world, presented with all of this military imagery, seems reckless being made just prior to the escalation of the Vietnam war and from American interventions from that time to the War on Terror where American interests were often perpetuated under the guise of intervening on behalf of a distressed people or to prevent wholesale destruction.

The Ghost of Christmas Past then takes Grudge to Hiroshima. It turns out that Grudge, and an unnamed WAVE (Eva Marie Saint), were in Hiroshima after the bomb fell. In this scene they visit a children’s hospital. As I said earlier, Serling isn’t holding anything back. While the politics of Serling’s foreign policy ideas in the previous scene may have been a bit confusing, this scene reveals his central hermeneutic: that suffering is suffering, and the suffering by one humanity, diminishes the humanity of us all. Grudge attempts, poorly, to comfort the WAVE with the “calculus” or war, that the decision to drop the bomb may have saved American lives. The contrast of Grudge’s speech made in the ruins of Hiroshima, adjacent to severely burned children, and a lost orphan child, suggests that life is life and that the calculus that Grudge uses has a problematic foundation: that one life is not worth more than another; the troop transport was carrying the bodies of all soldiers, not just American ones.

Following this scene, Grudge makes his way to meet The Ghost of Christmas Present, Pat Hingle. As usual, this ghost is presented at a large table feasting on food. Yet, he reveals a startling twist. He is eating in front of displaced refugees, standing cold and hungry, behind barbed-wire. The scene is similar to the famous scene in The Five Obstructions, and presents a similar question and problem. Why was Grudge able to enjoy plenty when he didn’t notice the refugees, but suddenly found the feast profane once they were revealed? The staging of this scene is rather clever, an instance where the limitations of television and budget required an ingenuity in staging. In a disheartening moment, The Ghost of Christmas Past provides a litany of statistics about hunger, refugees, famine, and illness throughout the world.  I say disheartening because I’m pretty sure that aside from the statistic about people dying of Malaria, I’m rather sure that all of them have gone up in the subsequent 5 decades.

Following a very Twilight Zone-esque escape attempt, Grudge finds himself encountering the third and final ghost, The Ghost of Christmas Future (Robert Shaw). This is the most interesting part of the film for a number of historical, formal, and thematic reasons. The setting is a dilapidated town hall years after the H-bombs fell. Into this post-apocalyptic setting comes The Imperial Me, Peter Sellers in Cowboy Boots, Pilgrim shirt and oversized cowboy hat with a Me on it (he’s carried in on a saddle carried by 4 guys in football uniforms). The preceding Ghost mitigates the tonal shift, but compared to were the film starts, it’s almost like watching Fail Safe, and suddenly Dr. Strangelove breaks out.  This is a perfect role for Sellers, one he plays with great zeal. The scene is reminiscent of two later scenes, the council meeting in the “Fall Out” episode of The Prisoner, and the cult in Beneath the Planet of the Apes (Serling would write the original film), and the recycled and confused way that this society uses and understands the signs of the old world predict Fando y Lis and Lester’s The Bed Sitting Room. This scene also feels ahead of its time because it resembles avant-garde theater that wouldn’t gain widespread popularity until later in the decade. The philosophy of the Imperial Me is an absurdist take on a collective narcissism, the goal of which is to eliminate everyone who is not Me until We are all I. During the proceedings Grudge’s butler Charles (Percy Rodriguez), stands to attempt to reason with the mob. He is then, in a very darkly comic scene, assassinated by a young boy dressed as a cowboy.

I mentioned that I was surprised that the film aired at all. Part of that was because of the politics of the film, and the Hiroshima scene. But there is another reason, and it was one that got Serling into trouble before and resulted in one of his teleplays not being unaired: and that is race. If this film aired today it would be noted for its diverse cast: James Shigeta plays a doctor, and there are a number of African-American actors who appear in the town hall. If the message wouldn’t have been, the casting in this film would have undoubtedly been challenging for viewers in 1964. His use of Charles demonstrates Serling’s savvy ability to write into his stories subjects that wouldn’t otherwise be acceptable on television. Charles, as Grudge’s Butler in the present but voice of reason in the future, allows for the final scene, of Grudge extending some kindness to Charles upon waking to demonstrate he has changed; every Christmas Carol needs its Scrooge to lighten his employee’s load. But it also works on another level. In the current society, Charles is limited in his choice of career. But in another world, albeit changed by cataclysmic destruction, Charles is the powerful spokesperson for democracy.

In that last paragraph I mentioned that Grudge extends kindness to Charles. But that’s debatable. In fact, given Serling’s love of twist endings and poetic justice, it’s surprising that this film is purposely ambiguous in the end. Grudge does not make a dash through the streets wishing people Merry Christmas, or rush to work to make some sweeping policy change. Instead, while it appears that he was shaken by his visitations, it’s unclear how much Grudge will actually change. He calls, and confesses to his nephew that he may have been right about cooperation between nations, but does not allow the professor exchange to go through. He tells Charles that he doesn’t have to take his breakfast to him, that he will eat in the kitchen but he doesn’t let Charles off work for the day. The only tangible change we see is that he turns on the radio to listen to the UN Children’s Choir sing Christmas Carols. This ambiguity is also surprising given television’s need for resolution, especially as its understood at this stage in its development. But the final image of Grudge that lingers through the credits, makes perfect sense. If the purpose of the film was to call its audience to action, to create grassroots support for international dialogue and understanding through the auspices of various UN organizations, then you can’t really have Grudge suddenly fix major problems in the world; that would let the audience off the hook. It speaks to the film’s  confidence, a confidence that allows it to be effective, haunting, weird, immediate, passionate, and sincere.

In 2008, David Zucker made a conservative (though it always irks me to call contemporary conservatism “conservative,” but that’s a whole other thing) film adaptation of Dickens’ story called An American Carol. It was widely derided (it’s at 11% on Rotten Tomatoes) and I am often uncomfortable by liberal critics who tend to write off films because of politics, but it is also the case that political films of that sort are more dogmatically preaching to the choir than effective rhetorical arguments. And it would be too simple and sloppy to consider it as a conservative version of Serling’s film. Serling’s politics are obvious but what he is calling for is dialogue; for conversation, not for conversion. Grudge, unlike even some portraits of Scrooge, is not cartoonishly unlikeable. Serling challenges his politics but does not diminish his convictions.

But what does this have to do with Christmas, aside from it’s setting and the story it is adapting? Airing on Dec. 28th suggests the rather tentative nature of the film to Christmas itself on its surface. In the Hiroshima scene, as Grudge and the WAVE begin to leave, Saint recites Matthew 25:35: “For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in.” The other instance of a Christmas occurs in the second scene as the displaced refugees sing Christmas carols in their native tongues. One is reminded that Christ himself was at one time a refugee.  The film implies that Christianity and policy are linked; that a Christian cannot follow Christ’s admonitions to help the poor and suffering and then engage in policies that allow for wholesale suffering or destruction. This is not said nearly as directly as its political themes about international cooperation, and that is a good thing; it works better in subtlety.

There are conflicting and counterintuitive mythologies about our present era of television, and of Serling’s more classic period. As seen in something like Good Night and Good Luck, or in The Newsroom, there is a liberal romanticizing about television news from this period, and extended from that the idea that television could perform a valuable public service. That Serling’s Carol, an unabashedly liberal film could air on network television perhaps fits in to that romanticized view of 1960’s TV. But this isn’t a news or public program. This was a commercially funded work of fiction; a TV Movie (even for film, Zucker’s Carol wasn’t funded by a major, multi-national studio but funded independently). We tend to think that today, TV is freer to show or do things than its ever been. But once A Carol, complicates that view. A movie like this would never air, let alone be funded by a multinational conglomeration to air of network television today. In recent years politically-based films like The Reagans was pulled, the Hillary Clinton film was axed, and the Kennedy film was dumped onto some network that nobody gets or has ever heard of. And those are relatively banal works. Could you imagine one of the major networks, or even a pay cable company making a version of A Christmas Carol where a thinly veiled Koch Brother was shown the errors of his ways, because this is basically what Serling is doing…in 1964, on ABC. I am not sure if this means that writers and producers are far less interested in writing political television, if Serling’s methods would be considered far too didactic and archaic for modern writers, or if the way TV is funded now makes such efforts impossible; it’s probably a little of all-three. But what A Carol for Another Christmas exhibits is an adventurous and challenging potential use of television that either was only available for a short window or has yet to be fully realized.

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