Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri. or Sat., Dec. 13, 14 or 15
When cable/satellite channel Turner Classic Movies (TCM) presents “Carol for Another Christmas” starting this week, it’ll be the first broadcast of Rod Serling’s quirky version of Dickens’ “Christmas Carol” in 48 years.
With an all-star cast, the 84-minute feature tells the familiar story with a subtext of global tensions. It showed just once, on Dec. 28, 1964, on ABC-TV – the year when other chilling movies about world affairs such as “Fail Safe” and “Dr. Strangelove” came out.
Described by critic Mitchell Hadley as “the most remarkable venture nobody ever heard of,” the film was the first of six planned movies sponsored by Xerox to promote the United Nations as an alternative to war on the UN’s 20th anniversary. Directed by Joseph Mankiewicz (“All About Eve,” “Guys and Dolls”), “Carol for Another Christmas” is classic Serling, the “Twilight Zone” writer whose edgy relevance, fantasy sequences and strange twists made Dickens fresh decades ago.
It’s still timely today.
“Carol for Another Christmas” is a Cold War version of the enduring tale, here with personalities as polarizing as peacenik veterans and right-wing-fringe types. A melancholy, embittered tycoon, Grudge, is spending another Christmas mourning his son, Marley, killed in action in World War II. After a visit by his nephew, during which Grudge scoffs at the notion of dialogue and understanding, the industrialist seems to see visions of his son then passes out, to be visited by three ghosts.
The spirits ply their redemptive grace, and the film ends with a measure of hope, a good feeling at a time of hate and fear, whether on the heels of the Cuban Missile Crisis or a time of Tea Parties.
Talking about the time it was made – months after Kennedy’s assassination and the escalation of the Vietnam War – Serling biographer Gordon Sander wrote, “For a liberal like Serling, that was a bleak year, and I think the program reflects that.”
Sterling Hayden portrays Grudge, supported by top-flight talent from the ’60s: Ben Gazzara, Eva Marie Saint, Robert Shaw, Pat Hingle, Steve Lawrence and Britt Ekland. Henry Mancini wrote the moving score.
However, Peter Sellers (right) is the standout as an extremist espousing individualism at the expense of everything else. His “Imperial Me” is a post-Apocalypse demagogue, arguably an eerie foreshadowing of current figures like Glenn Beck. Sellers’ character has a twisted nationalism seemingly built on prejudice and greed, warning a crowd about freedom and “immigrants”: “If we let them seep in here from down yonder and ‘cross river – if we let these do-gooders, these bleeding hearts, propagate their insidious doctrine of involvement among us – then, my dear friends, my beloved Me’s … We’s in trouble.”
Another fine performance comes from Lawrence (below), the singer who portrays the Ghost of Christmas Past as a world-weary doughboy who argues for diplomacy: “When we stop talking, we start swinging. Then we bleed. Then we got problems. Like winding up dead.”
Only four of the six UN-themed films were made after a campaign by the reactionary John Birch Society (which even conservative stalwart William F. Buckley described as having “views on current affairs [that] are … far removed from common sense”).
Talent that had originally agreed to participate in the series included filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock, composer Richard Rodgers, actor Omar Sharif and writer Eugene Burdick (author of “The Ugly American”).
Three other film were made: “Who Has Seen the Wind” (1965), starring Edward G. Robinson and Theodore Bikel in a story about refugees; “Once Upon a Tractor” (1965), starring Alan Bates and Melvyn Douglas in a tale of a man dealing with government aid; and “The Poppy is Also a Flower” (1966), written by Ian Fleming and starring Yul Brynner, Rita Hayworth and Eli Wallach, and narrated by Princess Grace Kelly, about drug trafficking. Only “The Poppy is Also a Flower” has been available on video – until this month, when TCM brings back “Carol for Another Christmas.”
“The film is a must-see,” writes blogger and author Lorraine LoBianco (“Korinth: A Tale of Zombies in the Old West”), “not just because it has not been generally available for nearly 50 years and contains a long-forgotten Peter Sellers performance, but because it is a reflection of both its time and the state of mind of one of television's most brilliant writers.”
“Carol for Another Christmas” also features Barbara Ann Teer, James Shigeta, Percy Rodrigues, Joe Santos and (only in a portrait since his scenes were cut) Peter Fonda.
In the New York Times in 2007, Thomas Vinciguerra commented, “Whether filmed in black and white or color, played straight or set to music, starring Alastair Sim or Mr. Magoo, this quintessential Christmas story is inescapable.”
TCM has scheduled the rarity to show Sunday, Dec. 16 at 7 p.m. (Central Time), repeating at 3:15 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 22 and 5:30 p.m. Tuesday March 26.
[Pictured: flyer from 2010 WIU Film Club screening, stills from Peter Sellers Appreciation Society and NamethatChristmasSpecial.com]