A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

A ‘Twilight Zone’ version of ‘A Christmas Carol’

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., Dec. 15, 16 or 17

At a time when international relations are strained by ISIS atrocities and disclosures of CIA torture, by anxieties about nuclear weapons in the hands of North Korea or Middle East countries, and by dystopian fears from Ebola to climate change, reminders of Bigger Things help – especially during dark December facing the bright promise of Christmas and other holidays.

So it’s recommended to watch or record cable/satellite channel Turner Classic Movies’ presentation of “Carol for Another Christmas” at 11:45 p.m. Thursday (Dec. 18).

It’s the 50th anniversary of Rod Serling’s quirky version of Dickens’ “Christmas Carol.”

With an all-star cast, the 84-minute feature tells the familiar story, except with a subtext of global tensions. Until 2012, it had been telecast 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. Directed by Joseph Mankiewicz (“All About Eve”), “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 still resonates with lessons about power and profits, fear and loss, and love and war.

“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 grieving over 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, and then he passes out, only to be visited by three ghosts.

The spirits work their redemptive grace, and the film ends with a measure of hope, a good feeling at a time of hate and dread, whether on the heels of the Cuban Missile Crisis or a time of the Tea Party.

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. The program reflects that.”

Sterling Hayden portrays Grudge, supported by top talent from the ’60s: Ben Gazzara, Eva Marie Saint, Robert Shaw, Pat Hingle, Steve Lawrence and Britt Ekland. Henry Mancini wrote the score.

However, Peter Sellers is the standout as an extremist espousing individualism at the expense of everything else. His “Imperial Me” is a post-Apocalypse demagogue with 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, the singer who portrays the Ghost of Christmas Past as a weary World War I 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 right-wing John Birch Society. The others were “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.

Writing about “Carol for Another Christmas,” author Lorraine LoBianco (“Letters by Jean Renoir”) says, “The film is a must-see, not just because it … 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.

Watch it and wonder: Has much changed in 50 years – or 2,000?

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