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Christmas Specials & Holiday TV Shows
TCM's airing of Rod Serling's Carol for Another Christmas
reminds us why it's been "lost" for so long

by Mitchell Hadley

A couple of years or so ago, I wrote an article for TVParty! on a series of made-for-TV movies produced by the United Nations to commemorate the 25th anniversary of its founding. It was hailed at the time as a significant event in television, and yet today hardly anyone remembers it, including the UN itself. (I know, because I called a librarian at the UN and got the vocal equivalent of a blank stare when I asked her about it.)

My curiosity had been piqued by a TV Guide article about the first special in the series, Carol for Another Christmas, written by Rod Serling and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. It was broadcast for the first and only time on December 28, 1964 (since then it’s been available only at the Paley Center in New York, the UCLA archives, or in the bootleg market), and in the intervening 48 years it’s attracted something of a cult following, along the lines of “It’s Serling, for God’s sake!” Some even referred to it as a “lost classic.” The fact that most critics had said it wasn’t very good was almost beside the point for them.

So when TCM announced they’d be airing Carol for Another Christmas on December 16, I thought it might be a good idea to cut through the myth and rumor with a look at the actual movie. Fortunately Billy agreed, and so here we are.

***

First a brief synopsis: It is Christmas Eve, and the industrialist Daniel Grudge (Stewart Granger), Serling’s version of Ebenezer Scrooge, is arguing with his nephew Fred (Ben Gazarra) over politics. Fred is an internationalist who believes that only increased dialogue between nations can prevent another war; Grudge, a Cold War isolationist, is suspicious of the Eastern bloc and believes the U.S. should stay out of international affairs. However, Grudge also remains in bitter mourning for his only son Marley, who died on Christmas Eve during World War II.

After Fred leaves, Grudge sees brief images of Marley in a door pane and then at the dining room table. * Grudge then finds himself on a troop ship, talking with the Ghost of Christmas Past (Steve Lawrence). The spectre lectures Grudge on the importance of diplomacy, telling him that when talking ends, fighting begins, and the dead follow. He takes Grudge back to a Christmas Eve when he and a Navy WAVE (Eva Marie Saint) visited a hospital in post-bomb Hiroshima, and are introduced by a doctor to children who were horribly burned by the bomb, but Grudge refused to allow himself to be moved.

*Peter Fonda played Marley, but his scenes would up on the cutting room floor. I don’t know if those quick glimpses are of him, but he’s still recognizable in the portrait that hangs in Grudge’s study.

Grunge then meets Pat Hingle, the gluttonous Ghost of Christmas Present, stuffing his face at an immense, food-filled table (Grudge recognizes it as his own) while in the background refugees sit in poverty behind barbed wire fences. Grudge deplores this conduct – how can he sit there eating while people are starving? The ghost responds by accusing the isolationist Grudge of hypocrisy; when Grudge’s insists that people do something about misery when they see it; the ghost snaps his fingers, making the scene disappear, and tells Grudge that even when you can’t see misery, it still exists.

Finally, Grudge meets up with the Ghost of Christmas Future (Robert Shaw), who shows him the new leader of a post- apocalyptic world, “Imperial Me” (Peter Sellers), who preaches that self-interest is the only important thing. “Each behind his own fence! Each behind his own barricade! Follow me, my friends and loved ones, to the perfect society! The Civilization of ‘I’!” Grudge’s butler (Percy Rodriguez) pleads for brotherhood and humanity, but is killed by a little boy holding a huge gun. Imperial Me concludes by telling his supporters that the “Civilization of ‘I’” will come about only when everyone is eliminated, save one person. The crowd, whipped into a frenzy, cheer wildly – scarcely aware of what this will mean to their own survival.

Suddenly Grudge is back in his study. It is Christmas morning, and Fred knocks at the door; it seems Grudge had called him about 3 am and asked him to stop by on the way to church. Grudge apologizes for last night, and allows as to how the United Nations may not be the final answer, but at least it’s a start. He then takes his morning coffee not in his room, but in the kitchen with his butler and maid, while they listen to a children’s choir singing Christmas carols from the UN. Roll credits.

***

So what do we make of this? Despite the negative reviews that had come out at the time, I was willing to set it all aside and judge it not on rumor or hearsay, but fact. That lasted through the opening credits and the initial, suitably dark scene, until the dialogue started. It was all downhill from there.

Your feelings about the questions debated in the story probably depend on your own political beliefs. Serling and Mankiewicz were political liberals, deeply committed to the United Nations and its mission. Having said that, even liberals will be put off by the shrillness of the script and the paper-thin one-dimensional characters. From the first, the movie plays like a bad version of a bad Twilight Zone episode (and, for all the greatness of that series, there were many). Marc Scott Zicree, author of The Twilight Zone Companion <http://www.amazon.com/Twilight-Zone-Companion-Scott-Zicree/dp/1879505096> , said that “Serling has two poles in his writing. There’s his powerful, human-oriented writing, and his very didactic writing, and ‘Carol’ falls on the didactic side.” These characters are really “caricatures”, figureheads for Serling’s political polemics. They don’t talk to each other, but at each other. As a critic once said of a Serling-penned Twilight Zone script, it sounded like a bunch of Rod Serlings sitting around a table talking to each other.

Serling is done no favors by the stiff performance of Stewart Granger as Grudge. Yes, Mankiewicz probably told him to play Grudge as a cold, uncaring, unfeeling man who’d shut himself off from the rest of the world – but there’s a big difference between that and being in a coma. Case in point: Grudge, finding himself suddenly onboard a WWI troop ship talking with a ghost, acts as if this might be completely normal, albeit unconventional. There’s no sense of surprise, nor even a confused glance around. Me, I’d be asking myself – and anyone else within earshot – “Where the hell am I? What the hell just happened?” With few exceptions, Granger continues this performance throughout the movie. Gazarra isn’t much better, but then he really isn’t in it all that much.

Far better are the performances of two of the three Ghosts. As Christmas Past, Steve Lawrence is a surprise (or would have been, had I not been forewarned). He’s very good in this role; there was something world-weary about both his appearance and his speech, as he alternated between a condescending patience with Grunge’s rhetoric and a from-the-grave condemnation of his insular worldview. At least his character shows some personality.

Pat Hingle, as Christmas Present, was less effective. I’ve never really been a fan of his, so that could have colored it; yet I kept coming back to Edward Woodward’s brilliant portrayal of the Ghost in 1984’s George C. Scott Christmas Carol. Woodward could cajole, mock, ridicule, criticize and taunt, and although many of these emotions are similar, he was able to give slightly different shadings to each one. Hingle displayed none of this nuance. It was, perhaps, the right thing to do given what he had to work with, but it still falls short.

That an actor can rise above his material was particularly evident in looking at Robert Shaw’s brilliant Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. This is often a non-speaking role in traditional Carol adaptations, but it would have been impossible in this case. Shaw, whose appearance suggested both a hooded monk and a stern judge, delivered a performance of great dignity, far greater than what his lines deserved. He conveyed menace, sadness, anger and resignation.

As for Peter Sellers – I know some have praised his work in this film, but I’m not going to be one of them. His hammy, over-the-top performance as “Imperial Me” was in sharp contrast to Shaw’s ghost, and while I know that true evil can often be laughable at the same time, it can also be subtlety and innocuous. On the other hand, he was the only member of the cast who really seemed to be enjoying himself, so maybe we should cut him a little slack for that.

There is much good to say about the technical side of Carol. Camera shots are often startling and disorienting, almost expressionistic. (If you ever want to know what Bergman’s version of Christmas Carol might have looked like, you could do worse than this.) Likewise, the incidental music was absolutely appropriate – underscoring, rather than telegraphing, the action on the screen, it lent an eerie, ominous dimension to the story that far too many traditional Christmas Carol’s fail to do.

If there’s one word to describe Carol for Another Christmas, it would be frustrating. One gets a sense that this could have been a truly new and innovative take on the traditional story, if only Serling and Mankiewicz had had the confidence of their convictions. Instead they beat the viewer over the head at every opportunity; rather than promoting global understanding, they more likely promoted an increase in sales of bandages for head wounds.

Perhaps the best way for this story to be told would have been to pair Serling with another writer, one more conservative in his politics, and let each of them write from their own viewpoint. The resulting script might have offered honest, intelligent dialogue about why people feel the way they do. It would, in fact, have been much like the image Serling presents of the UN: talk instead of war.

This does answer one question for me, however. Why, I’d always wondered, did ABC wait until December 28 to air a Christmas special? Was it evidence that the Christmas season truly did extend until New Year’s?

No. It’s more likely the network didn’t want to depress its viewers into committing suicide before they had a chance to buy a sponsor’s products.

***

So at last Carol for Another Christmas has emerged from the shadows of myth, and you might think there isn’t much more to say. But that’s not quite true.

During the opening credits I had the immediate sense that something was wrong, or at least not right. For one thing, the graphics themselves didn’t look original – they looked as if they’d been superimposed over the film, rather than being part of the print itself. And then there was the music: not what I heard, but what I didn’t hear. Henry Mancini was widely praised for the theme to Carol for Another Christmas, and while it isn’t one of the bigger Christmas sellers, you can still hear it from time to time on the radio or CD. Here’s what it sounds like.



Now, for those of you who watched Carol on TCM, did you hear that piece during the movie? Neither did I.

And this is a mystery. I’d figured the theme would have been used for either the opening or closing credit scene; instead, for each we were given a series of Christmas carols by a children’s choir. Combined with the strange look of the opening graphics, I’m convinced that this movie was altered from its original presentation, and Mancini’s theme was deleted in favor of the carols. Perhaps it has something to do with music clearance – at least, that’s all I can think of to explain the removal of a commercially available, praised piece of music. I assume that the rest of the score is original – but who knows? And it does seem to be a fairly slight contribution for a composer of such renown.

So maybe my research isn’t done after all. Maybe I’ll have to travel to the Paley Center, or buy a DVD off the grey market, to get to the bottom of it. Or maybe someone who’s seen both the original and the TCM version can fill us in.

In introducing Carol for Another Christmas, TCM host Robert Osborne noted that it had been controversial in its original airing, and might still be today. On that, I think we can all agree.


Update: My suspicions have now been verified by two sources: Zachary Kelley, who provided an extensive review of Carol a couple of years ago, told me that the copy he had watched did contain Mancini's theme, and that the credits did not have the superimposed, added-at-a-later-date look

And Chip Arcuri, at the wonderful Yule Log site (and if you've never gone there, make it your mission between now and next Christmas) confirms that not only was Mancini's theme missing from the opening title montage, his name was deleted from the credits, and nobody knows why. On the Yule Log message board he posts:
I spoke with Felice Mancini tonight and she told me that she has absolutely no idea why her father's music was removed from TCM's print of the film. She's especially disappointed because it's one of her favorites of her father tunes. She's going check into it to see why this happened.
So while we've solved one mystery - seeing the long-ago show - we've created another one. Somehow I suspect that Dickens, who wrote those "scary ghost stories of Christmases long ago" that Andy Williams sings about in "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year," would be amused by the whole thing.

 

***

When he's not watching old Christmas specials, Mitchell Hadley writes about classic television at ItsAboutTV.com.

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