The End of the World has, once again, come and gone. Worrying over a calendar made by people not known for their prophetic inclinations may be silly and irresponsible-- but an apocalypse, the destruction of, at least, the world we know and can comfortably inhabit, remains a possibility. That fear has not disappeared though, during the Cold War, it stalked us in a way the present generation cannot imagine. And for Christmas, 1964, North American television audiences received a variation of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" rewritten with that fear in mind.
By 1964, the media had already adapted Dickens' familiar tale many times, but its application to new contexts remained a fresh idea. When Rod Serling and Joseph L. Mankiewicz created Carol for Another Christmas, they were ahead of the curve, and no one has quite caught up. We've since watched every cartoon franchise and long-running sitcom get Scrooged, but none of them has attempted anything like Serling and Mankiewicz's bizarre, nightmarish vision. And no one got to see it again, either, until 2012, when TCM rebroadcast it for the first time in more than forty years. If it hasn't quite held up, portions of it remain compelling.
At the height of the Cold War, a wealthy American, Daniel Grudge1 (Sterling Hayden) supports a policy of strict isolationism, and the aiming of weapons at anyone who dares challenge it. He dismisses his college-professor nephew, Fred (Ben Gazzara), who challenges that view as untenable in the modern era. Of course, Grudge doesn't consider at all the views of his Cratchit-like servants, Charles (Peter Rodrigues)and Ruby (Barbara Ann Teer).
Then on Christmas Eve– the anniversary of his son, Marley's, death– some spirits show him the past, present, and a terrifically grim future.
The vision of the future plays like a classic Star Trek episode crossed with Theatre of the Absurd. It entertains, in its own disturbing fashion, with Peter Sellers holding court as "Imperial Me." Nobody does crazy like Peter Sellers. Rodriques as future Charles gives his strongest performance in this segment, which bears only the briefest resemblance to Dickens' original. Mankiewicz, limited by the budget, makes excellent use of stagecraft to suggest location and evoke moods.
Other segments have their moments. Steve Lawrence proves surprisingly effective as the Ghost of Christmas Past. The actors, however, must make up for both limitations of set and an excessively verbose script. Few writers can touch Serling's success in the mass media but, in his weaker moments, dialogue becomes tortuous and unbelievable. This film has quite a few of his weaker moments.
Dickens wrote a story both entertaining and didactic. Wedded to a polemic about the Cold War, international relations, and nuclear annihilation, it becomes excessively didactic. It's not that I disagree with any particular point-—the screenplay itself recognizes that our global problems lack easy solutions—-but the dramatization of those questions need not be quite so ranty. The encounter with Christmas Present, in particular, is preachy with a side of preachiness, served up at the Preach-tree Café on Preacher Street.
Even without the Cold War looming, many of the questions relevant to 1964 have not lost their significance. In 1964, overly isolationist America had already given way to overly interventionist America of the "constitution? What constitution?" variety. That problem hasn't improved much. Never mind. The bigger problems remain. We still possess enough destructive power to eliminate ourselves. We still tend to behave as though our lifestyle has no effect elsewhere, when we know otherwise. We still face problems without easy solutions, and too little willingness to discuss them.
But we have continued to limp along, year after year, Christmas to Christmas. And, for all this project's flaws, I am impressed that television once gathered this kind of talent to address pressing issues through sincere drama.
Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Written by Rod Serling. Loosely based on the story by Charles Dickens.
Sterling Hayden as Daniel Grudge
Ben Gazzara as Fred
Barbara Ann Teer as Ruby
Peter Rodrigues as Charles
Steve Lawrence as the Ghost of Christmas Past
Pat Hingle as the Ghost of Christmas Present
Robert Shaw as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come
Peter Sellers as Imperial Me
Eva Marie Saint as Lt. Gibson
James Shigeta as the Doctor
Britt Ekland as Mother
Gordon Spencer as Marley
Joe Santos as 32
Peter Fonda as not listed because, apparently, whatever he did in this film, it ended up on the cutting room floor. I've been told he played Marley, but his scenes were cut.
1. Originally, Serling had named the Scrooge substitute "Barnaby Grudge" or, "B. Grudge." The network forced him to change the name, as they believed a character with the initials B.G. would be viewed as an attack on Barry Goldwater, and that wouldn't be appropriate.
Television has changed.