A Carol for Another Christmas was the first in a series of television specials commissioned by the United Nations to promote and educate viewers about its mission. With an elevator pitch like that we can’t go wrong, can we? Can we? Can we?
Turns out we can’t, this was pretty good. Horribly depressing but good.
A lot of very talented people worked on this. It was directed and produced by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, written by Rod Serling, with music by Henry Mancini, and starring Sterling Hayden and Peter Sellers among many others.
There’s a lot to dissect. It’s bleak, it’s political and it’s heavily didactic. It makes George Bernard Shaw look like Roy Chubby Brown. I shall warn you, this blog post will be extremely light on jokes. If you want jokes I suggest going back to #5 and rereading that. (You are reading these in order as they come out, right?)
The film takes its time to establish itself and over the first four minutes we get four extended sequences. The first is a series of outside wintertime establishing shots. The second follows Charles, an African-American butler, as he tends to his duties around a mansion. As you can see, the table is set for two. The third sees a solemn figure sitting in total darkness listening to upbeat wartime music. In the fourth we see him wring his hands as he pores over a collection of medals and old photographs. With no narrator or dialogue we have already established a few of essential facts about what is obviously our Scrooge.
He is more alone than he wants to be, he is wealthy, and he has a relationship with the military. This film was made at the height of the Cold War so will it be about The Bomb?
You might be thinking that Charles the Butler is our Bob Cratchit. Well you’d be quite wrong, you absolute moron. We get Fred, Scrooge, a bit of Marley, the spirits and that’s it, very little of the original story remains. We also get a hospital scene where some children, in the aftermath of Hiroshima, are shown to have literally had their faces melted off. I’m fairly sure that was in early drafts of the Dickens.
This version of Fred might be my favourite version of Fred. He’s more solemn, isn’t simply a vessel for bonhomie, and sounds like Bing Crosby. He has a complicated relationship with his Uncle, whose name we learn is Daniel Grudge, fostered on political disagreements. They constantly snipe at each other in the way that only people who know each other extremely well do.
“Well now nephew, which one of your many causes brings you out into the snowy night? What is it this time, a movement to donate the Mississippi river to the Sahara desert?”
“You can do better than that.”
“Not with a full stomach I can’t.”
Sharp, witty, full of character. At one point halfway through this film I realised I was just transcribing dialogue rather than taking notes. The script is by far the strongest part of this film (though it is also beautifully directed).
We learn that Grudge has used his considerable unseen influence to block an educational exchange programme at a local University between an American and a Polish professor. Grudge is fearful of Communists and does not like the progressive, humanitarian work that Fred does with what we presume is the UN (we only get a brief namedrop until the last 15 minutes of the film).
Grudge believes that every man is an island. It is Scrooge’s “let me keep Christmas in my own way” extrapolated to it’s logical contemporary extreme; nationalist conservative politics. This is Grudge’s equivalent to a hatred of Christmas. The problem is that the execution of his redemption arc is incredibly confusing. The film is anti-war but pro-intervention. A full half of the Ghost of Christmas Past is an argument where Grudge argues with the spirit that the World Wars were not America’s to fight but also that the only humanitarian aid the poor need is the shelter provided by America’s nuclear umbrella.
It is the kind of moral ambiguity that can only have come from an extremely specific commission brief from a 1960s UN that needed to both a) protest the use of nuclear weapons and b) be prepared to justify intervention into countries prepared to use nuclear weapons. On paper these may sound compatible but they do not convert into the black and white moral message dictated by the A Christmas Carol story.
Here we see Fred and Grudge, with Grudge’s dead son Marley in portrait form between them. Clever shot that visually demonstrates the structure of the Uncle-Nephew relationship. Marley is the reason the two still talk to each other and his death is the driving force behind Grudge’s anti-interventionist ideology. He died in World War Two and is for whom Grudge sets the table on Christmas Eve.
Marley never says a word and is only briefly glimpsed here in what is also the coolest, most eerie revelation of his I’ve seen yet.
They don’t need Marley to say that Grudge is going to be haunted because it’s all cleverly implied in the previous Grudge/ Fred conversation. (Note – I later learned that they did film a scene like that but it got cut.)
The Ghost of Christmas Past is a WW1 soldier who first argues with Grudge on a boat carrying corpses home and then shows him Grudge’s own visit to Hiroshima in the September after the war. Here we meet the aforementioned butchered children. The exact dialogue in the build up to the reveal is between a Japanese doctor and Grudge, a colonel at the time, and is as follows:
“When the plane flew overhead these children looked up at the sky. Their faces were upturned to the blast. They suffered what we call flashbang. It is a term we used to describe instantaneous thermal radiation.”
“How badly were they burned?”
“They have no more faces, Commander.”
The doctor tells the children (who are still alive, by the way) that the American naval officers have come to “wish them well”. The irony is not lost on the audience or by the actor, who delivers it perfectly.
There’s a lot of this kind of stuff and I won’t go into it all. It’s fairly grim and at times narratively messy but always very sharply written and directed.
Grudge is extremely mercenary and is obsessed with statistics and military utilitarianism. He makes the old argument about the necessity of dropping the bomb to shorten the war. So then why is he so anti-interventionist? By this point his son had died, surely?
The following clip from a scene with the Ghost of Christmas Present has him directly confront that aspect of Grudge’s personality. (It’s also, simultaneously, the best acted scene in the film and representative of all of its problems.)
There are lots of well made humanitarian points throughout these segments:
“If you shared a loaf of bread with them how would you be relinquishing your freedom? If you joined other nations to administer vaccines to their children how would you have desecrated your flag?”
It reads like Marx. I admire the boldness of programming something so dark, heavy handed and didactic, billing itself as an adaptation of A Christmas Carol, on prime time ABC in the 60s. But I can’t help but feel that it’s not the kind of thing that an audience that broad would respond to well. The channel executives knew best I suppose!
Superb transition into the Future Ghost. Shows how much you can do with a small television budget and precipitates what Rod Sterling would later do in The Twilight Zone. 1949’s adaptation has no excuse.
We’re in the nuclear apocalypse now and Peter Sellers takes over as Imperial Me, a satirical non-interventionist and social libertarian. Maybe he’s meant to be an objectivist; he actively espouses the worth of greed and self interest. Did Rod Serling and Ayn Rand ever meet? I’d watch that biopic. Regardless, it’s very out of tone with the rest of the film and by far the most heavy handed scene. Grudge says the crowd are insane and we get a moment where Future turns to him and says Aha! But it’s what YOU believe!!
Peter Sellers is quite good but I have no idea what accent he is going for here. I think it’s Louisiana.
A future version of Charles stands as the sole voice of reason delivering a passionate speech about the values of diplomacy, democracy and international cooperation to a crowd that boos him so vociferously that he breaks into tears.
Interesting to note that a black actor has a major role in a mainstream American drama from 1964 where his race is never mentioned or openly politicised.
There’s no tacked-on gravestone sequence just because “that’s what you do”. I like that.
You’d think the resolution would be that Grudge would wake up, announce to Fred that he would allow the cultural exchange and then invite him over for dinner to sit in Marley’s seat. Instead, he merely apologises and then looks pensive drinking his morning cup of coffee as the credits play.
I usually like it when the message isn’t spelled out but Grudge’s resolution here is extremely unsatisfying. Because it’s difficult to pinpoint his precise politics at the beginning it’s difficult to see how he’s changed and how his actions will have consequences, especially as how the only person with whom he ever interacts is Fred.
I have a lot of sympathies with this production; it was broadcast with no commercial breaks and the actors all waived their fees (with the exception of Sellers who took a reduced fee of $350 from $750,000). It was clearly made with good intentions even though the internal politics are extremely confusing and heavy handed.
I’d actually thoroughly recommend this if you’re into alternative Christmas films and Cold War domestic American politics. The dialogue is really fun to listen to and the acting is universally pretty great.
7 nuclear warheads aimed directly at Charles Dickens’ face out of 10
Wow, this one was really was light on jokes. Realistically depicted nuclear holocaust will do that to you, I suppose.