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And Now For Something Completely Different…

with 5 comments

…with my apologies to Monty Python.

But I need something completely different at the moment, so let me go with this.

Some of you may know that I collect versions of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

I’ve got old versions and new ones, direct versions and adaptations in modern dress.  There are strange little versions that I lust after but don’t have yet for one reason or another–there’s a Smurfs one that you can get only if you buy the Smurf movie, as it’s an extra on the disc, and one that’s an episode of Quantum Leap that you can only get by buying the season, and another that’s an episode of Highway to Heaven that has the same problem.

There are also disappointments.  The new Dr. Who series has one that isn’t really an adaptation, but just sort of scoots around the edges of one.

Last night, after dinner, I wandered in to the room where the television is and clicked around until I was stopped by the announcement that a Christmas Carol adaptation I’d never heard of was about to start on TCM.

The adaptation was called Carol for Another Christmas, and I sat still to hear Robert Osborne’s introduction to it.

Carol for Another Christmas turns out to be a made-for-TV movie from 1964.  It was commissioned as part of a series of movies meant to celebrate something–maybe an anniversary–about the UN. 

It was written by Rod Serling and starred the kind of cast they must have spent serious money to get:  Eva Marie Saint, Sterling Hayden, Peter Sellers, Ben Gazzara, Steve Lawrence, Robert Shaw.  There were a bunch more who escape me at the moment.

And there was a good reason why I’d never heard of it.

The movie had been shown exactly once, and then disappeared for the next–52 years? 

The part of my brain that does math seems to be misfiring this morning.

Let’s just say it was a really long time.

And the sudden reappearance of the thing was wonderful.  I would never have found it for myself.  I wouldn’t have even known to look for it.

So I sat down to watch it.

And there ensued–well, hilarity, after awhile.  But in the beginning there was shock.

First, let me say that this movie has cemented for me, for all time, the truth that everything depends on a good director.  Without one, even very good actors can be very, very bad.  The actors in this thing were almost universally very, very bad, with the exception of Peter Sellers, who was–well, we’ll get to more of that later.

The second thing is something most of you probably already know.  Rod Serling is one of those writers who is a genius if you keep him on a leash, but absolutely horrific when you don’t. 

Nobody was keeping him on a leash here. 

You know the endless preachiness of some of those old Twilight Zone episodes?  Well, with this, Serling had more than an hour, and every single one of his characters ended up giving Speeches.

I capitalized Speeches on purpose.

The Speeches were occasioned by the fact that the theme of this movie was not the usual Christmas Carol thing about not being a greedy jerk, but a kind of free floating extravaganza of every left of center cliche about Peace, Understanding and How The Communists Are Just Like Us and war is no longer possible now that we have the atom bomb.

 Sterling Hayden plays Scrooge, except he isn’t called Scrooge.  Instead, his name is Daniel Grudge–I am not making this up–and his problem is that he lost his only son in a war, on Christmas Day, and has now dedicated himself to Isolationism.

What Daniel Grudge wants is for the US to stay out of all foreign wars, and then to nuke the hell out of anybody who threatens us.

The three spirits therefore take him through a war torn landscape to convince him that war is obsolete and will result only in the total destruction of all mankind.   We see devastation in WWI, the remains of Hiroshima, displaced persons in barbed wire camps, and all the rest of that kind of thing.

Along the way, we are treated to Speech after endless Speech about how talking is better than fighting and as long as we’re talking we’re not fighting and that we can trust everybody no matter who they are or what they say they’re after because we’re all human beings in this together and we’d all of us rather be alive than dead.

Then we get to Christmas Future–Robert Shaw–and what you have to understand is this:  unlike every other Christmas Future in every other Christmas Carol version ever written, this one talks. 

He talks a lot.

He talks nearly nonstop.

He has nothing to say that anybody else hasn’t said already–including Ben Gazzara, who plays Grudge’s nephew and a professor at the local university who wants his fellow faculty members to take part in a cultural exchange program with Poland.

But just because Christmas Future doesn’t have anything new to say doesn’t mean he can’t say it at length.

But although the Speeches delivered by Christmas Future are  not very interesting, and nothing that hasn’t been Speechified already in the production, the words and actions of the characters in the scene meant to be part of the future world are very interesting indeed.

We are told that there are only three colonies of human beings left on the planet.  We are looking at one of them.  The other two colonies want to get together and talk about “our mutual problems.”

This colony, however, is dedicated to The Individual Me.  They are convinced that the other two colonies only say they want to talk and are really pulling an elaborate scam to take over the world of the Individual Mes.

Therefore, when one of the colony speaks up for cooperation, they do the next best thing to lynching him–have I mentioned he’s the only black guy in the  piece?–and then lay plans for fighting the other colonies as soon as they get anywhere close.

Now, there’s a lot I could say about this segment of the movie, especially about the way it wallows in hackiness.  The lynching is actually a shooting and the murder is committed by a small child with a live gun, while his mother sits smiling and knits throughout.

But the real issue  is the fact that what happens in this colony is the complete vindication of Daniel Grudge’s original ideas–talking only works if you can trust everybody to talk, and all  it takes is one to blow up negotiations for everybody.

The only thing that makes any sense to me about this is that neither Serling nor anybody else who worked on this thing realized what was going on here. 

Maybe they were just too mesmerized by the absolute silliness of the scene that they didn’t notice.

Because the scene is absolutely silly.  The leader of the Individual Mes is played by Peter Sellers, who talks in a “Southern” accent out of a bad Fifties race relations movie and wears a Pilgrim Puritan outfit topped by a ten gallon hat with a crown on it and ME in glitter letters.

The “me” in “individual me” seems to be some way to blunt the recognition that the movie is arguing against individualism, which had a rather good reputation at the time, and which is not synonymous with either solipsism or the kind of vulgar blind selfishness usually attributed to capitalists in Thirties movies.

I would probably have been less appalled at this production if it hadn’t been written at the intellectual level of a dull five year old, but here it is.

And I’m not surprised that last night was only the second time it was ever aired.

And in the long run, if it comes out on DVD, I’ll make sure to get it.

Because that’s what collections are for.

Written by janeh

December 17th, 2012 at 10:33 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'And Now For Something Completely Different…'

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  1. I remember that one! I saw it when I was 12, and even then it was every bit as ghastly as you describe–proof of Sammy Goldwyn’s contention that “if you want to send a mesage, use Western Union.” (Yes, of course, a good story can HAVE a message–often more than one–but that’s different.)

    DVD Collections, now. I have three different versions of PERSUASION, but when I get all of them, I’ll still only have four. Of course, there are other possibilities:
    All the versions of THE SEVEN SAMURAI. (But would I be willing to house BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS and THE SEVEN MAGNIFICENT GLADIATORS?)
    All the versions of RED HARVEST, starting with YOJIMBO and running through Clint Eastwood and Bruce Willis.
    All the versions of IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, including the stray episodes of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and MOONLIGHTING.
    Best candidate: every TV crime show episode inspired by Leopold and Loeb. The collection would have no end: every crime show does Leopold and Loeb at least once. The pair of thrill killers are always rich, well-educated and male, as the originals were. But I could spend the rest of my life looking for the one episode of any show in which the killers were Jewish and homosexual–because Hollywood is very picky about what messages it sends.


    17 Dec 12 at 11:32 am

  2. I don’t remember that one. I was 9 in 1964, and my parents were in control of the one TV in the house. Or rather, they were the ones telling me to get up and change the channel, as a 9-year-old was the 1964 equivalent of a remote. ;)

    Anyway, they weren’t big fans of Rod Serling and/or the Twilight Zone, so it’s unlikely we would have watched. Disney, yes. Serling, preachy Cold War “we’re all gonna die!” pastiche, not so much.


    17 Dec 12 at 1:13 pm

  3. I’m not sure if we got our first TV before or after 1964, but I am certain I have never seen that movie. I think it would stick in my mind! I don’t know if my parents would have allowed me to see it. They, well, especially my mother, were rather anti-TV, especially anything with violence in it. My father didn’t think we should watch anything with bad language or the slightest hint of sex.

    I don’t know how we got away with watching the Avengers.

    I think I lack the collecting gene, but my small DVD collection does contain a version of ‘A Christmas Carol’ – the only one I like out of the few I’ve seen. It’s the Alastair Sim one. I love it, and consider it the gold standard of ‘A Christmas Carol’ adaptations.


    17 Dec 12 at 1:33 pm

  4. Oh, and my personal favorite adaptation of A Christmas Carol is “Scrooged” with Bill Murray.


    17 Dec 12 at 2:26 pm

  5. Rod Serling … one of my heroes ! In 1960 something , I and a few friends traveled ( without parental permission ) from our hometown of Xenia , Ohio to Yellow Springs, Ohio .. a whole 10 miles away ..we had heard that Rod Serling, who was teaching at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, was reading some poetry at a local beatnik cafe.
    We entered the bistro all dressed in black and wearing berets .. we had practiced snapping our fingers the entire ten miles because we had heard that snapping fingers was preferred instead of applauding .. I remember when he walked up to the microphone , the muted sound of many fingers snapping approval .. kinda like crickets on a hot summer night . Anyway, I don’t remember much about the content of his poems but do remember how much trouble we were in when we arrived home 30 minutes past curfew at 9:30 pm !


    17 Dec 12 at 3:47 pm

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