Television is responsible for a great many things, but none are quite as ubiquitous or as clichéd as the Christmas special. At this point, one could easily program a channel with nothing but Christmas specials during the holiday season (i.e., from the night of American Thanksgiving to Christmas Day) and not have any repeats. If you throw in episodes of TV series with overt Christmas themes and/or settings, you could program such a channel for years without a rerun. And let’s not even get into the Christmas movies that have either been produced for television, or in the case of It’s A Wonderful Life, popularized by the medium.
The general form for these productions is for them to have an uplifting and/or cheerful message. A lot of them (especially the cartoons) feature Santa Claus or other non-Christian characters. However, there is a class of Christmas special that deals with much more serious issues. One of those is Carol For Another Christmas.
It’s December 28th, 1964. Beatlemania is in full swing, with Beatles ’65 on the charts in the US, and its equivalent, Beatles For Sale, a hit in the UK. “I Feel Fine” is the #1 song in both territories. The day before, the NFL Eastern Conference Champion Cleveland Browns demolished the Western Conference Champion Baltimore Colts 27-0 to win the 1964 NFL Championship. This a day after the Buffalo Bills defeated the San Diego Chargers for the championship of the upstart American Football League. On Friday, Christmas Day, the third James Bond movie, Goldfinger, premiered. In Spain, David Lean was starting production on the film adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago.
Carol For Another Christmas is an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which in and of itself appears to be nothing new, as the story has been adapted for film and television many, many times before, and will continue to be reinterpreted many more (in no small part because the novella is firmly in the public domain). However, this production was about more than the redemption of the miserly Ebeneezer Scrooge, who has forgotten to care about anything other than his money. This should come as no surprise since this adaptation was written by Rod Serling.
By 1964, Rod Serling had pretty much cemented his legacy as one of television’s greatest writers. Starting with Patterns, and episode of the Kraft Television Theater, Serling became famous for his thought-provoking, socially relevant scripts. However, he soon found his scripts getting censored, both by the networks and the sponsors, of both political content and of things as silly as the Chrysler Building in a story sponsored by Ford. So, seeing no recourse, he created The Twilight Zone, a science fiction anthology series which tackled the subjects Serling (and his fellow writers, with Richard Matheson, George Clayton Johnson, and Charles Beaumont chief among them) wanted to. The series lasted for five largely excellent seasons, and is remembered perhaps most of all for its brilliant twist endings.
With Carol For Another Christmas, Serling returned to a more direct approach to his message, which argues passionately against isolationism, and in support of the United Nations in particular. Unlike other programs, there were no commercials to contend with (as the sponsor, Xerox, paid for the entire 90 minute broadcast), which results in a truly harrowing experience. Instead of Scrooge, the primary character here is industrialist Daniel Grudge, who is still devastated by the death of his son 20 years earlier during World War II. Grudge’s nephew, Fred, arrives, and is upset because the elder man has used his influence to shoot down an exchange program between the local university and one in Krakow, Poland. Daniel Grudge is an avowed isolationist, especially since the Polish are on the “other side” (namely, communism). Fred attempts to reason with his uncle, but to no avail. After sharing a drink in honor of Marley Grudge on the 20th Anniversary of his death, Fred leaves.
Now alone save for the presence of his hired servants, Grudge begins to see his dead son and hear the record he was listening to before Fred arrived, which seem to be hallucinations. The chandelier in his den begins tinkling as if there was a breeze in the room, and then the doors to the room close…..and suddenly, Daniel Grudge is on a coffin-filled boat, and confronted by the Ghost of Christmas Past.
This Ghost of Christmas Past is a representative of all of the soldiers who have fought in the wars waged because of man refusing to talk out their differences with one another. Grudge isn’t hearing any of it, and the ghost shows him his past, when he was a soldier, and looking over the the bombed-out ruins of Hiroshima (though the ghost bitterly points out that Grudge’s memories of the scene are far less “clean” than was the reality). In chilling fashion, we are presented with young girls who looked into the nuclear blast, and have literally lost their faces due to the flash of radiation. The past Grudge obliviously thinks everything will be fine for the girls-or at least their children-horrifying the doctor caring for the girls and Grudge’s aide. The present Grudge considers this to be acceptable given the alternative of a bloody invasion of Japan. A little boy walks near, and is scared by the sound of thunder in the sky, and the past Grudge comforts the boy before departing. The present Grudge is sent to his next destination.
He is sent to a dark room with a massive dining table filled with a huge feast, and greeted by the Ghost of Christmas Present. The ghost speaks of his representing mankind’s full stomach…..and the gnawing hunger of the millions of needy people worldwide, before ringing a bell and lighting the dark room, which hosts a massive refugee camp. Grudge is incredulous as the ghost continues to feast, and is called to task for his hypocrisy in the matter before being forced to listen to the songs the dispossessed persons sing to maintain hope, and to watch. The ghost tells Grudge the hard statistics of suffering in the world, to the point that the man can’t take it any more. He runs, and is surrounded by the barbed wires of the refugee camps before finding himself kneeling before the Ghost of Christmas Future.
This Ghost shows Grudge the wrecked remains of his local town hall. In this future, Grudge is told, the nations of the world stopped talking, and built walls…..and bombs. And one day, mutually assured destruction. Then, a group of survivors shuffles into the wrecked building, led by someone declaring himself to be the Imperial ME, and espousing a philosophy of total individuality at all costs, to massive applause. He declares that they should attack all other survivors, who are just toying with them by promising to talk. And then, Grudge’s hired servants arrive, and his butler tries to reason with the irrational crowd while his wife, Grudge’s maid, watches in horror as her husband is backed into a corner and shot by a child, to the approval of the child’s mother. The crowd leaves, and Grudge is apoplectic, and begs the ghost for answers, none of which are given.
At this point, Grudge wakes up in his house, having slept on the floor and with the phone receiver in his hand. He hangs the phone up and closes an open window before being greeted by his butler and then Fred, who has stopped by because Grudge called him and asked that he stopped by on his way to church. Still visibly shaken from his vision of the future, Grudge slowly admits that he was wrong about his isolationist attitudes. The special ends with a much humbler Daniel Grudge listening to the children of the UN Assembly signing Christmas carols on the radio while he drinks his morning coffee.
Suffice to say, Carol For Another Christmas is about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the skull. Granted, Rod Serling was frequently this blunt on The Twilight Zone (episodes like “Deaths-Head Revisited” are just as chilling as this special in their frankness), but usually there was some element of separation from current events to sneak the message past an otherwise potentially unsympathetic audience. Here, there is none of that.
While cable, Netflix, the internet, and a dozen other things have made it far easier for such a blunt and direct message to be broadcast to a wide audience. In 1964, this idea was radical. Literally. Lenny Bruce had just been convicted on obscenity a week prior to the broadcast of Carol For Another Christmas. George Carlin and Richard Pryor were years away from bringing “blue” standup comedy to the mainstream. The Cold War was at its peak, with the Cuban Missile Crisis still frighteningly fresh in the minds of Americans. So, for a serious dramatic program, even one written by Rod Serling and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and featuring an all-star cast, to tackle the issue of war and support for the United Nations so directly was seriously daring.
The result of this daring was fairly swift. ABC and Xerox took heat for the special, and while Xerox funded some more specials in support of the UN and international cooperation, none were anywhere near as direct as this one. In fact, until Turner Classic Movies resurrected the special in 2012 (and probably at the behest of Mankiewicz’s great-nephew Ben, who is one of the channel’s on-screen hosts), the only way to see it was to visit the the Paley Center for Media in either New York City or Los Angeles, or the Film and Television Archive at UCLA. Frankly, this is a shame, as it is a powerful hour and a half of television.
However, the virtual burial of Carol For Another Christmas for nearly five decades underlines just why Gene Roddenberry looked to Jonathan Swift and programs like The Twilight Zone for inspiration. Next time, though, we’ll change direction and discuss the man who played a big part in realizing the world that Gene Roddenberry created to tackle serious issues without fear of censorship or protest.