Assignment: 1964: Carol For Another Christmas

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.

Guardians of Forever: Herbert F. Solow

“Spock… what does ‘Herbert’ mean?”

“It is, um… uh, somewhat, um… uncomplimentary, Captain. Herbert was a minor official – notorious for his rigid and limited patterns of thought.”-Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock in “The Way to Eden”, explaining the “Herbert!” chants believed to be a joke at Herbert F. Solow’s expense added into the script by his successor, Douglas S. Cramer

While Ed Holly and Oscar Katz brought much-needed stability to Desilu, their hirings would ultimately be dwarfed by that of Herbert F. Solow, who joined Desilu from CBS, with prior service at NBC, where he was in charge of Daytime Programming for both networks. Lucille Ball commanded Katz and Solow to find shows, and the first two creators tapped were Bruce Geller, pitching a spy show named Mission: Impossible, and Gene Roddenberry, pitching Star Trek. Geller, who had written for Have Gun – Will Travel and produced the final season of Rawhide, was a known quantity, and Mission: Impossible was an easy sell in the ’60s (but that is a subject for another day).

Roddenberry, however, was a bit more of a project. For all of his talent as a writer, Gene was perpetually unkempt looking, and a poor public speaker. Katz was able to assure a meeting with CBS as a matter of course, but the executives at the “Tiffany Network” were not particularly interested, and may have been simply picking Roddenberry’s brain for concepts to add to Irwin Allen’s Lost In Space. (Suffice to say, Gene was none too pleased with the “competition” when he learned of its existence.)

Since ABC (which generally programmed for younger audiences at the time) had no interest in Star Trek because they were already airing another Irwin Allen series, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. This left NBC, the oldest of the three television networks (as a consequence of its radio forebear, the NBC Red Network, having been founded in 1927), and seemingly the least suited broadcaster for Star Trek. However, NBC was in the midst of a major change in how they operated. In addition to pushing for full-color broadcasts well ahead of its competitors (in part because NBC’s then-owner, RCA, was the leader in color television sets, and had co-created the compatible color standard), NBC was actively pursuing fresher programs, the first of which, The Man From U.N.C.L.E, was already in production (and co-created by Gene Roddenberry’s friend, Sam Rolfe). And with his connection to NBC, Herb Solow was given the task of preparing Roddenberry for the meeting.

Solow’s coaching (which, rather ironically given Gene’s use of it for the rest of his life in interviews, left out the “Wagon Train in space” description), did its job, and the decision literally came down to a staring contest between Solow and Vice President of West Coast Programming (and much later, in the 1980s, CEO) of NBC, Grant Tinker, and the NBC Development Vice President, Jerry Stanley. Solow, however, knew that NBC was in just as dire straits as Desilu, with the network in last place, and in need of more dynamic programs like U.N.C.L.E. and the in-development I Spy. And with that knowledge, Herb Solow made the two executives blink and fork out a check for “script development”. Suddenly, Star Trek was in business.

It is, of course, silly to keep up pretenses and ignore the reality that follows with Herbert Solow and Oscar Katz, since one man’s name is in the end credits for the first two seasons of Star Trek, and the other isn’t. Oscar Katz’s strategy, to produce as many pilots as possible in order to (hopefully) get as many shows on the air as possible backfired pretty wildly, and he was let go just before Star Trek‘s first season entered production. (In the end, the only two pilots that made it to air were Star Trek and Mission: Impossible.) While Solow tends to overrate his importance to Star Trek in Inside Star Trek, the book on the production of the series he co-wrote with Robert H. Justman (Gene L. Coon’s former secretary, Ande Richardson-Kindryd, who is fiercely loyal to her former boss to this day, has particularly pointed words for both men because of the book), there’s no denying that on one day in May of 1964, he sold the Hell out of Star Trek to NBC.

Soon enough, Gene Roddenberry would begin working with the artists who would help to visualize the world of Star Trek, a process that would result in some of the most iconic designs in science fiction history. But first, we need to discuss a production that illustrated just why Roddenberry felt compelled to use science fiction to tackle contemporary issues.

Guardians of Forever: Lucille Ball

“Are you tired, run down, listless? Do you pop out at parties? Are you un-poopular? Well, are you?”-Lucy Ricardo, “Lucy Does a TV Commercial”

“Lucy! I’m Home!”-Ricky Ricardo, in a line certain to be broadcast on television somewhere on the planet while you read this

Yes, this is this week’s installment of Star Trek Debriefed. And yes, I’m serious.

Naturally, unless you’ve been living under a rock or in an alternate universe or something for the past 60+ years, you know Lucille Ball as the star of I Love Lucy. However, I Love Lucy is only the start of Lucille Ball’s television career, and her connection to Star Trek. With the overwhelming success of I Love Lucy (and Desi Arnaz’s absolutely genius decision to pursue “rerun rights”-what we now know as syndication rights-for the show before the concept of re-showing previously filmed TV shows had even been conceived), Desi and Lucy’s company, Desilu, started producing shows for other studios and even ABC before starting to produce their own programs, of which The Untouchables stands as the most recognizable of the studio’s early output. Desi, being in charge of the finances at Desilu, eventually sold the rerun rights to I Love Lucy for a then-astronomical $1 million, and expanded operations by purchasing Motion Picture Center and then the old RKO-Pathé backlot, making the two fully-fledged Hollywood moguls.

This, however, is when trouble started both for Desilu and for Lucy and Desi’s marriage. Running a studio is hard work-and expensive, as the sound stages and backlots need regular upkeep, especially if it’s a popular place to film (and the two Desilu locations were massively popular as a rental facility, and are still active to this day). Furthermore, Desi had managed to convince CBS to allow I Love Lucy to be produced on film, which was seen as a major extravagance in the early ’50s. However, since Desi and Lucy chose to produce in Hollywood and Desi (correctly) considered the kinescopes to be of an inferior quality (though much of the problems were with the video camera technology of the time and the practice of broadcasting kinescopes to the West Coast still sopping wet from being developed via microwave and/or cable links), Desilu only shot productions on film, and absorbed the additional costs until film became an acceptable standard for TV production. And with Desi already a known drinker and womanizer in the best of times, the stress did neither him or his marriage to Lucy any good. And along with the announcement that I Love Lucy (by this point being broadcast as a series of hour-long specials as The Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour) was ending its historic run, Lucy and Desi told the world that they were divorcing.

Despite the divorce, Desi and Lucy remained linked due to Desilu, and the studio continued to struggle financially. Eventually, Lucy was lured back to make another sitcom, The Lucy Show. However, Desi would not stay with the studio, as he sold his stake in the company to his ex-wife in 1962 after succumbing to the pressure and finally being diagnosed as an alcoholic. This made Lucy the first woman to run a Hollywood studio, but was just as difficult for her as it was for Desi: she lost $650,000 in her first year in charge, and saw all other Desilu-owned shows except The Lucy Show get cancelled. With Desilu in desperate straights, CBS stepped in and sent their Chief Financial Officer, Ed Holly, and Vice President of Network Programs, Oscar Katz, to bail out the studio. However, it was Katz’s new right hand man who ultimately made the bigger impact at Desilu.