Carol for Another Christmas, an updating of Dickens by screenwriter Rod Serling and director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, missing in action for 47 years, makes a welcome and timely return by way of TCM this Christmas. It's a fascinating piece, possibly major Serling, though its placement in Mankiewicz's career is a little trickier. As befits the marriage of Dickens and Serling, it's a preachy allegory that relies on sentiment and humanism rather than urging any specific political course. Mankiewicz was rarely an advocate for anything in his movies, but he orchestrates this affair with typical elegance.
Take the phrase "Peace On Earth" as its watchword, the scenario makes Scrooge a wealthy recluse advocating the stockpiling of nuclear weapons and a foreign policy that combines isolationism with "get our retaliation in first" belligerence. The casting of Sterling Hayden in this role, very satisfactory in itself, has the additional effect of evoking memories of Dr. Strangelove, which are also prompted by the appearance of Peter Sellers—but more on him later.
As in the original story, the protagonist, here named "Daniel Grudge," is visited by three specters, and transported into the past, present and future, where he can briefly interact with various scenarios from before, during and after his life. This being a Serling script, everybody he meets likes to talk.
The Ghost of Christmas Past is embodied as a WWI doughboy, on a ship laden with corpses, drifting through the black void of a studio night. And he's played by singer Steve Lawrence, with a rat pack hepcat attitude that's in theory wildly anachronistic but utterly riveting in effect: this guy should have been a movie star. The boat transports through time and space Grudge to the aftermath of one of the atomic bomb drops on Japan, where we get another fine performance from James Shigeta (from Sam Fuller's The Crimson Kimono), tending to burns victims: eerie, bandage-swathed figures draped in a cobweb-like gauze. Grudge, though shaken, tries to maintain his bullish demeanor. "At least their children won't have to face this horror." Shigeta laughs bitterly: "Children? These girls?"
Pat Hingle matches Lawrence's startlingly unusual turn as the Ghost of Christmas Present, banqueting at a huge table in a black theatrical space which can be lit up to reveal starving children in compounds, "the barbed wire set," as he calls them. This is visually perhaps the most striking section, marrying the limitations of a sixties TV broadcast to the limitless possibilities of theater, and it makes the most disturbing moral points: Grudge is reluctant to feast in front of the starving indigents, so Hingle fades the scenery to black. They're still there, but since we can't see them we can gorge ourselves with a clean conscience.
Robert Shaw turns up as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, with a commanding, intense, and possibly psychotic edge. Cowled and solemn, and somewhere between Shakespearean and batshit crazy, he's our guide to a nuked-out potential future where Peter Sellers presides as the Imperial Me, doing the Texas accent he claimed he couldn't master for Strangelove, sermonizing in a huge stetson with ME written on it in glittery letters. It's a dream role for the comedian, whose personal craving for control and respect, an unfettered ego without any apparent self-consciousness, makes him uncomfortably credible even when his performance veers into burlesque.
Mankiewicz seems to have made this as a run-for-cover project after Cleopatra ("the hardest four films I ever made"), and one imagines that moving fast and cheap and dealing with actors rather than vast sets and teeming multitudes must have been quite a relief. It's a relief also from modern Christmas pablum and "issues based" dramas that don't actually know where they stand. And the language is preposterously gorgeous.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.