What do you call the Ghost of Christmas Present when they show up three days late? That question popped in mind while watching A Carol for Another Christmas (now on HBO Max via the TCM curated collection), a grim but fascinating holiday special that aired on network television once and only once -- 57 years ago today on Dec. 28, 1964. But before I get into the “when,” let me tell you about the “who” involved in this Cold War artifact.
Carol for Another Christmas brought together a compelling creative team: Oscar-winner Joseph L. Mankiewicz directed from a script by Rod Serling, with music by Henry Mancini. Still, the final product was given the lump-of-coal treatment back in 1964 and then gathered dust for 48 years before Turner Classic Movies broadcast it in 2012. I missed it in 2012 so I was intrigued to find it available this holiday season.
There have been countless reimagined versions of A Christmas Carol but this one jettisons the most familiar name from the original. This version isn’t about a miserable miser named Scrooge, it’s about a soulless soldier named Grudge. Instead of a money-hungry wretch, we are given a bloodthirsty one.
It didn’t take too long to see why this revamped version of A Christmas Carol might have been too morbid for family viewing on Christmas Eve. How many network holiday offerings include a visit to post-war Hiroshima where faceless schoolchildren wrapped in burn-ward bandages sing forlorn lullabies to one another? It’s not exactly The Muppet Christmas Carol, is it?
A bigger factor in the scheduling choice, however, turned out to be presidential politics. ABC agreed to air the special but not before the November 1964 election. Executives worried that Serling’s haunted main character – a bitter industrialist portrayed by Sterling Hayden – was meant to throw shade at Barry Goldwater, the Republican candidate.
The project represented a fascinating confluence of talent, timing, politics, propaganda, and, of course, ghosts.
It certainly arrived on TV with an unusual heritage. The production was the first of six planned television dramas from the Telsun Foundation, a non-profit group looking to promote the United Nations by framing its diplomatic potential and humanitarian pursuits. With Carol for Another Christmas, Telsun would try a tricky recipe by adding their political hot potato to the chestnuts already roasting on open fire. Xerox agreed to underwrite the Telsun plan to the tune of $4 million but not everyone wanted to join in the caroling. NBC and CBS declined Telsun’s pitch to air the Christmas special on all three networks in November. Instead, the producers settled for ABC and a time slot that an optimist might call the 15th day of Christmas.
For me, coming to this time capsule now as a first-time viewer, I was stirred more by the context of the project than by its actual screen content. That’s not great, not as far as recommendations go.
But the ensemble is interesting, as I mentioned, and with Serling’s unmistakable parlor-debate dialogue, the supernatural story spools out like a lavishly shot Twilight Zone episode featuring a Dr. Strangelove screen reunion just 11 months after the Stanley Kubrick film invaded theaters. Sterling Hayden, with a face like a clenched fist, portrays the lonely central misanthrope but in this revamp effort his name is Grudge, not Scrooge and his appetite is for blood not gold. Near the end of the 84-minute supernatural tale, Hayden shares the screen with three of his Dr. Strangelove costars: Peter Sellers, Peter Sellers, and Peter Sellers. For this holiday tour of duty, Sellers confined himself to merely one role (and a fairly limited one at that) but the job represented his screen return following a well-publicized heart attack.
Sellers (joined in the cast by his wife, Britt Ekland) wasn’t the only participant hoping to find a public image victory underneath the tree. All About Eve filmmaker Mankiewicz was coming off the historic calamity of Cleopatra while Serling’s signature success, The Twilight Zone, had just given up the ghost with its series finale in June 1964 after five seasons and 156 episodes. The split with CBS wasn’t a pleasant one and the “angry young man” of television seemed to jam every idea and adjective he could into this reimagined Victorian classic.
A Carol for Another Christmas has a noteworthy ensemble which includes ghosts played by Pat Hingle (known then for On the Waterfront, later as Commissioner Gordon in four Batman films), Robert Shaw (known already for From Russia with Love, later for stealing every scene in Jaws) and singer Steve Lawrence, best known for his duet act with wife Eydie Gorme. Lawrence is by far the weakest link in the cast. As the Ghost of Christmas Past, he gets extended screen duty in the form of a spectral World War I doughboy who, inexplicably, infuses the performance with the ironic mien and ring-a-ding-ding brio of the Rat Pack. It takes a minute to realize Lawrence is attempting to channel Frank Sinatra’s Private Maggio performance in From Here to Eternity. Unfortunately, Ernest Borgnine’s menacing barracks brute, Fatso, never shows up in this story to relieve Lawrence from duty. Lawrence is supposed to be the embodiment of battlefield carnage but his performance was more likely to bore someone to death. Beware the Grim Sleeper.
Rodman Edward Serling, by the way, could have easily reviewed his own life through a series of Christmas Day moments of consequence. The Syracuse, N.Y., native was born on Dec. 25, 1924. On Dec. 25, 1944, the day Serling turned 20, was on the island of Leyte in the Philippines as a member of the 11th Airborne, which had suffered major casualties during a savage two-week struggle to seize a jungle ridge called Hard Rock Hill. The hill was seized just in time to relieve the battered and bloodied troops for Christmas. Serling, injured twice, later wrote about that Christmas Day: It was a gray morning carved out of gray clay and shadowed by fog. It was not just a time—it was a mood—the kind of mood that is part of the province of combat and never conveyed vicariously to the human being who has not lived physically with the tension, the violence, the anguish of protracted war.”