December 25, 2013

filmsgraded.com:
A Carol for Another Christmas (1964)
Grade: 59/100

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Stars: Sterling Hayden, Ben Gazzara, Steve Lawrence

What it's about. A 20th century revision of the popular Charles Dickens holiday guilt trip. "Twilight Zone" personality Rod Serling is the sole writer, and Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve) is the director. Ornery zillionaire Sterling Hayden is the replacement for mean old Ebenezer Scrooge.

Hayden has adopted an isolationist political stance following the untimely death of his son in battle, presumably during the Korean War. He also believes in a mammoth defense budget. He has a heated discussion with a visiting nephew, Ben Gazzara, who advocates diplomacy, even with national enemies.

Later, Hayden is visited by three ghosts. Steve Lawrence is Christmas Past, an ironic private soldier who hosts a ship filled with the coffins of World War I soldiers. Lawrence then takes Hayden to Hiroshima after the atom bomb was dropped there, for Hayden to visit disfigured children along with a female officer, Eva Marie Saint.

Christmas Present is Pat Hingle, who dines on an enormous feast while concentration camp inmates huddle in the cold behind barbed wire fences. As with Lawrence, Hayden discusses the unfairness of the situation with Hingle, and is mocked for his efforts.

Finally, Hayden meets Christmas Future, Robert Shaw, who has Hayden visit his own town hall sometime after a nuclear holocaust. There are a few dozen survivors, and they have chosen the charismatic but insane Peter Sellers as their leader. He opposes communication with emissaries from a neighboring town.

Hayden wakes up in his own comfortable mansion. He is less changed than Scrooge after his epiphany, but nonetheless apologizes to Ben Gazzara for being a rude host, and decides to hang out with his two black servants (Percy Rodrigues and Barbara Ann Teer).

How others will see it. A Carol for Another Christmas received two Emmy nominations but was otherwise forgotten for nearly 50 years, until cable channel TCM and its second banana host Ben Mankiewicz rescued the film from obscurity. Ben is the great nephew of director Mankiewicz.

Not too surprisingly, viewer reaction to the movie is mixed. At imdb.com, the film has earned a humble total of 300 votes. There is a big gender gap (7.0 from men versus 5.7 from women) and an even bigger generation gap (5.6 from viewers under 18 versus 7.2 from those over 45). Older audiences are more likely to appreciate the quality of the cast, since they will recognize many of the actors. Women react negatively to the film's bleak nature, especially the faceless Japanese children, and perhaps prefer a more romantic lead than the gruff and taciturn Hayden.

The film's politics are decidedly liberal, and if the film's cultural footprint was larger, it would likely be subject to the same divisiveness endemic to today's polarized American society.

How I felt about it. A Carol for Another Christmas was a prestige made-for-television movie, shown only once shortly after Christmas 1964. It was a co-production of Xerox and the United Nations, hence the frequent reminders of the necessity of diplomacy and the potentially apocalyptic consequences of isolationism. The weirdness and horror were right up the alley for Serling, but the foray must have been less comfortable for Mankiewicz, as it was his only television movie.

The film reunites Hayden and Sellers, whose film from earlier in the year was the remarkable Dr. Strangelove, a comedy but nearly as creepy as the present work. It was the first of three films Sellers made with his gorgeous Swedish wife, Britt Ekland. Sellers was recovering from a heart attack he suffered on his recent honeymoon with Ekland.

Because of Serling's involvement, the movie is creepy and surreal. But the only portion that can be called truly strange is Sellers' turn as the madcap leader and his stupid, chanting audience. Oddly, the scene reminds me of a wingnut minister and his brainwashed congregation.

The movie is unquestionably interesting. But how good is it? The flatlined Hayden is incapable of a Scrooge-like transformation, so he is miscast. Sellers is not, but it would be better if his lines were more credible. The film also lacks a "Tiny Tim" character to focus audience sympathy. We are unable to connect with the victims of failed diplomacy, whether they are coffins on a ship, faceless orphans in a hospital, or displaced families behind barbed wire.