Peace On Earth

P.O.E. Peace On Earth. Purity Of Essence. That’s the three-letter code obsessing Sterling Hayden in DR STRANGELOVE, and he returns to the subject in Carol for Another Christmas, a TV production from 1964, scripted by Rod Serling and directed by Joe Mankiewicz — and all three are at the top of their game.

Haden plays Grudge, a Cold War Scrooge (his name is the least subtle thing about this impassioned polemic), committed to withdrawal from the world behind a wall of nuclear weapons, convinced by the death of his son in Korea that involvement is to be avoided at all costs. Unlike Dickens, upon whom the work is closely modeled, this show depends on a series of interlinked arguments about charity, international engagement, the threat of the bomb, which don’t necessarily cohere perfectly but are put across with great force and flair, moment by moment.

I’d actually hold this up as exhibit A to convert anyone who thinks Mank was just a dialogue guy, a straight shooter of snappy talk. There are some ghostly effects in the first fifteen minutes or so that appear strikingly modern (Amenabar ripped off one of Mank’s tricks from THE GHOST AND MRS MUIR for THE OTHERS), as when a reflection suddenly appears in a glass door swinging shut — this is the same year as REPULSION… Figures disappear or are duplicated within single takes, as the camera looks away from them for just a second…

Thinking about this, I’m drawn to the conclusion that Mankiewicz must have been looking at Japanese stuff — both UGETSU MONOGOTARI and THRONE OF BLOOD use this technique, letting the long, continuous shot insist upon the reality of what we see, even as the crucial event happens outside of frame. Both those movies were pretty big back in the day, so it’s quite plausible he saw them, and as a fan of long, fluid takes anyhow, he’d no doubt be impressed.

The Ghosts — Steve Lawrence is The Ghost of Christmas Past. I know him from THE BLUE BROTHERS (“Look at you, still in those fakakta suits!”) and Jerry Lewis DVD commentaries. I had no particular expectations of him as an actor. I get the feeling that some in America would have chiefly negative expectations of him. But he’s GREAT. He plays a WWI veteran’s ghost as a hepcat, but that’s the way it’s written, and Serling does write great hepcat. He’s met on a ship laden with war dead, all nations, then leads Hayden through a doorway into searing light and the aftermath of Hiroshima (cameo from James Shigeta). Little girls, swathed in bandages and draped in translucent netting represent the mutilated victims of the First Bomb. One sings a haunting shamisen.

Hayden tries to shrug it off: alright, these are innocent victims of the fight for democracy, for them the news is all bad, but for their children –

Shigeta stifles a laugh of pure pain (an amazing effect): “Children? From these girls?”

Ghost 2: Pat Hingle as Christmas Present. Know him mainly as Commissioner Gordon in Burton and Schumacher’s BATMAN films. He’s brilliant here — gluttonous, avuncular, ferocious. His bit is about the present, the 10 million displaced persons, “the Barbed Wire Set.” Starvation and deprivation. It begins to become clear that this show is still utterly contemporary.

This, the shortest section, takes place at a banquet table under a chandelier amid black void — which lights up to reveal barbed wire and prisoners at a word from Hingle.

Ghost 3: Robert Shaw. You have to admire Mankiewicz’s courage in taking on Shaw, Hayden AND Peter Sellers. John Gielgud wrote that although iambic pentameters say you stress every second syllable, you can only REALLY stress one word per line. I guess otherwise overemphasis means that meaning gets less clear instead of more clear. Well, Shaw clearly doesn’t believe that, he stresses every single syllable as if it were his last and his listener were a long way off. When he really wants to make a point, though, he hits a word so hard it can punch through cinderblock.

This is the postnuclear section, in the shattered remains of Hayden’s local town hall, where mad jester king Peter Sellers stands for the Me Generation — pilgrim fathers jacket with Santa trimmings, stetson with glittery ME printed on it. Preaching a grotesque gospel of self-interest, he stands for a world where egotism will literally take us down to the last man. It’s a startling role for Sellers, who plays it to the hilt, his voice part Clare Quilty and part the Texas accent he couldn’t quite get for Major Kong in STRANGELOVE. Sellers, of course, was the naked ego run rampant, glazed behind the insane conviction that he had no personality of his own at all. “I used to have one, but I had it surgically removed.” Nothing is more dangerous than an egomaniac with zero self-awareness.

Also appearing: Ben Gazzara, Eva Marie Saint, Britt Ekland.

Hayden, as you’d expect, doesn’t overplay his character’s conversion, making him the first Scrooge on record not to come across as a raving maniac in act 3. It’s a striking, harmonious note of restraint in a big, hammy, epic, heartfelt, articulate piece from a major American filmmaker, and shockingly unavailable to buy in any form.

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7 Responses to “Peace On Earth”

  1. This was one of the best things I saw this year. A stupendous piece of writing, directing and thesping. The entire population should be strapped to chairs and made to watch this every Christmas.

  2. Mankiewicz has risen higher in my persoanl Pantheon of Hollywood greats more than almost any other writer-director in recent years.

    His key films for me are No Way Out, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, A Letter To Three Wives, Julius Caesar, Guys and Dolls and The Honey Pot.

    No I haven’t forgotten Aged in Wood, but everybody knows that one.

  3. Well obviously I have to see Julius Caesar and No Way Out now!

    A Letter to Three Wives is a big favourite here, and with our Hogmanay guests also: “What I got don’t need beads!”

  4. David, a very happy new year to you and Fiona, and to all Shadowplayers. Many thanks for all the pleasure and information the blog has provided me with in 2011.

  5. You too! Best wishes for 2012 — if Roland Emmerich says the world’s going to end, that’s probably a good sign!

  6. Wow. I never even heard of this.

  7. Yeah, another friend who was a big Serling AND Sellers fan at the time had no knowledge of it either. I guess the network didn’t sell it right!

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