About Christmas TV History

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Twilight Zone Christmas (1960)

I've spoken about this Christmas episode so many times, I sometimes overlook the fact that I haven't written about it on the blog before. But don't be mistaken--this second season episode of The Twilight Zone sits at the top of the list of my favorite Christmas episodes of all time. Even more special is that the 1960 episode "Night of the Meek" frequently tops lists made by TV critics (and fans) of the best Twilight Zone episodes ever made. Let's look again at what makes this Christmas TV episode so noteworthy.

This dirty and disheveled Santa is spending his meal break at a nearby bar.

Down-on-his-luck Henry Corwin works as a department store Santa Claus. Not only is he late returning from his lunch break but we see that he's drunk. The world-weary man isn't in a hurry to get off his bar stool and go back to work. However, when he sees two excited kiddies looking at him through the windows of the tavern, he's happy to wave at them and smile back.

We all know this disillusioned Santa--it's actor Art Carney. We've seen him in numerous Christmas episodes of The Honeymooners, as well as 1978's Star Wars Holiday Special.

In a brief exchange with the bartender, we hear Corwin explain that he drinks to excess because he's trying not to cry. Corwin is disillusioned with a modern Christmas that focuses on spending, buying, and rushing around. He remarks that he longs for the holidays that used to mean something, like inspiring hope, offering kindness, and remembering simple pleasures. In his impoverished neighborhood, he sees children that struggle for bare necessities and it breaks his heart to hear them ask for luxuries like toys and games that he knows they'll never receive.

Corwin has a soft spot for children but many adults are intolerable.

Corwin returns to work but he's too drunk--the store manager fires him. In a gut-wrenching soliloquy, Corwin explains to his boss Mr. Dundee that he drinks to excess in order to fantasize that the North Pole exists and to feel like he really is Santa Claus. All he wants is to offer hope to those in despair and ensure that the meek inherit the Earth. Corwin may be a drunk but TV viewers are on his side.

Corwin's heart is in the right place even if his frustrations in life keep him from succeeding.

Corwin is moved as he hears children ask Santa for toys as well as a job for a father and a holiday meal for the whole family. Their generosity inspires him to want to give more.

Walking the streets of his neighborhood in a grimy Santa suit, children are still filled with excitement to talk with the man of the hour. Touched by their pure hearts, Corwin makes his own Christmas wish--to be able to give everyone what they ask for.

TV viewers can hear the tinkling of the familiar carol "The First Noel" on music box chimes as we cross over into the Twilight Zone.

What a jackpot!

It is in this moment that the magic of Christmas and the wonder of the Twilight Zone meet. Stumbling down a back alley, Corwin finds a large sack filled with wrapped gifts! Joyful to have something to share with others, he grabs the bulging bag and runs out of the alley to give his gifts on Christmas Eve.

Corwin is caught up in the spirit of giving.

In a following scene, we see Corwin enter the local mission and offer to give everyone there whatever their hearts desire. As each soul steps forward and names what they would like, the bag offers up another wrapped package containing that item! One elderly man asks for a pipe and smoking jacket--and the bag produces them. Sister Florence, the head of the mission, doubts Corwin's offer of a brand new dress--but the bag supplies one upon request. The unbelievable news of the Christmas gifts is spreading around the streets and soon the police show up.

"You got a receipt for these gifts?"

Officer Flaherty questions Corwin about the expensive items he's handing out. When Corwin can't provide receipts to prove the items are paid for, the generous Santa is arrested and taken to the police station. Corwin's former boss Mr. Dundee is called into the station house to help identify the gift items which may have been stolen from the department store. But when the officer or Mr. Dundee reaches into the bag, all they find are empty tin cans. Without any evidence to hold him, Officer Flaherty lets Corwin go. Corwin continues to hand out wrapped packages and gifts the rest of the night to the people in the streets.

Mr. Dundee and Officer Flaherty can't make sense of the magical bag. It even offered up a vintage bottle of brandy when Dundee asked for one!

When the clock strikes midnight, Corwin finds his bag finally offers up its last goodies for Christmas. Exhausted and satisfied from the evening's activities, he sits down on a stoop in front of the mission. There, Corwin is joined by an old man--who earlier had asked for the pipe and smoking jacket. Corwin once again echoes his happiness in being able to give away tokens of joy this Christmas and brighten a few hearts. He only wishes he could do it again next year.

Can it be true?

In the kind of twist we have come to expect from the Twilight Zone, we see Corwin once again start into the alley nearby. Something new catches his eye--sure enough, there's a sleigh hooked up to a team of reindeer and an elf! The elf calls out to Santa and explains that they have to hurry back to the North Pole and begin preparing for next year's deliveries. Without question, Corwin gets in the sleigh with the elf and together they ride off.

Dundee and Flaherty can't believe their eyes when they see Santa and his sleigh fly overhead.

Cynicism transforms into hope...in the Twilight Zone.

This profoundly hopeful story was another written by Rod Serling himself. The story's depth of feeling is pretty remarkable considering its half hour length. The economy of storytelling and its universal message makes it as powerful today as it was more than 50 years ago when it was first broadcast. I find the story's wonderful mix of melancholy and hope to be its charm. A similar hybrid of melancholy and hope is what appeals to me as an adult to continue watching A Charlie Brown Christmas year after year.

Recognize the actor who plays Mr. Dundee? It's John Fiedler. He also played Mr. Peterson on The Bob Newhart Show for years.

"Night of the Meek" is so well known and loved that it was re-made for the new Twilight Zone series in the 1980s. The second version cast Richard Mulligan as Corwin--and the episode was directed by Martha Coolidge. Twilight Zone fans should definitely check it out. The 1985 episode still airs on TV when the new series runs in syndication.

Character actor Burt Mustin plays the old man who receives a pipe and smoking jacket for Christmas. LOVE Burt Mustin.

And, if you consider yourself a fan of Rod Serling's work, I recommend seeking out the 1965 movie Carol for Another Christmas--which usually airs on Turner Classic Movies channel each year. It's quite unusual but also profound. The Serling-written movie is an adaptation of Dickens' holiday tale that expresses the political perspective of promoting diplomacy in reaction to its Scrooge's isolationist views. It's amazing--and a one-of-a-kind installment of Cold War television.  (I've written extensively about it in both The Christmas TV Companion and Tis the Season TV).

Does this Twilight Zone episode make your top 10 list of Christmas episodes too? Tell me what you think.

1 comment: