Monday, August 5, 2013

"The Night of the Meek"

Art Carney as the lovable loser Henry Corwin

“The Night of the Meek”
Season Two, Episode 47
Original Air Date: December 23, 1960

Henry Corwin: Art Carney
Mr. Dundee: John Fiedler
Officer Flaherty: Robert P. Lieb
Bartender: Val Avery
Sister Florence: Meg Wyllie
Burt: Burt Mustin
Irate Mother: Kay Cousins
Girl in store: Andrea Darvi
Elf: Larrian Gillespie
Man in shelter: Matthew McCue
Boy in street: Jimmy Garrett
Percival Smithers: ???

Writer: Rod Serling (original teleplay)
Director: Jack Smight
Producer: Buck Houghton
Associate Producer: Del Reisman
Art Direction: Craig Smith
Set Decoration: Arthur Jeph Parker
Lighting Director: Tom D. Schamp
Technical Director: Jim Brady
Associate Director: James Clark
Casting: Ethel Winant
Music: Stock

“And Now Mr. Serling:”
“This may look to you like any dismal, dark and dingy alley that lies skulking off the million myriad shadow-places off the main drags. Actually, it’s the private domain of leprechauns and elves and supplies the locale of next week’s Twilight Zone. With us for a very special occasion is Mr. Art Carney, who plays the role of a department store Santa Claus. And he plays it with the heart, the warmth and the vast talent that is uniquely Carney. On the Twilight Zone next week, ‘The Night of the Meek.’”

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:
“This is Mr. Henry Corwin, normally unemployed, who once a year takes the lead role in the uniquely popular America institution, that of the department-store Santa Claus in a road company version of ‘The Night Before Christmas.’ But in just a moment Mr. Henry Corwin, ersatz Santa Claus, will enter a strange kind of North Pole which is one part the wondrous spirit of Christmas and one part the magic that can only be found…in the Twilight Zone.”

          Henry Corwin sits alone in a dingy bar in the hopeless part of town. It’s Christmas Eve. Corwin earns his beer money playing Santa Claus at a local department store. The bartender informs him that it is now six in the evening and Corwin realizes he is late for work. As he fishes his last crumpled dollar bill out of his pocket to buy a drink for the road he eyes two children clothed in rags peering through the window to get a glimpse of Santa Claus. He waves at them with a smile on his face. He turns to the bartender and asks him why poor children have to be excluded from Santa Claus. Growing irritated the bartender ushers him to the door. Outside he meets two children dressed in dirty clothes who begin asking him for Christmas presents. One of them asks him to give his father a job for Christmas. Corwin bursts into tears.
                Back at the department store where Corwin works, a line of hopeful children and irate parents stand waiting for Santa Claus, who is now considerably late. Corwin arrives and takes his seat in Santa’s chair but drunkenly flops out of it onto the floor. His manager, Mr. Dundee, promptly informs him that he is fired.  Corwin apologizes for coming to work intoxicated. He says that he drinks because he cannot stand to watch the poverty happening all around him. He walks solemnly out of the store. 
                Corwin wonders aimlessly in the freezing snow.  He has nowhere to go, no one to go to and doesn’t know where he will sleep tonight. He stumbles upon a large bag filled with presents.  Wanting to give the children in his neighborhood the Christmas they deserve he throws the bag over his shoulder and walks down the street shouting “Merry Christmas!”
                Later at the local homeless shelter, Corwin walks in with his bag full of presents. The bag, he says, will give a person exactly what they ask for. To prove this he asks an old man named Burt what he wants. Burt says that he wants a new pipe. Corwin reaches into his bag and retrieves a brand new tobacco pipe. He continues his gift giving until he is confronted by Sister Florence, the nun in charge of the shelter. She demands to know where Corwin got this bag of gifts. He says he doesn’t know and then offers her a new dress from his bag. She storms out of the shelter before Corwin has time to give her the dress. She returns minutes later with a police officer. Officer Flaherty also asks Corwin where the bag of gifts came from and asks him if he has a receipt. Corwin declares that he does not have a receipt. With no other choice the officer decides to haul Corwin to jail until they can figure out who the gifts belong to. 
                Down at the precinct Corwin is greeted by none other than his recent employer, Mr. Dundee. Officer Flaherty believes that Corwin stole the presents from the department store. Mr. Dundee is disgusted and immediately launches into a rant about how he always knew that Corwin was a criminal. As he says this he begins taking items out of Corwin’s bag. Expecting gifts stolen from the department store, he instead pulls out industrial size cans of food and an alley cat. Officer Flaherty lets Corwin go. Dundee turns to Flaherty and launches into another rant, this time about Flaherty’s inefficient police work. In an effort to make Flaherty feel incompetent Dundee turns to Corwin and mockingly asks the makeshift Santa for a bottle of vintage cherry brandy. Corwin goes to his bag and pulls out an unopened bottle of brandy and hands it to his former employer. He smiles and politely makes his exit.
               Outside, midnight is only moments away. Corwin stands on a street corner handing out presents to hopeful children.  As the clock strikes twelve in the distance Corwin manages to find one last present for his last awaiting child. As the children disperse Corwin discovers that his bag is empty. Burt, the old man from the shelter, tells Corwin that he spent so much time giving out presents to all the children that he didn’t take anything for himself. Corwin tells Burt that he got exactly what he wanted. He only wishes that he could hand out presents to children every year. He wishes Burt a Merry Christmas and begins walking down the street only to find a sleigh hitched to eight reindeer and what appears to be an elf waiting for him around the corner. Corwin takes his seat in the sleigh next to the elf and they ride off into the night.
                Back at the precinct an inebriated Flaherty and Dundee stumble out of the station doors into the snow-covered street. They hear the faint sound of sleigh bells. They look to the sky and catch a brief glimpse of Corwin and his eight tiny reindeer.  They look at one another, dumbfounded, but decide not to question what they have seen and simply thank God for Christmas miracles.

Rod Serling’s Closing Monologue:
“A word to the wise to all the children of the twentieth century whether their concern be pediatrics or geriatrics.  Whether they crawl on hands and knees and wear diapers or walk with a cane and comb their beards. There’s a wondrous magic to Christmas and there’s a special power reserved for little people. In short there is nothing mightier than the meek. And a Merry Christmas to each and all."


"Henry Corwin sat at the bar, a moth-eaten Santa Claus outfit engulfing his sparse frame. Discolored whiskers hanging from a rubber band covered his chest like a napkin. His cocky little cap, with the white snowball at the end, hung down over his eyes. He picked up his eighth glass of inexpensive rye, blew the snowball off to one side, and deftly slipped the shot glass toward his mouth, downing the drink in one gulp."
           -"The Night of the Meek," New Stories from the Twilight Zone

          It is no surprise that Rod Serling, who was born and raised Jewish, had a warm fascination with the Christmas season. According to Widow Carol Serling, as a child Serling would beg his father for a Christmas tree. He seemed to see Christmas more as an American tradition than a celebration of spiritual faith, although spirituality would usually still play a part in Serling’s Christmas-related scripts.  The ideas of good will towards men and fairness are themes that can be seen throughout much of Serling’s work on The Twilight Zone and elsewhere. Christmas fits right in with the Norman Rockwell/Frank Capra ideology that Serling subscribed to. And Henry Corwin as the drunken but good-natured Santa Claus is a classic Serling protagonist, the likable loser, who finds a common thread with characters like Joey Crown, Al Denton, Jackie Rhodes, Bolie Jackson, Henry Bemis and a host of other figures from the Serling catalog. Serling named the character after radio dramatist Norman Corwin. Although there are several other episodes that take place around the holiday season like Season One’s “What You Need” and Season Three’s “Five Character’s in Search of an Exit” and “The Changing of the Guard,” “The Night of the Meek” would be the only episode that directly explored the holiday.
                “The Night of the Meek” has proven to be a fan favorite over the years. The fan rating on The Internet Movie Database currently gives it a 7.8/10 and it is regularly shown in syndication and was even remade for the first Twilight Zone revival series in 1985. This is certainly a reflection of the popular culture’s fondness for this story. I have to admit that this is not one of my favorite episodes of the show. Over time it has grown on me but not enough for me to recommend it to someone not familiar with the show. As we have mentioned several times comedy was usually not something that the Zone excelled at, although there are some exceptions. This is not one of them. I find the humorous scenes stilted and predictable. And I can’t really point to any of the performances as exemplary ones although there are several fine actors in the cast. The fact that this episode was shot on video tape (which in high definition doesn’t do the fake snow any favors) only helps to further my disfavor for it. Still, there are many redeeming qualities to be found here. Serling and Director Jack Smight manage to capture the magic of Christmas and the surreal atmosphere of Christmas Eve in the city. And as it is a Christmas story it was presumably intended for children, who were now a significant minority of the show's fanbase, and indeed has a very child-like quality. 
                According to producer Buck Houghton, Serling wrote this entire episode specifically with Art Carney in mind. Carney and Serling had worked together previously in Serling’s semi-autobiographical Playhouse 90 script The Velvet Alley (also directed by Jack Smight) where he played a struggling writer who finally makes it only to go through the trials and tribulations of his newly found fame. His performance in this earlier play is remarkable.  Like most performers of his generation, Carney began his career in radio before graduating to television. He gained widespread notoriety working opposite Jackie Gleason for his role as Ed Norton in the numerous incarnations of The Honeymooners for which he earned six Emmy Awards. In 1974 he won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in Harry and Tonto, his first film role. 
William Atherton and Richard Mulligan in
the 1985 remake of "Night of the Meek."
         In 1985 the first revival series remade this story into a surprisingly enjoyable episode. 
Directed by Martha Coolidge, it is faithful to the original in tone but takes some liberties with the plot without straying too far from Serling’s storyline. Set in 1985 in contemporary New York City the story begins as Mr. Dundee (portrayed brilliantly by William Atherton) searches his crowded department store on Christmas Eve looking for their hired Santa (played by the great Richard Mulligan), who is running considerably late. Cut to the familiar scene in the bar where Corwin, dressed in his Santa suit, is trying to buy another drink but has no money. As he gets up to leave he magically discovers two dollars in his coat pocket. Outside he gives a dollar each to two children from the neighborhood. He arrives at the store so intoxicated he can barely stand and upon seeing his condition Mr. Dundee abruptly fires him. Later in his shabby apartment (a step up from Carney’s Corwin who is presumably homeless) Corwin steps outside to throw away a bag of garbage but when he drops it on the ground an avalanche of toys spill out of it. Corwin takes to the streets screaming to the neighborhood children that he has presents for them all. Later, as Mr. Dundee is driving home, he notices a commotion in the streets. He stops his car to investigate and finds Corwin, along with the department store security guard (played by Teddy Wilson) handing out presents to the people of the neighborhood. Suspecting that he has been robbed, Dundee demands to know where Corwin got all of the presents. Later, when the cops arrive, they demand that Corwin show them a receipt for all of the merchandise. He reaches into his bag and pulls out a handful of receipts from the department store and hands them to Dundee. The last scene in the episode has a dumbfounded Dundee sitting on the steps of an apartment building wondering how Corwin managed to scheme him. Corwin walks by and sits down beside him and pulls a custom-made winter coat out of his bag, a present for Dundee’s wife that was accidentally sold in the department store earlier that day. Dundee is speechless. He asks Corwin what he wants for Christmas and Corwin replies that he only wishes he could do this again every year. 
Back in his apartment Corwin catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror and sees that he has a full, natural beard and has gained about fifty pounds. Thus, he is the new Santa Claus. Set in the poverty-stricken inner city at the height of the Reagan era this remake seems to hit closer to home than the original, although Serling’s message is a timeless one. 
                Although I might be alone among fans in disliking this episode I do appreciate its place in The Twilight Zone universe and don’t mind at all that it is one of the lasting images from the program, one that the culture still talks about today. I don’t consider it to be among the worst that the show had to offer but it has its problems. While I like Christmas stories, even well-worn, maudlin family dramas, I don’t think they fit well within the sophisticated aesthetic that the show would be remembered for.  It is also fair to point out that Serling thought this episode was “an abomination” and pointed to video tape as the main cause for his disappointment.

Grade: C

Grateful acknowledgment is made to The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic by Martin Grams, Jr. (OTR, 2008)

--John Fiedler also appears in Season Three’s “Cavender is Coming.”
--Burt Wilson also appears in Season Three’s “Kick the Can.”
--The last line of Serling's closing narration was cut for time when the show was sold into syndication and was thought to be lost. It can be heard on the 2016 CBS Blu-ray edition.
--“The Night of the Meek”  was adapted into a short story by Rod Serling for his collection New Stories from the Twilight Zone (Bantam, 1962). As mentioned, it was adapted for the first Twilight Zone revival series which aired on December 20, 1985 on CBS. It was also made into a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Chris McDonald.

Up Next:
Next time the Vortex will take you to a small Mexican village where divine intervention may or may not be at play in the hanging of a young man. That’s next time, when we review an episode called simply, “Dust.” Thanks for reading and see you soon.

--Brian Durant