How appropriate that we should watch this famous Christmas installment of The Twilight Zone now, during this season of mall Santas. “The Night of the Meek” was written by Rod Serling and stars Art Carney – heavens! another future Batvillain – as Henry Corwin, a bum who dresses as Santa, badly, for a department store every December.
How lousy a Santa is Corwin? A few years ago, I was doing some social media stuff for the Children’s Museum of Atlanta, where we’d hired a Santa for our members’ holiday bash. I asked him to wink for the camera for a sweet little picture and he couldn’t do it without opening his other eye and his mouth like some deranged alcoholic pirate bellowing about doubloons. We didn’t use the photos. Henry Corwin is about that bad. He looks dirty and drunk because he is dirty and drunk. It’s startling that the store allowed him in the building, never mind built their holiday expectations around him.
Our son was a little skeptical and I made sure to clarify that this is not Santa Claus, but a man named Corwin. But the line between the two begins to blur and he was incredibly pleased with what happens next. He loved it when Corwin’s grouchy manager, played by John Fielder, gets a hilariously specific gift from Santa’s bag, and the charming, inevitable, climax certainly thrilled him. Not a bad little Christmas episode, really.
Interestingly, the producers tried to save money this season by videotaping six of the 29 episodes instead of filming them. This is one of three that I plan for us to watch, and I found it completely fascinating. It’s a little cramped and hard to believe – whenever anybody tries recreating a busy street in a studio, it’s not going to completely work – but I was so impressed by how the director kept the world they were building fluid and moving. I would have loved to have been in the studio when they taped this.
Over the last few years, there’s been a bad math meme that keeps going around, exposing the poor arithmetic of the gullible. It goes something like how if the government is going to spend $2 billion on Project X, they could just give all 240 million of us citizens a million dollars instead. The meme is made further heartbreaking because it’s inevitably shared on Facebook by somebody that you sat with in Ms. Montfort’s algebra class in the eleventh grade.
The Archer has some inside help in part two of this story. Surprising absolutely nobody over the age of six, the Wayne Foundation’s treasurer Alan A. Dale is a traitor. If the character’s name wasn’t a giveaway to people unfamiliar with Robin Hood, the actor, Robert Cornthwaite, is playing him so snootily and fussily that he just can’t be a good guy. He’s meant to be overseeing the Wayne Foundation’s charity giveaway of $10 million to 100,000 of its poorest citizens.
This means that all 100,000 of them get called in reverse alphabetical order to receive a brand new $100 bill, meaning everybody’s going to be there all darn day. And the first to take the podium is the legendary actor Sam Jaffe, in an uncredited role as Zoltan Zorba. Jaffe was very well known to viewers at the time for his role as Dr. Zorba in Ben Casey, and he spots the bill as a phony, in part because he brought a magnifying glass onto the stage, and in part because the Archer did not merely go to the trouble of obtaining $10 million in counterfeit money, he printed money with his own face in place of Ben Franklin’s. We’ve already established that the character is a raging egotist, but that must have taken a little time!
Anyway, other name parts in the cast are Barbara Nichols, whom imdb describes with some accuracy as “an archetypal brassy, bosomy, Brooklynesque bimbo,” and Vinton Hayworth, later to co-star in I Dream of Jeannie, as yet another Gotham civic official, this one both an old fraternity brother of Commissioner Gordon’s and a former governor(!), whose principal job description seems to be “overact, as much as possible.”
Conventional wisdom has it that season two of Batman is one long slide into mediocrity and repetition, but at least since Stanley Ralph Ross, the program’s best writer, got to pen the season opener, it starts with a good script. It’s not directed well, and the performances are all pretty lousy, and having a Robin Hood-themed villain steal from Bruce Wayne is a bit obvious, but it’s still just a little odd, and that’s a good thing.
The quirk this time out is that the Archer is embraced by Gotham’s poor and downtrodden, who spend all their days on a studio backlot street huddled around a hot dog cart and dressed like Daisy Mae from Li’l Abner – I’m pretty sure that one of the extras is wearing the same dress that Sherry Jackson wore in episode 31 – and after Batman and Robin capture him, the people of Gotham City cobble together $50,000 for his bail. Have I mentioned how downright dumb the people of Gotham are?
Daniel was not really interested in this episode, but that’s in part our fault because we overlooked that he doesn’t know who Robin Hood is. The Archer’s played by Art Carney, deliberately reading the goofball, cod-Shakespeare dialogue in a broad New Yawk accent. Also hanging out in this episode to get his face in front of all the millions of hip viewers is American Bandstand‘s host, Dick Clark. He’s the second of the window interruption cameos, following Jerry Lewis in season one. They somehow shoehorned him in while forgetting that Batman and Robin were climbing down from Commissioner Gordon’s office. We can only conclude from this that the police department rents out rooms on the second floor of their building to TV hosts.
So no, it’s not very good, but the concept of a villain who’s more popular than Batman is a great idea and deserved a little better than this. I wish Art Carney was acting as though he cared even a little about this job. In 1977, he was in an amazingly good film called The Late Show. I would much, much, much rather watch that than part two of this.