Spencer’s Sanctorum Presents:
TWILIGHT ZONE – SEASON 2, EPISODE 11 – “Night of the Meek” (1960)
Review by Spencer Seams
Welcome to Spencer’s Sanctorum. This column is about old TV shows in the vein of Twilight Zone, One Step Beyond, and Kolchak, the Night Stalker. I seek out the weird, goofy, and underrated episodes, the ones that nobody talks about.
It’s that magical time of the year. The spirits of Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa fill the air. This means one thing: we’re flooded with too many Christmas specials. So why not celebrate by snuggling up with those you love and watching the classic Twilight Zone episode, “Night of the Meek.” It has a drunken Santa and very convenient magic. It’s a fun time. It debuted December 23, 1960. Our host, Rod Serling, wrote this holiday special. Behind the camera Jack Smight (MIDWAY, 1976) directed.
We start with a long line of excited children shaking from joy waiting for Santa Claus. Mr. Dundee (John Fiedler, voice of Piglet from WINNIE THE POOH, 1968-2005), the manager, is irate. Santa’s late. Smash cut to Henry Corwin (Art Carney, THE LAST ACTION HERO, 1993) wearing a Santa suit and slamming down whiskey in a shady bar. A couple of kids wave at him from the window. Bruce the bartender (Val Avery, THE MAGNIFICANT SEVEN, 1960) shoos them away. Henry’s mumbling, “Why isn’t there a real Santa Claus for kids like that?” Bruce doesn’t care. Henry’s an hour late for work but keeps drinking. He tries to steal the whiskey bottle but gets caught. Bruce throws this disgraced Santa out.
The kids from earlier find him stumbling around. Without warning, they assault him with their wish lists. Henry drunkenly stumbles his way to the mall. A pushy mom forces her son over to Santa. He wants a new name. His name is hilarious, it’s Percival Smithers. Henry mumbles something and Percy can smell the mist of whiskey surrounding Henry.
Henry tumbles forward into a bunch of boxes. Mr. Dundee fires him. He understands and monologues for a bit. You really get a sense of how pathetic his life is. Henry says, “I can drink or I can weep. Drinking is more subtle.” After talking for too long, he finally leaves. Sleigh bells ring-a-ding nearby, but from where? He stumbles into an alley. A stray cat runs by and knocks a bag of garbage on him. Ignoring it, Henry continues down the alley and hears sleigh bells again. He turns around. The bag is suddenly full of gifts.
Henry, still in the Santa suit, realizes he can be areal life Santa Claus. So he gives presents to everyone he can. The bag is magic. Whatever you say you want, it has, no matter what. At a nearby homeless shelter, an old man barges in and interrupts Sister Florence, who is leading Christmas hymns. The old man immediately tells them he hasn’t had a drop of alcohol in days. Everyone bursts out laughing. The old man informs them of Santa, but the good Sister is skeptical. Henry barges in and gives away presents. Sister Florence assumes it’s stolen goods and gets a cop.
The cop takes Henry away, who, drunk with the Spirit of Christmas, doesn’t resist. Mr. Dundee picks him up and finds the bag of trash. Henry is okay with it, he made people happy but the cop is flipping out. They decide to test it. Mr. Dundee asks for Cherry Brandy, Vintage 1903. Henry pulls out Cherry Brandy, Vintage 1903. The cop and Mr. Dundee drink together and send Henry on his way.
Henry gives away presents to children. Then, it’s out of presents. A kid asks him what he wants for Christmas. Henry wants to be the best gift-giver of all-time, to give out joy like this every year, only once a year though. Sleigh bells ring-a-ding again. He wanders down an alley and discovers a sleigh with reindeer. An elf informs him he has to deliver gifts around the world. He flies away. Mr. Dundee and the cop, arms around each other, drunkenly walk down the sidewalk. Henry flies by in the sleigh with the elf by his side. Mr. Dundee invites the cop back to his place for a drink and possibly more. The end.
It’s a sweet, endearing tale, but it’s also really weird. It’s twenty-five minutes long but the story is sparse in the first half. It feels like, when filming, they really took their time and then Jack Smight realized there was only a day left and crammed three days’ worth of shooting into one. So the flow goes from sluggish to the speed of light. I don’t like the random magic, there’s no reason for it to exist in the story. This is one of six episodes shot on video instead of film. It looks noticeably cheap. This only hurts it. Before Henry, there was no Santa Claus, so out of nowhere through the magic of the Twilight Zone it turns an alcoholic homeless man into Santa Claus. I can buy a goblin on a plane, but this very specific magic that shows up out of nowhere is a bit much.
At no point was there an attempt by Henry to deal with his alcoholism, so within that universe Santa is a self-destructive alcoholic. This can’t lead to anything good. He appeared fine at the end of episode, but how long until he needs his fix again? Is the North Pole dry? Is it safe for humanity to have a Santa with an “elbow problem?” Is Santa immortal? Is Santa a chosen one of some kind? Why Henry? Will Henry eventually die? Also what were the elves doing that whole time? They would have been discovered, exploited and tossed aside by American culture now. If anything, they would have been Corman regulars by this point.
However there are some things I like about this one. The Christmas message is mixed; it’s about spreading joy and love, but through materialism of course. I can ignore that. Mr. Dundee and the cop’s chemistry was really cute and evolved very quickly from strangers to being best buds (or more possibly)? Usually I’m not a sucker for this kind of story, but Henry starts with a fatalistic, helpless outlook and it morphs into a humanistic, upbeat outlook. He can change and improve, make himself better. While it happens more or less out of nowhere, he gives that sad speech after being fired and the next scene he finds the magic bag. Then bam! he’s found his purpose in life. I could pick on it more, but it got to me. Art Carney gives an amazing performance; it saves this from being a lesser episode like, “Mr. Bevis.”
I give it…three and a half knives. Gather up your family and loved ones and watch this sweet, strange tale of Christmas cheer and barely functional alcoholism.
© Copyright 2014 by Spencer Seams
Spencer Seams gives “Night of the Meek“ ~ three and a half knives!