Wednesday, September 10, 2014

"The Silence"

Archie Taylor (Franchot Tone) being chastised by his
friend (Jonathon Harris)

“The Silence”
Season Two, Episode 61
Original Airdate: April 28, 1961

 
Cast:
Archie Taylor: Franchot Tone
Jamie Tennyson: Liam Sullivan
George Alfred: Jonathon Harris
Franklin, the Butler: Cyril Delevanti
Man #1: Everett Glass
Man #2: Felix Locher
Man #3: John Holland

 
Crew:
Writer: Rod Serling (original teleplay)
Director: Boris Sagal
Producer: Buck Houghton
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Associate Producer: Del Reisman
Music: Stock

 
And Now, Mr. Serling:
“There are all kinds of wagers and all kinds of odds, from the spin of a roulette wheel to a two-dollar across the board at a race track. But next week, on the Twilight Zone, with the aid of Mr. Franchot Tone, we tell the story of possibly the strangest bet ever to occur in the annals of chance. Our program is called ‘The Silence.’ I hope we’ll see you then.
            “Here’s something that doesn’t require any imagination. It’s Oasis. If you just took this puff, you’d agree. It’s the softest taste of all. Before we meet again, try Oasis for the softest taste of all.”


Rod Serling’s Opening Monologue:
            “The note that this man is carrying across a club room is in the form of a proposed wager, but it’s the kind of wager that comes with a precedent. It stands alone in the annals of bet-making as the strangest game of chance ever afforded by one man to another. In just a moment, we’ll see the terms of the wager and what young Mr. Tennyson does about it. And in the process, we’ll witness all parties spin a wheel of chance in a very bizarre casino called…the Twilight Zone.”

 
Summary:
Jamie Tennyson is a verbose young man who will stop at nothing to steal the ear of anyone willing to listen. Archie Taylor is an aging, irritable curmudgeon with an unrelenting distaste for young Mr. Tennyson. Both men are members of a prestigious men’s club.  One evening, as Tennyson tries unsuccessfully to gain the admiration and attention of his fellow club members, Taylor has the butler bring a note over to him. After reading it, Tennyson confronts Taylor at once. Taylor makes public the information contained in his note. He has grown tired of Tennyson’s constant chattering and his perpetual attempt to sucker club members into granting him a “loan.” He proposes a bet. He bets that Tennyson cannot keep silent for an entire year. He says that Tennyson is to stay in an enclosed living room made of glass so he can be observed by Taylor or any other club member at any time, with microphones monitoring his every movement. He asks the club members for permission to use the basement as part of his wager. If he can do this Taylor will pay him $500,000. Tennyson accepts the bet and leaves the club white with humiliation.
Over the course of the year that Tennyson is held captive Taylor makes many trips to the glass prison. He attempts to persuade young Tennyson to give up the fight and leave the prison at once. If Tennyson is willing to give up early Taylor will give him a severance prize of $5,000 for his effort.  Tennyson doesn’t budge.  Later, Taylor resorts to feeding Tennyson adulterous lies about his wife. Heartbroken but determined to win the bet Tennyson stays in the prison. And he never says a word.
A year to the day that Jamie Tennyson voluntarily shut himself off from the world, Archie Taylor stands in a room surrounded by his fellow club members, sick with anxiety. As the clock strikes ten young Tennyson emerges from the basement. He makes his way across the crowded lobby to Taylor and holds out his hand in demand of his payment for a challenge fulfilled. It is here that Taylor admits that he cannot fulfill his end of the bargain. When he made the bet he never expected the young man to actually go through with it.  He simply meant to embarrass him. He admits that he lost his inheritance many years ago.  He is now penniless and cannot pay even a fraction of Tennyson’s reward. Shamefully, he informs the club members that he will resign and never show his face there again. Tennyson grabs a notepad begins to scribble something down. Urged by the club members to use his voice, he instead hands the notepad to Taylor.  Taylor reads it aloud: I KNEW I COULD NOT FULFILL MY END OF THE BARGAIN. SO ONE YEAR AGO I HAD THE NERVES TO MY VOCAL CORDS SEVERED. Tennyson then removes a scarf from around his neck revealing the scar from his surgery. 


Rod Serling’s Closing Monologue:
            “Mr. Jamie Tennyson, who almost won a bet, but who discovered somewhat belatedly that gambling can be a most unproductive pursuit, even with loaded dice, marked cards, or as in his case, some severed vocal cords. For somewhere beyond him a wheel was severed and his number came up black thirteen. If you don’t believe it, ask the croupier, the very special one who handles roulette…in the Twilight Zone.”

 
Commentary:
            “The Silence” is an atypical Twilight Zone episode in that it is completely void of any sort of fantasy element. It is perhaps the only episode in which this can be said. There are other episodes of the show which cannot be appropriately labeled “fantasy,” such as the pilot episode “Where is Everybody?” and Season Two’s “King Nine Will Not Return.” But there is at least a hint of implied fantasy in those episodes even if the twist in both reveals that the fantasy is only in the minds of the protagonists. But “The Silence” is an episode that at no time suggests that there may possibly be a fantastical element at work. Instead is a simple crime tale that would be more comfortable in an issue of E.C. Comics or an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
            “The Silence” has become a controversial episode among both fans and critics of the show due to its alleged source material. Although this episode is credited solely to Serling it has been compared by several researchers to Anton Chekov’s 1889 short story “The Bet,” although it has never been confirmed that Serling based his story on Chekov’s. “The Bet” tells the story of an aging banker who bets a feisty young attorney two million dollars that he cannot remain in solitary confinement for fifteen years. The attorney takes the bet. While there is no clause about remaining silent the same general setup is applied here. The attorney is to remain in a secured cell in a lodge on the banker’s property. He is not allowed to leave the cell but unlike Serling’s story he is not allowed to see other human beings. To request books, musical instruments, wine, tobacco or food he is to submit a hand written request through a tiny window made specifically for that purpose. While he is incarcerated the attorney begins a quest to read as many books as he can get his hands on. History, religion, linguistics, political manifestos, literature, etc. His hair and beard grow long and unkempt. He appears at times to be enduring emotional torture for crying can often be heard coming from his cell. During the attorney’s time in prison the banker suffers numerous financial setbacks. He squanders his money on bad investments and at the end of the fifteen years he is substantially poorer than when he first proposed to the attorney the absurd wager. If he pays the attorney the two million it will ruin him. He decides instead to murder the attorney and spare himself from poverty. He sneaks into the attorney’s cell and finds the emaciated prisoner asleep. He also finds a handwritten note and he decides to read it. The attorney states that he no longer needs the two million dollars. He believes himself to be far wiser than when he when he accepted the bet. He rejects the value that society places on material goods. To prove his point he later leaves his cell mere minutes before his fifteen year sentence is over, sparing the banker his millions.
            Whether or not this story is at all based on the Chekov story is debatable and ultimately will never be known. If it is then Serling’s ending takes the story in a very different direction and changes it from one of psychological and social didacticism to one of psychological horror. Serling did comment on the similarities of the two stories years later in a lecture at Ithaca College stating that he was not familiar with the Chekov story when he wrote “The Silence” but stated that there are many different directions that one could have taken a protagonist with this setup. Regardless, his double twist denouement here is effectively horrifying.          
            Franchot Tone (1905 – 1968) was a veteran star of stage and screen. He is remembered today most notably for his role in Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor. Other notable films include Dancing Lady (1935), Five Graves to Cairo (1943), Phantom Lady (1945), The Man on the Eiffel Tower (1949) and Advise and Consent (1962). Tone, mirroring his personal life, was often cast as an urbane socialite similar to his role here. In interviewing the cast and crew of this episode Marc Scot Zicree uncovered an interesting dilemma on the set involving Tone. Director Boris Sagal shot the scenes in the lobby of the men’s club on the first day of the production. On the second day, however, when they were to begin shooting the scenes that take place in the game room where Tennyson’s cell is located, Tone didn’t show up to the set on time. After waiting several hours for him the producers finally got in touch with his agent. When Tone eventually made it to the set the left side of his face was badly scarred. There are several versions as to why his faced looked so terrible. One is that Tone simply fell down a steep hill smashing his face on rocks. There is another story, however, that has Tone being beaten after he made a pass at another man’s girlfriend. Whatever the story, Sagal was pressed to figure out a way to shoot Tone so that his scars would not be seen. His solution was to shoot Tone either in profile or simply shoot close-ups of only half of his face with a steal beam (part of Tennyson’s cell) covering up the left side. The effect worked and actually adds a lot to the scene and to Tone’s character.

 
Grade: B

Notes:
--Boris Segal also directed the Season Three episode “The Arrival.” He also directed the 1971 film The Omega Man, an adaptation of Richard Matheson's novel I Am Legend.
--Liam Sullivan also appears in the Season Three episode “The Changing of the Guard.”
--Jonathon Harris also appears in the Season Two episode “Twenty-Two.”
--This episode was adapted into a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Chris McDonald.

 
--Brian Durant

Monday, August 11, 2014

"The Rip Van Winkle Caper"

From left: Oscar Beregi (as Farwell), Simon Oakland (as DeCruz) and Lew Gallo (as Brooks)
"The Rip Van Winkle Caper"
Season Two, Episode 60
Original Air Date: April 21, 1961

Cast:
Farwell: Oscar Beregi
DeCruz: Simon Oakland
Brooks: Lew Gallo
Erbie: John Mitchum
Man on Road: Wallace Rooney
Woman on Road: Shirley O'Hara

Crew:
Writer: Rod Serling (original teleplay)
Director: Justus Addiss
Producer: Buck Houghton
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Music: Stock

And Now, Mr. Serling:
"We've told some oddball stories on the Twilight Zone but none of them any more weird then next week's tale. Four men plan a heist the likes of which have never before been entered into the annals of crime. At which point, according to plan, they take a brief vacation from reality and they spend it in the Twilight Zone. Next week on the Twilight Zone, 'The Rip Van Winkle Caper.' I hope you will be among the bystanders."

Rod Serling's Opening Narration:
"Introducing four experts in the questionable art of crime. Mr. Farwell, expert on noxious gases. Former professor with a doctorate in both chemistry and physics. Mr. Erbie, expert on mechanical engineering. Mr. Brooks, expert in the use of firearms and other weaponry. And Mr. DeCruz, expert in demolition and various forms of destruction. The time is now. And the place is a mountain cave in Death Valley, U.S.A. In just a moment, these four men will utilize the service of a truck placed in cosmoline, loaded with a hot heist cooled off by a century of sleep, and then take a drive into the Twilight Zone."

Summary:
                Four thieves (Farwell, DeCruz, Brooks, and Erbie) escape to a hidden cave in the desert in a truck loaded with gold. The company is led by Farwell, an expert on noxious gases. We learn that Farwell has used this expertise to put to sleep the entire company of a train hauling the gold, allowing to thieves to simply drive away with the loot. Now, at the hideout, Farwell reveals the remainder of his plan. Within the cave are four objects which resemble glass coffins. It is within these containers that the four thieves will be put to sleep by one of Farwell's gases. The plan is to sleep undisturbed, and physically unchanged, for a century. When they wake up they will be free to spend the gold as they please, knowing that anyone that would still be searching for them will be long dead.
                The only member of the company that seems wary of this plan is highly-strung DeCruz, who is eventually outnumbered and bullied by Brooks into going along with the plan. The four men get into the containers and, following Farwell's systematic instructions, put themselves to sleep.
                Upon waking, the men believe that the plan did not work and that they have not slept long at all. It is only upon the discovery of the corpse of Erbie, now only a skeleton whose flesh has long since rotted away, do the men realize that the plan has worked. They have awakened into the next century.
                The tense confrontations between DeCruz and Brooks finally escalates to the point of murder when DeCruz uses the truck to run Brooks over and then further proceeds to send their only means of transportation off the side of a steep cliff. The only choice for DeCruz and Farwell is to pack the gold in backpacks and to walk across the desert in search of civilization.
                The men soon find a road to follow but see no signs of a population. The going is tough on Farwell who is out of shape and has accidentally left his water canteen behind. He begs DeCruz for some water to which DeCruz charges Farwell a gold bar for each drink. As the going gets rougher and Farwell needs more water, he realizes that DeCruz will eventually charge him the entirety of his share of gold and decides to ensure his own survival by bludgeoning DeCruz to death with a gold bar.
                When Farwell finally finds another person along the road, he is all but dead, lying baked and blistered. With his dying words he offers the man who has found him gold in exchange for a ride into town. Farwell dies before the man can reply. The man, dressed in unconventional clothes, returns to his futuristic vehicle alongside the road where a woman passenger asks him what has happened. The man explains that Farwell offered him gold as though it were valuable. The woman finds that odd and says so. Gold hasn't been valuable for years, ever since they discovered a method of manufacturing it.

Rod Serling's Closing Narration:
"The last of four Rip Van Winkles who all died precisely the way they lived, chasing an idol across the sand to wind up bleached dry in the hot sun as so much desert flotsam, worthless as the gold bullion they built a shrine to. Tonight's lesson in the Twilight Zone."

Commentary:
Shirley O'Hara in the car from Forbidden Planet (1956)
                "The Rip Van Winkle Caper" is most favorably viewed as an actor's showcase which displays the considerable talents of two veteran character actors, Oscar Beregi, Jr. (billed only as Oscar Beregi) and Simon Oakland. The deficiencies of the episode result from a hurried shooting and the reuse of the location of the previous episode, "A Hundred Yards Over the Rim."Some thematic problems arise from the uneven nature of Rod Serling's script, which creates two great characters but sends them on an illogical and derivative course of action and resolution.
                The episode was filmed on location in the desert outside Lone Pine, California immediately following the filming of the previous episode. The desert outside of Lone Pine was also utilized on the second season opener, "King Nine Will Not Return." Although Cayuga Productions incurred some additional costs with the episode (constructing the fake cave wall and the glass sleep chambers) some cost cutting measures are apparent in two areas. The thieves' truck, complete with the same decals, was previously used in "A Hundred Yards Over the Rim" (it is the truck which passes Cliff Robertson and lets him know he has wandered into the twentieth century). A prop futuristic vehicle (which is not seen in motion in the episode) from MGM's 1956 science fiction film Forbidden Planet is also reused in the episode’s finale. Cayuga Productions often utilized available MGM props and footage while shooting on the MGM backlot and often looked to Forbidden Planet for inspiration in the prop and footage department.
                Though the script is excellently paced and provides a great, dual character showcase, the major problem is the absurd and illogical nature of the twist. Though the show is fondly remembered for some of the twist endings ("Time Enough at Last" and "To Serve Man" come to mind) it is unfortunate that Serling and company felt compelled to fit every episode with the requisite twist as it created some very unusual and often unsuccessful endings. The maddening irony of the script for "The Rip Van Winkle Caper" is that the characters actually discuss what would have been a better ending when Farwell and DeCruz discuss awakening in a hundred years only to find a world destroyed by atomic war. Had this in fact been the twist, the greedy men having killed each other after awakening in a world where atomic war has rendered gold useless, it would have been much more devastating than the camp science fiction ending with the silly and whimsical accompanying musical flourish. Not to mention that this alternate ending would have been right in line with Serling's usual method of confronting social issues (in this case atomic war at the height of the Cold War) in his scripts.
                What we are presented with instead is basically a variation on author B. Traven's Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a 1927 novel that was famously filmed in 1948 by John Huston, starring Humphrey Bogart, with a science fictional twist. Where the script excels, and where lies all of Serling's best writing, is in the characters. In the hands of a talented actor or actress, a Rod Serling character walks onto the screen fully formed. Serling was an actor's writer and his dialogue alone could elevate a performance. For “The Rip Van Winkle Caper,” Serling’s script was gifted with two talented actors.
Oscar Beregi (1918-1976), as Farwell, made a career out of playing the villain and characters stereotyped as German or Russian (psychologists, Nazis, etc.). Beregi, of Hungarian descent, was the son of Oscar Beregi, Sr., an actor who appeared frequently on the German stage at the turn of the 20th century and moved into German silent cinema in 1919, eventually appearing in Fritz Lang’s 1933 film Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse. In the episode, Beregi manages to illicit sympathy for Farwell despite the illegal nature of the plot because Beregi plays Farwell as intellectual and much less savage than the other three men, who are written as brutes. Beregi is fondly remembered for his three appearances on The Twilight Zone, especially his unforgettable turn as a vicious ex-Nazi in Rod Serling’s excellent third season episode "Deaths-Head Revisited." He appeared a third time on the show in one of the handful of successful hour long episodes from the fourth season, "Mute," by Richard Matheson. Beregi also appeared on episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Thriller, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Mission: Impossible, and The Wild, Wild West among many other appearances on the small screen.
                Brooklyn born former concert violinist and Broadway character player Simon Oakland (1915-1983), here playing Hispanic DeCruz, is best remembered for his many “tough guy” roles, including the most disliked portion of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), this being the expository epilogue where Oakland plays a psychologist who explains Norman Bates' mental state. Though the scene is almost universally disliked, Oakland plays it well, faultlessly delivering a sizable chunk of dialogue. The character of DeCruz is on the opposite end of the spectrum from Norman Bates’ shrink, however, and it can seem abrupt upon repeat viewings how quickly DeCruz changes from wary and worrisome to savage and homicidal, as though by killing Brooks he has taken over an aspect of that man's personality. Oakland would appear again on the show in the forgettable fourth season episode, "The Thirty Fathom Grave."
                "The Rip Van Winkle Caper" does have some nice touches. The pace is frantic, the mood suspenseful, and the episode doesn't drag one bit, probably lending to its constant rotation in syndication. It is certainly one of the most viewed of the non-classic episodes. The location shooting is well done, the heat of the setting palpable, and little touches, such as the makeup department progressively applying blister makeup on Oscar Beregi, including upon the actor’s lips, also add to the verisimilitude of the Death Valley desert setting. Of course, the most macabre touch in the episode is the discovery that Erbie’s sleep chamber has suffered a crack from a falling rock, leaving only a decayed skeleton after so many years asleep. Rod Serling would place a similar scene into the screenplay of 20th Century Fox’s classic 1968 science fiction film Planet of the Apes, starring Charlton Heston and Roddy McDowall, the latter of whom had an ironic role in the first season episode of The Twilight Zone, "People Are Alike All Over."
                Martin Grams, Jr., in his book The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic (OTR Publishing, 2008), uncovers some interesting trivia that I'll share here. The first is that Rod Serling originally composed an alternate opening narration that was absurdly long and was wisely trimmed down by three quarters length by Serling. Grams presents the entire monologue in his book. The show continued its frequent practice of recycling the music of first season contributor Bernard Herrmann, as the prolific composer provides the majority of the music for this episode. Portions of the stock music were taken from Herrmann's composition for the July 26, 1946 broadcast of CBS radio's Mercury Summer Theatre on the Air episode titled "The Moat Farm Murder," starring Orson Welles.
                "The Rip Van Winkle Caper" ultimately survives despite its cliché nature because of the superb characterizations created by Serling, Beregi, and Oakland. The ending scores more for absurdity than originality but the episode still shines with the care given to the episodes of the show's first three seasons before the production wheels generally fell off. If it is one thing it is memorable and, along with the performances of the two main characters, it certainly warrants a viewing or two.

Grade: C

Notes:
-Justus Addiss also directed the second season's "The Odyssey of Flight 33" and the fourth season's "No Time Like the Past."
-Oscar Beregi also appeared in the third season's "Deaths-Head Revisited" and the fourth season's "Mute."
-Simon Oakland also appeared in the fourth season's "The Thirty Fathom Grave."
-Two stuntmen were utilized for the episode: Robert L. McCord III doubled for the character of Brooks and Dave Armstrong doubled for the character of DeCruz. McCord also portrayed the character of the Sheriff in the episode immediately preceding, "A Hundred Yards Over the Rim."
-“The Rip Van Winkle Caper” was adapted as a Twilight Zone Radio Drama and starred Tim Kazurinsky.
-Rod Serling adapted “The Rip Van Winkle Caper” into prose form for his book New Stories From the Twilight Zone, first published in May, 1962 by Bantam Books.

--Jordan Prejean

Thursday, July 31, 2014

"A Hundred Yards Over the Rim"

Christian Horn (Cliff Robertson) on his first trip
in the Twilight Zone


“A Hundred Yard Over the Rim”
Season Two, Episode 59
Original Air Date: April 7, 1961

Cast:
Christian Horn: Cliff Robertson
Joe: John Crawford
Mary Lou: Evans Evans
The Doctor: Ed Platt
Charlie: John Astin
Martha Horn: Miranda Jones
Woman: Jennifer Bunker
Man: Ken Drake

 Crew:
Writer: Rod Serling (original teleplay)
Director: Buzz Kulik
Producer: Buck Houghton
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Music: Fred Steiner

And Now, Mr. Serling:
“Next week you’ll ride up front in this wagon on a trek west.  Your itinerary is across the Great Plains, over the Rockies, to a point in New Mexico.  And you’ll ride alongside Mr. Cliff Robertson in a strange tale of a handful of American pioneers who made a detour in time and found themselves one afternoon on the fringe of the future.  Our story is called ‘A Hundred Yards Over the Rim’ and believe me, it’s quite a view.  I hope we’ll see you there.”

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:
“The year is 1847.  The place is the territory of New Mexico.  The people are a tiny handful of men and women with a dream.  Eleven months ago they started out from Ohio and headed west.  Someone told them about a place called California.  About a warm sun and a blue sky.  About rich land and fresh air.  And at this moment, almost a year later, they have seen nothing but cold, heat, exhaustion, hunger, and sickness.  This man’s name is Christian Horn.  He has a dying eight year-old son and a heartsick wife.  And he’s the only one remaining who has even a fragment of the dream left.  Mr. Chris Horn…who’s going over the top of a rim to look for water and sustenance.  And in a moment will move into…the Twilight Zone.”

 Summary:
1847. A band of tired, hungry travelers stop to rest somewhere in New Mexico in the middle of a desert that asks for no sympathy and gives none.  This group of dirty but otherwise decent, civilized nomads is fronted by a man named Christian Horn.  Horn and his group set out from Ohio eleven months previous and still have not reached their final destination of California.  They haven’t eaten in days and are short on water.  Horn brings with him his wife, Martha, and an eight year-old son who has grown deathly ill.
Once they are stopped several of the travelers approach Chris.  They tell him that they are hungry and desperate and scared.  They have decided that they want to go back.  Chris tells them that they will surely die if they turn back now.  They say they will die if they spend one more day in this desert.  Chris promises them that he will find water and sets out to look for it.  He wanders over a hill and is startled at what he finds on the other side.  He looks back to his wagons and his friends but they are gone.  He looks forward and sees a sight unknown to him: power lines and a paved highway. 
He wanders into the road as an eighteen-wheeler comes blasting around the corner of a mountain.  Chris jumps out of the way and lands face down in a ditch on top of his rifle causing it to fire a shot that grazes his wrist.  He gets up and continues down the road and comes to a café.  Outside of the café is a man who introduces himself as “Joe.”  He owns the café with his wife, Mary Lou.  Joe initially thinks the man is dressed up as part of a gag or a costume party but realizes after speaking with him that perhaps he is not well.  He takes Chris inside and asks his wife to look at the wound on Chris’s hand.  She bandages it and gives him penicillin to prevent infection.  After some conversation as to who he is and what brought him here Chris sees a Calendar and realizes that he is in the year 1961. 
Later, Joe calls a doctor to come over and examine Chris.  The doctor examines Chris in a backroom of the diner and then comes out to speak with Joe and Mary Lou.  He tells them that although Chris’s story is certainly impossible aside from this Chris seems like a perfectly rational, harmless individual.  But he still decides that Chris should be taken into custody and looked at by a psychiatrist and phones the sheriff.  Chris emerges from the back room holding an encyclopedia in his hands.  He has discovered that his son will one day become a famous doctor who will save many people’s lives.  He thanks everyone for their kindness but says that he needs to get back to where he came from.  The doctor attempts to stop him but fails.  Chris races back up the hill from which he came as a police cruiser trails closely behind him.  While running he drops his rifle on the ground.  He reaches the top of the hill and is relieved to see his friends resting peacefully on the other side.  He looks back but sees only desert, no signs of power lines or highways anywhere.  He walks up to his wife and hands her the bottle of penicillin tablets and tells her to give them to their son.  He remembers that Joe mentioned a water spring close by.
Back in 1961 Joe has discovered Chris’s rifle but only now it looks old and rusted, as if it has been lying in the desert for a hundred years.
In 1847 Chris tells his people that there is water nearby.  He looks lovingly at his wife and promises her that everything is going to be fine from now on.  He takes the reins of his wagon and they start off again.

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
“Mr. Christian Horn.  One of the hardy breed of men who headed west during a time when there were no concrete highways or the solace of civilization.  Mr. Christian Horn and family and party, heading west after a brief detour…through the Twilight Zone.”

Commentary:
            With “A Hundred Yards Over the Rim” The Twilight Zone ventured back into the realm of time travel which it would do again many times before the end of its five season run.  As with the majority of the time travel episodes there is no machinery involved here in escorting Christian Horn through time.  He simply discovers, through contrasting imagery, that he has crossed over into another time. “Walking Distance,” “The Last Flight,” and “Back There”—to name but of few of the myriad time travel episodes—all use this same formula.  On The Twilight Zone the attention was always focused on the psychological transformation of the characters and not so much on the transformation of the world around them.  For instance, almost all of the time travel episodes on the show deal within a time frame that the audience can recognize.  Either the characters travel from the then present 1960’s into the past or vice versa.  They rarely travel into the future which would distract the viewer visually from the characters.  Thus, time travel was used not as a device for scientific exploration but simply as a way to explore the human condition like any other genre of fiction.  It’s interesting to note that the majority of the time travel episodes on the series featured likeable protagonists, ones that the audience would root for.  And it’s usually at a time when their lives are in some sort of turmoil as Chris’s is here. 
            Returning to direct his fourth episode of the show is Buzz Kulik.  Kulik had an acute sensibility for directing episodes with an ethereal quality to them.  His credits so far on the show were “King Nine Will Not Return,”” The Trouble with Templeton,” and “Static,” all from Season Two.  I should point out that these episodes all deal with time travel in some way.  He would go on to direct nine episodes in all including the haunting Season Three classic “A Game of Pool.”  His camera work is minimal.  He instead relies on atmosphere to be the predominant influence in his episodes.  Here he lets the desert play second fiddle to Cliff Robertson.  Although Robertson’s trip from 1847 to 1961 is both instantaneous and unexplainable, both to himself and the viewer, Kulik subliminally attributes the time warp to the desert and all its mysticism.  His work outside the Zone includes a debut stint in the live play productions of the 1950’s and 60’s, episodes of Perry Mason, Gunsmoke, Climax!, Rawhide, and Have Gun—Will Travel, and a lengthy career as a director of high quality made for television films, most notably 1971’s Brian’s Song starring James Cann and Billy Dee Williams.
            It’s interesting to note that this episode was filmed back to back with The Rip Van Winkle Caper which aired the week after.  The episodes were both shot not in New Mexico or Death Valley as the scripts would lead you to believe but outside of Lone Pine, California.  Many of the same set pieces were used in both episodes including the truck which nearly runs Cliff Robertson down (thanks to Martin Grams, Jr.’s book The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic for this info).
             Although Cliff Robertson only appears in two episodes of The Twilight Zone he would forever be associated with the program because his performances are so strong.  Here he portrays a tired and desperate Christian Horn, a man haunted by fatigue, hunger, responsibility, and a diminishing hope for the future.  When he shows up at Joe’s Airflite Café in 1961 he has to struggle not only with the fact that he is in a completely foreign place and time but also with the fact that his rescuers believe he is insane.  In Season Three’s “The Dummy” he has to prove his sanity to others once again as a ventriloquist who believes that his puppet is alive.  It’s one of the most memorable performances in the show’s history.  Robertson was a very intense individual and was known as a method actor who would often bring his character’s troubles with him offstage.  The top hat that he sports in this episode was his idea even though Buzz Kulick is said to have hated it.  Today he is best remembered for his performance as a young John F. Kennedy (he was reportedly Kennedy’s preferred choice for this role) in the 1963 film P.T. 109 and as a developmentally challenged young man in Charly (1968), Ralph Nelson and Stirling Silliphant’s screen adaptation of Daniel Keyes’s 1959 novel Flowers for Algernon. Robertson won an Academy Award for this performance.  He also enjoyed a reoccurring role as the villain Shame on ABC’s live action Batman series from 1966 to 1968.  During the last ten years or so of his life Robertson enjoyed a renewed celebrity for his role as Uncle Ben in Sam Raimi’s Spiderman films.  He died in 2011.   
This episode also featured a young John Astin in a bit role several years before he was cast as Gomez Addams in The Addams Family series. 
“A Hundred Yards Over the Rim” is a simple story but one with a lot of heart and a great performance from its leading star.  It’s an atmospheric episode and one that might take a while to grow on people as it did with me.  But I can recommend it as a good example of what this show did best: taking an ordinary individual and placing them in an extraordinary situation.  The outcome of a person’s trip into the Twilight Zone depended entirely on the person.  If they were a kind, decent individual then their trip would go well and if they weren’t then it would not.  Fortunately for Christian he is a genuinely decent character who the audience can relate to and sympathize with so he makes it through his trip unscathed and with a renewed outlook on life.

 Grade: B

 Notes:
-As I mentioned Cliff Robertson also appears in Season Three’s “The Dummy.”
-Buzz Kulik also directed Season Two’s “King Nine Will Not Return,” “The Trouble with Templeton,” “Static,” and “The Mind and the Matter.”  He directed the Season Three episodes “A Game of Pool” and “A Quality of Mercy.”  He directed Season Four’s “Jess-Belle” and “On Thursday We Leave for Home.”
-“A Hundred Yards Over the Rim” was adapted into a Twilight Zone Radio Drama (Falcon Picture Group) starring Jim Caviezel.

 Come back next time as we go on a gold heist with four would-be criminals as they take a prolonged siesta into the future.  This one’s called “The Rip Van Winkle Caper.”  Thanks for reading!

 --Brian Durant



Monday, July 21, 2014

"Long Distance Call"

Lili Darvas and Billy Mumy

"Long Distance Call"
Season Two, Episode 58
Original Air Date: March 31, 1961

Cast:
Chris Bayles: Philip Abbott
Sylvia Bayles: Patricia Smith
Grandma Bayles: Lili Darvas
Billy Bayles: Billy Mumy
Shirley, the Babysitter: Jenny Maxwell
Dr. Unger: Henry Hunter
Mr. Peterson: Reid Hammond
Attendant: Lew Brown
1st Fireman: Bob McCord
2nd Fireman: Jim Turley
Nurse: Jutta Parr

Crew:
Writers: William Idelson & Charles Beaumont (from Idelson's original teleplay)
Director: James Sheldon
Producer: Buck Houghton
Art Direction: Robert Tyler Lee
Associate Producer: Del Reisman
Music: Stock

And Now, Mr. Serling:
"Next week, Mr. Charles Beaumont and Mr. William Idelson deliver a story on your doorstep with the title 'Long Distance Call.' It's uniquely a flesh and fantasy tale involving a small boy, a toy telephone, and the incredible faith of a child. I hope you're around next week at the usual time, which, depending on where you are, varies, and in the usual place, the one that never varies, the uncharted regions of the Twilight Zone."

Rod Serling's Opening Narration:
"As must be obvious, this is a house hovered over by Mr. Death, that omnipresent player to the third and final act of every life. And it's been said, and probably rightfully so, that what follows this life is one of unfathomable mysteries, an area of darkness which we the living reserve for the dead, or so it is said. For in a moment, a child will try to cross that bridge which separates light and shadow, and of course he must take the only known route, that indistinct highway through the region we call the Twilight Zone."

Summary:
            Little Billy Bayles receives a toy telephone on his fifth birthday from his overly doting, and sickly, grandmother. It is apparent that grandmother thinks of little Billy as her own son even though Billy's father, her actual son, is the head of the household in which they live. Billy's mother seems resentful of the grandmother's doting nature and of the grandmother's attempts to monopolize the young boy's attention.
            Soon after the birthday party, grandmother's health takes a turn for the worse and she succumbs to death. Initially, Billy is saddened by this turn of events. Sometime later, his mother hears him excitedly talking on his new toy telephone. When asked to whom is he talking, Billy tells her that he is talking to grandmother. Though the mother is worried by this behavior, Billy's father tells her that the boy's behavior is simply a make-believe game the boy is playing in order to cope with the death of his grandmother.
            The issue becomes serious when Billy is nearly hit by a passing motorist on the street in front of their home. It turns out that Billy willingly ran out into the road. When asked, Billy says that "someone" told him to run out into the road. Billy's mother fears the worst. When next she sees him talking on his toy telephone, she sneaks up from behind him and takes it. She places the phone to her ear for only a moment before dropping it in horror. She tells her husband that she could hear grandmother on the other end, breathing into the toy telephone.
            Billy, under the impression that his mother has broken his toy telephone, rushes from the house and jumps into a nearby fish pond. He is pulled from the water and medical attendants desperately attempt to keep him alive and breathing when Billy's father performs a final act of desperation. Going into Billy's room, he takes the toy telephone and pleads with his dead mother to spare Billy's young life. The spectral hold of the grandmother relents and Billy is resuscitated.

Rod Serling's Closing Narration:
"A toy telephone, an act of faith, a set of improbable circumstances, all combine to probe a mystery, to fathom a depth, to send a facet of light into a dark after-region, to be believed or disbelieved depending on your frame of reference. A fact or fantasy, a substance or a shadow, but all of it very much a part of the Twilight Zone."

Commentary:
            "Long Distance Call" is the last of the six videotaped episodes of The Twilight Zone to air and it is also the best. Of all the limitations of videotape the one paramount to the success or failure of a particular episode was the format's limitation of rendering scope and scale. The more successful videotaped episodes ("The Lateness of the Hour," "Static," and "Long Distance Call") were intimate in scope, utilizing small casts and simple, interior set design to craft small scale drama similar to successful live television. When required to convey a complex scale, such as an outdoor setting, persistent weather, or an expressionistic, dream-like set ("The Whole Truth,” “Night of the Meek,” or "Twenty Two") the videotape format lacked the necessary balance of photographic effects and versatility of movement required to suit a fantasy based show. For The Twlight Zone, which was filmed on the backlot at MGM, videotape sometimes hideously betrayed the standing sets, essentially destroying any suspension of disbelief required for the show to be successful. Despite videotape, "Long Distance Call" has aged finely due to a combination of an original, effective, and economical script, an able cast, and memorable production design.
            Reporting on the creation of the script for "Long Distance Call" is a murky affair. What is known for certain is that William Idelson, a former radio actor then working in real estate and wanting to break into television writing, first got the idea for "Long Distance Call" during his son's second birthday (Idelson would later report, however accurately or not, on the definitive DVD commentary for “Long Distance Call,” that it was his son's third birthday). Idelson's elderly mother gave the young boy a toy telephone. When Idelson later observed his son talking to the grandmother on the toy telephone, the incident sparked his imagination and he subsequently crafted a teleplay entitled "Direct Line." Though Idelson has denied in interviews that there was ever a story or story treatment, Martin Grams, Jr., in his The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic (OTR, 2008) that Idelson had written a story titled “Party Line” before turning the story idea into a teleplay.
At the time the first script was written, Idelson was friends with Twilight Zone writer Richard Matheson. He gave the script to Matheson for feedback and Matheson, reported to have thought the script to have good potential, proceeded to submit it to show producer Buck Houghton at Serling's Cayuga Productions.
            What next happened with the script is where information from Idelson becomes contradictory. Both Marc Scott Zicree, author of The Twilight Zone Companion (Silman-James, 1992, 2nd ed.) and, to a lesser extent, Martin Grams, Jr., rely on interviews with William Idelson, conducted over a span of several years, and who also provided, along with actor Billy Mumy, an audio commentary for the definitive DVD release of the episode. The problem with these sources is that Idelson's story on the creation of the script changes between interviews and again in the commentary. Also, his memory of events do not coincide with known information, particularly about the life of co-writer Charles Beaumont. For instance, Idelson claims that it was Charles Beaumont, and not Richard Matheson, the latter of whom had originally submitted the script, that later called Idelson to offer him a partnership in writing the teleplay for production. Idelson, under the impression that he had already submitted a production-ready script, inquired of Beaumont about the fate of the script Matheson had submitted. According to Idelson's recollections, Beaumont explained that Cayuga Productions had lost his script and had asked Beaumont to come in and craft a new one with Idelson. In a final effort to retain sole possession of his story property, Idelson offered to provide Cayuga with another copy of the same script Matheson had previously submitted on his behalf. Beaumont, relaying the request to producer Buck Houghton reported back to Idelson that the request was denied. Houghton and show creator Rod Serling liked the idea behind the story but insisted Beaumont be brought in to rework the property with Idelson for Cayuga. Idelson relented and submitted to the task of reworking his story with Beaumont for an equal share of the credit and pay rate. Needless to say, Idelson felt taken advantage of and focused most of this, especially in recent years, on co-writer Charles Beaumont.
            The truth is almost certainly more prosaic. Beaumont made a habit of helping friends break into television writing by using his connections in the industry to assist with their first sale. This often required Beaumont to rewrite scripts or expound upon story treatments in order to produce a product ready to go before the cameras. Beaumont had previously helped writer George Clayton Johnson break into writing for the show by submitting Johnson's short stories to Rod Serling ("Execution" and "The Four of Us are Dying"). Beaumont also co-wrote scripts, sharing pay but not always credit, with fellow emerging writers O'Cee Ritch and John Tomberlin. Beaumont was no stranger to collaboration outside of the show either. In the late '50s and into the early '60s Beaumont collaborated on a number of projects. His first novel, Run from the Hunter (Bantam, 1957), was written in collaboration with John Tomberlin. He wrote a series of humorous science fiction short stories (centered on a character named Claude) with Texas author Chad Oliver. Beaumont's most frequent collaborator was fellow Twilight Zone writer Richard Matheson. The two writers co-wrote numerous teleplays while perfecting their craft and attempting to break into television. The two writers also collaborated on a feature length script adaptation of Fritz Leiber's classic fantasy novel Conjure Wife (Unknown Worlds Magazine, April, 1943) which was eventually filmed as a British production by Anglo-Amalgamated (a production company partnered with AIP in the U.S.) in 1962 as Night of the Eagle (released as Burn, Witch, Burn in the U.S.).
            As far as Beaumont's collaboration on "Long Distance Call" with William Idelson, it is likely Beaumont was brought in to prepare Idelson's treatment for production as it was accepted by producer Buck Houghton under that very condition. After a disastrous campaign calling for unsolicited scripts early in the show’s production, Cayuga Productions was not in the habit of accepting un-agented scripts from writers with no previous writing credits, even if those scripts did come under the recommendation of one of the show's principal writers. Even when Beaumont had earlier managed to sell George Clayton Johnson's stories (another un-agented writer with a single previous credit) to Buck Houghton, Rod Serling produced the finished teleplay from the initial story treatments. Johnson was now allowed to produce his own teleplay for one of his story treatments until using the story rights as leverage to do so with “A Penny for Your Thoughts” from the second season.
Houghton had earlier accepted Beaumont's script of another O'Cee Ritch story eventually to see production as "Dead Man's Shoes." Houghton felt that the script for "Dead Man's Shoes" would not work well as one of the videotaped episodes and thus charged Beaumont the task of reworking Idelson's "Direct Line" script for a videotaped episode which would be slightly reworked and re-titled "Long Distance Call."
It is true that Beaumont occasionally borrowed story ideas from his friends and shared pay but not credit. This especially became a habit with Beaumont when the writer became severely hindered, beginning in earnest in late 1962, with what is believed to have been early onset Alzheimer’s Disease. In regard to “Long Distance Call,” however, it is much more likely that the notion to bring Beaumont in to rework Idelson’s script was put forward by a member of the production team, the likeliest candidates being Buck Houghton and Rod Serling. This especially makes sense when considering that Richard Matheson, and not Beaumont, was the writer to whom Idelson initially gave his script to submit to Cayuga. It is also true that Idelson’s script was changed little from “Direct Line” to “Long Distance Call” but there were changes made besides the title.
            One very significant change made to the script came at the request of Rod Serling at the time of filming. Again, Idelson's recollection of this script change and how it came to be change drastically over the years. Idelson initially told Marc Scott Zicree that Rod Serling didn't like the final speech given by the father into the toy telephone. As originally written, the speech focused on the father and his own relationship with the grandmother. Serling wanted it changed to focus on Billy, the boy fighting for his life at the whim of his dead grandmother. Multiple people from the set, including child actor Billy Mumy, reported that the original scene as written was tried and that the rewrite was done on the set, requiring Mumy, a minor, to work longer than legally allowed. Idelson initially reported that the rewrite was performed there on the set by Beaumont and himself. Later, in an interview included in Martin Grams, Jr.'s book, he claims that the rewrite was performed by Rod Serling and that Richard Matheson, who was not present at the filming of the episode, may also have had something to do with it, essentially removing Beaumont from the scene. Idelson also claimed that, at this time, early 1961, Beaumont was unable to do the rewrite as a result of his early onset Alzheimer's and that the writer was unable even to press the keys to his typewriter. The truth is that Idelson is confusing his dates. Beaumont's struggles with his degenerative disease did not begin in earnest until late 1962 and into 1963. Though Beaumont had collaborated on many earlier scripts for The Twilight Zone, he began to farm out his writing commitments for the show in 1963 to Jerry Sohl and John Tomberlin as a result of his disease. At the time of the writing, videotaping, and airing of "Long Distance Call," however, Beaumont was still very much an active writer for the show. Idelson even goes so far as to later remove Beaumont from his memory of the initial airing of the episode. As initially told to Marc Scott Zicree, Idelson said that Beaumont, Richard Matheson, and fellow writer William F. Nolan (all members of the so-called Southern California Group of writers) were all present at Idelson's home when the show first aired. By the time Idelson came to record the DVD commentary for the episode, he claimed that Beaumont was "a vegetable" in the Motion Picture Country Home at the time the episode aired. Considering Beaumont was not yet even submitting to medical exams until the latter half of 1963, it is impossible that he was confined to the rest home where he would eventually die in 1967 when "Long Distance Call" first aired in March of 1961.
            It is unfortunate but likely that Idelson took liberties with the creation of "Long Distance Call" because he felt taken advantage of in not receiving sole credit and pay for the episode as well as the allotted prestige with which the show has aged, as it is now regarded as one of the finest television shows ever to air. Though Idelson would go on to be a highly paid comedy writer for television shows such as M*A*S*H, The Andy Griffith Show, The Odd Couple, and The Dick Van Dyke Show, his inability to render one consistent story on the creation of "Long Distance Call" makes it difficult to properly gauge his contribution to the episode outside of his original story idea and an initial teleplay which may have been used almost entirely without change or which may have been changed a great deal.  
            Whatever the case, a rewrite of the final scene was certainly performed on the set and resulted in a much finer climax for the episode and a showcase for actor Philip Abbott, who portrayed Billy's father and the son of the menacing, spectral grandmother. Abbott would appear again in the regrettable fourth season episode "The Parallel."
            Billy Mumy, who appears as Billy Bayles in "Long Distance Call," remains of the most recognized actors from the show and among science fiction fandom, mostly on the strength of the second of his three appearances on The Twilight Zone, the terrifying third season episode "It's a Good Life," in which the angel-faced Mumy plays a mentally God-like young boy with a horrifying grip on his hometown, the only place left on Earth. Mumy also appeared in the excellent fifth season episode "In Praise of Pip," both of which were much juicier roles for Mumy's acting ability though he more than ably portrays the frightfully innocent young boy at the whim of his dead grandmother in "Long Distance Call." Mumy would, of course, go on to even greater fame in the role of young Will Robinson in Irwin Allen's television series Lost in Space (1965-1968).
            For the role of the grandmother, Hungarian actress Lily Darvas was cast. Darvas found fame in her native Hungary and also on the German stage, with Max Reinhardt’s company, before fleeing Germany in 1938 as a result of the persecution of European Jews. Perhaps only because of previous Hungarian actors that found roles as villains in American productions (Bela Lugosi, Peter Lorre, etc.) Darvas's obvious foreign nature contrasts against the utterly American family to create an ominous mood and a disorienting quality to the relationship between the characters. It is highly effective and though Darvas is only on screen for half the episode, she is unforgettable. The viewer can easily imagine the sound of her distinctly accented voice on the other end of the toy telephone.
            Either for creative reasons or simply budget and format limitations, "Long Distance Call" remains a highly subtle but no less effective episode. Rarely does director James Sheldon show anything explicitly in the episode and yet the viewer is able to fill in the scares via their own imagination. Two scenes in particular were purposely cut from the episode for fear of being too strong for television broadcast. The first was the death of the grandmother. As written, she was supposed to die on screen. As taped, she dies off screen and her death is signaled by the cry of the boy, a much more effective choice. The second scene cut was a scene in which Billy Mumy was seen floating face down in the fish pond into which he threw himself at the behest of the dead grandmother. Mumy recalled filming the scene but, as taped, the boy in the pond is only hinted at. By keeping the action subtle and very psychological instead of explicit, the episode remains as effective as when it first aired. A lot of the episode reminds of the horror film cycle from two decades earlier, also characterized by subtle, off screen scares, shadows, and psychological depth, exemplified in the films of John Braham (later to be a frequent Twilight Zone contributor) at 20th Century Fox (The Lodger, Hangover Square) and the films of producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur (the latter the director of the fifth season Twilight Zone episode "Night Call") for RKO (Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, The Leopard Man).
            A final piece of the production that works for the episode is the set design by art director Robert Tyler Lee, especially in the design of the young Billy's room. The design not only reinforces the idea of Billy's innocence and utter vulnerability but also contrast the extremely happy nature of the boy's room (smiling clowns on the floor, etc.) with the dire nature of the plot, which remains one of the show’s most daring (the suicide of a child as prompted by a ghostly grandmother) outside of Rod Serling's socially charged scripts.
            As was becoming increasingly common for Rod Serling and company, the script for "Long Distance Call" brought about two potential lawsuits for Cayuga Productions, both of which eventually came to nothing but for a time caused considerable trouble for the company. Producer Buck Houghton recalled having to spend considerable time shielding the show, Rod Serling, and the other writers from near constant accusations of plagiarism, most of it coming from writers who had previously submitted manuscripts to Serling's company and had since been rejected. The truth is that "Long Distance Call" is a highly original concept and though the idea of a toy becoming animate or malevolent (most commonly used in relation to a dummy or a doll, i.e. season three's "The Dummy" or season five's "Living Doll") the way in which Idelson used the concept is wholly original.
            The result is a highly personal script from William Idelson (who went so far as to state that the son in the story is his son, and the grandmother his mother) refined by the talents of Charles Beaumont, a fine director, and a talented cast to create an unusually dark and effective episode which, despite its videotape limitations, has remained a substantially creepy endeavor. Though the episode would have benefitted from an original score, the effective use of, mostly, Bernard Herrman's first season music cues lends the appropriate atmosphere. Director James Sheldon also lends the episode some style with innovative use of the videotape format, most obviously displayed in a crane shot near the end of the episode when actor Philip Abbott has collapsed after begging his dead mother for the life of his son.
            "Long Distance Call" is a fine and spooky episode all around. It avoids the kind of hokum that would have aged it poorly aged in view of its fifty plus year status. It remains the finest of the videotaped episodes and proves that although videotape was an unwise endeavor for the show, saving $5,000 an episode or not, the limitations of the format could occasionally be exceeded to produce a quality episode.

Grade: A

Notes:
-Billy Mumy also appears in the third season episode "It's a Good Life" (again with director James Sheldon) and in the fifth season episode "In Praise of Pip."
-Philip Abbott also appears in the fourth season episode "The Parallel."
-Director James Sheldon also helmed the second season episodes "A Penny for Your Thoughts" and "The Whole Truth," as well as the third season episodes "It's a Good Life," "Still Valley" and, with William Claxton, "I Sing the Body Electric."

Next time in the Vortex we chronicle Cliff Robertson's journey forward in time in Rod Serling's Old West meets modern world fantasy "A Hundred Yards over the Rim."
           
--Jordan Prejean

Bonus: A carousel has been created in memory of Rod Serling and has opened in Serling’s hometown of Binghamton, NY. The rounding boards for the carousel were painted by renowned monster fan, artist, and creator of The Witch’s Dungeon Movie Museum in Bristol, CT, Cortlandt Hull, who crafted the paintings around memorable episodes of The Twlight Zone, including “The Howling Man” and “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” Read about it here