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

Friday, July 4, 2014

"The Prime Mover"

The hard truth: Ace Larson (Dane Clark) learns a life lesson
at the hands of Big Phil Nolan (Nedson Booth).
 

“The Prime Mover”
Season Two, Episode 57
Original Air Date: March 24, 1961

 
Cast:
Ace Larsen: Dane Clark
Jimbo Cobb: Buddy Ebsen
Kitty Cavnaugh: Christine White
Big Phil Nolan: Nedson Booth
Sheila: Jane Burgess
Trucker: Clancy Cooper
Hotel Manager: Robert Riordan
Desk Clerk: William Keene
Croupier: Joe Scott

 
Crew:
Writer: Charles Beaumont (teleplay based on an unpublished story by George Clayton Johnson).
Director: Richard L. Bare
Producer: Buck Houghton
Photography: George T. Clemens
Music: Stock

 
Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:
“Portrait of a man who thinks and thereby gets things done.  Mr. Jimbo Cobb might be called a prime mover, a talent which has to be seen to be believed.  In just a moment, he’ll show his friends and you how he keeps both feet on the ground…and his head in the Twilight Zone.”

 
Summary:
            Ace Larson is co-owner and co-operator of the Happy Daze Café along with his pal Jimbo Cobb.  Tired of slaving away with nothing to show for it, he longs to strike it rich and then ask Kitty, a waitress in the sleepy little diner, to marry him.
            While closing up one night Ace and Jimbo hear the sounds of a wreck outside on the highway.  They race outside and see that a car has skidded off the road and smashed into a power supply unit.  It lies upside down on live electrical wires.  Not knowing what else to do, Jimbo uses his secret telekinetic ability to flip the car back over on its wheels, safe from the sparking wires.  Ace looks at Jimbo as if he has just walked on water.  Later, in the rented room they share, Ace asks him how he was able to move the car without touching it.  Jimbo reluctantly tells him that he has always been able to move things without actually touching them.  But he says he gave up his special gift when he was a kid after he began experiencing terrible headaches.  Ace insists that he demonstrate, much to Jimbo’s irritation.  Jimbo lifts his bed off the ground almost to the ceiling and then sets it back down exactly in its place, without laying a finger on it.  Dumbfounded, Ace tosses dice onto the bed and tells Jimbo to make him roll a seven.  He does.  Ace can’t believe that his friend has kept this talent a secret all these years while they were stuck working in their miserable diner.  He sees a failsafe opportunity to make a fortune.  He picks up the phone and calls Kitty.
             The next night Ace and Kitty and Jimbo are in Las Vegas at a roulette table.  Ace wagers his money wildly and he gets strikes it rich every time, thanks to Jimbo.  A few hours into their winning streak Jimbo tells Ace that his head is killing him so the trio go up to their hotel room so he can recuperate.  It’s there that Jimbo tells Ace that he does not want to cheat anymore because it is beginning to weigh on his conscience.  Kitty agrees and tells Ace that she wants to go home.  Ace tells them that they only need one more big score and then they can quit.  Kitty tells him that he has already won more money than he could possibly need and that his desire to earn extra cash in order to better himself has turned into a perverted obsession.  She storms out of the hotel. Jimbo urges him to chase after her.
            While chasing her Ace runs into Sheila, a waitress at the casino.  Angry and insecure over the way Kitty has abandoned him, he asks Sheila if she wants to go with him for a night on the town.  She gives him an ecstatic “yes.”
            The next day Ace sets up a dice game in his hotel room with a man named Phil Nolan, a notorious gambler with deep pockets and even deeper ties to the mob.  With Jimbo’s help, Ace wins every hand and Nolan suspects foul play from the get-go and he lets Ace know about it.  After a few hours of playing Ace goes for the big score and bets all of his money on one play.  At this moment Sheila walks into the hotel room and Jimbo, having apparently not known about her until now, looks disappointed with his friend.  He urgently tries to get Ace’s attention but to no avail.  Ace does not want his friend’s advice at the moment.  He only wants to roll an eleven.  And he needs Jimbo to help him do it.  He throws caution to the wind and rolls the dice, confident that he will get an eleven.  But to his astonishment he rolls a three.  Dumbfounded, he stares at the dice while Nolan and his goons take his money and politely let themselves out.  Jimbo tells Ace that he was trying to get his attention to tell him that he “blew a fuse,” that his power no longer worked.
            Back at the café days later, two service men take away the slot machine that sits in the front of the restaurant.  Ace no longer has the desire to gamble.  He and Kitty seem to have made up and all is well. In a spur of the moment act of valor, Ace clumsily asks Kitty to marry him.  She gives him an enthusiastic “yes.”  During Ace’s proposal, Jimbo accidentally drops a broom.  Without making a big deal of it, Jimbo secretly lifts the broom off the floor using only his eyes and a sly grin.  He looks over at the two lovers lost in each other’s eyes and smiles to himself as a finishes sweeping up for the night. 
 
Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
“Some people possess talent, others are possessed by it.  When that happens the talent becomes a curse.  Jimbo Cobb knew, right from the beginning.  But before Ace Larson learned that simple truth, he had to take a short trip through the Twilight Zone.”

 
Commentary:
            Like the episode that preceded it, “Static,” which was written by Beaumont based on a story by friend OCee Ritch, “The Prime Mover” is also a Beaumont script based on someone else’s work.  This time the source material came from fellow Twilight Zone contributor George Clayton Johnson.  At this point the only work that Johnson had sold to the show were two unpublished short stories during the first season, “All of Us Are Dying” (changed to “The Four of Us Are Dying” for the show) and “Execution,” both of which were adapted by Serling.  Although his first original teleplay for the show, “A Penny for Your Thoughts” had already aired earlier in the season, Johnson actually sold “The Prime Mover” to Beaumont before that episode was filmed.  As he recounts in an interview on the Season Five DVD set Charles Beaumont was overloaded with work at the time and flat out asked him if he could buy his story “The Prime Mover” and adapt it for the show.  Wanting desperately for his work to make it to the screen in any capacity Johnson agreed immediately.  Beaumont paid him six hundred dollars for the story (the standard five hundred dollar fee that the show paid for source material plus an extra hundred) with the agreement that Johnson would also receive onscreen credit.  When the episode aired, however, it was credited solely to Beaumont.  Houghton insisted that this was a production error and apologized to Johnson, promising that his name would be placed on the episode when it appeared in syndication.
            Secretly attaining help from other writers would unfortunately become a crutch for Beaumont as the show went on and he became increasingly overwhelmed by his obligations to it.  By the end of the fourth season the episodes credited to Beaumont were being scripted almost entirely by friends who were being paid in secret as the ailing writer succumbed to the illness that would eventually take his life.  But for now he appeared simply to have too much on his plate and seemed to enjoy collaborating with friends.  It must be noted here that while he was submitting teleplays to The Twilight Zone Beaumont was also selling scripts to numerous other programs.  He was also scripting screenplays and shelling out short stories and essays to various publications at an astonishing pace, not to mention writing a thoroughly-researched novel which was turned into a film which he wrote and starred in.  So it goes without wonder as to why he called upon the assistance of friends from time to time. 
            Although telekinesis has a long-standing lineage in fantasy fiction, “The Prime Mover” is the only episode of The Twilight Zone that deals with the phenomenon.  While there are other characters in The Twilight Zone that exhibit telekinetic abilities, like the humanoid aliens in Season Five’s “Black Leather Jackets,” Old Ben in Season Three’s “The Fugitive” (another Beaumont script) and the charming Anthony Fremont in Season Three’s “It’s a Good Life,” these characters actually display a wide variety of superhuman abilities, beyond just telekinesis, and the episodes hinge more around the type of people they are rather than their extraordinary powers.
             The performances here are solid particularly that of Dane Clark as the cartoonishly stubborn but likeable Ace Larson.  Although Buddy Epson wasn’t known to the world as Jed Clampett in 1961 he still would have been recognizable to an audience mostly as a star of westerns.  It was less than a year after this episode aired, however, that he was cast in the role that would immortalize him in popular culture.
             It's no surprise that Johnson, who had written the original script for the 1956 Rat Pack film “Ocean’s 11,” would be interested in writing another script about Vegas and gambling.  According to Johnson, Beaumont changed the names of the characters and various other nuances about the story but kept the basic idea and plot structure.  The end result is something that does not register as distinctly Charles Beaumont or George Clayton Johnson but something that could have been written by either of them or even by Rod Serling.  It’s a good, solid script with likeable characters that fits the format of the show perfectly. 

Grade: B

Notes:
--Richard L. Bare also directed the episodes “Third from the Sun,” “The Purple Testament,” “Nick of Time,” “To Serve Man,” “The Fugitive,” and “What’s in the Box?”
--Christine White also appeared in Season Five’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.”
--Nedson Booth also appeared in Season One’s “Escape Clause.”
-- This episode was adapted into a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring David Eigenberg (Falcon Picture Group).

Up Next: Next time we take a trip into the fifth dimension with the parents of a small boy who adores his grandmother and wants to be able to talk to her whenever he feels like it.  Let's just say it'll make you want to screen your phone calls from now on.  Come back next time when we review "Long Distance Call."  Thanks for reading, and good night.
 
--Brian Durant

Thursday, June 12, 2014

"Static"


Ed Lindsay (actor Dean Jagger) tunes in to the Twilight Zone


"Static"
Season Two, Episode 56
Original Air Date: March 10, 1961

Cast:
Ed Lindsay: Dean Jagger
Vinnie Broun: Carmen Matthews
Professor Ackerman: Robert Emhardt
Roscoe Bragg: Arch W. Johnson
Mrs. Nielsen: Alice Pierce
Miss Meredith: Lillian O'Malley
Mr. Llewellyn: J. Pat O'Malley
Boy: Stephen Talbot
Junk Dealer: Clegg Hoyt
Rock & Roll Singer: Jerry Fuller
Real Estate Pitchman: Eddie Marr
Girl in Commercial: Diane Strom
Disc Jockey (voice): Bob Crane
TV/Radio Announcer: Roy Bowan
Man #1: Bob Duggan
Man #2: Jay Overholts

Crew:
Writer: Charles Beaumont (based on an unpublished story by OCee Ritch)
Director: Buzz Kulik
Producer: Buck Houghton
Music: Stock

And Now, Mr. Serling:
"Item of consequence: a radio. A carryover from that other era when quiz shows went up to only sixty-four dollars and entertainment was aimed only at the ears. Mr. Charles Beaumont has given us a most unusual story called 'Static.' We invite you to watch Mr. Dean Jagger fiddle with a few of these knobs, change a few stations, and find a couple of programs that are broadcast only in The Twilight Zone."

Rod Serling's Opening Narration:
"No one ever saw one quite like that because that's a very special sort of radio. In its day, circa 1935, its type was one of the most elegant consoles on the market. Now, with its fabric-covered speakers, its peculiar yellow dial, its serrated knobs, it looks quaint and a little strange. Mr. Ed Lindsay is going to find out how strange very soon, when he tunes in to the Twilight Zone."

Summary:
            Ed Lindsay, an elderly bachelor, lives in a boarding house in which the other tenants, also elderly, spend their waning days and nights parked on couches and chairs taking in endless hours of television. Lindsay, bored with this routine, goes down into the basement of the boarding house and retrieves his old radio, a hulking set that is over twenty five years old. He brings the radio up to his room and, to his astonishment and delight, is able to catch many of the old radio programs he remembers from his younger years, programs which have long since gone off the air. When he tells the other tenants, they scoff at the idea. Most frustrating for Ed is that he is only able to hear the old radio shows when he is alone and is unable to prove to anyone else in the house that his old radio is working some sort of magic.
            Vinnie Broun is an elderly maid that was once engaged to marry Ed many years ago. Circumstances prevented the marriage and thereafter Vinnie and Ed have been living tensely under the same roof, having grown into tired, bickering adversaries. Vinnie thinks Ed is imagining the broadcasts of all those old radio shows and tells him in a frank confession that she believes it is a result of them missing out on their one chance at happiness all those years ago. Ed dismisses the idea the he is imagining the broadcasts.
            In an effort to stop Ed's descent into what she believes to be an unhealthy fixation, Vinnie sells Ed's radio to a junk dealer. When he finds out, Ed is furious and immediately retrieves his radio, having to buy his own property back from the junk dealer. Fearing the radio won't work the way it did before, Ed lugs it home and fires it up. It still works and even better than before. When Ed calls Vinnie up to hear the old broadcasts it is a young, vibrant version of Vinnie that appears in his doorway. Ed, now a young man again, realizes that they’ve gone back in time to be given a second chance.

Rod Serling's Closing Narration:
"Around and around she goes and where she stops nobody knows. All Ed Lindsay knows is that he desperately wanted a second chance and finally got it, through a strange and wonderful time machine called a radio, in the Twlight Zone."

Commentary:
            In an interview with Buzz Kulik, director of "Static," author Marc Scott Zicree (The Twilight Zone Companion) suggests that "Static" is an episode which presents an opposite theme from that explored in the earlier episode "The Trouble with Templeton." Whereas "The Trouble with Templeton" says you can't go back again, "Static" shows that, with a little magic, and a lot of hope, you definitely can. "Static" displays the quintessential Twilight Zone set up, the intrusion of a magical or fantastic element, in a highly realistic setting. It is interesting to note here, and it has been noted before in other studies of the show, that the main writers of the show were all young men in their early to mid 30s and yet returned time and again to create episodes dealing with the elderly, exploring what it means to grow old with astonishing insight into the regret and sorrow that accompanies the process. "Static" shares a lot of thematic ground with other Zone episodes that center on elderly characters, such as "Kick the Can," "Nothing in the Dark," “The Trade-Ins,” and "Night Call," among others.
            "Static" began as a short story titled "Tune in Yesterday" by OCee Ritch, a friend of Twilight Zone writer Charles Beaumont and a contributor to both of Beaumont's books on motor racing, The Omnibus of Speed (1958) and When Engines Roar (1964)(Both of which were co-edited by fellow "California Group" writer William F. Nolan). As recorded in Marc Scott Zicree's The Twilight Zone Companion, OCee Ritch got the idea for his story while attending a party thrown by writer Richard Matheson, also a frequent contributor to The Twilight Zone. Also at the party was an old time radio fan that performed bits from old shows. Ritch struck upon the idea of being able to simply tune in to those old radio shows that were no longer on the air and set out to write a fantasy story around the concept. Instead of submitting "Tune in Yesterday" as a short story, Charles Beaumont convinced Ritch to submit the story for production on The Twilight Zone. Producer Buck Houghton accepted the story upon Beaumont's recommendation as well as upon the condition that Beaumont wrote the teleplay adaptation.
            Beaumont took the adaptation as an opportunity to change Ritch's story to suit the show as well as Beaumont’s own writing style. Whereas Ritch's main character was an unhappily married man looking to escape into the past, Beaumont changed him to an unhappy bachelor that wanted a second chance to correct past mistakes. Beaumont also allowed changes that would take ironic shots at the television industry, the very medium which supported the show. It was an industry in which Beaumont worked and thrived but for which he held no love and made apparent in a later essay on old time radio titled, in accordance with Ritch's story, "Tune in Yesterday," and which can be found in the author's 1963 collection of nostalgic essays Remember? Remember? Beaumont presents the tenants of the boarding house as the dull slaves of routine, whiling away their days in front of the television whereas the introduction of the radio in the episode drives all the action, is the catalyst for heated conversation and startling confession, and inspires excitement and laughter in the main character. The commercials presented on television are absurd and humorous caricatures of the type of advertising common to the 1960s. It is made clear that Beaumont felt television an unfit successor to radio. As Ed Lindsay poignantly says in the episode, radio is “a world that has to be believed to be seen.”
            To create a genuine feel of old time radio, the episode utilized recordings from old broadcasts (The F.D.R. fireside chat and the segment from The Fred Allen Show) as well as creating new recordings, including the use of a Los Angeles radio announcer named Bob Crane who would later star on the popular television series Hogan's Heroes.
            “Static” hinges so heavily upon a single concept (the magic radio) that a good script and better performances were necessary to keep the action moving along without seeming to be too talky, and thus futile, in nature. Dean Jagger is perfectly cast as Beaumont’s unhappy bachelor and manages not to come across too broadly in his performance, not alienating the viewer by simply playing a one-dimensional grump but rather like a man trapped in a miserable situation from which derives his ill tempered behavior, particularly to the character of Vinnie. Jagger portrays the loneliness of a man surrounded by people that, for the most part, he cannot relate to and it lends his character weight as a relatable, if not pitiable, figure. Jagger was born in Ohio on November 7, 1903. After studying acting in Chicago, he found roles as a character actor in films and, later, on television, eventually winning a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for Twelve O’Clock High (1949). Jagger’s other genre credits include the films Revolt of the Zombies (1936), X: the Unknown (1956) and Alligator (1980), and an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. He died in Santa Monica in 1991.
            Ably supporting Jagger are Carmen Matthews as Vinnie Broun and Robert Emhardt as Professor Ackerman. Matthews was born in Philadelphia in 1914 and was theater trained. She found early television work in anthology programs such as Kraft Theater and Goodyear Playhouse and continued working in television throughout her career, finding the occasional film role. Her other genre credits include television episodes of Suspense (1952), Way Out, six episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and an episode of Tales from the Darkside. She died in 1995.
             Actor Robert Emhardt amassed an astounding number of credits in theater and television over his long career. He seemed predestined to play villains but found a variety of roles in every type of show on the small screen from soap operas to westerns to science fiction programs. He was born in Indianapolis in 1914 and died in California in 1994. His other genre credits include episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Alcoa Presents: One Step Beyond, and the Alfred Hitchcock Hour.
            “Static” remains a memorable episode that is unfortunately given the videotape and stock music treatment and is thus not as memorable as one of the better produced filmed episodes. It is apparent in certain aspects of production, however, that a lot of care was given to making the episode a success. Arguably the show’s best writer was given the job to adapt the source material and effort was made to replicate the authentic sounds of old time radio. The only major flaw in the episode is the choice to use older actors and attempt to make them look young again through color and makeup processes at the time of the surprise ending. The typical approach to this type of fantasy is to use makeup to age-progress younger actors and then simply remove the makeup when the time comes to reveal the younger versions of the characters. Often, two different sets of actors are used to achieve the same effect. The makeup department isn’t quite able to convincingly turn back the clock forty years on the two main characters but nevertheless the episode remains effective, with a good script and solid acting all around.

Grade: B

Notes:
-“Static” was adapted as a The Twilight Zone Radio Drama (Falcon Picture Group) and starred Stan Freberg as Ed Lindsay.

--Jordan Prejean

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

"Mr. Dingle, the Strong"

Luther Dingle (Burgess Meredith), under the spell of a
double-headed Martian.



“Mr. Dingle, the Strong”
Season Two, Episode 55
Original Air Date: March 3, 1961

 
Cast:
Luther Dingle: Burgess Meredith
Bettor: Don Rickles
Anthony O’Toole: James Westerfield
Joseph J. Callahan: Edward Ryder
1st Martian: Douglas Spencer
2nd Martian: Michael Fox
Boy: Jay Hector
Woman in Park: Jo Ann Dixon
1st Man: Douglas Evans
2nd Man: Phil Arnold
3rd Man: Frank Richards
Abernathy: James Millhollin
1st Venusian: Donald Losby
2nd Venusian: Greg Irvin

 
Crew:
Writer: Rod Serling (Original Teleplay)
Director: John Brahm
Producer: Buck Houghton
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens and William Skall
Music: Stock

 
And Now, Mr. Serling:
“I’ve only got about 18 seconds to tell you that next week Mr. Burgess Meredith returns to The Twilight Zone as ‘Mr. Dingle, the Strong.’  He plays the role of an incredible little man who’s given the strength of about five hundred men and comes out of it as a kind of twentieth-century Hercules and Sampson all rolled into one.  It’s designed to send you right from your set into a fast bowl of spinach. [Serling smashes a ringing telephone that rests on a table.] It’s catching.”

 
Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:
“Uniquely American institution known as the neighborhood bar.  Reading left to right are Mr. Anthony O’Toole, proprietor who waters his drinks like geraniums but who stands foursquare for peace and quiet and booths for ladies.  This is Mr. Joseph J. Callahan, an unregistered bookie, whose entire life is any sporting event with two sides and a set of odds.  His idea of a meeting at the summit is any dialogue between a catcher and a pitcher with more than one man on base.  And this animated citizen is every anonymous bettor who ever dropped rent money on a horse race, a prize fight, or a floating crap game, and who took out his frustration and his insolvency on any vulnerable fellow barstool companion within arm’s and fist’s reach.  And this is Mr. Luther Dingle, a vacuum-cleaner salesman whose volume of business is roughly that of a valet at a hobo convention.  He’s a consummate failure at almost everything but is a good listener and has a prominent jaw. [Narration interrupted by action and dialogue].  And these two unseen gentlemen are visitors from outer space.  They are about to alter the destiny of Luther Dingle by leaving him a legacy—the kind you can’t hardly find no more.  In just a moment, a sad-faced perennial punching bag who missed even the caboose of life’s gravy train, will take a short constitutional into the most unpredictable region that we refer to as…the Twilight Zone.”

 
Summary:
          Luther Dingle is a vacuum cleaner salesman who spends most of his evenings inside a dingy, forgotten bar alongside dingy, forgotten people.  A frail, timid individual, he has accomplished almost nothing during his time in the world and is, additionally, a terrible salesman.  He is trampled upon, pushed about, smacked, slapped, taken advantage of, and, most of all, unanimously ignored.
            He sits in the bar one afternoon in the company of three other gentlemen: a man named O’Toole, the owner/bartender, and two worthless, angry patrons who spend their days arguing over unpaid gambling debts.  When they cannot settle their disputes they often turn to Dingle to settle it for them.  Unfortunately, Dingle has the inability to remain neutral and always voices his opinion honestly, winning the admiration of one and the unabashed hatred of the other which is why he often goes home with bruises.  Two very odd creatures sort of float into the bar.  They appear to be unseen by the patrons.  They talk amongst themselves and we learn that they are visitors from Mars here to conduct an experiment.  They want to give an ordinary human being superhuman strength.  They are here in the bar because they have chosen Luther Dingle as their specimen.  His transformation is instantaneous and he immediately feels a sense of physical empowerment.  He notes to O’Toole that his vacuum cleaner suddenly feels as light as a feather, demonstrating by tossing up into the air effortlessly.  He then opens the door to leave but rips it completely off its hinges.  Dumbfounded, he exits the bar. 
         For the rest of the day he experiences similar events.  He rips the handle off of a taxi cab then accidentally lifts the car off the ground.  He lifts a park bench—with a woman sitting on it—off the ground with one hand.  He breaks a gigantic rock in half with his bare hands.  He lifts a statue off the ground with one hand.  While doing this he is spotted by a photographer for the local paper who snaps his picture.
            The next day he is sitting in the bar surrounded by a crowd of people who have come to witness his extraordinary physical prowess.  He is also being filmed by a television crew for a show about people with unusual talents.  He demonstrates his new strength by breaking a table in half, lifting a bar stool out of the floor with one finger, and by lifting one of the angry patrons that used to beat him up on a daily basis above his head with one hand and spinning him around.  Meanwhile, the two extraterrestrial visitors  are watching Mr. Dingle display his strength for the cameras and are disgusted.  They see that he has not used his power for anything constructive as they had hoped but merely exploited it for his own popularity.  They decide to take his powers away.  Mr. Dingle tells his crowd of onlookers that for his next trick he will lift the entire building with only his hands.  Unfortunately, he has now been stripped of his extraordinary strength and the trick does not work.  Not giving up, he attempts to lift another bar stool out of the floor but this also fails.  He then tries to break another table in half but only manages to almost break his hand in the process.  Finally, desperate for a win, he attempts to punch another hole in the wall but this, too, does not work.  By this time the crowd has turned on Dingle and O’Toole ushers them out the door to spare him the humiliation.
            On their way out of the bar the Martians run into two other outer worldly visitors from Venus.  They have come to Earth to give someone superhuman intelligence and the Martians suggest Mr. Dingle.  They agree and give him intellect five hundred times that of the average human being.  And within moments Mr. Luther Dingle, vacuum cleaner salesman, will take another journey into…the Twilight Zone.

 
Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
“Exit Mr. Luther Dingle, formerly vacuum cleaner salesman, strongest man on Earth, and now mental giant.  These latter powers will very likely be eliminated before too long, but Mr. Dingle has an appeal to extraterrestrial note takers as well as to frustrated and insolvent bet losers.  Offhand, I’d say that he was in for a great deal of extremely odd periods.  Simply because there are so many inhabited planets who send down observers.  And also because, of course, Mr. Dingle lives his life with one foot in his mouth and the other…in the Twilight Zone.

 
Commentary:
          It goes without saying here in the Vortex that the screwball comedy episodes, most of which were written by Serling, are not among our favorites.  This is not to suggest that the ideas or even the scripts for these episodes are bad but simply that they would be far more suited to a show like The Jack Benny Program than to  a fantasy program of the darker variety like The Twilight Zone.  The show could jump effortlessly back and forth between dark horror and nostalgic sentimentality because there was, despites many different directors, writers, composers, and performers, always a uniform atmosphere.  By design, the primary goal of situational comedy is to make an audience laugh.  And most episodes of The Twilight Zone are chiefly concerned with the human condition and their intent is to make the viewer think, either through self-evaluation or through reflection of the world around them, or, at the very least, to guess the twist at the end of the episode.  Instead of complimenting each other evenly the two drastically different styles clash and the comedy episodes feel awkward and out of place.
          “Mr. Dingle, the Strong” is no exception to this rule.  Director John Brahm realized that he was making a screwball comedy and simply let the episode poke fun at itself and at the science fiction genre as a whole.  The Martians are decorated like cartoons with ridiculous props (the child Venusians are even worse) and the special effects are silly and cheap (despite the fact that this episode ran over budget).  But this self-effacing attitude does little to save the story which feels quickly written and just awkward. 
          What rescues this episode from being a total failure is a surprisingly good ensemble cast.  This was the only episode to feature a young Don Rickles as the Bettor.  Rickles was on the rise as a stand-up comedian and had just begun appearing on television and in films.  Here he basically plays himself and does a more than convincing job as the oppressive bar patron.  Another noteworthy performance is that of James Millholin as ham television host Jason Abernathy.  His time on screen is quite brief and his role small but he still manages to steal the spotlight for the few minutes that he is on the screen.  But the reason anyone remembers this episode at all is of course because of Burgess Meredith.  What is remarkable about Meredith’s four appearances on The Twilight Zone is that his performances are all completely different despite the fact that three of the four characters that he plays are quite similar in that they are all quiet, meek individuals who tend to be pushed around by everyone else.  Here he is totally believable as the downtrodden Luther Dingle, stuttering and all. 
            While the performances in “Mr. Dingle, the Strong” are themselves quite strong they are not enough to make this a memorable episode.  It seems to be the result of Rod Serling’s legal obligation to churn out eighty percent of the show’s scripts himself which, unfortunately, occasionally produced cheap, uninspired episodes like this one.  Unless you are a Burgess Meredith fan, or a Don Rickles fan, then this episode comes poorly recommended.

 
Grade: D

 
Notes:
--Burgess Meredith also appears in three other episodes of the show:  Season One’s “Time Enough at Last,” Season Two’s “The Obsolete Man” and Season Four’s “The Printer’s Devil.”  Jack Klugman is the only other actor to have played the lead in as many episodes. 
--James Millhollin also appears in Season One’s “The After Hours” and Season Four’s “I Dream of Genie.”
--“Mr. Dingle, the Strong” was made into a Twilight Zone Radio Drama (Falcon Picture Group) starring Tim Kazurinsky.  It was also adapted into a short story by Serling in his collection More Stories from the Twilight Zone (Bantam, 1961).  According to his daughter Anne Serling in her introduction to in the 2013 edition to this book published by CreateSpace it was based loosely on an unpublished story he wrote called "Old MacDonald."
--During the scene where Burgess Meredith lifts Don Rickles over his head and spins him the stunt double's face can be seen clearly for several seconds. 

 


Up Next: Next in the Vortex we'll stop by a boarding house where a nostalgic old man finds a second chance at life in the form of  an antique radio and the songs of his youth.  Don't miss our review of an often overlooked episode called "Static."  Take care, readers.

--Brian Durant