Monday, April 11, 2011

"One for the Angels"

Ed Wynn as lovable sidewalk salesman Lew Bookman

“One for the Angels”
Season One, Episode 2
Original air date: October 9, 1959

Cast: 
Lew Bookman: Ed Wynn 
Mr. Death: Murray Hamilton 
Maggie: Dana Dillaway 
Truck Driver: Merrit Bohn 
Doctor: Jay Overholts 
Truck Driver: Merritt Bohn
Little Boy: Mickey Maga

Crew: 
Writer: Rod Serling (original teleplay) 
Director: Robert Parrish 
Producer: Buck Houghton
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Art Direction: George W. Davis and William Ferrari
Set Decoration: Rudy Butler and Henry Grace
Assistant Director: Edward Denault
Casting: Mildred Gusse
Editor: Lyle Boyer
Sound: Franklin Milton and Jean Valentino 
Music: Stock

And now, Mr. Serling: 
“Next week I’ll have a reunion with a unique talent and a valued friend.  Our first since ‘Requiem for a Heavyweight.’  Next week on The Twilight Zone, Mr. Ed Wynn stars in ‘One for the Angels,’ playing an old pitchman who sells mechanical toys like this, but whose competition is Mr. Death.  We hope you’ll join us then.  Thank you and good night.”

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration: 
“Street scene, summer, the present.  Man on a sidewalk named Lew Bookman—aged sixtyish, occupation—pitchman.  Lew Bookman: a fixture of the summer.  A rather minor component to a hot July.  A nondescript, commonplace little man whose life is a treadmill built out of sidewalks.  In just a moment Lew Bookman will have to concern himself with survival.  Because as of three o’clock this hot July afternoon he’ll be stalked by Mr. Death.”

Summary:
Against the backdrop of a bustling urban walkway, Mr. Lew Bookman makes his living selling oddities and knick knacks to busy patrons of the city on their way from one place to another.  Mr. Lew Bookman: a warmhearted, elderly fellow with a gentle disposition, who wants nothing more in life than to put a smile on the faces of all he meets.  Mr. Bookman is wrapping things up for the day and will momentarily close down his traveling thrift shop and make his way back to the modest apartment space that he calls home.  Unbeknownst to him, this is to be the last day of his life, for Mr. Death is about to make himself known to the elderly man.
          When he gets to his apartment building, Bookman is greeted by a horde of adoring neighborhood children that have been eagerly awaiting his arrival.  His gentle demeanor and quirky stage antics appear to be the highlight of their day.  Upon entering his apartment, however, Bookman is greeted by an abrasive Mr. Death who appears immune to the old man’s charm.  Death launches into his task with the subtlety of a freight train.  He informs the salesman that he is to die at midnight and has until then to get his affairs in order.  Bookman laments to Death that he has always desired to make that one big sales pitch, a pitch grand enough “for the angels.”  He says that to die before doing so would leave him with a sense of failure.  Mr. Death is touched by the man’s plea and agrees to let him live until he makes such a pitch.  Bookman is overcome with joy that he doesn’t have to die, at least not until he makes that big pitch which, as he points out to Mr. Death, could take an indefinite amount of time, possibly even years, to accomplish.  Death, realizing he has been swindled, informs Bookman that he will have to take a replacement instead.  Minutes later a neighborhood girl is hit by a truck in the middle of the street.  Death informs Bookman that the girl is to die at midnight.  As midnight approaches Bookman attempts to divert Death away from his appointment by engaging him in the grandest sales pitch he has ever delivered, a pitch “for the angels.”  The tactic works and Death is unable to claim the little girl.  The salesman is now ready to face the afterlife with an accepting smile as he and Mr. Death stroll casually off into the night.



Rod Serling’s closing narration:
Lewis J. Bookman.  Age, sixtyish.  Occupation: pitchman.  Formerly a fixture o the summer.  Formerly a rather minor component to a hot July.  But throughout his life a man beloved by the children, and therefore...a most important man.  Couldn’t happen, you say?  Probably not in most places.  But it did happen...in the Twilight Zone.

Commentary:
"One for the Angels” is the first example on The Twilight Zone of what had already become an emblematic theme of Rod Serling’s work; an essentially decent human being, etching out a simple existence, struggling with an obstacle much greater than himself.  In this case we have a quirky, aging salesman who feels that he’s done nothing substantial with his life, attempting to outfox Death itself.  “In Praise of Pip,” “The Night of the Meek,” “Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room,” and “A Stop at Willoughby” are all episodes that reflect a premise similar to this one.  The lowly protagonist would become one of several reoccurring motifs in Serling’s episodes.  This was Serling’s greatest strength as a writer.  Although his villains and supporting characters were often crude and one dimensional, his efficiency to tap into the aspirations and frailties of the common man were what made his protagonists so accessible to an audience.  This is what made his dramatic work in the decade before The Twilight Zone so compelling.
           Fantasy, however, especially fantasy formulated to fit a half-hour television show, is quite different; it revolves primarily around the plot instead of the characters.  This is where Serling often came up short as a writer.  “One for the Angels” is no exception.  In the story, Death is unable to claim the life of eight year old Maggie because Bookman distracts him with his magnificent sales pitch and Death never makes it into her apartment to do so.  The significance of Death having to actually be in her apartment to take her seems oddly convenient in terms of plot, especially considering that earlier in the day he was able to orchestrate the poor girl getting hit by a truck when he wasn’t even outside to witness it.
           There is another motif at work in this story that was common to many scripts Serling wrote for The Twilight Zone: the idea that fate is the omniscient universal force and that those who interfere with it do so at a high cost.  When Bookman requests that he be granted an additional stay on Earth he is merely attempting to cheat Death into granting him immortality.  What he doesn’t realize until later is that cheating fate can have dier consequences (although he ends up cheating Death a second time and doesn’t suffer the same fate).  “The Monkey’s Paw” by W. W. Jacobs is the most famous example of this sort of story, where a character is granted a wish that comes true at an enormous price.  This is a popular theme is the field of dark fantasy and it is one that Serling would unfortunately rely on as a crutch, given his contractual obligation to write the majority of the series.  “Escape Clause,” “Time Enough at Last,” “A Kind of Stopwatch,” “The Last Night of a Jockey,” and “The Man in the Bottle” (a direct imitation of "The Monkey’s Paw") are all examples of this same theme.

           Stepping into the role as the lovable Lew Bookman is the equally lovable Ed Wynn.  Known for his slapstick brand of humor and his gentle demeanor, Wynn is remembered today as one the most beloved icons of Hollywood during the 1950's and 60's.  Wynn's career as an entertainer actually stretches back to the turn of the twentieth century when he started as a vaudeville comedian in the famous Ziegfield Follies stage productions, often co-starring with W.C. Fields.  When his vaudeville days began to dry up Wynn turned his talents to radio starring in the popular show The Fire Chief during the early 1930's.  The show spawned two film adaptations, Follow the Leader (1930) and The Chief (1933), with Wynn starring in both.  From 1949 to 1950 Wynn hosted two different variety shows, The Ed Wynn Show on NBC and The Camel Comedy Caravan on CBS.  Several years later Wynn's son (and fellow Twilight Zone alumni)Keenan Wynn encouraged him to take up acting.  In 1956 Wynn, then in his mid-sixties, suprised everyone when he delivered an incredibly moving dramatic performance in the Playhouse 90 production of Rod Serling's Requiem For a Heavyweight.  During the last decade or so of his life Wynn experienced the most successful chapter of his career and proved himself as an actor that could easily switch back and forth between comedy and drama.  His notable films roles include The Great Man (1956), The Diary of Anne Frank (1959; he was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actor for his performance as Albert Dussell), a live action comedy version of Cinderella (1960) starring Jerry Lewis, and the George Stevens epic The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965).  He also found a home at The Walt Disney Company during this time and many of his best known performances are as Disney characters.  He was the voice of the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland (1956), as the Toymaker in Babes in Toyland (1961), as the Fire Chief in The Absentminded Professor (1961) and as Uncle Albert in Mary Poppins (1964).  Wynn passed away in 1966 at the age of 79.
            Murray Hamilton also turns in a good performance here as Mr. Death.  Hamilton was a prominent stage and screen actor during his career which spanned over four decades.  He is best remembered today for his role as the mayor in Jaws and Jaws 2.  He also appeared in such landmark films as No Time For Sergeants (1958), The Hustler (1961), The Graduate (1967) and The Way We Were (1975).  He died in 1986 at the age of 63.
           All in all, “One for the Angels” may not be a particularly memorable episode within the scope of The Twilight Zone catalog, but I wouldn’t discourage people away from it.  It’s an easy-to-view episode with a warmhearted charm, and Ed Wynn’s performance as Lew Bookman is immensely enjoyable.

Grade: C

Notes:
--Serling had actually written a script called “One for the Angels” several years before for the CBS Television anthology series Danger, in which a second-rate pitchman delivers a pitch so grand that he is able to keep a crowd of onlookers gathered around his apartment in order for his little brother to escape a band of angry mobsters (he ends up being shot and killed anyway.)  He reused the title and the lead character but rewrote the entire script to incorporate a fantasy element.  He supposedly wrote the lead character especially for Ed Wynn after the two had worked together in “Requiem for a Heavyweight.”
--"One For the Angels" was adapted into a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Ed Begley, Jr. (Falcon Picture Group, 2002).
--Ed Wynn also starred in the fifth season episode, “Ninety Years without Slumbering.”
--Robert Parrish also directed two other Season One episodes, "The Mighty Casey" and "A Stop at Willoughby."
--Murray Hamilton also appeared in an episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery titled "Dr. Stringfellow's Rejuvenator." 

--Brian Durant

2 comments:

  1. I could be looking too far into this but I think the threat to the little girl was all a ruse by Death to allow Bookman to make his big pitch. That way Death could take him a happy man

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    1. I kind of feel the same way about this episode, Liam. Hamilton definitely plays it that way although I'm not sure if it was Serling's intention. Thanks for the comment!

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