Monday, April 11, 2011

"The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine"

Ida Lupino as aging movie star Barbara Jean Trenton
“The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine”
Season One, Episode 4
Original Air Date: October 23, 1959

Cast:
Barbara Jean Trenton: Ida Lupino
Danny Weiss: Martin Balsam
Marty Sall: Ted de Corsia
Jerry Hearndan: Jerome Cowan
Sally: Alice Frost

Crew:
Writer: Rod Serling (original teleplay)
Director: Mitchell Leisen
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, Henry Grace
Assistant Director: Edward Denault
Casting: Mildred Gusse
Editor: Bill Mosher
Sound: Franklin Milton and Jean Valentino 
Music: Franz Waxman

And now, Mr. Serling:
“This motion picture projector and this film provide a background to next week’s story when a most distinguished actress takes a journey into The Twilight Zone. Miss Ida Lupino stars in “The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine,” a haunting story of a haunted woman that I think you’ll find interesting and perhaps shocking. We hope you’ll join us then. Thank you and good night.”

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:
“Picture of a woman looking at a picture, movie great of another time, once brilliant star in a firmament no longer part of the sky, eclipsed by the movement of earth and time. Barbara Jean Trenton, whose world is a projection room, whose dreams are made out of celluloid. Barbara Jean Trenton, struck down by hit and run years and lying on the unhappy pavement, trying desperately to get the license number of fleeting fame.”

Summary:
     Barbara Jean Trenton, an aging, reclusive actress, spends nearly all of her time in the darkened screening room of her Beverly Hills mansion, drinking heavily and attempting to recapture the glory days of her youth by endlessly screening the old movies in which she starred. She fantasizes about the leading men that shared the screen with her two decades or more ago. One actor in particular, Jerry Hearndan, has always held a special place in her heart and she watches the movies they made together over and over.
     Barbara Jean’s maid, Sally, and her agent, Danny, become increasingly concerned about her unhealthy fixation on the past and the amount of time she spends in the dark watching old movies. Danny, in an attempt to break Barbara Jean out of her unhealthy habits, arranges for an audition with a large movie studio. Barbara Jean excitedly agrees to read for the part, despite the fact that it is for a movie producer she has never liked, Marty Sall. Barbara Jean dreams of a romantic leading role, like the ones she’s had in the past, in a love story or a musical.
     When she arrives at Marty Sall’s office, she quickly realizes that the part the producer has lined up for her is a small role that makes her advanced age glaringly apparent. Barbara Jean erupts in anger and refuses to even read the script. Sall gets angry, too. The producer harshly tells the aging actress that she is living in the past and she doesn’t have the clout in the movie industry that she once had. Barbara Jean storms out of his office and Danny, the ever-loyal agent, verbally puts Sall in his place before returning with Barbara Jean to her home.
     For Barbara Jean, the horrible encounter with the producer is the breaking point. She has decided to fully live in the past, to allow her fixation to totally consume her. She believes that if she wishes for it hard enough, she can will herself to return to the past she is desperately obsessed with. She tells Danny that she wants to throw a party and invite all of her friends from years ago. Danny, knowing that this regression is not healthy, attempts to convince her to give up the past, to move on, that the other actors from years ago have since moved on or died. Barbara Jean will hear nothing of it. Danny leaves and she resigns herself to the dark screening room.
     When Danny returns the next day he is greeted by a very distraught Sally, who tells him that, when she enters the screening room, she swears that Barbara Jean isn’t in the room at all, that she is only up on the screen. Danny brushes this aside. He is excited with good news and he rushes to the screening room to tell Barbara Jean about it. Reluctant to let him in, she finally caves when he mentions that he has asked Jerry Hearndan, her leading man of years past, to visit her home that same afternoon. Excited as a young girl, Barbara Jean rushes off to prepare for his visit.
     When she emerges she is faced with a harsh truth in the physical form of Jerry Hearndan. Now aged twenty five years, Heardan is a bald, bespectacled old man that has given up acting to run a chain of supermarkets outside of Chicago. Barbara Jean, in her twisted mental state, refuses to believe this, insisting that the old man is not really Jerry Hearndan but an aged imposter. She turns her back on him and Jerry leaves. Danny, distraught at the disaster of Hearndan’s visit, leaves as well. Barbara Jean is alone and she once again retreats to her screening room where she can see Jerry Hearndan as he was when he was young and handsome. She talks to the screen, willfully wishes it to be real once again. Later, the maid enters the screening room and is greeted with a shocking sight. Screaming, she drops a serving tray with a crash on the floor and runs out.
     Danny arrives at the house and, at the behest of Sally, enters the screening room. Sally has turned off the projector and becomes anxious when Danny decides to turn it back on. They both watch the screen. There, on the screen, is a film of Barbara Jean’s home, the very home they now sit in. From the front doors enter a costumed array of young people, all actors from twenty five years ago, all actors from Barbara Jean’s movies, even those actors that have since died. Then Barbara Jean enters the film and greets all of her guest, inviting them to continue the party at the poolside. As she is walking away on the arm of the young Jerry Hearndan, Danny calls out to the screen, calling for Barbara Jean to come back. As though she hears him, Barbara Jean turns and looks. Then, with a goodbye wave, she tosses her scarf across the threshold of the stairway and retreats off screen. The film ends, the screen goes black.
     Danny walks out of the room, stunned. In the hallway, on the floor, he finds Barbara Jean’s scarf. He picks it up and holds it near, smiling, knowing that Barbara Jean has indeed wished herself back into the past, forever.

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
“To the wishes that come true, to the strange, mystic strength of the human animal, who can take a wishful dream and give it a dimension of its own. To Barbara Jean Trenton, movie queen of another era, who has changed the blank tomb of a projection screen into a private world. It can happen, in The Twilight Zone.”

Commentary:


     “The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine” is an underrated episode, one of the mostly forgotten episodes that are not good enough or bad enough to stick in the memory of the average viewer but which still present a high level of quality in one or more areas of production. "The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine" is underrated not because of its plot (derivative and predictable), or script (littered with stilted dialogue and lapsing into mood killing sentiment), or even the characters (largely stereotypical), but because of the performances, which lift the episode above the deficiencies in these other areas. It is the performances that draw the viewer back to the episode again. With capable directing, the episode builds to a pitch-perfect mood of sinister atmosphere that brings to mind all of the darkness, mystery, and bizarre culture that characterized the Golden Age of Hollywood. 
         The episode is chiefly concerned with the fatal allure of the past (a subject of fascination for Rod Serling), but it is also concerned with death, and, metaphorically, the death of old Hollywood, a time highly romanticized in the cultural mind. The films of this era (1920's-1940's) had the simplicity, and the casual brutality, of fairy tales, films of broad humor or sweeping romantic adventure or brooding Gothic horror. On the opposite side of this is the suggestion of immortality through art, in this case old films. It is the suggestion that there exist an immortality of sorts inherent in the cultural products of the past that lends the episode its power.  
          The episode is structured like a fable, the forgotten princess locked away in a castle who longs for a prince from her past to rescue her. The story is crowned with a largely illogical happy ending that represents hope and sentiment despite the dark and obsessive nature of the episode. This ending greatly destroys the carefully built mood and tension of what had come before. The strange Poe-meets-Hollywood feel of the story is swept away the moment Martin Balsam picks up the scarf by the staircase, smiles and says, “To wishes, Barbie.” It’s a complete one hundred and eighty degree turn in terms of mood and atmosphere.  
     When Danny views the final footage of Barbara Jean walking off into her fantasy netherworld along with all of the dead or long gone actors from the past, the atmosphere should reinforce the idea that she is walking off with ghosts, that Barbara has essentially chosen death over living her life to the fullest in the here and now. Of course there is an interpretation of the episode that sees Barbara Jean escape into the happiest moments of her life. But at what cost? When the projector screen goes black, it should be a disturbing moment, not a reassuring one. The obvious inspiration for this episode, Billy Wilder's 1950 film Sunset Boulevard, gets the message right. There is no going back. Where one desires to go back to is never as one remembers it being through a haze of nostalgia. 
       Serling was conflicted about a person's longing for the past and what the past ultimately signifies to the person we are at present. It was a subject he returned to again and again throughout his career, and for as many stories as he wrote about not being able to go home again ("Walking Distance," "No Time Like the Past," "They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar"), he wrote a number displaying that an escape into the past is possible ("A Stop at Willoughby"). 
     Ida Lupino is simply perfect as Barbara Jean Trenton. She was an astonishingly talented woman from a family of artists who became the only person to both star in an episode of the series as well as direct another. She was the only woman to direct an episode of the series, as well, the fifth season episode, "The Masks," from a Rod Serling script. That episode happens to be one of the finest the series has to offer, largely due to Lupino's moody direction, and is Rod Serling's final great masterpiece of the series. Lupino here plays the role of the obsessed film star with compassion while avoiding the temptation to emulate Gloria Swanson's manic performance in Sunset Boulevard. Lupino was an versatile actress and director who was particularly well versed in film noir in both capacities. As an actress she appeared in They Drive by Night (1940), High Sierra (1941), alongside Humphrey Bogart, Road House (1948), and On Dangerous Ground (1951). She directed the hard hitting film The Hitch-Hiker in 1953 for RKO. Lupino also directed episodes of Kraft Suspense Theatre, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and a whopping 9 episodes of Boris Karloff's Thriller, including the classics "Trio for Terror" and "La Strega." She was something of a child prodigy, acting and writing in her own productions by age 7, and harbored dreams of being a writer. Her father, Stanley Lupino, a legend in musical comedy, encouraged her talent in acting and Ida began serious study of the art form in her early teens. By the late 1940's, Lupino was writing, producing, and directing independent films while navigating the studio system of Hollywood. She died in Los Angeles on August 3, 1995, aged 77. 
       Martin Balsam, an Academy Award winning actor that should be a familiar face to genre television and film fans everywhere, is reliable as always. Balsam is the type of character actor one comes to appreciate not only for his range but for the way in which he not only adjusts to the character but also adjusts the character to himself. He is not an actor that is going to slip completely into a role but he is going to be convincing and believable. Balsam held roles in two exceptional thrillers from the sixties (Psycho (1960) and Cape Fear (1962)), starred as the psychologist trying to help a doomed time traveler in Rod Serling's "The Time Element," for Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse (the unofficial Twilight Zone series pilot), and appeared again in the season four episode “The New Exhibit.” A prolific actor, Balsam is also remembered for his role in 12 Angry Men (1957) and appeared in two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, one of which, "The Equalizer," plays on Balsam's small stature. 
        As noted earlier, "The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine" was unquestionably influenced by director Billy Wilder's 1950 film noir Sunset Boulevard, starring Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond, a washed up and reclusive film starlet from the silent era who still lives thirty years in the past while remaining secluded in her dilapidated mansion. Norma also, like Barbara Jean Trenton, spends much of her time watching prints of her old movies, yearning to be young again. By chance, Desmond meets a handsome aspiring screenwriter named Joe Gillis, played by William Holden, and works to keep him as her "pet" writer while he produces a screenplay that will bring her back into the limelight. Of course, it all ends in tragedy with Gillis's death at the hands of Desmond in a desperate act of lover's rage. By the time Serling came to produce "The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine," Sunset Boulevard already held a reputation as an exceptional film.
        A note about the exceptional music in the episode. It is provided by legendary German-American composer Franz Waxman, who, ironically, also provided the score to Sunset Boulevard (for which he won an Academy Award). Waxman's music will sound familiar to genre fans from movies such as Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Rebecca (1940), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941), Suspicion (1941), and Rear Window (1954). Unfortunately, this is the only episode Waxman lent his talents to. He died in 1967. It is interesting to note here that director Mitchell Leisen and composer Franz Waxman were once titans in Hollywood but were no longer in demand by the time they came to work on The Twilight Zone. It lends a poignancy to this story about a love of the past, and of past glories in the golden days of Hollywood. 

Grade: C

Notes:

-Rod Serling went on record several times as saying he held no love for this episode and considered it an all-around failure.
-Ida Lupino also directed the exceptional season five episode “The Masks,” scripted by Rod Serling. 
-Martin Balsam also appeared in the unofficial pilot for The Twilight Zone, "The Time Element," from The Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, and the season four episode “The New Exhibit.”
-Alice Frost played the part of Aunt Amy in the season three episode “It’s a Good Life.”
-"The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine" was adapted into a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Kathy Garver and Charles Shaughnessy. 
-"The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine" was adapted into a short story (as "The 16-Millimeter Shrine") by Walter B. Gibson for Rod Serling's Twilight Zone Revisited (Grosset & Dunlap, 1964). 

--Jordan Prejean

2 comments:

  1. Great commentary. From a fellow Twilight Zone fan. Rod Serling was so ahead of his time and his work reflects more of the present time

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    1. Thanks for reading, RedBelle. And I agree wholeheartedly with your assertion on Rod Serling. The best of Serling's writing, and really the best of all the writing on the series, has the timeless quality of fable and the show endures because it hardly seems to age outside of the obvious cultural references and the limitations of the television medium at that time. This episode in particular displays what I think is one of Serling's strongest qualities as a writer, that of taking a story seed planted by another writer (in this case the episode's similarity to "Sunset Boulevard") and expanding upon it in a meaningful and idiosyncratic way. I've always felt this was an underrated gem of an episode that possesses a perfect blend of unsettling and haunting.

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