Wednesday, September 28, 2011

"Time Enough At Last"

Burgess Meredith as the unfortunate bookworm Henry Bemis
“Time Enough At Last”
Season One, Episode 8
Original Air Date: November 20, 1959
Henry Bemis: Burgess Meredith
Helen Bemis: Jaqueline deWit
Mr. Carsville: Vaughn Taylor
Mrs. Chester: Lela Bliss
Writer: Rod Serling (Based on the short story by Lynn Venable, first published in If: Worlds of Science Fiction, January 1953)
Director: John Brahm
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: Bill Mosher
Sound: Franklin Milton and Jean Valentino 
Music: Leith Stevens
And now, Mr. Serling: 
         "Next week a distinguished actor lends us his talents as Mr. Burgess Meredith stars in 'Time Enough At Last,' the story of man who seeks salvation in the rubble of a ruined world. We hope you'll share this very strange experience with us. Thank you and good night."
Rod Serling's Opening Narration: 
                "Witness Mr. Henry Bemis, a charter member in the fraternity of dreamers, a bookish little man whose passion is the printed page, but who is conspired against by a bank president and a wife and a world full of tongue-cluckers and the unrelenting hands of a clock. But in just a moment Mr. Bemis will enter a world without bank presidents or wives or clocks or anything else. He'll have a world all to himself, without anyone."
                Bank teller Henry Bemis is a bespeckled, bookish, little middle-aged man that can never find time during his day to do what he so loves to: read. He attempts to read at his job and winds up neglecting customers and making mistakes, bringing his reading habit to the unwanted attention of the bank manager. At home, his wife refuses to give him a moment of peace for reading or, frankly, anything else she doesn't deem fit for her husband to do. She is a sadistic, over-bearing woman who resorts to finding the books that Bemis has hidden in their home and proceeding to gratuitously mark over the text in black ink on each page. She then places them back where Bemis last left them in order to gloat when her husband comes along and finds the nasty surprise. 
                At work, Bemis has devised a curious habit that allows him some time to read in the middle of his day. On his lunch break, he takes his bagged lunch down into the bank vault where he closes himself inside to sit, eat, and read his book in the solitude and quiet. 
                One day, when Bemis is in the vault, reading, he sees the glass on his watch face break and then feels the ground and walls shake terribly, knocking his glasses from his face. "The Bomb" has been dropped. Emerging from the bank vault, shaken, Bemis, at first, cannot see anything, for he is blind without his glasses. Find them and putting them on, he finds the world around him in shambles. 
                Stumbling through this wasteland, Bemis finds a newspaper prophesizing the event and realizes what has happened. He panics, terrified of being the last man on Earth, and runs through the rubble of what was his hometown calling out for somebody, anybody. But there is nobody there. Bemis is, as far as he can tell, the last man alive. Time goes by and, though he knows he won't starve, Bemis contemplates suicide as an escape from the unbearable lonliness of his situation.
Rod Serling's Middle Narration:
                "Seconds, minutes, hours. They crawl by on hands and knees for Mr. Henry Bemis, who looks for a spark in the ashes of a dead world: A telephone connected to nothingness; a neighborhood bar, a movie, a baseball diamond, a hardware store, the mailbox at what was once his house and is now rubbl. They lie at his feet as battered monuments to what was but is no more. Mr. Henry Bemis on an eight hour tour of a graveyard."  
                Then Bemis sees it, the public library. It is in ruins and the books, mountains of books, have spilled out into the street. Joy overcomes him and he fights his way to the steps of the library, relishing the books. He takes the time to organize the books by the months of the calendar. Suicide has left his mind, for he has the companionship of all his favorite authors and all their greatest works with him now. He has all the time in the world to read and nothing to stop him, no job at the bank and no cruel wife, either. Bemis reaches down for a book lying near his feet on the stone steps. His glasses slide off his face and come down on the stone steps, breaking the glass out of the frames. Blind without his glasses and unable to read, Bemis hold up the usesless frames and cries out in a moment of terrible pathos. "But there was time now. It's not fair!" He is now to be thrown back in the darkness of his lonliness.
Rod Serling's Closing Narration: 

                "The best laid plans of mice and men, and Henry Bemis, the small man in the glasses who wanted nothing but time. Henry Bemis, now just a part of a smashed landscape, just a piece of the rubble, just a fragment of what man has deeded to himself. Mr. Henry Bemis. . . in the Twilight Zone."

                "Time Enough at Last" is, without question, one the most fondly remembered episodes in the show's entire run. It is a solid, entertaining, and certainly enduring episode but was not a sign of the type of seriousness of intent the series would achieve with the later masterpieces from the second and third seasons, despite the fact that it broaches the very serious issue of nuclear war. It does signal the fact that Rod Serling, and the other series writers, was going to approach serious social issues, such as the Cold War anxieties of Americans, even in context of a humorous episode like "Time Enough at Last." The episode sticks in the memory due to the cleverness of its plot, it's unforgettable twist ending, and the memorable performance of Twilight Zone regular Burgess Meredith.
              Despite lacking in areas of complexity and psychological depth which distinguished many of the other classic episodes of the series, "Time Enough at Last" is an effective bit of tragedy with moments of real pathos, but perhaps an episode too reliant upon its cruel twist ending. 
                It has found an enduring niche among fans of the show because it is painted in broad strokes. Every character in the show is a cartoon character and performed in an over-the-top manner, from Henry's bully of a wife ("Heeennnnrryyyy") to his overbearing boss. Even Henry is a cartoon character, more a type than a distinctive personality. A lesser actor than Burgess Meredith would have fumbled the role but Meredith lifts it up beyond its basic value on the page, adding idiosyncratic touches such as a stutter of speech. These broad characters and the broad performances from the principle actors give the episode the feeling of a standard late 1950's situational comedy, something that is reinforced by the light flourishes from the music of Leith Stevens.
               Burgess Meredith appeared in a total of four episodes and "Time Enough at Last" is his best known performance from the series. It can be argued that season two's "The Obsolete Man" is actually Meredith's best performance for the series, though he never turned in a bad one. In "Time Enough at Last," he is memorable as the incredibly weak and unfortunate Henry Bemis, and he plays this type of role extraordinarily well. So much so that his performance in this episode undoubtedly secured his later role in "Mr. Dingle, the Strong," in which he plays a similar type of unfortunate character that is the beneficiary/victim of extraordinary powers. 
      The character of Henry Bemis is a veiled stand-in for Lynn Venable, the author of the original short story upon which the episode is based. Venable was inspired to write the story by her real-life struggle to find time to read along with a fear of breaking her reading glasses. Venable's full first name is Marilyn but she chose to submit her stories as "Lynn" in order to remain gender neutral to magazine editors. She was represented for a time by the literary agent and science fiction fan and collector Forrest J. Ackerman. 
           One of the greatest strengths of the episode is the production design. The "after the bomb" look is an incredibly effective design on the part of the production crew, even though it is an unlikely look for the destruction from a nuclear bomb. What it more resembles is the destruction caused by an earthquake. The effects of earthquakes were well known and documented by 1959 whereas the effects of nuclear bombs were still being explored, with many of the results being hidden away from most Americans or distributed as lies and misinformation.   
             However unlikely a set in terms of a realistic depiction of the fallout from a bomb, it is very devastating in its bleakness. The stunning visuals were designed by Art Directors George W. Davis and William Ferrari.
             "Time Enough at Last" is a seminal episode in the show's history and is especially important for the show's endurance in the cultural landscape, as its plot is recognized even by those that have not seen the show. It is a highly watchable episode and one of the shining points in the first season.

Grade: B

-Burgess Meredith is also featured in the second season episodes "The Obsolete Man" and "Mr. Dingle, the Strong," as well as the fourth season episode "Printer's Devil." He appeared in two episodes of Rod Serling's Night Gallery, "The Little Black Bag" and "Finnegan's Flight."
-Actor Vaughn Taylor also appears in the third season episodes "Still Valley" and "I Sing the Body Electric," as well as the fourth season episode "The Incredible World of Horace Ford" and the fifth season episode "The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross."
-"Time Enought at Last" was adapted into a Twilight Zone Radio Drama by Dennis Etchison, starring Tim Kazurinsky. 

1 comment:

  1. Why couldn't he just hold a piece of the shattered lenses near his eye, carefully place the remaining shards in his pocket and then fashion a more safe and comfortable lense holder from other materials such as sticking the shard into a piece of wood? He then could read as much as he wished with his new handy magnifying glass. He reads a lot but he's not smart enough to use a chunk of glass to magnify things? Then he certainly wouldn't be smart enough, even with intact glasses, to find food in a post-apocalyptic wasteland ensuring that he wouldn't have time enough at all to read his books and would surely parish in a matter of days. If his glasses had been crushed into sand maybe this idea would work. Serling should have known that where there's a will there's a way. He should have stopped smoking so much and stopped being such a defeatist.