Sunday, September 18, 2011

"Walking Distance"

Martin Sloan (Gig Young) looks enviously upon his younger self.

“Walking Distance”
Season One, Episode 5
Original air date: October 30, 1959

Cast:
Martin Sloan: Gig Young
Robert Sloan: Frank Overton
Mrs. Sloan: Irene Tedrow
Young Martin Sloan: Michael Montgomery
The Wilcox Boy: Ronnie Howard
Charlie: Byron Foulger
Station Attendant: Sheridan Comerate
Soda Jerk: Joseph Corey
Teenager: Buzz Martin
Mr. Wilson: Pat O'Malley
Woman in Park: Nan Peterson

Crew:
Writer: Rod Serling (original teleplay)
Director: Robert Stevens
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
Editor: Joseph Gluck
Casting: Mildred Gusse
Sound: Franklin Milton and Jean Valentino 
Music: Bernard Hermann

And now, Mr. Serling:
“Next week we’ll invite you to take a strange journey back in time with Mr. Gig Young, who tries to make the exodus of all men, in their desperate attempt to relive the past.  We offer a most bizarre story called ‘Walking Distance.’  And we hope you’ll be around to share it with us.  Thank you, and good night.”

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:
“Martin Sloan, age thirty-six.  Occupation: vice-president, ad agency, in charge of media.  This is not just a Sunday drive for Martin Sloan.  He perhaps doesn’t know it at the time, but it’s an exodus.  Somewhere up the road, he’s looking for sanity.  And somewhere up the road, he’ll find something else.”

Summary:
A frazzled, anxious, New York City advertising executive named Martin Sloan is out for an afternoon drive when he pulls into a roadside service station.  While the attendant sees to his car, Sloan realizes that he is within walking distance of the town where he grew up, Homewood.  He leaves the station on foot and sets out to revisit the town and the memories of childhood.
Sloan is tired.  He’s looking for something to break the strain, to fill a void left by the constant attrition of one’s well-being that comes with money and success.  And although he may not realize it as he sets off down the path to Homewood, he is looking for a part of himself, a fraction of the spirit of his youth to remind him that the wonderful things about life can be found anywhere, all one has to do is look. 
Sloan wanders around town and is amazed to see that it hasn’t aged a day since the last time he saw it.  He walks into an ice cream parlor that still sells ice cream cones at the same price he paid as a kid.  The houses are still glistening with fresh paint and green shrubbery. 
He stumbles upon a young boy carving his name into a tree and realizes, without question, that he is looking at himself as a child (the boy is carving the name: Marty Sloan).  Sloan follows the boy back to his home and encounters his parents as they looked when he was eleven years old.  He has gone back in time.  He tries desperately to prove to them that he is their son, but they tell him to leave.  After this, he wanders around town, confused.  Later in the evening, he goes back to his old house in another attempt to prove to his parents, and himself, that he is not insane.  Again, they tell him to leave.                                                                                       


Rod Serling’s Middle Narration:
"A man can think a lot of thoughts and walk a lot of pavements between afternoon and night.  And to a man like Martin Sloan, to whom memory has suddenly become a reality, a resolve can become just as clearly and inexorably as stars in a summer night.  Martin Sloan is now back in time.  And his resolve is to put in a claim to the past.”

            Sloan wanders into a summer carnival and finds his young self on a carousel and tries to talk to him, to tell him that this is a wonderful time of life for him.  But the boy is frightened and falls off the carousel, injuring his leg, leaving his older incarnation with a limp.  Young Martin is taken away and Sloan is confronted by his father, who has gone through Sloan’s wallet, which Sloan dropped at his parent’s house earlier, and now believes that this man is from the future.  He tells Sloan that he has to leave Homewood; he doesn’t belong there.  He asks his son why he’s running. What is so troublesome about the world he comes from?  Sloan tells his father that he simply grew tired of the kind of life he is living, that he had to get away from it and revisit a time in his life in which he felt happy and free of worry.  His father tells him that if he looked in the right places he might find carnivals and easy summers days where he lives.  Instead of looking to the past to escape the present, maybe he should look to the future.
Sloan walks back into the ice cream parlor, which now has 1950’s rock n’ roll blasting from the jukebox.  He is back in the present.  He waxes philosophically for a moment about the extraordinary episode that he has just experienced and then makes his way back to the service station to pick up his car.

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
“Martin Sloan, age thirty-six.  Vice president in charge of media.  Successful in most things – but not in the one effort that all men try at one time in their lives – trying to go home again.  And also like all men perhaps there’ll be an occasion, maybe a summer night sometime, when he’ll look up from what he’s doing and listen to the distant music of a calliope – and hear the voices and the laughter of the people and places of his past.  And perhaps across his mind there will flit a little errant wish: that a man might smile then, too, because he’ll know it is just an errant wish.  Some wisp of memory not important, really.  Some laughing ghosts that cross a man’s mind, that are part of, the Twilight Zone.”

Commentary:
           If The Twilight Zone can be encapsulated into one conclusive, philosophical theory, it is this: the Twilight Zone is a place, or a state of mind, where man must come to terms with the world around him and, most importantly, with himself.  Many of the show’s episodes follow a very simple premise wherein a single individual is placed into an extraordinary situation which, based on the type of person they are, will either enlighten them about themselves and the world, or will utterly consume them.  A person who is essentially warmhearted and morally conscientious will not only survive the situation, but will walk away from it with a renewed perspective about mankind and the world he lives in.  A person who is morally bankrupt and cares only for himself will usually not walk away at all.  “Walking Distance” is an episode of the former type.  Martin Sloan carries with him all the anxieties and worries of the common man of that time or any other.  His desire to go back to a time when his life was substantially less complicated is a form of nostalgia that resonates on a universal scale. 
           This episode would set the standard for most of the time travel stories on The Twilight Zone.  Martin Sloan doesn't travel back in time via a time machine.  There is no electronic gadgetry or any kind of physical time portal that can be seen by the audience.  He simply travels from one place to another and when he gets there it is miraculously a different time period.  This would prove to be the best approach for this type of show as is evident in episodes like "The Trouble with Templeton," "Back There," and "A Hundred Yards over the Rim" to name just a few.  The producers of the show knew their limitations in terms of budget and that's why many episodes that could look quite dated instead look timeless.
Serling apparently had an unbridled preoccupation with his childhood.  This can be seen in the childlike, Tom Sawyer-ish themes that run through episodes like "A Stop at Willoughby," "The Night of the Meek" and "The Big Tall Wish."  This episode parallels his life almost exactly at the time: a man for whom middle age is rapidly approaching that earns a living in a stressful, fast paced environment, such as advertising or television, who wants desperately to break away to a safer, more familiar environment, like childhood.  One can assume that Homewood is only a thinly veiled facsimile of Binghamton, New York, where Serling grew up.  He said that the idea for this episode came to him while walking through a backlot at MGM and being struck with how similar it was to his hometown.  
          It is because this is such a personal, honest story that the episode succeeds the way it does.  But Serling's script isn't the only reason this is a memorable episode.  Gig Young turns in a fantastic performance as Martin Sloan.  He's honest without seeming overly sentimental which isn't easy given the nature of the story.  Young's career began in the early 1940's.  An affable, immensely likable actor, he was usually cast in supporting roles and could fluctuate easily between comedy and drama.  After gaining recognition for bit roles in films like Air Force (1943) and The Three Musketeers (1948) he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role opposite James Cagney in Come Fill the Cup (1951). He was nominated again for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in the comedy Teacher's Pet (1958) with Clark Gable and Doris Day. In 1969 he earned his only Oscar for his role as Rocky the Emcee in Sydney Pollack's classic film adaptation of Horace McCoy's novel They Shoot Horses, Don't They? He also enjoyed a successful career in television for a brief time appearing in many of the live playhouse productions of the 1950's and 60's and in regular roles in two short lived but highly acclaimed series, The Rogues (1964 - 1965) and Gibbsville (1976 - 1977).  His other notable film appearances include Lovers and Other Strangers (1970), Sam Peckinpah's Bring Me the Head of Alfred Garcia (1974) and the Bruce Lee film Game of Death (1978).  In his later years Young's life was often marred by personal turmoil.  He was married five times (including a seven-year stint to fellow Twilight Zone alumni Elizabeth Montgomery) and his increasing alcoholism led to a sharp decline in his career.  In 1978 64 year-old Young married 21 year-old German actress Kim Schmidt.  Several weeks later the couple was found dead in their Manhattan apartment due to an apparent murder-suicide on the part of Young. 
          Theatrically trained actor Frank Overton was a prolific force in the early days of television. He was known for his serious demeanor and was often cast as sheriffs, mayors or other forms of authority.  After an impressive tour of the live studio dramas he transitioned into the ever-changing world of television in the 1960's.  One Step Beyond, Thriller, Naked City, Way Out, Perry Mason, Route 66, Dr. Kildare, The Defenders, and The Virginian are just a few of his television credits.  He also had a starring role as Major Harvey Stovall in the WWII series 12 O'Clock High (1964 - 1967).  He also enjoyed a moderately successful film career and is probably best remembered today as Sheriff Heck Tate in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962).  One of his last roles was as colony leader Elias Sandoval in the famous Star Trek episode "This Side of Paradise" in 1967.  He died of a heart attack only a month or so later at the age of 49.
          While this episode is considered one of the show's best, Serling admitted years later that “Walking Distance” was not one of his favorite episodes.  The problem with it, he said, was in the continuity of its plot.  He believed that Sloan meets his parents too early in the episode.  After his initial encounter with his parents and his younger self, Serling said, Sloan’s rationale should be thrown completely out of proportion.  Instead, he continues to walk around town and meet people (attempting to come to terms with what’s happening to him, no doubt, but far too calm for a man who has just stared into the faces of his dead parents).  He compared this episode to the later Season One episode "A Stop at Willoughby" which has a very similar premise and which he felt was far superior.  I am inclined to disagree with Serling here as I feel that the former episode is substantially better than its Season One counterpart.  “Walking Distance” is, without question, Serling’s best episode from season one, and one of the finest of the entire series.

Grade: A

Notes:
--"Walking Distance" was adapted into a short story by Serling in Stories from the Twilight Zone (Bantam, 1960).  It was also made into a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Chelcie Ross (Falcon Picture Group, 2002).  And it was adapted into a graphic novel by Mark Kneece with art by Rich Ellis as part of a series developed by the Savannah College of Art and Design entitled Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone (Walker Publishing Company, 2008).
--Frank Overton also appeared in the Season Four episode “Mute.”
--Robert Stevens also directed the pilot episode "Where is Everybody?"
--"Walking Distance" was adapted into comic book form for the 1979 book Stories from the Twilight Zone (Bantam; a Skylark Illustrated Book) by Rod Serling, stories adapted by Horace J. Elias and illustrated by Carl Pfeufer.
--Author Christopher Conlon ("Southern California Sorcerers") wrote a fascinating examination of "Walking Distance" with attention paid to Rod Serling's possible (uncredited) sources for the story. Read it here.

--Brian Durant

6 comments:

  1. I agree. I watched this with my cousin and we were both like whoa this was well written and it makes u think about your own life

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  2. Welcome to the Vortex. Glad we agree on this early gem. This is without a doubt Serling's most autobiographical episode and I think that is why it resonates the way it does. Thanks for stopping by!

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  3. Brian, This episode just aired last night on Me-TV, so I was interested in reading some reviews. I agree with you about its strengths, and about one of the Twilight Zone's basic philosophical thrusts: "Many of the show’s episodes follow a very simple premise wherein a single individual is placed into an extraordinary situation which, based on the type of person they are, will either enlighten them about themselves and the world, or will utterly consume them."

    I would go so far as to say that most of the episodes fitting that profile were written by Rod Serling himself. Unlike the screenplays of, say, Charles Beaumont ("The Howling Man", "Living Doll") or Richard Matheson ("Death Ship", "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet"), which focused on the strangeness or horror of a situation, Serling often presented a morality play, which at their worst could be overly sentimental ("One for the Angels") or preachy ("One More Pallbearer").

    Even in the few horror-driven episodes penned by Serling, usually the morality play can be found lurking nearby ("Eye of the Beholder"--the tyranny of conformity, "The Masks"--an inheritance comes at a terrible price for the McNasty family).

    In the pure fantasy of "Walking Distance", Serling is able to admirably subdue his tendencies toward the maudlin and sermonizing, and bring forth instead one of his strengths as a writer, and that's his gift for the poetic.

    Speaking of poetic, there's one thing that makes this episode so special that you left out, and that's the hauntingly beautiful musical score by Bernard Herrmann that adds so much to the bittersweet nostalgia, but without drawing undue attention to itself.

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  4. I find it sad that Rod Serling couldn't see the excellence,--and by comparison with A Stop At Willoughby--just how well conceived and written Walking Distance is. I'm not keen on Willoghby, with its almost cartoonish hard driving boss, an unsympathetic actor, James Daly, in the lead, its caricatured depiction of the corporate world (even though accurate in spirit, wrong in detail). Subtlety was not a Serling strong point. He often used a sledgehammer when the light tap of a small hammer would have done nicely.

    Walking Distance doesn't drive its points home; it lets them unfold, scene by scene. His closing remarks are genuinely poetic, as this is a rare occasion when Serling's grasp was in sync with his reach. As to his own criticism of the episode, as someone who has written his share of plays, I can empathize: there are moments when it feels that in retrospect everything you wrote sucks. I think that Serling wasn't giving himself enough credit for writing what was more of a "dream episode" than a realistic one, and this for me immunizes it a good deal from the all too easy (and too self-critical) Monday morning quarterbacking he was engaging in.

    The structure is imperfect. It could be tweaked and tuned for an eternity, etc., etc., ad nauseam, but it has its own dream logic. The limp that Martin Sloan acquired is not, as I see it, punishment for his going back to the past in a dream but rather a symbol of this man, a man who has been wounded, has been limping all his life. In his self-realization one can only hope,--and Serling's closing remarks strongly suggest that he has--gained far more than he has lost.

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  5. I think I agree with Serling's comment about the structure. There does seem to be some dithering after meeting his parents. I haven't seen willoughby in a while so I can't say which I prefer. Following on from another story about nostalgia, I think this is too sentimental and is essentially telling the same story but loses the atmosphere and a little steam half way through

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    1. I agree. The plot does seem to stall after Sloan's initial meeting with his parents. This should have been saved for several scenes later in the script. I have to admit that I don't have the emotional connection to this episode that I once did but this could be simply because I have seen it so many times. I still think it's a powerful story and Gig Young is terrific as Martin Sloan. I certainly feel that it is head and shoulders above "A Stop at Willoughby" which I have never really cared for. Thanks for checking out the site!

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