Sunday, January 22, 2012

"Elegy"

A long way from home.

"Elegy"
Season One, Episode 20
Original Air Date: February 19, 1960
                                               
Cast:
Jeremy Wickwire: Cecil Kellaway
Captain James Webber: Kevin Hagen
Peter Kirby: Don Dubbins
Kurt Meyers: Jeff Morrow

Crew:
Writer: Charles Beaumont (adapted from his short story).
Director: Douglas Heyes
Producer: Buck Houghton
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Art Direction: George W. Davis and William Ferrari
Set Decoration: Henry Grace and Budd S. Friend
Assistant Director: Edward Denault
Casting: Mildred Gusse
Editor: Joseph Gluck
Sound: Franklin Milton and Jean Valentino
Music: Nathan Van Cleave

And now, Mr. Serling:
“Next week on the Twilight Zone we offer you the unbelievable along with an explanation. Three men visit a strange new world with people, cars, houses—the works. But something is wrong on the scene. Something very abnormal amidst the normal. You’ll see what I mean when next week we bring you ‘Elegy’ by Charles Beaumont. It stars Cecil Kellaway. Thank you and good night.”

Rod Serling’s opening narration:
“The time is the day after tomorrow. The place: a far off corner of the universe.  The cast of characters: three men lost among the stars, three men sharing the common urgency of all men lost…they’re looking for home. And in a moment they’ll find home, not a home that is a place to be seen but a strange, unexplainable experience to be felt.”

Summary:
         Two hundred years into the future, three astronauts land on a strange asteroid because their spacecraft is out of fuel. The atmosphere of the asteroid is identical to that of Earth. With no alternative, the men decide to search their new home for supplies.
         They immediately notice that the asteroid seems to be inhabited. They stumble upon a farm house and see a man taking a break from the day’s work.  They approach but find that he stares back at them with a blank expression. They enter a town and find more of the same. A group of gamblers sit motionless around a poker table. Contestants at a beauty pageant stand frozen upon the stage, staring back at a silent, lifeless audience. The sounds of a marching band echo through the town square, yet the band stands immobilized in the lobby of the town hall, prerecorded melodies pouring out of a hidden speaker. The three men toss forward a stockpile of ideas but can’t seem to conceive of a rational reason for why everyone is frozen. Even more alarming is their realization that this place is now their home.
         They walk along, looking at more of the buildings and constructing more theories, when they come to a house with an elderly, white-haired gentleman sitting on the front porch reading a newspaper in a rocking chair. They assume they he is frozen like everyone else. To their amazement they find that he can speak and move quite efficiently. He tells them that his name is Jeremy Wickwire and politely invites them inside. There he pours them a drink and explains the mystery. They have arrived at Happy Glades, a high end mortuary built on a drifting asteroid near the end of the twentieth century. It’s a place where people can posthumously live out their dreams for all eternity. Using an “Eternifying Fluid” which prevents the body from decaying, people can customize how they want to spend eternity. The men ask Wickwire how he has survived over two hundred years and he informs them that he is not a man but an android, designed specifically to be the caretaker of Happy Glades. 
        Wickwire asks the men where they would most like to be precisely at that moment. They all agree that they greatly desire to be on their ship headed home. It’s at this time that they begin to feel the effects of the Eternifying Fluid that is now coursing through their veins. They drop to the floor in agony and stare up at Wickwire in absolute horror, asking him why he would want to kill them. He tells them that Happy Glades is a peaceful place. A place free from war and destruction and all of the atrocities created by man. And as long as there are men there will be no peace.
Cut to a scene of Jeremy Wickwire inside a spaceship. He is feather-dusting and keeping things tidy. Seated at the control boards are our three heroes, staring quietly into forever on their way home.

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
“Kirby, Webber and Meyers, three men lost.  They shared a common wish, a simple one—they wanted to be aboard their ship, headed for home.  And fate, a laughing fate, a practical jokester with a smile that stretched across the stars, saw to it that they got their wish, with just one reservation: the wish came true, but only in the Twilight Zone.”

Commentary:
       “Elegy” marks the second contribution from Twilight Zone heavyweight Charles Beaumont. A story swimming with imagination that is constantly fluctuating between sparkling humor and anxiety-laced dread. I’ll preface this commentary by saying that “Elegy” was, as far as I can remember, the first episode of The Twilight Zone that I ever saw. I watched it in a high school English class. I remember that I wrote a paper on it, the premise of which was forgotten probably as soon as I handed it in. But it must have left an impression on me. I remember thinking that this was the most aesthetically enjoyable type of fantasy program that I had ever seen, one that managed to grab my attention immediately by placing the fantasy in a familiar situation.
Like many episodes of show, the reason “Elegy” is so vivid is that it’s a reflection of reality, a slideshow of images that are as familiar as parts of the cultural fabric of the twentieth century. It’s genuine, shine-polished Norman Rockwell Americana at its absolute finest--marching bands, beauty pageants and all. Only it’s horribly flawed. It isn’t the America it appears to be. Beaumont was a very socially aware writer that seemed to be deeply interested and concerned with the unspoken weaknesses of the world in which he lived. He was a regular contributor of social commentary to Playboy and several other magazines and he often used his fiction as a platform for social critique. Taken at face value, “Elegy” is a cautionary tale about nuclear annihilation and the inevitable self-destruction of the human race, not dissimilar from hundreds of post- apocalyptic science fiction stories from around the same time. But Beaumont’s cynicism stings more personally than this. There is an underlying current of unbridled satire in this story, and apparently its target is our own narcissism. It seems that Beaumont is attempting to show us how we view ourselves and want others to view us as well.  The entire premise of this episode, the idea that people would build a sprawling customized cemetery on a drifting asteroid in the middle of outer space, is absurd, as one of the astronauts points out. But the absurdity exists for a reason. Beaumont’s trying to draw the viewer’s attention to the fact that most people value their own self-image enough that even after they die they want to be put on display for others to see, like a piece of art in a museum.
Misleading android Jeremy Wickwire is played by the great Cecil Kellaway. It was a smart choice for Beaumont to leave Wickwire’s intentions ambiguous. He is shrouded in mystery for the entire episode. Even by the end of it we are still not sure who he is exactly or what purpose he serves at this strange place, or if this is in fact an actual mortuary. The audience witnesses Wickwire explaining to the three befuddled astronauts that he’s an android serving as a caretaker in this bizarre, wax museum of a mortuary. But this is Wickwire’s explanation, not Beaumont’s. And the audience is unable to depend on Wickwire’s explanation because he proves himself to be an unreliable character when he invites these three astronauts into his home, assuring them that everything is alright and that they have no cause to worry, and then proceeds to murder them without provocation, his tone abruptly changing from whimsical, elderly gentleman to a much darker character. And in the final scene he is back to his smiling, genteel self, going on about his business in an increasingly unsettling manner. So the audience is mostly left to form their own opinion about Jeremy Wickwire. He could be a refined, morally conscious, two hundred year-old android faithfully trying to protect this very sacred place or he could be an utterly insane kind of unregulated taxidermist, running wild through his own personal museum of collectable human beings.
Unlike Richard Matheson, whose adapted Twilight Zone scripts usually stuck very closely to his original short stories, Beaumont often took many liberties with his own source material. It’s curious that Beaumont would choose “Elegy” as his second script for the series.  It had not appeared in any of his three original short story collections and for the most part hasn’t had an extensive publishing history. It was originally published in the February, 1953 issue of Imagination but according to close friend William F. Nolan in his anthology A Sea of Space it was written several years earlier under the guidance and influence of Beaumont’s literary mentor, Ray Bradbury. The original story, while still quite enjoyable, is really more of a sketch than a fully imagined story and is probably no more than a thousand words. In the original story there is an entire crew of Astronauts instead of just three, and the tableaux they witness seem grimmer and more unsettling than the ones that end up on screen. For instance, one of the men walks into a butcher shop but it’s pitch dark inside and he has to feel his way around the store, eventually running into cuts of raw meat, mistaking it for human flesh. Another walks into an operating room in which a woman lies naked on a table with motionless doctors and nurses stationed all around her holding scalpels and needles and saws in their hands. These scenes were no doubt changed because the producers felt they were too suggestively morbid for primetime television. In Beaumont’s original script there was a scene where one of the astronauts wandered by a tableau of a race track, probably inspired by Beaumont’s interest in auto racing. But, as Marc Scott Zicree points out in The Twilight Zone Companion, director Douglas Heyes wanted to scrap this scene because he knew that the cars would not appear to be frozen in motion, they would simply look like parked cars. Beaumont was reportedly irritated at this suggestion and reluctantly wrote the beauty pageant scene in its place.
The biggest technical hang-up with this episode was the fact that real actors were hired to portray the human statues in the mortuary. No matter how skilled the actor, it is physically impossible for a person to stand totally motionless. To shoot the tableau scenes director Douglas Heyes knew that he would have to keep the camera moving at all times so that the viewer would never be able to see the actors moving. For the most part this is done successfully, but there are several scenes where the actors movements are quite noticeable (check out the scene where the couple is slow dancing to a violin quartet, both of them holding glasses of champagne; the actors are quite still but the champagne is clearly not. There is also the lengthy scene in the crowded town hall where several of the actors can be seen blinking profusely). Again, this isn’t a major blunder and only works against the episode conceptually. Over time I have found that these nuances are part of the episode’s charm as they give the impression that Happy Glades is all a façade, which makes it even more frightening, the same way that no attempt was made to mask the fact that these men are clearly not in any kind of town at all but on a Hollywood backlot.  Everything in this place seems quite obviously phony. There is also another interesting shot where two of the astronauts are seen standing on a bridge. Instead of a filmed shot Heyes, or possibly film editor Joseph Gluck, inserted a noticeably grainy still photograph instead. This may have been a technical oversight never intended to make the final cut.
Although it has its shortcomings and may not be an episode which will suit everyone’s tastes, “Elegy” is a highly atmospheric episode with its own kind of charm and is one of my personal favorites from the first season.

Grade: B

Notes:
--Director Douglas Heyes directed several additional episodes of the series, including the classic episodes "The After Hours," "The Howling Man," "Eye of the Beholder," and "The Invaders." Heyes wrote three episodes of Rod Serling's Night Gallery, "The Dead Man" (based on the story by Fritz Leiber and which Heyes also directed), "The Housekeeper," and "Brenda" (based on the story by Margaret St. Clair), the latter two being written under the pseudonym Matthew Howard.
--“Elegy" was originally published in the February, 1953 issue of Imagination: Stories of Science and Fantasy. It was also published in William F. Nolan’s science fiction anthology A Sea of Space (Bantam, 1970) as well as The Twilight Zone: the Original Stories (Greenberg, Matheson, Waugh, eds.  Avon, 1985; MJF, 1997).
--Cecil Kellaway appears in another episode written by Charles Beaumont, season four’s “Passage on the Lady Anne."
--"Elegy" was adapted into a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Blair Underwood.


--Brian Durant

5 comments:

  1. WHEN THE ASTRONAUTS ARE AT THE MAYORS PARTY THE MAN WITH THE GLASSES ON GROUND LEVEL RIGHT BEHIND ONE OF THE ASTRONAUTS IS BLINKING HIS EYES LIKE CRAZY AS IF HE WANTED IT TO BE NOTICED. I DONT UNDERSTAND THIS. LOOK HOW MANY TIMES HE BLINKS,

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  2. In 200 more years there will be no room left for cemeteries, cremation will become legally mandatory.
    Or by then maybe they will have cemeteries on asteroids.

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  3. Charming and unsettling at the same time, Elegy is a winner so far as I'm concerned. The actors are perfectly chosen, with, of the astronauts, Don Dubbins standing out for me as the most thoughtful and also most confounded of the three.

    Cecil Kellaway was his usual twinkly self as the outwardly genial host, as engaging as he was in The Mummy's Hand,--in which he also played a literal, not figurative magician--and Harvey, in which he was the director of an asylum of a different sort. He's more ambiguous in Elegy, yet his persona is, as it nearly always was, benign and unthreatening.

    It's difficult to know what to make of Elegy, not a Rod Serling sort of episode, it shows just how far the Zone could get from its host and producer's turf and still be its recognizable self. There's a sense of drift in it that's non-linear, more right brained (so to speak) than the more rational Serling, whose tales tended to have messages. This one doesn't. It's food for thought, but the food has no label. Make of it what one will.

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  4. It is true that this is a very un-Serling episode but it would be well to remember that the show was still trying out a lot of genre material during the first season, which is the most tonally diverse season until the latter portion of the fifth season when new producer William Froug started trashing scripts from the principle writers to bring in new writers. It is interesting as well to consider what we think of when we think of the show because each of the principle writers had distinct styles, with Serling bringing in tales of morality and poetic justice, Beaumont with psychological horror stories about dreams and our perception of reality, and Matheson with tales of domestic terror, when the horror invades the home.

    Beaumont was quick to adapt his own material and his short fiction output was nothing if not diverse. Beaumont was always a more psychological writer than either Serling or Matheson and he also possessed a biting sense of humor. "Elegy" is a fun bit of macabre comedy and one of the more successfully unique offerings from the show, which too often attempted comedy in broad strokes.

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  5. Thanks for responding, Jordan. One of the many things that make Elegy linger in my memory is, aside from its first rate production values, the basic ambiguity of the central dilemma the poor astronauts are caught in. Cecil Kellaway's charm helps sell the show as entertainment,--but egads!--he poisoned, to death, three men who had done him no harm.

    Alright, he said he wasn't really human, just looked that way. True? The viewer can either accept this part of the narrative or reject it. He could just as well be a jolly sadist who gets his jollies killing astronauts who suffer the misfortune of landing on his asteroid.

    In the end we can see him as a jolly old fellow (or android) or mass killer; an innately kind man who was actually doing his three visitors a favor; or maybe, just maybe, a serial killer possessed of immense charm,--a sort of Mr Pip (from A Nice Place To Visit), but more sinister still, more genial seeming, and up to no good.

    The ending doesn't give the game away. The show is over, yet issues remain; that is, if one wants them to. A nice touch,

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