Monday, February 13, 2012

"The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street"


“The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street"
Season One, Episode 22
Original airdate: March 4, 1960

Cast:
Steve Brand: Claude Akins
Charlie Farnsworth: Jack Weston
Tommy: Jan Handzlik
Les Goodman: Barry Atwater
Don Martin: Burt Metcalfe
Woman: Amzie Strickland
Mrs. Farnsworth: Lyn Guild
Myra Brand: Anne Barton
Man: Jason Johnson
Sally, Tommy’s Mother: Mary Gregory
Pete Van Horn: Ben Erway
Old Woman: Joan Sudlow
Space Alien #1: Sheldon Allman
Space Alien #2: William Walsh

Crew:
Writer: Rod Serling (original teleplay)
Director: Ronald Winston
Producer: Buck Houghton
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Music: Rene Garriguene

And now, Mr. Serling:
“Next week on Twilight Zone, we put you on a front porch—summer evening, tree-lined street, typical small town.  And then we pull the rug out from under your feet and we throw a nightmare at you.  Claude Akins, Jack Weston and Barry Atwater are you neighbors just at that moment when ‘The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.  Don’t chicken out.  Thank you and good night.”

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:
Maple Street, USA, late summer.  A tree-lined little world of front porch gliders, barbeques, the laughter of children and the bell of an ice-cream vendor.  At the sound of the roar and the flash of light, it will be precisely six forty-three PM…
           “This is Maple Street on a late Saturday afternoon.  Maple Street—in the last calm and reflective moments before the monsters came.”

Summary:
On a quiet, peaceful Saturday afternoon, the residents of Maple Street are going about their usual routine when an unidentified object streaks across the sky.  Assuming it to be a meteor, they continue on about their business. 
Moments later, some of the residents begin to notice that none of their appliances seem to be working.  The phone lines are out, cars won’t start and the entire neighborhood seems to be without electricity of any kind.  All of the residents come out of their houses and huddle together to see if they can get to the bottom of the mystery.  They decide that they need to see if it’s like this everywhere.  Pete Van Horn tells everyone that he is going over to the next street to see if they are having the same problem. He sets out on foot and no one sees him again for several hours.  Steve Brand and Charlie Farnsworth decide to walk into town together to see if they can get some answers.  As they are leaving they’re stopped by Tommy, a young boy who lives in the neighborhood, and he tells them that the object they saw in the sky was an alien spacecraft, and he thinks the aliens don’t want them to leave Maple Street.  They ask him why he thinks this and he says that its just like a science fiction story he read where aliens came to Earth in a spaceship to take over the planet.  They cut off all of the electricity, phones and automobiles so no one could go anywhere.  A few months before they arrived they sent down scouts that looked just like humans and they lived amongst humans so they could understand what humans were like.  Steve laughs playfully at the na├»ve teenager and his obviously make-believe story but an uncomfortable mumble rumbles across the crowd of onlookers. 
Just then the crowd hears a car engine being cranked.  They walk over to Les Goodman’s house where he is trying to start his car to no avail.  Les steps out of the car and walks away from it.  The car immediately starts on its own.  The crowd becomes suspicious of Les and, under the leadership of Charlie, accuses him of being “different” from everyone else on Maple Street.  One of his neighbors claims that she sometimes catches him in his driveway late at night, just looking up at the stars, as if he is waiting for something or someone.  They suggest that maybe Les Goodman isn’t who he claims to be (in other words, he’s the alien).  Les tries to defend himself as does Steve Brand who soon becomes Maple Street’s rational voice of reason.  Ultimately, this serves no purpose and the crowd grows increasingly more suspicious.
         Several hours later.  It’s dark now on Maple Street.  Still no power.  Les Goodman’s neighbors have stationed themselves outside of his house, hoping he will eventually give himself away as the alien so they can prove themselves right.  Steve Brand is still trying to reason with Charlie Farnsworth and the rest of the crowd.  Charlie gets fed up with this and then turns an accusatory eye at Steve, claiming that Steve’s wife has mentioned offhandedly of some sort of radio that Steve is secretly building in his basement.  What does this radio do? Charlie asks.  Steve defends himself and attempts to point out that the entire neighborhood is beginning to turn on each other and that sooner or later someone is going to suffer because of it.
Just then someone in the crowd notices a figure approaching from a distance.  No one is quite able to determine who it is but it is decided amongst Charlie and several others that it must be the alien monster.  Out of nowhere a shotgun appears from the crowd.  Charlie grabs the gun and shoots the approaching figure; it drops dead in the street.  The crowd rushes over to the figure and discovers Pete Van Horn lying dead before them.  Now it’s Charlie who has to defend himself against accusations from Steve that he just murdered an innocent man.  Instead of admitting his guilt he tells his neighbors that the real monster must be Tommy because he was the one who knew what was going to happen.  Then the lights in several of the homes begin to blink at random.  The entire neighborhood begins accusing each other which leads to them barbarically attacking one another in the street.  Bricks are thrown, shots are fired and lives are shattered.   The sound of fear rings out up and down Maple Street, USA.
On a hilltop not far away, two beings from another world are watching the terrifying events on Maple Street unfold.  They are the apparent source behind the confusion in the neighborhood.  They are on a mission to colonize Earth by letting man destroy one another.  To do this, one of them suggests, all they must do is take away man’s comfort zone and throw in an element of fear and man will simply seek out his greatest enemy: himself.  They climb back into their spaceship and fly away, presumably to their next destination.

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
“The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout.  There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices—to be found only in the minds of men.  For the record, prejudices can kill, and suspicion can destroy.  And a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own for the children and the children yet unborn.  And the pity of it is…that these things cannot be confined…to The Twilight Zone.”


The Monsters gather on Maple Street
Commentary:
            Rod Serling said that the reason he wanted to make The Twilight Zone is because with science fiction and fantasy he knew he could get away with robots and Martians saying things that people could not.  There is probably not another episode of this program that embodies this creed more than “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.”  A swift, solid script from beginning to end, this thinly veiled analysis of McCarthyism and the communist blacklists of the 1950’s became an immediate fan favorite and has undergone many adaptations since its original broadcast in 1960. 
In “Monsters” Serling touched upon several themes that would be used again in later episodes, most notably the senseless, angry mob as a blatant representation of man’s ignorance.  This transformation of an essentially conventional person or group of people into barbaric examples of human beings is a theme that Serling had already explored in some of his dramatic work during the 1950’s and one he would reuse in several episodes of The Twilight Zone including Season Three’s “The Gift,” in which a benevolent alien being disguised in human form comes to a small Mexican village bearing a gift to mankind.  The frightened villagers, now a senseless angry mob, mistake the gift as a weapon and decide to kill their visitor and destroy his present.  The gift, it is discovered afterwards, is actually a cure for cancer.  In “The Shelter,” another Season Three episode, Serling produces a plot that is eerily similar to “Monsters,” though not nearly as engaging, in which a family is forced to seek protection in their homemade fallout shelter after the announcement that a nuclear apocalypse is imminent.  Their neighbors, none of whom have such a shelter, demand to be let inside.  But there are only enough supplies for one family.  Eventually their neighbors devolve into (believe it or not) a senseless angry mob and begin beating on the door of the shelter with a battering ram before it is revealed that the previous threat of nuclear annihilation was simply a mistake.  This misanthropic view of humanity stands in sharp contrast to his lighter material which has almost a childlike sentimentality.  Serling seemed to care about the heroes in his stories and didn’t pass judgment on them no matter how flawed they were.  Even with his more archetypal protagonists there is always an underlying thread of compassion woven into the story.  Clearly, there was a part of Serling that cared deeply for humanity, and it’s this concern for the common individual that makes his work remarkable.  But there was also a darker side.  Judging from his writing, it would appear that as he got older he grew increasingly bitter about the world and was constantly trying to reconcile these two parts of his personality.  In “Monsters” both sides are represented by the rational Steve Brand, who is trying to hold the neighborhood together, and the outspokenly irrational Charlie Farnsworth, who succeeds in dividing it in half.  Steve Brand is but a thinly veiled representation of Serling and his voice is Serling’s voice.  He is the liberal-minded part of Serling that wants to see the best in neighbors, while Charlie is the downfall that society ultimately succumbs to.  It seems apparent that Serling longed for the Norman Rockwell America of episodes like “Walking Distance” and “A Stop at Willoughby,” but at the same time he saw through that world and instead sought to expose its weaknesses. 
The other prevailing theme in this episode is its not-so-subtle allusion to the McCarthy era of the 1950’s, which even by 1960 was still a dangerous subject to tackle so directly.  Eight years earlier Arthur Miller set the political and literary worlds on fire with his masterpiece, The Crucible (which earned him both a Tony Award and a subpoena to appear in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee).  While The Crucible was almost certainly an influence on “Monsters,” as Serling acknowledged many times that he was an admirer of Miller, Serling had been an outspoken critic of McCarthyism for many years and had even criticized several national news organizations for supporting the senator.  While Miller takes more of a direct approach to the allusion, with fantasy Serling was free to script it more like a story reminiscent of John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?”  Viewers would see this type of theme again in Season Two’s “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?”
Jack Weston and Claude Akins
Although Serling’s script is a solid one, the thing that makes “Monsters” such a memorable episode for me is the amazing performances from its ensemble cast, particularly in the two leading roles played by Jack Weston and Claude Akins.  Weston was already a recognizable fixture in television by 1960 and had been featured in many of the live studio dramas of the 1950’s as well as episodes of The Untouchables, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Have Gun-Will Travel.  He also had a regular role on a children’s science fiction show called Rod Brown of the Rocket Rangers from 1953 to 1954 with fellow Twilight Zone alumni Cliff Robertson.  In later years he would have a successful film career with roles in The Cincinnati Kid, Wait Until Dark, and The Thomas Crown Affair.   A versatile character actor, he was known for playing both villains and lighthearted characters, as is evidenced in his portrayal here as the volatile Charlie Farnsworth and in his hilarious performance as the incessantly clueless Julius Moomer in Season Four’s “The Bard.”  Claude Akins was also a widely recognized actor at the time having racked up appearances in such landmark films as Rio Bravo, The Defiant Ones, and Inherit the Wind.  Given his tall, broad shouldered stature and his gentle southern accent, he was often cast in westerns as the rational voice of reason, much like his role in “Monsters” and in his other Twilight Zone appearance, Season Three’s “The Little People,” but he was also known for playing rougher characters like the ruthless General Aldo in Battle for the Planet of the Apes.  Casting was definitely a key feature in this episode and the reason the characters work as well as they do is because of the excellent chemistry the actors share on screen.  Their personalities seem to either mesh or clash perfectly with one another, which is what makes Maple Street seem like an authentic portrait of small town life.  This episode also owes a great deal to its direction from Ron Winston.  This is the first of three episodes that Winston would direct.  To capture the mob mentality of these characters there are many wide shots of the group who are always huddled close to one another despite the fact that there is long, empty street surrounding them.  There is one shot in particular where Winston shoots only the legs of actors, moving together as one.
As one of the seminal episodes in The Twilight Zone catalog, “The Monster are Due on Maple Street” has seen numerous adaptations over the years including a prose version written by Serling, a radio drama starring Frank John Hughes, a modern day comic book adaptation and a half-hour remake for the second Twilight Zone revival series which aired on UPN in 2003.  This last adaptation, entitled "The Monsterr Are On Maple Street" was a modern day remake set at the start of the war in Iraq.  It stars Andrew McCarthy in the lead role as the Steve Brand-type character.  The general scenario is still the same only now instead of aliens it's terrorists that the residents of Maple Street fear.  Also thrown into the mix is the recent arrival of a peculiar new neighbor that none of the residents of Maple Street have yet seen.  So, when the power goes out, instead of turning on each other as they do in Serling’s original script, the neighbors focus all of their paranoia on the mysterious new house at the end of the block.  By the end of the episode the residents march to the house brandishing torches and bricks and loaded revolvers and proceed to set the house on fire with the homeowners supposedly still inside.  It’s revealed, of course, that the cause of their paranoia isn’t terrorists at all but is in fact the United States military conducting an experiment on the possible behavior of Americans if put under the threat of a terrorist attack.  While the premise is believable and the twist effective, the rest of the script falls short of Serling’s original and the cast members, with the exception of McCarthy who turns in a decent performance in almost anything, aren't as engaging as the original performers and tend to be little more than stock characters.
            Of the 156 episodes of this program I would say that "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" is probably one of the most recognizable in popular culture.  There is a quality to this episode that resonates with people.  And while the McCarthy era is long gone, its basic threat is one people still seem adamantly concerned with.  My qualm with this episode, though it is of minor importance, is the fact that the paranoia begins a little too early and works itself into a frenzy rather quickly.  As I have said before, the half-hour format was one of the most important factors in the show's success but I will say, it would have been interesting to see this story fleshed out into one of the hour-long episodes.  But again, this is only a minor complaint and does not lessen the effectiveness of this episode which, thankfully, has become a classic of American television.

Grade: B

Notes:
--Notable adaptations of “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”
            --1960; adapted into short story form by Rod Serling in his collection, Stories from the Twilight Zone (Bantam).
--2002; adapted into a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Frank John Hughes (Falcon Picture Group).
--2003; adapted into an episode of the UPN revival series of The Twilight Zone by Erin Maher entitled "The Monster Are On Maple Street" starring Andrew McCarthy and Titus Welliver.
--2009; adapted into graphic novel form by Mark Kneece with art by Rich Ellis as part of a series developed by the Savannah College of Arts and Design entitled Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone(Walker Publishing Company).


Graphic novel adaptation by Mark Kneece and Rich Ellis
-The alien uniforms and spaceship are borrowed from Forbidden Planet (1956).  So far, this is the third episode which features props or footage leftover from the MGM blockbuster and it certainly would not be the last.  The last shot of the episode which shows the spaceship in flight is actually a scene from Forbidden Planet.  This same exact scene is at the end of “Third From the Sun.”
--Claude Akins also appears in Season Three’s “The Little People.”
--Jack Weston also appears in Season Four’s “The Bard.”
--Ron Winston also directed Season One’s “The Big Tall Wish” and Season Five’s “Stopover in a Quiet Town.”

--Brian Durant

1 comment:

  1. Boy, you are hard graders! After that post, I would've expected an A, not a B! A very enjoyable episode, and one I'll never forget. Are you pulling screen shots from the DVD? They look very sharp.

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