Monday, April 9, 2012

"A Nice Place to Visit"

Rocky Valentine (Larry Blyden) feels like he's in Heaven.
"A Nice Place to Visit"
Season One, Episode 28
Original Air Date: April 15, 1960

Cast:
Henry Francis "Rocky" Valentine: Larry Blyden
Mr. Pip: Sebastian Cabot
Dancing Girl: Barbara English
Beautiful Girl: Sandra Warner
Craps Dealer: Peter Hornsby
Parking Attendant: Bill Mullikin

Crew:
Writer: Charles Beaumont
Director: John Brahm
Producer: Buck Houghton
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Music: Stock

And now, Mr. Serling:
"Greetings from the low- rent district. Next week we follow the fortunes and misfortunes of Mr. Larry Blyden, who plays the role of one Rocky Valentine, an itinerant second-story man who was shot dead in an alley one night then goes to his just reward, this little item here being one of them. This one you can watch with a tongue in your cheek. It's called 'A Nice Place to Visit,' next week on The Twilight Zone."

Rod Serling's Opening Narration:
"Portrait of a man at work, the only work he's ever done, the only work he knows. His name is Henry Francis Valentine but he calls himself Rocky, because that's the way life has been, rocky and perilous and uphill at a dead run all the way. He's tired now, tired of running or wanting, of waiting for the breaks that come to others but never to him, never to Rocky Valentine, a scared, angry little man. He thinks it's all over now but he's wrong. For Rocky Valentine, it's just the beginning."

Summary:
                Henry Francis "Rocky" Valentine is a second-rate, petty thief. When he gets busted attempting to clean out a pawn and loan store, he takes to running instead of giving himself up to the pursuing police. An ensuing shootout in the alley beside the store leaves Rocky dead on the pavement. Moments later, Rocky is awakened by a portly, white-bearded man dressed in a white suit who introduces himself as Mr. Pip, Rocky's guide. Rocky doesn't yet realize he hasn't survived his encounter with the police, who just happen to no longer be around. Suspicious by nature, Rocky doesn't trust the inviting and accommodating Pip and pulls a gun on the other man. Pip, however, remains calm and tries to explain to Rocky that he can have anything he wants, anything at all. Everything, Pip says, is Rocky’s for the taking. With his pistol trained on the other man's back, Rocky follows Pip to a high class hotel suite. Despite what Pip tells him, Rocky doesn't believe that all this now belongs to him. Rocky, trying to rationalize his situation, believes that Pip wants him to pull a job in exchange for all the nice things presented to him. Pip insists otherwise, tells Rocky that there is no catch to the situation. Tired and beleaguered, Rocky decides to postpone his protests for now and to clean himself up.
                Rocky finds a wardrobe full of exceptional, expensive suits. He cleans up and puts on a new suit, which just happens to fit him perfectly, then sees a spread of food that Pip has put out of him. Rocky becomes suspicious of a possible poisoning and attempts to shoot Pip, firing several times at near point blank range without doing any damage to the other man. It is only now that Rocky realizes that something truly strange is going on. With a little help from Pip, Rocky finally realizes that he didn't survive the shootout with the police in the alley. Suddenly, Rocky becomes very excited, believing that he has died and gone to Heaven. Pip, he reasons, must be his own personal guardian angel, there to give him anything he wants. Without waiting for any information from Pip, Rocky begins to take full advantage of his situation.
He requests Pip bring him loads of cash and gaggles of beautiful women. Rocky spends nearly all of his time at the casino playing his favorite games and miraculously winning every single time he places a bet. The only problem that Rocky encounters is when he asks Pip to see some of his, Rocky’s, old friends. Pip informs Rocky that this place is Rocky's own private domain and that everything in it, except for Rocky and Pip, are like props in a movie. At this point, Rocky takes a minute to talk to Pip. Something, Rocky says, has been bothering him. He can't figure out how he made it to Heaven as he can't remember doing very many good deeds in his lifetime, or doing any good deeds at all. Pip informs him that there is a file on him in the Hall of Records. Rocky wants to see his file and Pip leads the way.
                At the Hall of Records, Pip retrieves Rocky's file. Reading it aloud, Rocky soon realizes that it is actually a list of every bad thing he's ever done since childhood. He becomes confused and angry and asks Pip if maybe somebody made a mistake and he's not supposed to be here. Pip tells him that it's very unlikely that a mistake has been made. Satisfied, Rocky goes back to enjoying all the pleasures at his whim. Those pleasures, however, soon turn to torment.
                After a month of winning every game he plays and of hours of mindless interaction with the beautiful, yet robotic, women, he is ready to burst at the seams with boredom. He can’t even play a game of pool for his first shot clears the entire table. Rocky calls on Pip and tries to explain his situation, about how it's no fun to win every time you take a chance, and that there’s no excitement because there is no actual danger involved in anything. When Pip attempts to appease Rocky by offering to fix a game or two so that he will lose every now and then or to arrange for Rocky to rob a bank or a jewelry store, Rocky nearly screams in frustration. It won't work if he knows it's a fix. Then an idea occurs to Rocky. Maybe a mistake has been made and he doesn't really belong in Heaven. Maybe he belongs in the other place. To which Pip replies with sinister seriousness: "Whatever gave you the idea this is Heaven? This is the other place!"

Rod Serling's Closing Narration:
"A scared, angry little man who never got a break. Now he has everything he's ever wanted, and he's going to have to live with it for eternity, in The Twilight Zone."

Commentary:
                Writer Charles Beaumont's final first season episode is a simple, quickly constructed comical script which offers much more levity than his previous offerings. The episode hinges not only on a single twist of plot but really on a single line of spoken dialogue, making it, in essence, a long joke dependent upon a punch line. The episode is an entertaining bit of dark humor and the two leads are near perfect as the episode is a two-man show completely dependent upon the actors to carry it beyond being a mundane offering.
Actor Larry Blyden was all over episodic television in the 1960s, appearing in episodes of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Fugitive, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Route 66, and Dr. Kildare, as well an additional episode of The Twilight Zone, season three's "Showdown With Rance McGrew." He also landed a supporting role in the 1970 Barbara Streisand film On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. For "A Nice Place to Visit," Blyden plays the character of Rocky Valentine way over the top and for some viewers the performance may come off as too strong. Producer Buck Houghton explained Blyden’s over-the-top performance as the actor's attempt to give some movement and action to a dialogue-heavy script that, if played overly straight, would come off as extremely static. So, Blyden hoots and hollers for most of the episode and plays up the wise guy stereotype to a comical degree. It works in the context of the episode insomuch as the entire play is a caricature and a charade, an outlandish fantasy, even for a show like The Twilight Zone. Rocky Valentine is an eccentric character and everything within his own private hell is a reflection of that eccentricity. For my money, I enjoy Blyden's performance very much and if Beaumont's script can be static in places it still contains more than a few good bits of dialogue that Blyden and Sebastian Cabot, as Mr. Pip, nail in their characterizations and deliveries.

Sebastian Cabot as Mr. Pip
                A professional actor since the early 1940s, Sebastian Cabot is most recognizable as Mr. Giles French in 130 episodes of the television comedy A Family Affair, which ran from 1966-1971. Cabot also worked several times with the Walt Disney Company, providing voices for the full-length animated features The Jungle Book and The Sword in the Stone, as well as narrating several Winnie the Pooh films and three episodes of Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color. For the character of Mr. Pip, Cabot delivers one of my favorite villainous performances of the first season, precisely for the fact that he plays it with such subtle, yet sinister, sophistication. When the final revelation occurs, and that final line of dialogue is spoken, Pip appears all the more menacing as the episodes ends on his evil, hysterical laughter. Cabot brings the same sophistication and creepiness to his demonic role as did actor Thomas Gomez to Mr. Cadwallader in the earlier episode "Escape Clause," with the necessary discretion in characterization to preserve the twist ending. An interesting production story about Cabot is that he was, as an actor, eminently recognizable by his well groomed jet-black hair and beard. For the role of Pip, the production team knew that Cabot had to appear angelic and, white being the color of the angels, his hair and beard had to be turned white. The only method, at the time, for turning black hair white, without the method appearing fake, was to bleach the actor’s hair. Cabot reluctantly agreed to undergo the bleaching of his hair despite the fact that it would take several months for the color to grow back.
                Though writer Charles Beaumont initially wanted Mickey Rooney for the role of Rocky Valentine, he suggested that Twilight Zone creator/narrator/lead writer Rod Serling attempt the role himself if producer Buck Houghton was unable to secure Rooney for the role. Serling, of course, declined to attempt the role himself, Rooney couldn't be secured, and Larry Blyden was eventually brought in. In a letter to Serling, Beaumont suggested that Serling, like Beaumont himself, must have a desire to act, as Beaumont believed all creative people intuitively did. The truth of the matter is quite different. Though the voice and visage of Rod Serling is immediately recognizable today, he was always terribly nervous in front of the television cameras. When Serling began to appear on camera before each episode beginning with the second season of The Twilight Zone, getting the introductions filmed could be a nerve wracking experience for the writer. As an attempt to get genuine results from Serling's natural charisma, the production team would often film the rehearsal of Serling's introductions, unbeknownst to Serling himself, who had no idea he was being filmed and therefore acted in a more natural manner. Charles Beaumont, for his part, appeared in a supporting role in the 1962 Roger Corman film The Intruder, based on Beaumont's own novel and screenplay adaptation. Though Mickey Rooney wasn't pegged for the role of Rocky Valentine in "A Nice Place to Visit," he would eventually appear, in a very un-Mickey Rooney role, on The Twilight Zone in season five's "The Last Night of a Jockey."
                "A Nice Place to Visit" is of the same type episode as the more famous "Time Enough At Last," "Third from the Sun," and "People Are Alike All Over," albeit with a much stronger shot of dark humor. These type episodes present the audience with a situation, either outright strange or seemingly normal, and then turn that situation on its head at the very last second. Many first time viewers enjoy these episodes and for longtime fans of the show these type episodes seem to stick in the memory and can be remembered years later with great clarity. If these episodes were jokes, they would be the equivalent of one-liners. Unfortunately, for "A Nice Place to Visit," that one line can be seen coming from a mile away. It has little to recommend it beyond the performances of the two leads as it is a weak point for both writer Charles Beaumont and director John Brahm, two creators that typically bring a high level of imagination and execution to their endeavors. 
               The set design on the episode is one area in which some interesting aspects can be found. Typical to a John Brahm directed film, there is a strange symmetry to the set design and, for "A Nice Place to Visit," Brahm decided to use a mix of minimalist and surrealist design work to illustrate the strangeness, and the malevolence, of Rocky Valentine's private hell. The design of the Hall of Records, simply a tall, wide stone staircase in a vast outdoor emptiness, is an exceptionally moody design. It appears at the turning point in the episode, for both the viewer and Rocky Valentine, when it becomes apparent that all is not as it seems and a certain creeping menace can be felt. The music at this point also swings from the high and happy to the deeply ominous.
                "A Nice Place to Visit" is, at best, par for the course for everyone involved. It's not an exceptional episode by any means but neither is it a total bomb. There were very few of the latter type episodes in the first season which seems, taken as a whole, to be the most even in quality of any season of the show. It is certainly worth a look or two and shows that even when The Twilight Zone was just average, it was still setting the precedent for production and design on a science-fantasy anthology series.

UPDATE (8-16-14)- Recent research has uncovered a connection between this episode and a previously aired radio play that bears a striking similarity. In film historian Gregory Mank's profile of actor Colin Clive (Henry Frankenstein of the 1931 film and 1935's Bride of Frankenstein) in his book Hollywood's Maddest Doctors (Midnight Marquee Press, 1998), he notes that the actor appeared on the November 14, 1935 episode of radio's The Fleischmann Hour in a play titled "The Other Place." Clive played a man who died in a car accident and finds himself awakened in a place where his every desire is met and he is served by a seemingly benevolent butler (voiced by Leo G. Carroll). Much like Larry Blyden's character in "A Nice Place to Visit," Clive's character is driven insane with boredom. The final dialogue runs thus:

Clive: "I want to suffer. I'm sick of Heaven. I can't stand this confounded everlasting bliss. Well, whatever the devils do to me can't be as bad as this. I want to go to Hell!

Carroll: "Why, sir, wherever do you think you are? This is Hell, sir!"

It can safely be assumed that Beaumont, who wrote fondly of the Golden Age of radio in his book of nostalgia Remember? Remember? (Macmillan, 1963), was familiar with this broadcast. The final portion of the last line of dialogue in "A Nice Place to Visit" is actually the title of the previous radio play, "the other place" though that source material is not credited in the production.  

Grade: C

Notes:
--As stated before, Larry Blyden also appears in the third season episode, "Showdown With Rance McGrew."
--John Brahm directed such excellent episodes of The Twilight Zone as "Time Enough at Last," "Shadow Play," and "Person or Persons Unknown," the latter two also being exceptional offerings from writer Charles Beaumont.
--"A Nice Place to Visit" was adapted into a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Hal Sparks.

-Jordan Prejean

2 comments:

  1. This is another favorite episode of mine. I love the script, Brahm's direction, and the acting. That staircase with the card catalog is forever etched in my memory.

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  2. Brahm's direction is always dead on and by this point in his career he was very workman-like, churning out quality television with flourishes of his signature, German Expressionist inspired, style. I do think the script is a little too predictable but I agree, Jack, that the acting is top notch and keeps the episode engaging. That Hall of Records set is certainly striking and is the indelible image from the episode. Thanks for reading!

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