Friday, May 4, 2012

"A Stop at Willoughby"

Gart Williams (James Daly) longs for escape into the fantasy world of Willoughby
"A Stop at Willoughby"
Season One, Episode 30
Original Air Date: May 6, 1960

Cast:
Gart Williams: James Daly
Jane Williams: Patricia Donahue
Mr. Misrell: Howard Smith
Young Conductor: Jason Wingreen
Old Conductor: James Maloney
Helen: Mavis Neal
Man on Wagon: Max Slaten
Boy One: Billy Booth
Boy Two: Butch Hengen
Trainman: Ryan Hayes

Crew:
Writer: Rod Serling (original teleplay)
Director: Robert Parrish
Producer: Buck Houghton
Photography: George T. Clemens
Music: Nathan Scott

And now, Mr. Serling:
"This old-fashioned railroad car is about as extinct as the dinosaur but next week it takes us to a little village that is not only a place but a state of mind. It's the transportation to what we think is one of the most unique stories we've ever presented. Next week, Mr. James Daly stars in 'A Stop at Willoughby.' We hope you stop with him. Thank you and good night."

Rod Serling's Opening Narration:
"This is Gart Williams, age thirty-eight, a man protected by a suit of armor all held together by one bolt. Just a moment ago, someone removed the bolt and Mr. Williams' protection fell away from him and left him a naked target. He's been cannonaded this afternoon by all the enemies of his life. His insecurity has shelled him, his sensitivity has straddled him with humiliation, his deep-rooted disquiet about his own worth has zeroed in on him, landed on target, and blown him apart. Mr. Gart Williams, ad agency exec, who in just a moment will move into The Twilight Zone in a desperate search for survival."

Summary:
            Advertising agency executive Gart Williams, a tense-looking, middle-aged man, sits at a table in the conference room of a high rise office suite surrounded by other tense-looking, middle-aged men. Gart, however, looks incredibly nervous, his hands always moving in dreaded anticipation. At the opposite end of the table from Gart is an older, rotund gentleman, the presumed owner of the agency, Mr. Misrell, smoking a large cigar and looking preturbed. The men sit for a moment in silence until Mr. Misrell breaks it. He demands to know where another advertising man is, a young protégé of Gart's named Jake Ross that Gart has put in charge of a very important and lucrative account. Ross is already over half an hour late to the meeting. Gart attempts to make a phone call to find out where Ross is but to no avail.  Moments later, a letter arrives. It is a communication from Jake Ross tendering his resignation with Mr. Misrell's agency and taking the important and lucrative account with him.
            Mr. Misrell nearly explodes at this bad news. He berates Gart for his lack of sound judgment and lectures him on the nature of the advertising business until Misrell's voice grows in power and force. Gart, at the breaking point, tells Misrell to shut up and storms from the room. Gart grabs at his chest, a sign of stress-induced pain, and, ignoring the curious and concerned stares of the women of the office, closes himself off in his own darkened office where he sits and stews.
            While taking the train out of New York City, Gart talks briefly with the usual conductor on the train and then falls asleep. He soon finds himself awakened by the conductor, a different, older, and curiously dressed conductor, announcing the train stop at a town called Willoughby. Gart is terribly confused by this because, firstly, it doesn't feel like a dream and, secondly, everything has changed. Where it was winter it is now summer. Where it was 1960, it is now 1888. The friendly conductor tells the incredulous Gart these things as Gart stares out the window at the town Willoughby, a town in a simpler, slower, more innocent and less stressful time. Gart looks again for the conductor and sees that the man has moved down to the further cars on the train. Gart then gets up and frantically chases after the man. As he is about to step off the train, he finds himself jerked viciously back to reality, the reality of stressed out ad agency exec. He asked the conductor, his normal conductor, about a town called Willougby and the conductor tells Gart that he's never heard of such a town. Gart writes the experience off as a dream.
Patricia Donahue and James Daly
            At home, it is apparent that Gart is not only vicitim of an unhappy career situation but also of an unhappy marriage situation. His wife, Jane, is a high-society, mocking, and unhappy woman with a large appetite for the best that money can buy. Her initial fear upon hearing that Gart had a breakdown at work was whether or not it cost him his job. Gart then tells her about his "dream" of Willoughby and his wishes to return to a simpler, slower time like that which was depicted in the town of Willoughby. But Jane isn't listening, not really. When her fears are alleviated, she first berates Gart for being a boy that has never grown up and then walks out of the room.
            The next evening, on his way home, Gart again falls asleep on the train and gets a glimpse of Willoughby. He again runs after the conductor, yelling. He is instead awakened by the regular conductor when the man hears Gart calling out in his sleep. Unperturbed, Gart makes a promise to himself that he is going to get off at the stop at Willougby next time.
            After another harrowing day at the office in which Gart is assaulted by multiple calls concerning multiple accounts with an angry Mr. Misrell to top it off, he takes off for home. On the train he becomes aware that this is his only chance to truly escape from the horror that is his life. He lowers the blind on his window, closes his eyes, and goes to sleep.
            When Gart again opens his eyes he sees that the train has stopped at Willoughby. At the encouragement of the conductor this time, Gart does indeed step off the train and into town. There Gart is greeted by the townspeople as though they've known him all his life. Smiling happily, Gart walks off toward the center of town.
            Meanwhile, Gart's dead body lies in the snow below the train tracks. According to the regular conductor, Gart said something about a town called Willoughby and then stepped right off the moving train, falling to his death. As a final twist, Gart's body is taken away by a funeral home with a car marked Willoughby and Son.
            We close on the image of Gart having fully escaped into his fantasy town, walking toward the bandstand that sits at the center of Willoughby.

Rod Serling's Closing Narration:
"Willoughby? Maybe it's wishful thinking nestled in a hidden part of man's mind, or maybe it's the last stop in the vast design of things, or perhaps, for a man like Gart Williams, who climbed on a world that went by too fast, it's a place around the bend where he could jump off. Willoughby? Whatever it is, it comes with sunlight and serenity, and is a part of The Twilight Zone."

Commentary:
            "A Stop at Willoughby" is generally thought of as one of the finer offerings of the first season of The Twilight Zone. Show producer Buck Houghton went so far as to identify it as Rod Serling's finest teleplay of the first season. Here at the Vortex we don't feel quite that strongly about the episode but it is certainly enduring among viewers and, in a broader sense, essential among episodes that play on a theme (an escape from an undesirable reality into a past or imagined paradise) that nearly every major writer for the show would tackle at one time or another. None of the show's writers, however, took on the subject more than show creator and producer Rod Serling. Serling had, in fact, already written a very similar, first season episode, "Walking Distance," and another, "The Time Element," which aired on Desilu Playhouse before the series premier of The Twilight Zone but is generally considered by fans of the latter show as the unofficial pilot episode. Though "The Time Element" is an episode squarely focused on the terror of the inevitable and ironic nature of time travel, "Walking Distance" presents a theme and subject matter very similar to "A Stop at Willoughby." You can read our full coverage of "Walking Distance" here.
            Serling publicly stated that he felt "Walking Distance" was an all-around failure of an episode. Though he had the general plot of "A Stop at Willoughby" in mind at the very genesis of The Twilight Zone’s creation, he undoubtedly pushed the script into production so soon after the airing of "Walking Distance" because he felt the first episode had inadequately conveyed the theme he was attempting to bring across. "A Stop at Willoughby," however, simply doesn't have the resonance that the first episode did and, mostly because of a cheap, twist-in-the-tale ending tacked on by Serling, simply comes off as flat and rehashed.
            The major problem with the episode is that it's stereotypically over-the-top and though James Daly is excellent in the main role, both his boss and his money-grubbing wife are simply cartoonish archetypes. The entire episode is the equivalent of watching James Daly bounce like a pinball from one stress inducing obstacle to another with intermittent scenes of his gradual passage into a somewhat ludicrous fantasyland that feels artificial and bizarre. Serling would have been better off portraying a fantasy that had no such immediately recognizable place within American history. Sure, show the simple nature of an idealized time in the past but there was no need to label it so strictly as a small town in the summer of 1888. It also seems a strange choice of escape for the main character that seems to have no rhyme or reason to his chosen fantasy other than it is a time that moved slower and in which a man can live his life to the fullest. "Walking Distance" worked much better in this regard as the fantasy of its main character, also an advertising executive, is firmly grounded as it is, though idealized, a fantasy construct built from the character's own past. The character of Gart Williams, in “A Stop at Willoughby” has not even a tenuous relationship to his fantasy. He couldn’t possibly have lived within the time and the viewer is given no reason for such a fixation upon the past. “Walking Distance” is also much more uplifting and I only mention the point because I feel that both episodes were trying to uplift the viewer and it is useful to make such a comparison. Martin Sloan, in "Walking Distance," realizes that the solution to his problems do not lie in a simple escape into fantasy. The lesson learned is that he controls his own existence and if he needs to slow down then he can take control of his own life and do so. Serling's mood by the time he brought "A Stop at Willoughby" into production seems to have changed completely as the character is now the victim of such a powerful onslaught that he has lost all control and is left with no choice but to cling to the fantasy and to escape into it even though it may, and does, cost him his real life.
            "A Stop at Willoughby" is certainly informed by Serling's interactions with advertising executives as he had been in television long enough by this point to have several times run into the roadblock that was sponsor-supported television programming. What is interesting is that though Serling turns the general industry of advertising into a villainous leach upon the lifeblood of the working man, he is still able to identify with the alienated individual and use that to examine his own set of moral and existential dilemmas.
            The episode does have some great dialogue from Serling and fits the half-hour time slot accorded it quite perfectly, with excellent pacing from director Robert Parrish. It's interesting to note here that Serling originally conceived the script as a one-hour play for possible sale to one of the popular anthology "playhouse" programs of the second half of the 1950s. It seems to me that had he actually produced the play as a one-hour program, the believability of the fantasy construct and the patience of the viewer would both have been stretched to the breaking point.
            A quick note on the only aspect of the production side of the episode that I felt was lacking and this concerns the music from composer Nathan Scott. Scott's score seemed to flourish whimsically during moments of grave seriousness and then mutedly pulse during the moments of pure fantasy where the whimsical flourish would be most appropriate. Scott's music was used only one other time for the show, in season three's "Young Man's Fancy." It is interesting to think what a composer with more skill, or at least one that better fit the show, such as Bernard Herrmann, Nathan Van Cleave, or Jerry Goldsmith, would have done with such a fantasy-rich episode.
            The ending of the episode is where most of the fault in the script lies. Many times The Twilight Zone was guilty of tacking on a twist ending that had little to no logical merit being there and, unfortunately, "A Stop at Willoughby" is one of those times. It must be generally assumed that viewers enjoy twist endings if for no other reason than the memorable nature of the sudden and ironic change. According to the dialogue in "A Stop at Willoughby," the character of Gart Williams got up and stepped off the actual moving train when he decided to get up and step off the fantasy stop at Willoughby. This didn't work for me for two reasons. First, earlier in the episode Gart did get up and walk to the end of the car and onto the deck looking out over Willoughby yet in his real existence he never moved from his seat. Wouldn't it stand to reason that what Gart did in the fantasy world, what he said, how he moved, would inform what he did in the real world? We were also shown scenes of Gart speaking the same words in both realities. It would have made more sense for Gart to have simply disappeared into the fantasy world, for the conductor to have walked down the aisle and found Gart's seat empty. Second, the addition of the name Willoughby and Son to the back of the hearse makes no sense at all other than to so serve as a sly, albeit confusing, wink to the viewer. Yes, we know that Gart has gone to Willoughby but the attempt to have that literal translation in the world of his previous existence is nonsensical. The twist in the episode should always flow logically from the events preceding it. Serling excelled at this in other episodes. "Eye of the Beholder" and "The Dummy" comes immediately to mind. Unfortunately, he doesn't pull it off convincingly in "A Stop at Willoughby."
            Prolific character actor James Daly, admirably portraying the role of Gart Williams in "A Stop at Willoughby," began his career on television, usually on anthology programs, and, in the 1960s, had roles in some of the most fondly remembered of all television programs, including Combat!, The Fugitive, Gunsmoke, Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color, Star Trek, Ironside, and Mission: Impossible. He also co-starred in the classic 1968 science-fiction film Planet of the Apes, playing the role of Honorious. He died on July 3, 1978 in Nyack, New York. Roots: the Next Generation (1979) is his last credited work.
            Director Robert Parrish began his career as an actor while still a child, appearing unaccredited in such films as the Academy Award winning All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and the classic Charlie Chaplin film City Lights (1931). He worked on All the King’s Men (1949) and won an Academy Award for editing the 1947 film Body and Soul before moving into the director’s chair with 1951's Cry Danger. He went on to direct several more mid-budget thrillers including the cult-classic A Town Called Hell (1971) starring Telly Slavalas and Robert Shaw. He died on December 4, 1995 on Long Island, New York.
            Veteran actor Howard Smith, portraying villainous Mr. Misell in the episode, made a career playing supporting roles, usually as a police officer or some other authority figure. His film credits include Kiss of Death (1947), Call Northside 777 (1948), The Street with No Name (1948), and A Face in the Crowd (1957). He was a fixture on television from the late 1950s onward with appearances on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Naked City, Wanted: Dead or Alive, Perry Mason, Green Acres, and Bewitched. He died on January 10, 1968 in Hollywood.
            Actress Patricia Donahue appeared on a number of mystery and western television programs during the 1950s and '60s, including The Thin Man, Richard Diamond Private Detective, Peter Gunn, Philip Marlowe, Bat Masterson, Michael Shanye, Bonanza, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Perry Mason, The Saint, Rod Serling's Night Gallery, The Rockford Files, Barnaby Jones, and an episode of Little House on the Prairie.
            Despite its faults, "A Stop at Willoughby" is an enjoyable episode that embodies much of the enduring themes of The Twilight Zone in general and Rod Serling's writings in particular. It has achieved classic status among many fans of the show, evidenced by its impressive 8.6/10 rating on the Internet Movie Database. Serling and producer Buck Houghton certainly felt that it was one of if not the strongest script produced during the generally high-quality first season and, like nearly every episode from that inaugural season, "A Stop at Willoughby" is graced by good acting, directing, and a general high quality of production.

Grade: C

Notes:
--Robert Parrish directed two additional episodes of The Twilight Zone, "One for the Angels" and, sharing credit with Alvin Ganzer, "The Mighty Casey," both from season one.
--Producer Buck Houghton noted in an interview with Marc Scott Zicree, author of The Twilight Zone Companion (second ed., Silman-James, 1989) that the Willoughby sets for the episode were on the MGM back lot and were originally constructed for the Judy Garland musical Meet Me in St. Louis (1944).
--As reported by Martin Grams in his book The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic (OTR Publishing, 2008), the made for TV movie For All Time (2000) reuses and revises Serling's script to present a modern retelling of "A Stop at Willoughby."

--Jordan Prejean

5 comments:

  1. I give this one an A+! This is one of a handful of episodes that entered my mind and speech and stayed there. Every so often I just blurt out: "Next stop, Willoughby!" I love the direction, especially the dissolve from the swinging lantern. I love the office scenes, especially "Fat boy, why don't you shut your mouth!" And I love the twist ending, the darkness, the snow on the ground...I am totally a fan when it comes to this episode.

    Oh, and before I forget--thanks for the great post! Now I have to go pull out my DVD and watch it again.

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  2. Just watched the episode, and it was as good (or better) than I remembered. How great is George T. Clemens? I love both train sets and the floating faces in the bathroom mirror. I love Jason Wingreen as the conductor. And how about this: Willoughby and Son Funeral Home may have been visible from the train as it passed by--maybe Gart saw it and subconsciously wanted to die/escape, so dreamed of Willoughby as the place to go to to get away from his untenable situation. It's also interesting to watch the office scenes as a fan of the current show Mad Men--somehow, I think the TZ office is much more like reality in 1960.

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  3. Hey, Jack, I can dig it! The wonderful nature of the show is that it works on so many levels and effects different viewers in various ways. I must admit that I tend to prefer the Zone's darker fare and perhaps have a disposition to lean that way in grading. I think the direction and the dialogue are the two strongest aspects of the episode, though the acting is equally strong. We always appreciate your comments so stay tuned and thanks for reading.

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  4. Though I failed to mention it you are absolutely right about the Mad Men connection. Serling was way ahead of his time in portraying the grind of the bussinessman, especially in the advertising business, from "Patterns" and "Walking Distance" up to "A Stop at Willoughby."

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  5. This is one of my favorite episodes. I would also give it A+ !!

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