Wednesday, October 10, 2012

"The Time Element" (The Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse)


William Bendix as reluctant time traveler Peter Jenson
"The Time Element"
from The Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse
Original air date: November 10, 1958

Cast:
Peter Jenson: William Bendix
Dr. Arnold Gillespie: Martin Balsam
Ensign Janoski: Darryl Hickman
Mrs. Janoski: Caroline Kearney
Bartender: Jesse White
Newspaper Editor: Bartlett Robinson
Newspaper Reporter: Don Keefer
Army Doctor: Alan Baxter
Drunk Man at Bar: Joe de Rita
Bartender at Andy's: Paul Bryar
Maid: Jesslyn Fax
Host: Desi Arnaz

Crew:
Writer: Rod Serling (original teleplay)
Director: Allen Reisner
Producer: Bert Granet
Production Supervisor: W. Argyle Nelson
Production Manager: James Paisley
Associate Producer: Jack Aldworth
Director of Photography: Nick Musuraca
Art Direction: Ralph Berger and Gabriel Scognamillo
Set Decoration: Sandy Grace
Assistant Director: John E. Burch
Casting: Kerwin Coughlin 
Film Editor: John Foley
Editorial Supervisor: Bill Heath
Story Editor: Dorothy Hechtlinger
Sound Editor: Jack A. Finlay
Sound Engineeer: Cam McCulloch
Theme Music: Johnny Green
Music Supervisor: E.C. Norton
Music Editor: Arnold Schwarzwald
Property Master: Kenneth Wescott
Wardrobe Design: Edward Stevenson 
Costumer: Della Fox
Makeup: Charles Gemora
Hair: Jane Shugrue 
Photographic Effects: Howard Anderson, Co.
Sound Effects: Glen Glenn Sound, Co.
Desi Arnaz in charge of production

Desi Arnaz's opening narration:
"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to another Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse. Tonight we're going to see a story written by Rod Serling and starring William Bendix. Our story begins in a doctor's office. A patient is sitting there. He walked into this office nine minutes ago."

Uncredited voice-over narration:
"Once upon a time there was a psychiatrist named Arnold Gillespie and a patient whose name was Peter Jenson. Mr. Jenson walked into the office nine minutes ago. It is eleven o'clock, Saturday morning, October 4th, 1958. It is perhaps chronologically trite to be so specific about an hour and a date but involved in this story is a time element."

Summary:
            Peter Jenson visits Dr. Arnold Gillespie in hopes that the psychiatrist can help him alleviate the overburdening fear that his dreams of time travel may not be dreams at all. Jenson is extremely defensive about his situation being that he feels everyone will perceive him as crazy. Gillespie, however, simply urges Jenson to talk. Jenson tells Gillespie of a series of experiences that appear to be recurring dreams but that Jenson knows to be much more than that. Every night Jenson dreams the same thing. Here the audience "wakes up" with Jenson within his "dream." Jenson wakes up with a stunning hangover in an unfamiliar hotel room. He takes a moment to look around and out the window before calling the front desk. The front desk clerk tells Jenson that he is staying in the Hawaiian Imperial Hotel. Jenson gets up from his bed and finds a calendar which reads December 6. Suddenly, there is a knock at the door and a hotel maid enters the room. Jenson, confused and hungover, angrily interrogates the woman as to what he did last night and about what Jenson believes to be a joke at his expense. When the maid tells him that it's not October 4 as Jenson remembers but rather December 6, Jenson refuses to believe her. He is even more incredulous to the situation when the maid discloses that they aren't in New York City as Jenson remembers but rather in Honolulu, Hawaii. After shooing the maid from the room, Jenson decides that it’s time for a bit of the hair of the dog and goes downstairs to find the hotel bar. At this point, the only thing Jenson has a choice to believe is that he went on a two month bender and somehow wound up in Hawaii.
            Jenson's rough manner puts him at odds with the bartender but Jenson quickly makes friends with a young married couple next to him, Mr. and Mrs. Janoski. He buys the couple champagne. Jenson's mood quickly darkens when two things happen. First, Jenson learns that young Mr. Janoski is a sailor on the U.S.S. Arizona, a naval warship sunk by Japanese bombers in the attack on Pearl Harbor. Jenson has memory of this while no one else at the bar does. Second, Jenson gets into an argument with the bartender about the date. The bartender states that it is the year 1941 while Jenson, still fighting against the logic of his unlikely situation, insists that it is 1958. It takes Jenson seeing a newspaper nearby to really hit the situation home for him and, after making an embarrassing scene, runs panicked from the hotel bar.
            Back in Dr. Gillespie's office, Jenson continues his tale. He ran outside the hotel and looked at all cars in the parking lot and none of them were models newer than ‘41. Dr. Gillespie continues to play the skeptic. At this point, Jenson makes it very clear what he is saying.  When he dreams, it is real and when he "wakes up" it is still real. He is not just dreaming that he is going back in time; he actually is going back in time.
            Back in Jenson's "dream," we see him frantically placing numerous bets with various bookies on future sporting events that he now knows to be sure bets. Jenson is visited by the sailor Mr. Janoski. It seems Janoski and his wife are concerned about Jenson after his episode at the bar when he saw the newspaper with the headline about the impending war. By this time Jenson has learned to control his reactions and to play it cool when it comes to revealing that he is actually from 1958. He watches Janoski leave his room and meet his wife in the hallway and a change comes over him. He now realizes that he must attempt to save people like this young couple and decides to contact the local newspaper to reveal what he knows about the attack on Pearl Harbor.
            This proves to be an enormous miscalculation. As Jenson spills everything he knows about the imminent attack, he is ridiculed by the newspaper editor that warns Jenson against what he, the editor, believes to be a dangerous joke. Jenson and the editor eventually come to blows. An army doctor is called in to examine Jenson. This goes equally disastrous. Jenson checks out physically okay but when the doctor questions Jenson on subjects like the president and vice president of the United States, Jenson stumbles as he struggles to remember seventeen years prior to his present, 1958. Jenson runs out of the newspaper office and winds up back at the hotel bar.
              Here, Jenson again meets with Mr. and Mrs. Janoski. Having a little drink in him, Jenson begins to open up about what is going to happen the next day when the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor. He tries to warn the young naval officer not to board the U.S.S. Arizona the next day. He even tells the young couple about his travels backwards in time. He pleads with them but is only met with hostility and fear. As the couple tries to leave, Jenson completely breaks down and begins telling the young bride that her husband is going to die if he boards the ship the next day. Janoski punches Jenson and knocks him backwards into the jukebox. When Jenson begins scaring the rest of the people in the bar, the bartender knocks Jenson out cold. Jenson awakens in his bed to the sound of fighter planes flying overhead. He gets up and runs to the window.
            Back in Dr. Gillespie's office, the doctor gives Jenson a rundown of how time travel, and, specifically, how one person's actions in the past, will affect the future. Jenson, in an effort to prove to Dr. Gillespie that his is actually traveling back in time, tells a story of how he attempted to prove to himself that he actually had been back in Hawaii right before Pearl Harbor. When back in 1958, Jenson called for Janoski in the small town the couple mentioned having come from. Jenson got Janoski's mother on the phone and she informed Jenson that Janoski and his wife both died in the attack on Pearl Harbor.

            Voice-over narration: "Dr. Gillespie's patient lay on the
couch, almost in a stupor. They've been talking for hours. It was Saturday and Gillespie had planned to close early and go play golf. At that moment, he'd forgotten golf. He was concerned only with the fascinating and unbelievable story that this man in front of him had told him. And then, as he looked at him lying there on the couch, Dr. Gillespie knew that Jenson was falling asleep. He could tell by the look on the face that he was far from resting though his eyes were closed and he was no longer aware of him."

            Dr. Gillespie, looking down on Jenson, sees the man struggling in his sleep. Then we see a montage projected upon Jenson's head showing all that had transpired in the episode and the progression of events from Jenson's point of view. Jenson screams once and Dr. Gillespie is unable to wake him.
            Jenson awakens on December 7, 1941, to the sound of fighter planes flying over his hotel room. He rushes to the window, looks out, and keeps repeating "I told you," over and over. Then, in a particularly violent moment, the planes open fire upon the hotel. Bullets crash through the window to Jenson's room and kill him instantly.
            Dr. Gillespie is left alone in his office, confused as to what just happened. Jenson has vanished from the present because he died in the past. Gillespie looks around his office as though trying to remember something which he can't seem to grasp. Gillespie decides to go to a bar. There, he makes a toast to "happy dreams." Then he sees a picture of Jenson framed on the wall. When he asks the bartender who the man in the picture is, the bartender tells him that it's Peter Jenson. Jenson used to tend bar at this establishment. Gillespie says he looks familiar but the name doesn't ring a bell. When Gillespie asks the bartender what happened to Jenson, the bartender tells him that he died at Pearl Harbor.

            Voice-over narration: "It is October 4th, 1958, Saturday, 12:10 p.m. If anyone is remotely interested in the element of time."

             Desi Arnaz's closing narration: "As you can see, the pendulum has stopped. We wonder if Pete Jenson did go back in time or if he ever existed. My personal answer is that the doctor has seen Jenson's picture at the bar some time before and had a dream. Any of you out there have any other answers? Let me know. We'd like to thank Mr. William Bendix and the entire cast for their wonderful performance tonight." (Arnaz then previews next week's show and helps sell a Westinghouse refrigerator. This closing narration was excised from the syndicated version of the episode.)   

Commentary:
            At this late date in scholarship of The Twilight Zone, "The Time Element" is generally considered the true pilot episode for the series. Though "Where is Everybody?" is an excellent episode which does much to establish the thematic tone of the series, Rod Serling admitted that the episode was produced and written in such a way as to garner approval from network executives and potential sponsors for the show. This is generally thought to be because Serling planned to use fantasy elements to camouflage the social and political commentary found in his teleplays. However, in both "The Time Element" and "Where is Everybody?" this socio-political commentary is nearly absent. It is important to note that though Serling's work is often remembered for its hard-lined commentary on the ills of society, he was also simply a lover of fantasy fiction who could construct a fantasy script in pure form, evidenced  by "The Time Element."
            Serling's purpose, other than simply writing an entertaining show, was to display to both sponsors and network executives that a serious fantasy anthology show could achieve the same combination of viewer response and positive critical reception that any other type of show achieved. Serling previously attempted to sell CBS a fantasy anthology series using an hour-long script titled "I Shot an Arrow Into the Air," a tale of an alien encounter in a remote village which Serling recycled for the third season Twilight Zone episode "The Gift."* CBS passed on the script. 
            Serling tried again with another one-hour script, "The Time Element." Serling initially envisioned his proposed series as utilizing the one-hour format common to dramatic anthology programs of the time. CBS once again passed on Serling's pitch, not understanding the appeal of a out-an-out fantasy drama or the likelihood of an audience which would be receptive to such a show. They apparently found "The Time Element" script appealing enough, however, to buy it from Serling and then promptly shelve it. Though fantasy was occasionally featured on anthology shows from the earliest days of television, often for comedic purposes, networks were reluctant to devote an entire anthology show to this type of subject matter. It was understood that these types of stories were to be enjoyed by children, but not be taken seriously. The idea that fantasy and science fiction could also be stirring and engaging drama simply did not exist in the minds of network executives in the early days of television. Serling hoped to change that with "The Time Element," and the combination of the great script, cast, and production team got the job done well enough for CBS to take on Serling's new show, The Twilight Zone, just a few months later. 
            In all likelihood, the network reacted to the extremely positive audience response to "The Time Element" rather than to any inherent quality in the production itself. "The Time Element" became a shining moment for The Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, as its broadcast engineered an overwhelmingly positive response from viewers and brought in a flood of letters to the network offices. Though something of a rarity these days, the episode has been shown in syndication, including as part of The Museum of Television and Radio Showcase. If nothing else, "The Time Element" proved that not only was the public ready for quality fantasy and science fiction on television, but that they hungered for it. Though popular radio shows of the 1940's, such as Lights Out and Suspense, made the transition to television, and forerunners such as Tales of Tomorrow and Science Fiction Theatre enjoyed brief runs, in just a few short years television would see the greatest influx of this type of programming in its history as shows such as The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, One Step Beyond, 'Way Out, and Thriller invaded the small screen.
            On a thematic level, "The Time Element" resembles the main themes of The Twilight Zone as closely if not closer than the official pilot epiosde "Where is Everybody?" The resemblance can be see in comparison to Charles Beaumont's first season episode "Perchance to Dream." Check out our write up of that episode here. Beaumont adapted his teleplay from his own story published in the October, 1958 issue of Playboy, just one month before "The Time Element" premiered on The Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse. In both episodes, a man is experiencing a recurring dream that places him in a dangerous situation. Both men seek the help of a psychiatrist and are ultimately doomed by the tragedy of their situation. The obvious difference in the episodes is that in Beaumont's "Perchance to Dream" there is no element of time travel.
            "The Time Element" also closely resembles Serling's other time travel episodes in which a character journeys into the past. Most of these, such as "Walking Distance" from season one, "King Nine Will Not Return" and "Back There" from season two, and "No Time Like the Past" from season four, deal with the inability of a noble or well intentioned character to correct a mistake or prevent a tragedy, such as the bombing of Pearl Harbor or the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Like another Twilight Zone writer who spent a lot of time on the subject matter, Ray Bradbury, whose most famous story on the subject is "A Sound of Thunder," in which the inadvertent killing of a butterfly severely alters the future, Dr. Gillespie in Serling's script describes exactly what Bradbury indicates by explaining the process of altering the future with either action or inaction in the past. For Serling, however, it is not so much that his characters go into the past and change the future but that they find themselves faced with inevitable tragedy and an absolute inability to do anything about it. In "The Time Element," Jenson is hit with resistance everywhere he goes. The more frantic he becomes, the crazier he appears to the other characters, and the more resistant they become to his efforts. It is a terrifying and effectively suspenseful construct that Serling would return to again several times throughout the course of The Twilight Zone.
            Serling previously attempted a version of "The Time Element" back in the early days of his radio and television writing career. In 1951, a year after graduating from Antioch College, Serling found work in Cincinnati for WLW, a radio station which focused on comedy and variety programs, for which Serling provided material but for which he had little passion. As a solution, he turned to the television arm of a rival station, WKRC-TV, which was receptive to his dramatic scripts. Serling developed a summer anthology series, The Storm, and set about displaying his talents to a regional audience. Many of the plays he wrote for The Storm would be re-imagined and recycled for his later work, including "The Time Element" and a first crack at his Emmy Award-winning triumph "Requiem for a Heavyweight," a play with the intriguing original title "The Twilight Rounds." Serling resorted to recycling his scripts from The Storm, much of which material was admittedly not up to Serling's high standards, due to the influx of offers following his Emmy Award-winning "Patterns" on Kraft Television Theatre on January 12, 1955. 
            Several members of the cast and production team for "The Time Element" would return to work with Serling on The Twilight Zone. On the production side, director Allen Reisner would return to direct the season one episode, "Mr. Denton on Doomsday." Producer Bert Granet would return to produce 18 episodes of seasons four and five of The Twilight Zone. It was Granet that pushed to get "The Time Element" in front of audiences after the script was rejected by CBS. Granet was eager to work with Serling (who was one of the most in-demand television writer of the time) and pushed the fantasy drama forward on The Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse. It was not an easy task, however, as Granet faced resistance from the show's sponsor and needed the firm backing of Desi Arnaz to get the fantasy drama made. From the cast comes excellent character actor Martin Balsam who went on to feature in two Twilight Zone episodes, "The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine" from season one and "The New Exhibit" from season four. Balsam enjoyed a fruitful career as a character actor and became best known as the private investigator Arbogast, and Mother's second victim, in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. Don Keefer, playing the newspaper reporter in "The Time Element," returned to work with Serling on three Twilight Zone episodes, the most memorable of which was his turn as Dan Hollis, who is transformed into a grotesque human jack-in-the-box by adolescent psychopath with the power of a god, Anthony (played to perfection by Bill Mumy) in the classic third season episode, "It's a Good Life." Keefer also featured in "Passage on the Lady Anne" from season four and "From Agnes, With Love," from the fifth and final season. Jesse White, in a tense and dramatic role for "The Time Element" as the gruff bartender that knocks out William Bendix's character near the end of the show, was more at home in light-hearted or outright comedic roles and was featured twice in such a capacity on The Twilight Zone in two episodes from season three: "Once Upon a Time," alongside Buster Keaton, and "Cavender is Coming," alongside Carol Burnett. 
            Though he would not work again with Rod Serling on The Twilight Zone, another interesting member of the production team is makeup artist Charles Gemora. Born Carlos Cruz Gemora in the Philippines, Gemora first found work in the days of silent cinema at Universal Studios where the young and talented artist was a sculptor for the production department. Where Gemora really found his niche, however, was as a "gorilla man." Gemora's slight frame and excellent makeup talents led him to create and perform within realistic and often frightening gorilla suits on such classic horror films as The Unholy Three, Murders in the Rue Morgue, and Island of Lost Souls, working alongside such stars as Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi, and Charles Laughton. Though it would have been special to see what Gemora could have done with the material presented on The Twilight Zone, the show's fortunate alliance with MGM and its talented makeup department, headed by Academy Award winner William Tuttle, was more than capable of providing memorable special effects for the series. Read about William Tuttle's contribution to The Twilight Zone here.
             Serling revisted "The Time Element" in 1962 when he attempted to adapt the teleplay into a feature film starring Kirk Douglas and directed by John Frankenheimer. Serling sold his teleplay to Desilu Productions at the time "The Time Element" was produced for the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse and Desilu optioned their first refusal rights on a future productions of the teleplay, essentially sinking Serling's planned feature film before it gained any traction. 
            "The Time Element" stands the test of time as an intuitive and somewhat ingenious early offering of the type of fantasy soon to be featured prominently on late '50s and early '60s television. It is important to remember that although the easily recognizable tropes of science fiction were standard fare in pulp magazines and book anthologies, it was a relatively novel presentation on the very young medium of television. Beyond Rod Serling's natural talent, his greatest contribution to fans of this type of show was simply the drive to get it on television and get it taken seriously; to put it in front of producers and network executives and sponsors and to show that this type of programming, when done with serious intention, works. Though The Twilight Zone was never a ratings winner (it was never a ratings loser, either, but sat right in the middle of the pack for most of its run) it undoubtedly remains one of the most critically acclaimed and fondly remembered shows in television history. "The Time Element" can be considered essential along with the best of The Twilight Zone in that it upholds the same high standards representative of the best the show had to offer. The type of show that "The Time Element" represents is the type that provides both the escape and the provocation, utilizing the medium to its fullest potential. It is an effort that Serling would continue for the remainder of his professional career, reaching the apex of artistic success with The Twilight Zone.
           
Grade: B

Grateful acknowledgement is made to:

-Marc Scott Zicree for information contained in his commentary on the Definitive DVD release The Twilight Zone: The 5th Dimension.

-The Cincinnati Enquirer for "'The Twilight Zone' Had Roots in Cincinnati," by John Kiesewetter (May 27, 2014).

-The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic by Martin Grams, Jr. 

Notes:
--Allen Reisner also directed the season one episode "Mr. Denton on Doomsday."
--Martin Balsam also appeared in the season one episode "The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine" and the fourth season episode "The New Exhibit."
--Don Keefer also appeared in the season three episode "It's a Good Life," the fourth season episode "Passage on the Lady Anne," and the fifth season episode "From Agnes, With Love."
--Jesse White also appeared in the season three episodes "Once Upon a Time" and "Cavender is Coming."
--Bartlett Robinson also appeared in the second season episode "Back There" and the third season episode "To Serve Man"
--"The Time Element" was adapted into a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Bobby Slayton.

-JP

3 comments:

  1. Welcome back! I am so glad you're continuing this blog. This was a fascinating entry. I knew about this show but have never seen it. I'll have to check out YouTube!

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  2. Thanks for hanging with us, Jack. "The Time Element" is really an excellent show and, sadly, a forgotten gem. Let us know what you think once you've seen it.

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  3. This was one of the last appearances by Joe DeRita before he became the sixth "Third Stooge".
    Another sort of "Twilight Zone", I guess ...

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