Monday, August 13, 2012

"A World of His Own"

Keenan Wynn as Mr. Gregory West
“A World of His Own”
Season 1, Episode 36
Original airdate: July 1, 1960

Cast:
Gregory West: Keenan Wynn
Victoria West: Phyllis Kirk
Mary: Mary La Roche
Himself: Giant Red-eyed Elephant

Crew:
Writer: Richard Matheson (original teleplay)
Producer: Buck Houghton
Director: Ralph Nelson
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Music: Stock

And now, Mr. Serling:
“Next week we take you back into the dark and hidden, unexplored recesses of a writer’s mind, and do some probing as to just how this type of bird operates.  It’s a fascinating excursion into the oddball.  On the Twilight Zone next week Keenan Wynn and Phyllis Kirk star in Richard Matheson’s ‘A World of His Own.’  And in this particular one even this kooky writer gets into the act.  Good night.”

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:
“The home of Mr. Gregory West, one of America’s most noted playwrights.  The office of Mr. Gregory West.  Mr. Gregory West: shy, quiet, and at the moment, very happy.  Mary: warm, affectionate.  And the final ingredient: Mrs. Gregory West.”

Summary:
Mr. Gregory West, renowned playwright, spends most of his days in his office creating make believe people.  Today he sits comfortably on his sofa sipping martinis with his adoring lady friend Mary, unaware that his wife Victoria is crouched outside the window secretly watching their every move.  He and Mary are relaxing serenely on the couch when they hear footsteps approaching in the hallway.  Panicked, Gregory drops his glass and it shatters on the floor.  Mary looks at him with a pleading face and tells him not to be afraid. 
              Victoria knocks on the door.  Gregory, holding a pair of scissors, opens the door and lets her in.  She takes inventory of the room but Mary is nowhere to be found.She immediately sets about inspecting the office but her search brings no results.  She tells Gregory that just moments before she was standing outside of the window looking in at him and she thought she saw him sitting on the couch with a woman in his arms.  Gregory looks at her for a moment and then the two laugh playfully together at such a foolish notion.  Victoria goes on to describe the woman as “drab” and “ugly.”  Without thinking, Gregory offhandedly remarks that Mary isn’t drab.  Victoria stares at him triumphantly and he realizes that he has made a huge mistake.  She sets off on a verbal rampage, accusing him of having an affair.Gregory attempts to explain the situation to her. 
              He says that sometimes when he is writing a character becomes so authentic in his mind that they become alive with their own ideas, beliefs and emotions.  He tells her that he once created a character named Phillip Wainwright who was so real he simply refused to be controlled and manipulated by his creator.  His personality was so genuine and compelling that one night as Gregory was reciting dialogue into his Dictaphone, Phillip Wainwright walked into his office.  Victoria looks at her husband as if he is losing his mind.  He says he can prove it.  He grabs the Dictaphone and begins to describe Mary.  Moments later there is a knock on the door.  Hesitantly, Victoria opens the door and standing there is Mary, the woman she saw on the couch.
Mary La Roche and Phyllis Kirk
             Victoria is still not convinced and assumes it is all an elaborate prank.  Gregory tries to prove it to her yet again as he takes a pair of scissors and cuts from the Dictaphone the tape containing the description of Mary.  Mary looks heartbroken as she watches him throw the handful of tape into the fireplace.  Then she vanishes into thin air.  Victoria is dumbfounded and demands to know what happened to her.  Gregory tells her that she has been erased.  They continue to argue and eventually she bolts out of the door leading to the hallway.  Gregory races to the Dictaphone, grabs the microphone and says that there is a giant, red-eyed elephant in the hallway blocking his wife’s getaway.  Seconds later Victoria encounters the enormous animal standing in the hallway and races back into the office. 
              After he throws the description of the elephant into the burning fire the couple resumes their quarrel.  He tells her that the reason he created Mary is because he did not want to be with a woman that constantly made him feel feeble.  Victoria tells him that she is going to have him put away.  With a bit of a smile, Gregory goes over to his bookshelf and takes out a large collection of books revealing a wall safe behind them.  He opens the safe and brings out a white envelope labeled: Victoria West.  Inside the envelope is a jumbled mass of Dictaphone tape.  Realizing what it is supposed to be she laughs in his face.  Gregory asks his wife why abeautiful and intelligent woman such as herself would even consider marrying a disappointinglytimid, average man like him.  Still, sherefuses to believe that she is just a manifestation of his mind.  Attempting to prove him wrong she grabs the envelope and tosses it into the fire.  Seconds later she begins to feel sick and she realizes that she was wrong before vanishing into nothing. 
             Gregory rushes over to the Dictaphone in an attempt to bring her back to life.  He begins to describe his late wife but then stops and thinks a moment.  Instead he describes his new wife, Mrs. Mary West. 
             Rod Serling sits on the desk of Mr. Gregory West and recites his routine closing monologue in which he tells the audience that events such as those described in tonight’s play are purely fictional and could never really happen.  He refers to these events as “ridiculous nonsense.”  Gregory West interrupts to tell him that he simply should not say words like “ridiculous” and “nonsense” when referring to these events.  West walks back to the wall safe and takes out another envelope labeled: Rod Serling.  He promptly tosses it into the fire.  Moments later Mr. Serling vanishes…into the Twilight Zone.

Rod Serling’s Closing Monologue:
“Leaving Mr. Gregory West. Still shy, quiet, very happy.  And apparently in complete control…of the Twilight Zone.”

Commentary:
The task of writing the closer to the premiere season of The Twilight Zone was given to Richard Matheson, making this his third original teleplay and fifth overall contribution to the series, and although whimsical comedy is an atypical venture for him he pulls it off nicely.  We have spent a great deal of time and words putting the humorous episodes of this program on the cinematic chopping block, placing the blame on either a bad script, a poor performance or sometimes both.  With “A World of His Own” Matheson delivers a solid comedy that relies not so much on dated screwball antics but instead on clever tongue-and-cheek wordplay that revolves around a simple but effective idea.  Speaking personally I have to admit that I usually gravitate toward the darker and more menacing parts of the Twilight Zone but I always find this episode to be welcomingly refreshing and consider it to be a great wrap-up to a fantastic first season.
               A quintessential characteristic of a Richard Matheson story is his simplistic approach to almost every aspect of it from its minimal setting to its basic premise to simple, terse dialogue and exposition designed specifically to make the narrative faster and easier to follow.  Many of his Twilight Zone episodes are comparable to live theatre given their simple structure and minimalist set design.  And although it is a comedy there is probably no better example of this formula than “A World of His Own.”  The entire episode takes place in a single room with few props, the cast consists of only three people and the situation is basic and easy to follow.  It has the atmosphere of a one act play and could easily have taken place on the stage (although Mary La Roche vanishing in front of a live audience might provide a degree of difficulty, but I am sure a clever director could work around this somehow).  We would see this same sort of atmosphere in several of his later episodes most notably in the Season Five episodes “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” and “Night Call.”
                By now Matheson was beginning to make a name for himself in Hollywood.  He had several movie scripts under his belt and was establishing a versatile career in television penning episodes of Have Gun – Will Travel, Wanted: Dead or Alive (both written with Charles Beaumont) and had begun a six episode run on the ABC series Lawman for which he won a Writers Guild Award.
Rod Serling vanishes into the fifth dimension.
               It’s interesting to note here that Richard Matheson’s original script for this episode was much different than this final version.  His original idea for this story was much darker and more in line with what is usually considered a “Richard Matheson-type” story.  In the original story the writer's characters come to life not to provide him with companionship but to haunt him.  When he submitted this proposal to Houghton and Serling they told him that it was probably too grim for primetime television and suggested that he rewrite it into a comedy.  And supposedly the idea for Serling’s on-screen cameo was a spur of the moment idea that Matheson wrote just to amuse Serling.  Serling got a kick out of it and chose to use it as the last episode of the season since it wouldn’t make much sense to have him disappear and reappear the next week.  This is the first episode which featured an on camera appearance by Serling which would later become one of the defining trademarks of the show.  Matheson later published his original treatment of this episode as a short story called “And Now I’m Waiting” in the April, 1983 issue of The Twilight Zone Magazine.
                Stepping into the role of Gregory West is prolific character actor Keenan Wynn.  The episode marks a reunion of sorts.  Wynn had already worked with both Rod Serling and director Ralph Nelson when he appeared with his father, Ed Wynn, in the Playhouse 90 production of Requiem for a Heavyweight in 1956.  Originally apprehensive over starring alongside his famous father, it was actually Keenan who later convinced the senior Wynn to try dramatic roles after his comedy career had begun to fizzle out in the late forties.  The result was an early masterpiece of American television, one that won Serling his second Emmy Award.  The crew would work together a few years later in the production of Ralph Nelson’s The Man in the Funny Suit which details the intense experience of working on Requiem in which Nelson, both the senior and junior Wynn’s and Rod Serling all play themselves.  Keenan would go on to appear with his father in the Disney film The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) and its sequel Son of Flubber (1963).  Over the course of his nearly fifty year career he appeared in over one hundred films including the notable classics Annie Get Your Guns (1950), Dr. Strangelove (1964), The Great Race (1965), Point Blank (1967), Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) and A Killer Inside Me (1976).  He’s great here as Gregory West and much of the sarcasm of the character lies simply in his facial expressions. 
              It’s interesting to note that while Matheson liked this episode he has stated many times that he was not happy with Phyllis Kirk as Virginia West and in fact said that out of all of the actors in his Twilight Zone episodes she is the only one he did not care for due mainly to the fact that she would change the dialogue as she saw fit. 
              By itself “A World of His Own” is a good, solid episode but not one that stands out as a classic.  But because the producers chose to use it as the season one closer the episode seems to resonate more with me for some reason.  It was a bold move for a darker themed fantasy program to use a comedy as a season finale but for some reason this one works perfectly.  It could be because of the gag with Serling at the end or because it is basically a love letter to writing on a program where the writers were the stars.  Whatever the reason, “A World of His Own” has always been my favorite comedy of the entire series and an episode that is always enjoyable to watch.

Grade: B

Notes: 
--As I mentioned the original treatment for this episode was later published as a short story called “And Now I’m Waiting” in the April, 1983 issue of The Twilight Zone Magazine.  It was later collectedin Off Beat: Uncollected Matheson (Subterranean Press, 2003).
--Mary La Roche also appeared in the Season Five episode “Living Doll.”

--Brian Durant