Monday, November 26, 2012

''The Man in the Bottle''

Luther Adler, Vivi Janiss and Joseph Ruskin
“The Man in the Bottle”
Season Two, Episode 38
Original airdate: October 6, 1960

Cast:
Arthur Castle: Luther Adler
Edna Castle: Vivi Janiss
Genie: Joseph Ruskin
Mrs. Gumley: Lisa Golm
IRS Agent: Olan Soule

Crew:
Writer: Rod Serling (original teleplay)
Director: Don Medford
Producer: Buck Houghton
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Music: Stock

And now, Mr. Serling:
“Inside this curio shop, next week, from amidst this old school rococo and some fuzzy moth-eaten antiquary, will emerge a bottle—this one.  And from it will step a genie to give Mr. Luther Adler four wishes.  But he’ll discover, as will all of you, that there’s an economics to magic, a high cost of living.  Next week, a most intriguing tale, ‘The Man in the Bottle.’ Thank you and good night.”

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:
“Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Castle, gentle and infinitely patient people, whose lives have been a hope chest with a rusty lock and a lost set of keys.  But in just a moment that hope chest will be opened, and an improbable phantom will try to bedeck the drabness of these two people’s failure-laden lives…with the gold and precious stones of fulfillment.  Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Castle, standing on the outskirts and about to enter the Twilight Zone.”

Summary:
Arthur Castle and his loving wife Edna are the owners and sole operators of their very own ramshackle antique store which has been one step away from bankruptcy nearly since its inception.  While attempting to balance this month’s bills a customer enters the store and approaches the counter where Mr. Castle sits brooding over his expenses.  She sheepishly takes what looks like a wine bottle from her purse and places it on the counter.  Mrs. Gumley, the customer, then proceeds to tell Castle that it’s a valuable heirloom that has been in here family for generations.  Castle recognizes the bottle as an ordinary wine bottle and realizes immediately that she is lying.  But he feels sorry for the poor woman who is forced to beg for money.  He gives her a dollar for it and she thanks him and leaves.  His wife enters the room and reminds him that he barely has enough money for himself and that he cannot lend it out to people just because he feels sorry for them.
                In the midst of their argument the bottle falls to the floor and breaks.  From the broken pieces a thick smoke emerges and within minutes a strange man is standing before them.  He claims to be a magic genie who will grant them four wishes.  Not convinced, Arthur tells him to fix the broken glass in his display case to test the genie’s supposed abilities.  Right before his eyes the glass mends itself.  Convinced of the genie’s power Arthur then wishes for one million dollars.  Sure enough, an abundance of American dollar bills begin to fall from the ceiling and accumulate on the floor.  Feeling generous they decide to share their good fortune with the people of the neighborhood by giving away some of the money.  Later in the evening they are visited by a representative from the Internal Revenue Service who tells them that they must pay a tax on their recently acquired one million dollars.  After taxes they realize that all they will be left with is five dollars.  Trying to outsmart the genie this time Arthur wishes for something that he thinks is foolproof.  He tells the genie that he wants to be the ruler of a contemporary foreign country who cannot be voted out of office.  The genie grants his wish and Arthur finds himself in an underground bunker in Germany at the end of World War Two.  The genie has turned him into Adolf Hitler, who is now facing either suicide or his inevitable capture and death by execution.  He then wishes for everything to be just as it was before he met the genie.  Miraculously he is transported back to his shop with his wife who has no memory of the genie or the wishes.  The bottle lies broken at his feet.  Suddenly, his life doesn’t seem so bleak.  He then throws the remnants of the broken bottle into the trash.

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
“A word to the wise now to the garbage collectors of the world, to the curio seekers, to the antique buffs, to everyone who would try to coax out a miracle from unlikely places.  Check that bottle you’re taking back for a two-cent deposit.  The genie you save might be you own.  Case in point:  Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Castle, fresh from the briefest of trips…into the Twilight Zone.”

Commentary:
Arthur Castle gets his wish

The second episode of The Twilight Zone’s sophomore season unfortunately comes off as stiff and predictable and is one of the few sore spots in an otherwise wildly impressive run.  It’s Serling’s take on the avarice of the talisman, of trying to alter preordained fate with empty wishing.  This theme is one made famous by W. W. Jacobs’ short story “The Monkey’s Paw.”  Since its original publication in 1901 “The Monkey’s Paw” has been anthologized hundreds of times and is possibly the single most imitated story in the history of the horror genre.  Jacobs based his story in part on the Asian folk tale “Aladdin and the Magic Lamp” found in Arabian Nights in which an impoverished youth is granted wishes from a mysterious genie who resides in an oil lamp.  “The Man in the Bottle” is basically a hybrid of both of these tales although it relies on a good deal more on Jacobs’ story and follows its structure almost exactly.  In fact, the only change Serling made to the setup is that this genie offers a generous four wishes instead of the usual three.  Why Serling chose to make this change is uncertain for it does nothing to enhance either setup or outcome.  Serling makes no misgivings about the fact that this story is a retelling of Jacob’s story for, as I mentioned, “The Monkey’s Paw” is a story that has been adapted or retold so many times that it hardly seems necessary to credit it as source material.  However, because Serling is retelling a story that the audience already knows and changing it only enough to call it his own (and watering it down a bit for television) the episode comes off as drab and uninspired.  What I do find interesting about this episode is Joseph Ruskin’s take on the genie.  His flamboyant dress and playful personality make the genie a more approachable character which for my money makes him a substantially more frightening villain. This episode also showcases some clever direction from Twilight Zone veteran Don Medford.  The majority of the episode is shot entirely inside the tiny antique store and features several dolly shots and crane angles that could only have been created by a seasoned director.   There are also several innovative special effects sequences found throughout the episode (the reverse shot of the bottle coming back together at the end is particularly impressive.).
                But even with its redeeming qualities, at the end of the day this episode’s lack of enthusiasm and originality leaves the viewer with very little desire for a second viewing.

Grade: D

Notes:
--Joseph Ruskin is also the voice the Kanamit in the Season Three episode “To Serve Man.”
--Vivi Janiss also appears in Season One’s “The Fever.”
--"The Man in the Bottle" was adapted as a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Ed Begley, Jr.  It was also adapted into prose form by Walter B Gibson in his collection The Twilight Zone Revisited (Wings Books, 1964).

--Brian Durant 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

"King Nine Will Not Return"

Robert Cummings as Captain James Embry
"King Nine Will Not Return"
Season Two, Episode 37
Original Air Date: September 30, 1960

Cast:
Captain James Embry: Robert Cummings (as Bob Cummings)
Psychiatrist: Gene Lyons
Doctor: Paul Lambert
Nurse: Jenna McMahon

Crew:
Writer: Rod Serling (original teleplay)
Director: Buzz Kulik
Producer: Buck Houghton
Associate Producer: Del Reisman
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Music Composed and Conducted by: Fred Steiner
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Art Direction: Philip Barber & George W. Davis
Set Design: Henry Grace & H. Web Arrowsmith

Rod Serling's Opening Narration:
"This is Africa, 1943. War spits out its violence overhead. The sandy graveyard swallows it up. Her name is King Nine, B-52 medium bomber, 12th Air Force. On a hot, still morning she took off from Tanzania to bomb the southern tip of Italy.
An errant piece of flap tore a hole in the wing tank. And like a wounded bird this is where she landed. Not to return on this day or any other day."

Summary:
            Captain James Embry awakens while laying on the ground under the hot sun a vast, North African desert. Nearby is the King Nine, a World War II bomber plane that Embry piloted and whose five man crew he captained. The plane has crashed and lies damaged and broken in the sand. The rest of the crew is nowhere to be found.
            Confused and disoriented, Embry searches the plane and the area around the plane for the missing crew, calling for the other men and attempting a mayday call on the radio, both to no avail. The more he tries to remember and logically reason his way through the situation the more confused and afraid he becomes. One thought in particular tortures him and that is his responsibility to look after the other men. Eventually, he does find signs of the men. He finds a canteen on the ground and a makeshift grave, both belonging to one of the crew members named Klein. As Embry's grip on his situation grows threadbare, he begins to see what appear to be the crew members but may be no more than hallucinations. He sees a crew member sitting in the pilot's seat but as Embry runs toward the plane the man disappears. He later sees the collective crew members standing a ways off from the crashed planed on a small sand dune but they disappear as Embry frantically approaches.
            Above him in the sky, Embry sees the strangest sight yet. Three jets soar overhead and though Embry knows what these aircraft are, he also knows that this knowledge is impossible since there are no jets in 1943. Seeming to be psychologically broken by his situation, Embry falls to the ground in desperation.
            When he regains consciousness, he finds himself lying in a hospital bed in present day (1960). A doctor and a psychiatrist are at his bedside. It seems that Embry's nervous breakdown was caused by the daily newspaper. The headline story was the recent discovery of the King Nine, a World War II bomber plane that disappeared in the African desert in 1943. Embry never did pilot that flight and that crew. He was supposed to pilot the plane but was sick at the time and another pilot took his place. The guilt of missing that flight and the subsequent disappearance of the plane and her crew has haunted Embry endlessly in the intervening years. The psychiatrist tells Embry that his guilt caused a nervous breakdown and that, however real it felt, Embry went back to that crash site only in his mind. A final reveal, however, seems to prove otherwise. As the nurse takes Embry's clothes back to his room, an overturned shoe spills out desert sand.
 
Rod Serling's Closing Narration:
"And enigma buried in the sand. A question mark with broken wings that lies in silent grace as a marker in a desert shrine. Odd how the real consorts with the shadows, how the present fuses with the past. How does it happen? The question is on file in the silent desert and the answer. . . the answer is waiting for us in the Twilight Zone."

Commentary:
            The Twilight Zone was most successful when the episode provided an equal dose of the supernatural and the psychological. The show's vastly talented writers included this successful mix in their most memorable scripts. Rod Serling's "King Nine Will Not Return" was the opening salvo of the second season and he chose a subject matter that was intimately familiar, Serling himself having served as a paratrooper in World War II, and one taken from the daily headlines, based as it was upon the Lady Be Good, a B-52 bomber mysteriously lost in April of 1943 and rediscovered in the Libyan Desert in 1959. Eight of the nine crew members of the Lady Be Good were found a year later. Thematically, it is an episode with resemblances to past Serling plays and represents a theme that Serling would build upon in the future.
            It was important for Serling to choose a script that built solidly upon the success of the first season and one that would be easily accessible to new viewers of the show. Just as "Where is Everybody?" was the perfect opening to the first season so is "King Nine Will Not Return" to the second season. The episode strongly resembles many of Serling's other episodes and though it is not, once the twist ending is revealed, strictly a time travel episode, it shares many common traits with Serling's other time travel episodes. Those which immediately come to mind include "The Time Element," a teleplay written by Serling for the Westinghouse-Desilu Playhouse in 1958 and a show that is often viewed as an unofficial pilot episode for The Twilight Zone, in which a man travels back in time through his dreams in a failed attempt to prevent the deaths incurred in the bombing of Pearl Harbor. "Where is Everybody?," also not strictly a time travel episode, concerns an astronaut who, while confined for a long period of time in an isolation chamber, constructs an entire fantasy world in order to escape from his claustrophobic environment. "Walking Distance," "Back There," "A Hundred Yards Over the Rim," "One More Pallbearer," and "The Arrival," to name but a handful of other similar Serling-penned Zone episodes, all concern a psychological battle within the main character when confronted with a slip in reality, be it a trip back in time or the physical manifestation of inward guilt.
            Robert Cummings, as Captain James Embry, solely drives the show as it is basically a one man episode and, in the hands of a lesser talent, may have failed completely. Cummings, born in Joplin, Missouri on June 10, 1910, found success as a comedic actor first on Broadway and then in Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s, using a pair of stage names and even a fake British accent before reverting back to his given name to host his own show, The Bob Cummings Show, in the 1950s.  A second, and unsuccessful, incarnation of the show appeared for a short time a few years later. He found later recognition in the 1960s television show My Living Doll. There are two interesting points about Cummings' involvement with The Twilight Zone. The first is that Cummings was an avid, licensed pilot. This certainly lent credit to his excellent portrayal of an embattled World War II pilot. The second is that Cummings is credited as Bob Cummings which the actor typically used for what he considered lighter fare, opting instead to use his full name, Robert Cummings, for dramatic roles. It is interesting to think that Cummings may have considered his stint on The Twilight Zone, or perhaps television work in general, to be consistently light fare. Cummings died on December 2, 1990 in Los Angeles.
            Director Buzz Kulik began his career directing television commercials after World War II before becoming a prolific and successful director of live plays for early anthology shows such as the popular Playhouse 90. It was here during the "Golden Age of Television" that Kulik met Rod Serling, then a prolific and Emmy award winning writer of live television plays. "King Nine Will Not Return" was the first opportunity for Kulik to direct a Serling script since the director was unavailable for the first season of The Twilight Zone because of a production contract with CBS. Kulik later found success in television movies, creating his most lasting work with Brian's Song in 1971.
            "King Nine Will Not Return" was shot on location near Edwards Air Force Base, located on the border of Los Angeles County. Located there was a vast piece of dry salt bed that, according to director Kulik, was used for many western and adventure films as it was the perfect location to give the impression of a vast desert. The episode took five days to create, two days rehearsal and three days to shoot. Production Manager Ralph W. Nelson provided a very efficient manner of moving the production along its scheduled course of time. The cast and crew were taxied from Santa Monica to the set by a DC-3, which landed directly on the highway near the set. Belongings for the cast and crew were kept twenty miles away at the nearest town, Long Pine. The vintage B-25 bomber was disassembled, flown to the set, and reassembled on site. Temperatures climbed above one hundred degrees while filming. In order to provide the realistic reaction of Robert Cummings to the cues presented by his voice-over narration, the voice track was recorded prior to filming and played on set so that Cummings could react to his own voice narrating the thoughts of his character. It is also probable that, in some instances, an assistant read aloud the lines of voice-over narration from the shooting script in order for Kulik to more effectively direct Cummings portrayal of the character. The footage of jets flying overhead was stock footage. The musical score by Fred Steiner is masterful and poignant and should sound familiar to frequent viewers of the show as it would be recycled for future episodes.
            On a final note, it seems interesting that there has been no mention whether or not Rod Serling's older brother, Robert, served in any capacity, most likely as technical advisor, to this episode. His contribution to a later episode dealing with aviation, "The Odyssey of Flight 33" is well documented but it seems unlikely that he was not at least consulted by Rod in some respect when "King Nine Will Not Return" was being produced. Robert Serling was a highly prolific and successful writer and expert on matters of aviation and aeronautics. In 1960, he became full time aviation editor for United Press International and wrote a handful of novels, some with aviation themes, including The President's Plane is Missing, later made into a successful television movie.
            "King Nine Will Not Return" is a solid piece of work and a showcase for the talents of Robert Cummings and Buzz Kulik, the latter of whom would return to the director's chair on the show, not to mention Rod Serling who, as executive producer and principle writer on the show, proved he could still produce a memorable and tightly written script while being weighed down with the responsibilities inherent in his executive role. It was a strong start for what is perhaps the show's strongest and most successful season.

Grade: B

Notes:
--Buzz Kulik directed eight additional episodes of The Twilight Zone, some of which represent the finest the show had to offer, including "The Trouble with Templeton," "A Game of Pool," "A Quality of Mercy," "Static," and "A Hundred Yards Over the Rim." His other episodes include "The Mind and the Matter," "Jess-Belle," and "On Thursday We Leave for Home."
--Robert Cummings can be heard several times in the episode mispronouncing the Spanish name Jimenez. It is not clear whether this was something he was directed to do or a mistake the actor himself made.
--"King Nine Will Not Return" was adapted into a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Adam Baldwin.

--Jordan Prejean