Monday, December 9, 2013

"The Whole Truth"

Loring Smith as "Honest" Luther Grimbley & Jack Carson as Harvey Hunnicut
"The Whole Truth"
Season Two, Episode 51
Original Air Date: January 20, 1961

Cast:
Harvey Hunnicut: Jack Carson
Luther Grimbley: Loring Smith
Irv: Arte Johnson
Old Man: George Chandler
Young Man: Jack Ging
Young Woman: Nan Peterson
Nikita Khrushchev: Lee Sabinson
Khrushchev's Aide: Patrick Westwood

Crew:
Writer: Rod Serling (original teleplay)
Director: James Sheldon
Producer: Buck Houghton
Associate Producer: Del Reisman
Art Direction: Robert Tyler Lee
Set Decoration: Buck Henshaw
Technical Director: Jim Brady
Assoc. Director: James Clark
Casting: Ethel Winant
Music: Stock

And Now, Mr. Serling:
"This, in the parlance of the Twentieth Century, is a used car lot. A graveyard of active ghosts who by dint and virtue of some exceptional salesmanship and an Indian rubber stretching of the truth remain as commodities in a world that by rights they should have left generations ago. Mr. Jack Carson plays the role of a larceny-loaded con-man suddenly prevented from telling a falsehood. Next week on the Twilight Zone a most bizarre tale that we call, 'The Whole Truth.'"

Rod Serling's Opening Narration:
"This, as the banner already has proclaimed, is Mr. Harvey Hunnicut, an expert on commerce and con jobs, a brash, bright, and larceny-loaded wheeler and dealer who, when the good Lord passed out a conscience, must have gone for a beer and missed out. And these are a couple of other characters in our story, a little old man and a Model A car, but not just any old man and not just any Model A. There's something very special about the both of them. As a matter of fact, in just a few moments they'll give Harvey Hunnicut something that he's never experienced before. Through the good offices of a little magic they will unload on Mr. Hunnicut the absolute necessity to tell the truth. Exactly where they come from is conjecture but as to where they're heading for, this we know, because all of them, and you, are on the threshold of the Twilight Zone."

Summary:
            Harvey Hunnicut is a fast-talking used car salesman who owns a lot full of lemons and junk heaps but manages to sweet talk his unfortunate customers into buying his product at egregious prices. When an old man pulls into the lot driving an old Model A car, Hunnicut fast talks the old man into selling the car cheaply at which offer the old man, barely able to get a word in, easily agrees. After the paperwork is signed and ownership of the car belongs to Hunnicut, the old man offers up the information that the car is haunted.
            Hunnicut scoffs at the idea of a haunted car but soon discovers the car's power when he tries to con a young couple into buying a junk roadster but instead tells them the truth about the condition of the car and recommends they go to a reputable lot and buy a reliable car. Later, when Hunnicut calls his girlfriend to tell her he will be running late because of monthly inventory, he inexplicably also tells her that this is a lie and he will actually be late because he is playing poker that night. That's when Hunnicut realizes the power of the car. As long as he is the owner of the Model A, he cannot tell a lie, rendering him useless in his line of business.
            An opportunity arises to sell the car to a local politician named "Honest" Luther Grimbley who is, of course, a habitual liar. Though Grimbley is close to buying the car, Hunnicut is forced to tell the truth about it and this puts Grimbley off the sale. The two joke, while looking a newspaper headline, that a car like this would be interesting if it were in the hands of "that guy."
            That guy ends up being Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who just happens to be in the United States and makes a stop by Hunnicut's car lot. Amazingly, Hunnicut manages to sell the Model A to Khrushchev through the Premier's Aide, who tells Hunnicut that they intend to use it as a demonstration of the average American's automobile. Hunnicut knows that Khrushchev will be in for a nasty surprise they next time he steps up to offer lies and propoganda.

Commentary:

"You could say this of Harvey Hennicutt - he was an exceptional liar. When Harvey peddled one of his used cars, his lying was colorful, imaginative, and had a charm all of its own. 
       -"The Whole Truth," New Stories from the Twilight Zone 


            Rod Serling often wrote a very specific type of teleplay for his many contributions to Twilight Zone, a drama centered on a broad character type who is put into a perilous or unusual situation. It's an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation. These episodes were often thin on plot and strong on coincidence and would either sink or swim depending, almost solely, on the resonance of its theme. Consequently, there was very little middle ground success for this type of episode. Serling was most successful with this type of episode when he treated his subject matter, or character, in a serious manner, as in "One For the Angels," "The Lonely," or "Mr. Denton on Doomsday." When Serling found it necessary to inject broad humor or whimsy into the formula, the results were usually, but not always, unsatisfactory, as in "Mr. Dingle, the Strong," "The Mind and the Matter," or "Hocus-Pocus and Frisby." To be fair, the reverse was true in a few circumstances. "Time Enough at Last" would fall into the whimsical type episode, at least until its heartbreaking denouement, but remains an engaging and fondly remembered episode. Likewise, "A Thing about Machines" is a serious minded fantasy that is derivative, lacking any clear theme, and which fails to elicit any meaningful response from the viewer.
            "The Whole Truth" is another whimsical type episode and is, unfortunately, one of the worst episodes of the second season, and certainly the worst of the videotaped episodes. As a result of the videotape format, Hunnicut's used car lot is easily exposed as a soundstage and this lends an appropriate air of cheapness to an episode about a cheapskate. In terms of structure, "The Whole Truth" goes against every element which comprised the hub that turned the show's thematic wheel. A fantasy element is usually introduced into a Twilight Zone episode to allow a character(s) to gather self perspective or for others to gather perspective about a character(s). This is not the case in "The Whole Truth.” The viewer is left with no reason to believe Hunnicut will do otherwise than revert back to the way he was at the beginning of the show once he’s managed to sell off the haunted car. It isn't an episode about an immoral man learning his own nature and being ashamed of it; it is an episode about a man learning of his own immoral nature and mourning the loss of it. Even when wrapped in a humorous construct, it greatly lessens any dramatic appeal or impact the episode might have. 
            The second major disaster for "The Whole Truth" is the convenient ending. Though Twilight Zone has earned a reputation, somewhat unfairly, as a show which lived and died by the twist ending, there is a not-so-fine difference between the ironic and the ridiculous. "The Whole Truth" wallows in the latter. Even at twenty six minutes the episode feels padded because of the simplicity of the conflict and the absurd nature of the ending, which no length of bridging material between conflict and resolution could have properly resolved.
            Is one to think that the episode germinated as a way for Serling and Houghton to express an anti-communist stance in the midst of the Cold War? Though this heavy-handed approach would display the broad political prejudices of the day, it would at least give "The Whole Truth" some validity since it is hard to believe that this episode actually made it through the production process. It feels completely out of place in the midst of a very strong second season that was producing now-classic episodes with nearly every new broadcast.  
            Martin Grams, Jr., in his book, The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to A Television Classic (OTR, 2008) reveals some interesting production background about the episode. Serling's unproduced "Mr. Bevis" television series (intended to be a continuation of the first season Twilight Zone episode of the same title) included an episode synopsis about Mr. Bevis being “blessed” by an angel with the ability to tell only the truth, and another episode in which Bevis is a used car salesman. More interesting is a scene cut from an earlier draft of Serling's teleplay in which Nikita Khrushchev, after buying the Model A from Hunnicut, faces reporters at a press conference in which Khrushchev involuntarily champions the American standard of living in comparison to that of the Soviet Union because he cannot tell a lie. This seemed a wise cut on Serling's part as the episode would have come across as extremely heavy handed, especially in retrospect.
            Jack Carson, who portrays Harvey Hunnicut in "The Whole Truth," was a versatile character actor who toiled in small parts upon his arrival at RKO in 1937. He found better roles and did most of his remembered work at Warners in the 1940's, including work alongside Joan Crawford in Michael Curtiz's Mildred Pierce (1945). The decade would also see Carson team up with Dennis Morgan for a series of successful comedy films and also find his voice as a comedian on radio. Carson was at the forefront of television’s early years, hosting All Star Revue and Colgate Comedy Hour in the 1950's. Carson finished his career by appearing in high profile movies such as A Star is Born (1954), alongside Judy Garland, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), with Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor. Carson died of stomach cancer at the age of 52 on January 2, 1963.

Grade: F

Notes: 
Illustration for "The Whole Truth" from a 1966
Dutch edition of Rod Serling's
"Stories from the Twilight Zone"
-The lack of quality in "The Whole Truth" is not indicative of director James Sheldon as he directed some very fine episodes in the series, including "Long Distance Call" and "A Penny For Your Thoughts" from the second season, and "It's a Good Life" from the third season. Sheldon also directed two additional third season episodes, "Still Valley" and Ray Bradbury's sole teleplay for the series, "I Sing the Body Electric."
-Arte Johnson also appeared in an episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery titled "The Flip Side of Satan."
-"The Whole Truth" was adapted as a Twilight Zone Radio Drama, starring Henry Rollins. 
-Rod Serling adapted his teleplay into a short story for New Stories from the Twilight Zone (Bantam, 1962). 

-JP
            

Monday, November 4, 2013

"Back There"

Time Traveler Pete Corrigan (Russell Johnson) has drinks
with John Wilkes Booth (John Lasell)
“Back There”
Season Two, Episode Forty-nine
Original airdate: January 13, 1961


Cast:
Pete Corrigan: Russell Johnson
John Wellington/John Wilkes Booth: John Lasell
Policeman (William’s Grandfather): James Lydon
Police Sergeant: Paul Hartman
William: Bartlett Robinson
Patrolman: James Gavin
Mrs. Landers: Jean Inness
Lieutenant: Lew Brown
Lieutenant’s Girl: Carol Rossen
Chambermaid: Nora Marlowe
Butler: Pat O’Malley
Jackson: Raymond Greenleaf
Millard: Ray Bailey
Whittaker: John Eldredge


Crew:
Writer: Rod Serling (original teleplay)
Director: David Orrick McDearmon
Producer: Buck Houghton
Associate Producer: Del Reisman
Production Manager: Sidney Van Keuran
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Art Direction: George W. Davis and Philip Barber
Set Decoration: Henry Grace and H. Web Arrowsmith
Assistant Director: Darrell Hallenbeck
Casting: Ethel Winant
Editor: Leon Barsha
Sound: Franklin Milton and Charles Scheid
Music: Jerry Goldsmith


“And Now, Mr. Serling:”
“In this rather posh club, you’ll see a group of argue a somewhat metaphysical subject like time travel.  One of them maintains it’s possible to go back in time, make a few changes in history, and as a result do quite a job on the present, in this case the assignation of one Abraham Lincoln.  Next week, a story called ‘Back There.’  I’d like you all to come with us, I think you’ll find it a most exciting journey.  Thank you and good night.”


Rod Serling’s Opening Monologue:
“Witness a theoretical argument, Washington, D.C., the present.  Four intelligent men talking about an improbable thing like going back in time.  A friendly debate revolving around a simple issue: could a human being change what has happened before?  Interesting and theoretical because whoever heard of a man going back in time, before tonight that is.  Because this is…The Twilight Zone.”


Summary:
Corrigan and William the Butler
April 14, 1961, Washington, D.C.  Four intellectuals are seated around a card table at the prestigious Potomac Club.  Two of the four men find themselves hung up on the subject of time travel.  One of the men argues that it is possible to change the events of the past if given the opportunity to travel back in time.  The other man, Pete Corrigan, says that history simply cannot be altered.  The argument continues late into the night when finally Corrigan says that he is tired and politely excuses himself from the table.  On his way out he accidentally runs into the house butler, William, who spills coffee all over him.  William apologizes but Corrigan brushes the incident off and assures William that no harm has been done.
                Upon stepping outside Corrigan experiences a dizzy spell.  Cut to a shot of a streetlight.  The light changes from an incandescent light bulb to flickering candlelight.  After recovering from his dizzy spell, Corrigan immediately notices that something is wrong.  He pounds on the door to the Potomac Club but no one answers.  He decides to go to his apartment.  When he knocks on his boardinghouse a woman answers.  She is immediately suspicious.  Corrigan enters and for a moment doesn’t recognize the place.  He asks the woman if she has a room and, after he tells her that he is a war veteran, she says that she does.  A young woman and a soldier dressed in uniform walk down the stairs.  They mention something to the woman about attending a play and shaking hands with the president.  Corrigan then realizes that this is April 14, 1865, the day that President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, and that these two are headed to the performance of Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theatre where the president was gunned down by John Wilkes Booth.  Corrigan races to Ford’s Theatre and bangs on the stage entrance door, hoping he can somehow present the president’s assassination. 
               
Some time later, Corrigan is brought in before the local Police Sergeant.  The patrolman claims that Corrigan was making trouble at Ford’s Theatre so the theatre manager clubbed him over the head and called the police.  Corrigan pleads with the sergeant to have extra security placed around the president.  The sergeant throws Corrigan in the drunk tank to sleep it off.  Just then a man waltzes into the courtroom and makes his way over to the sergeant.  He claims his name is John Wellington and that he is here to look after the man who was just placed into custody.  He says that the man may possibly be a mentally unsound war veteran and may need someone to care for him.  The sergeant agrees and releases Corrigan into the custody of Wellington.  After they leave the courtroom the security guard asks the sergeant if maybe Corrigan wasn’t on to something when he claimed that Lincoln would be shot.  The sergeant dismisses this as drunken gibberish and tells the rookie policeman to stay in line.
                Back in Wellington’s room, Wellington pours Corrigan a drink.  He inquires as to why Corrigan thought the president would be murdered.  They discuss the subject for several minutes before Corrigan begins to feel lightheaded and realizes that he has been drugged.  He tries to stand but topples to the ground.  He awakes to knocking at the door.  Moments later the door opens and the housekeeper and rookie police officer rush in and pick Corrigan up off the ground.  The officer tells Corrigan that he has been all over town trying to convince officials to place more security around Lincoln, to no avail.  Corrigan tells the officer to go by himself.  Corrigan then discovers a handkerchief given to him by Wellington with the letters JWB.  He then realizes that the man who freed him from prison and drugged him was actually John Wilkes Booth, the actor who assassinated President Lincoln.  Then he hears the news.  The president has been shot.  He is too late.  After the housekeeper and the policeman leave, Corrigan has an emotional breakdown and begins beating on the wall.  Moments later he realizes that he is no longer beating on the walls of Booth's apartment but on the front door of the Potomac Club.  The butler answers the door but Corrigan immediately notices that is isn’t William but a man he has never seen before.  He asks the man about William but the man says that there is no William on staff.
               
William, the Intellectual
Corrigan walks into the study and over to the card table.  The men have switched the subject from time travel to money.  That’s when Corrigan sees William.  But he is no longer dressed in a Butler suit.  Instead he is dressed as a sophisticate in a suit and tie.  He goes on to say that he inherited his fortune from his grandfather he was once a rookie police officer in the city.  On the night of Lincoln’s assassination his grandfather went around the city trying to warn officials that the president would be shot.  Though he didn’t succeed he was awarded and eventually became Chief of Police and, through real estate, managed to make a fortune and retire.  Corrigan is dumbfounded.  He asks William if he remembers spilling coffee on him earlier that evening.  William is insulted and brushes Corrigan off as a nuisance.   The other men also ridicule him to themselves.  Corrigan reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out the handkerchief with Booth’s initials on it.  He then realizes that he has changed history but he alone bears the burden and can never share it with anyone.



Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
“Mr. Peter Corrigan, lately returned from a place ‘back there,’ a journey into time with highly questionable results, proving on one hand that the treads of history are woven tightly and the skein of events cannot be undone, but on the other hand, there are small fragments of tapestry that can be altered.  Tonight’s thesis to be taken as you will, in the Twilight Zone.”


Commentary:
In “Back There” Russell Johnson makes his second appearance on The Twilight Zone.  In Season One’s “Execution” (also directed by McDearmon) Johnson plays a scientist who builds a time machine which pulls a man out of the nineteenth century American West into a twentieth century inner city.  Only later does Johnson find out that the man is a soulless murderer.  In “Back There” Johnson is the one who travels through time, only this time he travels from present day 1961 back to 1865 to stop a murderer, as if to make amends for his tragic mistake in the previous episode. 
                As is the case with most time travel stories on The Twilight Zone, “Back There” does not rely on machinery to get its protagonist from one age to another.  Corrigan simply steps out of the Potomac Club and, after a faint dizzy spell, finds himself in another century.  This follows in the footsteps of episodes like “Walking Distance,” “The Last Flight” and “The Trouble with Templeton” in which characters just sort of wander into another time.  Serling and producer Buck Houghton were wise to realize the show’s limited budget and chose not saturate episodes, especially ones with traditional science fiction themes such as time travel, with ornate special effects.  The only visual evidence of the time travel process that the audiences witnesses here is that of a single streetlamp dissolving slowly from a modern electric light bulb into a burning candle, thus transporting the audience and our protagonist from then present-day 1961 back to 1865.
Unfortunately, unlike the three aforementioned episodes, which use time travel as a device to explore the various psychological states of each of the main characters (nostalgia, cowardice, loneliness) “Back There” lacks the emotional wisdom found in these stories.  Its focus, instead, is on the time travel paradox, a theme that was already exhausted even in 1961.  It really isn’t much more than a thin story stretched around the idea stated at the beginning of the episode: can a person change history if they were able to travel back in time, intentionally or unintentionally.  And so Corrigan spends much of the episode running around Washington D.C. trying to stop the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, with the audience thinking that perhaps he will indeed prevent it and thus return to an alternate 1961, one that has no concept of Lincoln’s assassination because it never happened.  The twist is that he does not succeed in preventing the president’s assassination and he returns to a 1961 almost identical to the one he left.  The only difference is that William, the former houseman at the Potomac club, is now a prominent member of the club (and kind of a snooty one).  This isn’t a bad twist but not one that really stays with the viewer after the episode is over and, unfortunately, it is all the episode has to offer.
                This episode holds a resemblance to the Season Four episode “No Time like the Past.”  In this later episode the main character, played by Dana Andrews, uses a time machine to travel through the recent past attempting to prevent certain atrocities.  He first ventures to Hiroshima to warn people of the encroaching nuclear attack that will demolish their city but he fails to persuade them to leave.  He then travels to Germany circa 1939 and tries to assassinate Hitler but he is informed upon by a Nazi devotee.  Next he travels to 1915 and tries to prevent the bombing of the Lusitania.  Again he fails.  He finally decides to travel to a small town in Indiana at the end of the nineteenth century to seek out a simple existence.  He eventually learns from a history book he brought with him from the twentieth century that the local schoolhouse will burn down because of a kerosene spill.  He tries to prevent the catastrophe only to end up being the cause of it.  He then decides not to meddle with history any longer.  Overall, this episode isn’t much better than “Back There” but the hero comes off as far more compelling than Pete Corrigan, something Serling might have taken into consideration when he reused this same theme for this Season Four episode.
                While “Back There” fails to be a memorable episode it isn’t without its high points.  Of the performances most seem to be uninspired but Bartlett Robinson gives two brief but solid performances as William the butler at the beginning of the episode and as William the elitist once Corrigan has returned from 1865.  But ultimately, the only thing that really stands out in this episode is a haunting original score from Jerry Goldsmith.  This same score was later recycled for some of the show’s most memorable episodes. 

Grade: C



Notes:
--As mentioned, Russell Johnson also appears in the Season One episode “Execution.”
--Bartlett Robinson also appears in the Season Three episode “To Serve Man.”
--David Orrick McDearmon also directed Season One’s “Execution" and Season Two’s “A Thing About Machines.”
--John Lasell also appeared in an episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery titled "Little Girl Lost" (no relation to the third season Zone episode). 
--Lew Brown also appeared in an episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery titled "You Can Come Up Now, Mrs. Millikan." 
--“Back There” was adapted into a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Jim Caviezel (Falcon Picture Group, 2002).  
-- "Back There" was adapted into a short story by Walter B. Gibson for Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone (Grosset and Dunlap, 1963).


Up Next:
Next time, we’ll go scouting for a new ride down at the used car lot.  But we’ll be sure to steer clear of a certain Model A Ford who has a strict penchant for honesty.  Next time in the vortex, we will take a look at Rod Serling’s “The Whole Truth.”  See you then!

--Brian Durant

Sunday, September 22, 2013

"Dust"

Thomas Gomez as the sadistic Sykes taunts Vladimir Sokoloff as Gallegos.
"Dust"
Season Two, Episode 49
Original Air Date: January 6, 1961

Cast:
 
Sykes: Thomas Gomez
Sheriff Koch: John Larch
Old Gallegos: Vladimir Sokoloff
Luis Gallegos: John Alonso
Estrelita: Andrea Margolis
Mr. Canfield: Paul Genge
Mrs. Canfield: Dorothy Adams
Rogers: Duane Grey

Man: John Lormer
Boy: Douglas Heyes, Jr.

Crew:

Writer: Rod Serling (original teleplay)
Director: Douglas Heyes
Producer: Buck Houghton

Associate Producer: Del Reisman
Production Manager: Sidney Van Keuran
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens

Art Direction: George W. Davis and Philip Barber
Set Decoration: Henry Grace and H. Web Arrowsmith
Assistant Director: Darrell Hallenbeck
Casting: Ethel Winant
Editor: Bill Mosher
Sound: Franklin Milton and Charles Scheid
Music: Jerry Goldsmith

Rod Serling's Opening Narration:
 
 
"There was a village, built of crumbling clay and rotting wood. And it squatted ugly under a broiling sun like a sick and mangy animal waiting to die. This village had a virus, shared by its people. It was the germ of squalor, of hopelessness, of a loss of faith. For the faithless, the hopeless, the misery-laden, there is time, ample time, to engage in one of the other pursuits of men. They begin to destroy themselves."

Summary:


In a small American western town somewhere during the latter half of the 19th century, Luis Gallegos is to be hanged for running over and killing a little girl while operating a horse drawn cart while drunk. The decision of the townspeople to execute the young man for this terrible accident hangs like a black cloud over the small town. Filled with hate, anger, and confusion, the townspeople drift about on this terrible execution day as though in a lethargic trance.

One person morbidly enjoying the day is the sadistic, drifting salesman Sykes. He has wandered into town and sold the rope to the townspeople with which young Gallegos is to be hanged. The local sheriff, Koch, is disgusted with Sykes and his attitude toward the situation.

When Old Gallegos, Luis's father, pleads with the townspeople for mercy, he is met with disdain and violence. Sykes, sensing a way to make some easy money instructs the little girl who accompanies Old Gallegos to tell the old man that Sykes is in possession of a bag of magic dust which, when sprinkled on the heads of the townspeople, will turn their hate to love. The price: one hundred pesos. As the little girl leaves with her instructions, Sykes simples reaches down to the ground, scoops up a handful of fine dirt, and places it into a small pouch. Presto: magic dust.

As Luis Gallegos is led to the scaffold, Old Gallegos races to find Sykes and pay for possession of the magic dust which can save his son's life. With the help of friends who have sold valuable possessions, Gallegos arrives with gold pieces. Sykes eagerly hands over the dust for the gold, with a laughing guarantee that the "magic" dust will work when sprinkled over the heads of the townspeople.

It seems as though the entire small town, children included, have turned out to view the execution. Old Gallegos arrives seconds before Luis is to be hanged and implores the townspeople for mercy, throwing his "magic" dust at them. It does nothing to prevent the hanging.

Yet, something extraordinary happens. The rope breaks on the way down and Luis is spared a terrible death. Incredulous, the townspeople call for another go at the hanging. Sykes is even more stunned, as it was a heavy duty, brand new rope, impossible that it should break.

The sheriff looks to Mr. and Mrs. Canfield, parents of the little girl lost in the terrible accident, and asks them if they want to continue with the execution. Sensing that a higher power may have had a hand in the miracle of the breaking rope, they relent, show mercy, and allow Luis to go free. The towspeople, disappointed and a little stunned, quickly disperse and return to their homes. Gallegos, father and son, walk away from the scaffold arm-in-arm, joyous.

Finally, Sykes is confronted by three dirty, hungry looking children and he guiltily relinquishes the gold pieces out of which he had earlier tricked the old man.

Rod Serling's Closing Narration:
"It was a small, misery-laden village on the day of a hanging, and of little historical consequence. And if there's any moral to it at all, let's say that in any quest for magic, in any search for sorcery, witchery, legerdemain, first check the human heart. For inside this deep place there's a wizardry that costs far more than a few pieces of gold. Tonight's case in point, in the Twilight Zone."
 

Commentary: 


"There was a village built of crumbling clay and rotting wood. It squatted, ugly, under a broiling sun, like a sick, mangy animal waiting to die. It had a name, but the name was of little consequence. It had an age, but few people cared how old it was. It lay somewhere in the Southwest on the fringe of a desert."
               -"Dust," More Stories from the Twilight Zone 

Perhaps the type of episode which the creators of Twilight Zone struggled with as much as the comedic episode is the episode set in the Old West, an episode type represented in every season of the show, and in some seasons with multiple episodes. The Old West setting was almost exclusively a fascination of Rod Serling, and the episodes produced on the theme vary greatly in quality. "Dust" rises near the top of the pack of this episode type primarily on the strength of its cast and crew as it is one of the few Zone episodes based on a rather undistinguished script but also given the gold treatment when it came to those behind of and in front of the camera.

According to radio and television historian Martin Grams, Jr., in his book The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic (OTR, 2008), director Douglas Heyes found himself put to work on "Dust" after being pulled from an unproduced episode scripted by Charles Beaumont titled "Acceleration." Heyes had become the go-to director for technically challenging episodes, such as "The Invaders" or "Eye of the Beholder," making him an unlikely choice for the less technical nature of "Dust." Heyes always found ways to insert his creative vision into the episodes he directed, and changed more in "Dust" than perhaps any other episode he was associated with.

Heyes felt the show played too fast, with too much energy, and therefore clashed with the subject matter. With the sun-beaten setting and all the talk of disease and squalor in Serling's opening narration, Heyes felt the way to show the abstract qualities of the episode visually was to instruct the actors in the episode, with the execption of Gomez, Sokoloff, and Alonso, to play their roles as though drained of nearly all engery, as though sleepwalking through the terrible situation being depicted.

Nowhere is it more evident of the changes Heyes imposed than on the character of Sheriff Koch, as played by John Larch. As originally written, Koch was a firm, steadfast, and dominant character, virtuous and stout, a character type Larch was known for portraying and undoubtedly why he received the role in the first place. Heyes went against the grain and instructed Larch to play the role in a different manner, not as the complete opposite, as a man cowed by the situation, but rather as a man physically and emotionally drained by it. Some critics of the episode have found this method unsuccessful and find that it takes away from the impact of the episode. I disagree. I find it displays a nice contrast to those characters that are passionate about the situation, including the villainous Sykes, played to perfection by Thomas Gomez, the only outsider in the episode, and also serves the moral of the "mob mentality" very nicely, displaying the blunt visual representation of people following blindly, or sleepwalking, into a terrible decision. Larch was adept at playing a strong or reassuring figure and regular Zone viewers will remember him as the psychologist dealing with a patient's deadly nightmares in writer Charles Beaumont's first seaon episode, "Perchance to Dream," under the idiosyncratic direction of Robert Florey, and as the father of the terrible, and omnipotent, Anthony in the unforgettable third season episode, "It's a Good Life."

"Dust" also benefitted from the presence of veteran character actor Vladimir Sokoloff, a Russian-born thespian here showing his versatility by convincingly playing a Mexican, something he did often throughout his long career. An equally able character actor, Thomas Gomez made a career out of playing the heavy, or villainous, role and had previously appeared on the Zone as Cadwallader, the Devil, in the otherwise forgettable first season episode, "Escape Clause."

As much as Thomas Gomez could elicit disgust or hatred from an audience, Vladimir Sokoloff could elicit sympathy. He would virtually repeat his pleading and passionate performance from "Dust" two additional times for the Zone, again playing characters of Spanish descent, in the third season episodes "The Mirror" and "The Gift," this latter an episode with a great deal in common with "Dust" but with a much more heavy handed and unsuccessful approach.

Serling's script for "Dust" was at least the third time the writer attempted the story with elevating degrees of variation. Serling had written a radio play titled "The Dust By Any Other Name" in 1950, concerning a man's attempts to manufactor a magic dust by which people's hatred could be dispelled, only to have the radio script rejected by the Dr. Christian radio program.

Eight years later, on June 19, 1958, Serling, by then an established, Emmy Award-winning screenwriter, presented "A Town Has Turned to Dust" on Playhouse 90. This show concerned a 19th century western town driven to lynch a young Mexican man by a local merchant with ulterior motives. Serling initially had trouble getting his vision of this story onto Playhouse 90 at all, as he originally wrote the script in a contemporary setting (late 1950's) and concerning the then-current problem of segregation in the South. Corporate Sponsors felt the episode as originally written would cause too much controversy and Serling was left with no option but to change the race of the victim (from African American to Hispanic) and move the setting of the story back seventy years. It was this type of interference which prompted Serling to branch off into an executive role and develop the Twilight Zone in an effort to have autonomy over what could be done on a television program. Though the BBC took the opportunity a month before the airing of "Dust" on The Twilight Zone to broadcast a version of "A Town Has Turned to Dust," the BBC version was a remake of the Playhouse 90 show and ignorant of any changes Serling made for the story's broadcast on Twilight Zone a month later. The story also found itself dramatized on Australian radio a short time after it's broadcast on The Twilight Zone and was again adapted for radio as an episode of The Twilight Zone Radio Dramas.

"Dust" also benefits greatly from a Jerry Goldsmith score. Goldsmith produces a score that establishes setting, theme, and, most impressively in "Dust," character, as the score is as subtle, as lethargic, as the townspeople. It is a sad, wistful, and melancholy theme which perfectly matches the mood of the episode.

The MGM backlot is put to good use. Though MGM's backlot was built for grandeur, the sets in "Dust" are stark and minimal, almost the sets of an early American silent film or that of the German Expressionist films, and it greatly enhances the story for the viewer, as "Dust" is more concerned with the emotional, or expressive, nature of the story rather than tangible reality or an attempt to establish anything more than the barest mechanics of verisimilitude. The scaffold set and the vast, desolate landscape beyond is one the most affecting sets ever designed and filmed for the show.

Though "Dust" is anchored by a script which feels quite watered down as Serling rewrote and reworked it for nearly fifteen years of his professional career, the episode boasts some fine creative work from veteran actors, capable direction from the more technically minded Douglas Heyes, excellent set design, and a moody score from Jerry Goldsmith. If it doesn't quite reach the heights of the Old West episodes that manage to rank among the best of the show's entire run ("A Hundred Yards Over the Rim" comes to mind) it is a tight and controlled episode with enough to lift it above the average fare on the show.


Grade: B

Notes:


--John Larch also appears in the first season episode "Perchance to Dream" and the third season episode "It's a Good Life."
--Vladimir Sokoloff also appears in the third season episodes, "The Mirror" and "The Gift."
--Thomas Gomez also appears in the first season episode "Escape Clause." 

--Douglas Heyes, director, was responsible for some of the most celebrated episodes of the series, including "The After Hours," "The Howling Man," "Eye of the Beholder," and "The Invaders." Heyes wrote and directed the first segment of the series Rod Serling's Night Gallery, "The Dead Man" (based on the story by Fritz Leiber), and wrote two additional segments of the series, "The Housekeeper" and "Brenda" (based on the story by Margaret St. Clair) under the pseudonym Matthew Howard.
--Rod Serling reused the name of Sheriff Koch for a similar character in the fifth season episode "I Am the Night--Color Me Black."
--The role of Farmer Boy was acted by Douglas Heyes, Jr., son of the episode's director.
--"Dust" was produced as a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Bill Smitrovich. 

--Rod Serling adapted his teleplay into a short story for More Stories from the Twilight Zone (Bantam, 1961).

--Jordan Prejean

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Twilight Zone Returns to Comics!



It was announced last month at San Diego Comic-Con that comic book publisher Dynamite Entertainment (home of Dark Shadows, Red Sonja, Army of Darkness, and Vampirella) have struck a deal with CBS to produce a new Twilight Zone comic. Details are scarce as there has been no release date announced nor have artists been announced as attached to the project. One creator has been confirmed and it's a good one. J. Michael Straczynski is going to write the  new series. Straczynski is an accomplished science fiction writer, creator of Babylon 5, with writing credits on the 1980s revival series of The Twilight Zone. Couldn't be more excited about this new life for the Zone and will post more details as they become available. In the meantime, follow the link to read an interview with Straczynski posted on Comic Book Resources about writing for The Twilight Zone.

J. Michael Straczynski on The Twilight Zone

To read our history of Twilight Zone comics, click here.

--Jordan

Monday, August 5, 2013

"The Night of the Meek"

Art Carney as the lovable loser Henry Corwin

“The Night of the Meek”
Season Two, Episode 47
Original Air Date: December 23, 1960

 Cast:
Henry Corwin: Art Carney
Mr. Dundee: John Fiedler
Officer Flaherty: Robert P. Lieb
Bartender: Val Avery
Sister Florence: Meg Wyllie
Old Man: Burt Mustin
Irate Mother: Kay Cousins

Crew:
Writer: Rod Serling (original teleplay)
Director: Jack Smight
Producer: Buck Houghton
Associate Producer: Del Reisman
Art Direction: Craig Smith
Set Decoration: Arthur Jeph Parker
Technical Director: Jim Brady
Assoc. Director: James Clark
Casting: Ethel Winant
Music: Stock

“And Now Mr. Serling:”
“This may look to you like any dismal, dark and dingy alley that lies skulking off the million mirrored shadowy places off the main drags. Actually, it’s the private domain of leprechauns and elves and supplies the locale of next week’s Twilight Zone. With us for a very special occasion is Mr. Art Carney, who plays the role of a department store Santa Clause. And he plays it with the heart, the warmth and the vast talent that is uniquely Carney. On the Twilight Zone next week, ‘The Night of the Meek.’”

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:
“This is Mr. Henry Corwin, normally unemployed, who once a year takes the lead role in the uniquely popular America institution, that of the department-store Santa Clause in a road company version of ‘The Night Before Christmas.’ But in just a moment Mr. Henry Corwin, ersatz Santa Clause, will enter a strange kind of North Pole which is one part the wondrous spirit of Christmas and one part the magic that can only be found…in the Twilight Zone.”

Summary:
          Henry Corwin sits alone in a dingy bar in the hopeless part of town. It’s Christmas Eve. Corwin earns his beer money playing Santa Clause at a local department store. The bartender informs him that it is now six in the evening and Corwin realizes he is late for work. As he fishes his last crumpled dollar bill out of his pocket to buy a drink for the road he eyes two children clothed in rags peering through the window to get a glimpse of Santa Clause. He waves at them with a smile on his face. He turns to the bartender and asks him why poor children have to be excluded from Santa Clause. Growing irritated the bartender ushers him to the door. Outside he meets two children dressed in dirty clothes who begin asking him for Christmas presents. One of them asks him to give his father a job for Christmas. Corwin bursts into tears.
                Back at the department store where Corwin works, a line of hopeful children and irate parents stand waiting for Santa Clause, who is now considerably late. Corwin arrives and takes his seat in Santa’s chair but drunkenly flops out of it onto the floor. His manager, Mr. Dundee, promptly informs him that he is fired.  Corwin apologizes for coming to work intoxicated. He says that he drinks because he cannot stand to watch the poverty happening all around him. He walks solemnly out of the store. 
                Corwin wonders aimlessly in the freezing snow.  He has nowhere to go, no one to go to and doesn’t know where he will sleep tonight. He stumbles upon a large bag filled with presents.  Wanting to give the children in his neighborhood the Christmas they deserve he throws the bag over his shoulder and walks down the street shouting “Merry Christmas!”
                Later at the local homeless shelter, Corwin walks in with his bag full of presents. The bag, he says, will give a person exactly what they ask for. To prove this he asks an old man named Burt what he wants. Burt says that he wants a new pipe. Corwin reaches into his bag and retrieves a brand new tobacco pipe. He continues his gift giving until he is confronted by Sister Florence, the nun in charge of the shelter. She demands to know where Corwin got this bag of gifts. He says he doesn’t know and then offers her a new dress from his bag. She storms out of the shelter before Corwin has time to give her the dress. She returns minutes later with a police officer. Officer Flaherty also asks Corwin where the bag of gifts came from and asks him if he has a receipt. Corwin declares that he does not have a receipt. With no other choice the officer decides to haul Corwin to jail until they can figure out who the gifts belong to. 
                Down at the precinct Corwin is greeted by none other than his recent employer Mr. Dundee. Officer Flaherty believes that Corwin stole the presents from the department store. Mr. Dundee is disgusted and immediately launches into a rant about how he always knew that Corwin was a criminal. As he says this he begins taking items out of Corwin’s bag. Expecting gifts stolen from the department store, he instead pulls out industrial size cans of food and an alley cat. Officer Flaherty lets Corwin go. Dundee turns to Flaherty and launches into another rant, this time about Flaherty’s inefficient police work. In an effort to make Flaherty feel incompetent Dundee turns to Corwin and mockingly asks the makeshift Santa for a bottle of vintage cherry brandy. Corwin goes to his bag and pulls out an unopened bottle of brandy and hands it to his former employer. He smiles and politely makes his exit.
               Outside, midnight is only moments away. Corwin stands on a street corner handing out presents to hopeful children.  As the clock strikes twelve in the distance Corwin manages to find one last present for his last awaiting child. As the children disperse Corwin discovers that his bag is empty. Burt, the old man from the shelter, tells Corwin that he spent so much time giving out presents to all the children that he didn’t take anything for himself. Corwin tells Burt that he got exactly what he wanted. He only wishes that he could hand out presents to children every year. He wishes Burt a Merry Christmas and begins walking down the street only to find a sleigh hitched to eight reindeer and what appears to be an elf waiting for him around the corner. Corwin takes his seat in the sleigh next to the elf and they ride off into the night.
                Back at the precinct an inebriated Flaherty and Dundee stumble out of the station doors into the snow-covered street. They hear the faint sound of sleigh bells. They look to the sky and catch a brief glimpse of Corwin and his eight tiny reindeer.  They look at one another, dumbfounded, but decide not to question what they have seen and simply thank God for Christmas miracles.

Rod Serling’s Closing Monologue:
“A word to the wise to all the children of the twentieth century whether their concern be pediatrics or geriatrics.  Whether they crawl on hands and knees and wear diapers or walk with a cane and comb their beards. There’s a wondrous magic to Christmas and there’s a special power reserved for little people. In short there is nothing mightier than the meek.”

Commentary:

"Henry Corwin sat at the bar, a moth-eaten Santa Claus outfit engulfing his sparse frame. Discolored whiskers hanging from a rubber band covered his chest like a napkin. His cocky little cap, with the white snowball at the end, hung down over his eyes. He picked up his eighth glass of inexpensive rye, blew the snowball off to one side, and deftly slipped the shot glass toward his mouth, downing the drink in one gulp."
           -"The Night of the Meek," New Stories from the Twilight Zone

          It is no surprise that Rod Serling, who was born and raised Jewish, was such an admirer of the Christmas season. According to Widow Carol Serling, as a child Serling would beg his father for a Christmas tree. He seemed to see Christmas more as an American tradition than a celebration of spiritual faith, although spirituality would usually still play a part in Serling’s Christmas-related scripts.  The ideas of good will towards men and fairness are themes that can be seen throughout much of Serling’s work on The Twilight Zone and elsewhere. Christmas fits right in with the Norman Rockwell/Frank Capra ideology that Serling subscribed to. And Henry Corwin as the drunken but good-natured Santa Clause is a classic Serling protagonist, the likable loser, who finds a common thread with characters like Joey Crown, Al Denton, Jackie Rhodes, Bolie Jackson, Henry Bemis and a host of other figures from the Serling catalog. Serling named the character after radio dramatist Norman Corwin. Although there are several other episodes that take place around the holiday season like Season One’s “What You Need” and Season Three’s “Five Character’s in Search of an Exit” and “Changing of the Guard,” “The Night of the Meek” would be the only episode that directly explored the holiday.
                “The Night of the Meek” has proven to be a fan favorite over the years. The fan rating on The Internet Movie Database currently gives it a 7.8/10 and it is regularly shown in syndication and was even remade for the first Twilight Zone revival series in 1985. This is certainly a reflection of the popular culture’s fondness for this story. I have to admit that this is not one of my favorite episodes of the show. Over time it has grown on me but not enough for me to recommend it to someone not familiar with the show. As we have mentioned several times comedy was usually not something that the Zone excelled at, although there are some exceptions. This is not one of them. I find the humorous scenes stilted and predictable. And I can’t really point to any of the performances as exemplary ones although there are several fine actors in the cast. The fact that this episode was shot on video tape (which in high definition doesn’t do the fake snow any favors) only helps to further my disfavor for it. Still, there are many redeeming qualities to be found here. Serling and Director Jack Smight manager to capture the magic of Christmas and the surreal atmosphere of Christmas Eve in the city. And as it a Christmas story it was presumably intended for children, who were now a significant minority of the show's fanbase, and indeed has a very child-like quality. 
                According to producer Buck Houghton, Serling wrote this entire episode specifically with Art Carney in mind. Carney and Serling had worked together previously in Serling’s semi-autobiographical Playhouse 90 script The Velvet Alley (also directed by Jack Smight) where he played a struggling writer who finally makes it only to go through the trials and tribulations of his newly found fame. His performance in this earlier play is remarkable.  Like most performers of his generation Carney began his career in radio before graduating to television. He gained widespread notoriety working opposite Jackie Gleason for his role as Ed Norton in the numerous incarnations of The Honeymooners for which he earned six Emmy Awards. In 1974 he won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in Harry and Tonto, his first film role. 
William Atherton and Richard Mulligan in
the 1985 remake of "Night of the Meek."
         In 1985 the first revival series remade this story into a surprisingly enjoyable episode. 
Directed by Martha Coolidge, it is faithful to the original in tone but does take several liberties with the plot without straying too far from Serling’s storyline. Set in 1985 in then contemporary New York City the story begins as Mr. Dundee (portrayed brilliantly by William Atherton) searches his crowded department store on Christmas Eve looking for their hired Santa (played by the great Richard Mulligan), who is running considerably late. Cut to the familiar scene in the bar where Corwin, dressed in his Santa suit, is trying to buy another drink but has no money. As he gets up to leave he magically discovers two dollars in his coat pocket. Outside he gives a dollar each to two children from the neighborhood. He arrives at the store so intoxicated he can barely stand and upon seeing his condition Mr. Dundee abruptly fires him. Later in his shabby apartment (a step up from Carney’s Corwin who is presumably homeless) Corwin steps outside to throw away a bag of garbage but when he drops it on the ground an avalanche of toys spill out of it. Corwin takes to the streets screaming to the neighborhood children that he has presents for them all. Later, as Mr. Dundee is driving home, he notices a commotion in the streets. He stops his car to investigate and finds Corwin, along with the department store security guard (played by Teddy Wilson) handing out presents to the people of the neighborhood. Suspecting that he has been robbed, Dundee demands to know where Corwin got all of the presents. Later, when the cops arrive, they demand that Corwin show them a receipt for all of the merchandise. He reaches into his bag and pulls out a handful of receipts from the department store and hands them to Dundee. The last scene in the episode has a dumbfounded Dundee sitting on the steps of an apartment building wondering how Corwin managed to scheme him. Corwin walks by and sits down beside him and pulls a custom-made winter coat out of his bag, a present for Dundee’s wife that was accidentally sold in the department store earlier that day. Dundee is speechless. He asks Corwin what he wants for Christmas and Corwin replies that he only wishes he could do this again every year. 
Back in his apartment Corwin catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror and sees that he has a full, natural beard and has gained about fifty pounds. Thus, he is the new Santa Clause. Set in the poverty-stricken inner city at the height of the Reagan era this remake seems to hit closer to home than the original, although Serling’s message is a timeless one. 
                Although I might be alone among fans in disliking this episode I do appreciate its place in The Twilight Zone universe and don’t mind at all that it is one of the lasting images from the program, one that the culture still talks about today. I don’t consider it to be among the worst that the show had to offer but it has its problems. While I like Christmas stories, even well-worn, maudlin family dramas, I don’t think they fit well within the sophisticated aesthetic that the show would be remembered for.  It is also fair to point out that Serling thought this episode was “an abomination” and pointed to video tape as the main cause for his disappointment.

Grade: C

Notes:
--John Fiedler also appears in Season Three’s “Cavender is Coming.”
--Burt Wilson also appears in Season Three’s “Kick the Can.”
--“The Night of the Meek”  was adapted into a short story by Rod Serling for his collection New Stories from the Twilight Zone (Bantam, 1962). As mentioned, it was adapted for the first Twilight Zone revival series which aired on December 20, 1985 on CBS. It was also made into a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Chris McDonald.

Up Next:
Next time the Vortex will take you to a small Mexican village where divine intervention may or may not be at play in the hanging of young man. That’s next time, when we review an episode called simply, “Dust.” Thanks for reading and see you soon.

--Brian Durant