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

Rod Serling's Preview Narration:
"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:
            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 informative 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:
-The lack of quality in "The Whole Truth" is not indicative of director James Sheldon as he also 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 by Dennis Etchison, starring Henry Rollins. 
-Rod Serling adapted his teleplay into a short story for New Stories from the Twilight Zone (Bantam, 1962). 

Jordan Prejean
            

4 comments:

  1. It's a dud, all right, but an F? It's better than "Cavender is Coming!" I'd give it a D.

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    1. I was close to giving it a D but found that I couldn't find one good thing to say about it. That's a failing grade by my standards. The episode just seems so rushed and substandard. I mean, they were in the middle of a pretty strong run of shows which makes this clunker stick out even more.

      The comparison to "Cavender" is interesting considering both episodes starred talented comedians who really had no place on the Zone. It was a show that rarely, if ever, successfully pulled off a comedy episode. I'll say this for "Cavender," whether it's better or worse, it wasn't shot on that hideous videotape.

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  2. I'm totally in the minority regarding The Whole Truth, an episode I love every minute of. The dialogue is clever, the acting spot on, the production values, er, right for what the episode is about; and the videotape for me lends the episode a surreal, otherworldly quality it wouldn't have had if they'd made it on film. Yes, just about everything about it is rather predictable and the characters are stereotypes, but one can say the same about Norman Rockwell's paintings and many O. Henry tales as well. There's a place for this kind of "broad art". It gives pleasure through familiarity and the way people, events and even things fall neatly and predictably into place. Also on the plus side: it takes a slice of ordinary life and, by adding the element of the supernatural, make it feel larger than life.

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    1. The wonderful thing about the series is that it is so divisive on some episodes. Serling was obviously having a lot of fun with this episode and that's good to see when the guy was required to write so much for the show.

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