Wednesday, May 21, 2014

"Mr. Dingle, the Strong"

Luther Dingle (Burgess Meredith), under the spell of a
double-headed Martian.
“Mr. Dingle, the Strong”
Season Two, Episode 55
Original Air Date: March 3, 1961

Cast:
Luther Dingle: Burgess Meredith
Bettor: Don Rickles
Anthony O’Toole: James Westerfield
Joseph J. Callahan: Edward Ryder
1st Martian: Douglas Spencer
2nd Martian: Michael Fox
Boy: Jay Hector
Woman in Park: Jo Ann Dixon
1st Man: Douglas Evans
2nd Man: Phil Arnold
3rd Man: Frank Richards
Abernathy: James Millhollin
1st Venusian: Donald Losby
2nd Venusian: Greg Irvin

Crew:
Writer: Rod Serling (Original Teleplay)
Director: John Brahm
Producer: Buck Houghton
Associate Producer: Del Reisman
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson and Darrell Hallenbeck
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens and William Skall
Art Direction: George W. Davis and Philip Barber
Set Decoration: Henry Grace and H. Web Arrowsmith
Assistant Director: Henry Weinberger
Casting: Ethel Winant
Editor: Bill Mosher
Sound: Franklin Milton and Charles Scheid
Music: Stock

And Now, Mr. Serling:
“I’ve only got about 18 seconds to tell you that next week Mr. Burgess Meredith returns to The Twilight Zone as ‘Mr. Dingle, the Strong.’  He plays the role of an incredible little man who’s given the strength of about five hundred men and comes out of it as a kind of twentieth-century Hercules and Sampson all rolled into one.  It’s designed to send you right from your set into a fast bowl of spinach. [Serling smashes a ringing telephone that rests on a table.] It’s catching.”

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:
“Uniquely American institution known as the neighborhood bar.  Reading left to right are Mr. Anthony O’Toole, proprietor who waters his drinks like geraniums but who stands foursquare for peace and quiet and booths for ladies.  This is Mr. Joseph J. Callahan, an unregistered bookie, whose entire life is any sporting event with two sides and a set of odds.  His idea of a meeting at the summit is any dialogue between a catcher and a pitcher with more than one man on base.  And this animated citizen is every anonymous bettor who ever dropped rent money on a horse race, a prize fight, or a floating crap game, and who took out his frustration and his insolvency on any vulnerable fellow barstool companion within arm’s and fist’s reach.  And this is Mr. Luther Dingle, a vacuum-cleaner salesman whose volume of business is roughly that of a valet at a hobo convention.  He’s a consummate failure at almost everything but is a good listener and has a prominent jaw. [Narration interrupted by action and dialogue].  And these two unseen gentlemen are visitors from outer space.  They are about to alter the destiny of Luther Dingle by leaving him a legacy—the kind you can’t hardly find no more.  In just a moment, a sad-faced perennial punching bag who missed even the caboose of life’s gravy train, will take a short constitutional into the most unpredictable region that we refer to as…the Twilight Zone.”

Summary:
          Luther Dingle is a vacuum cleaner salesman who spends most of his evenings inside a dingy, forgotten bar alongside dingy, forgotten people.  A frail, timid individual, he has accomplished almost nothing during his time in the world and is, additionally, a terrible salesman.  He is trampled upon, pushed about, smacked, slapped, taken advantage of, and, most of all, unanimously ignored.
            He sits in the bar one afternoon in the company of three other gentlemen: a man named O’Toole, the owner/bartender, and two worthless, angry patrons who spend their days arguing over unpaid gambling debts.  When they cannot settle their disputes they often turn to Dingle to settle it for them.  Unfortunately, Dingle has the inability to remain neutral and always voices his opinion honestly, winning the admiration of one and the unabashed hatred of the other which is why he often goes home with bruises.  Two very odd creatures sort of float into the bar.  They appear to be unseen by the patrons.  They talk amongst themselves and we learn that they are visitors from Mars here to conduct an experiment.  They want to give an ordinary human being superhuman strength.  They are here in the bar because they have chosen Luther Dingle as their specimen.  His transformation is instantaneous and he immediately feels a sense of physical empowerment.  He notes to O’Toole that his vacuum cleaner suddenly feels as light as a feather, demonstrating by tossing up into the air effortlessly.  He then opens the door to leave but rips it completely off its hinges.  Dumbfounded, he exits the bar. 
         For the rest of the day he experiences similar events.  He rips the handle off of a taxi cab then accidentally lifts the car off the ground.  He lifts a park bench—with a woman sitting on it—off the ground with one hand.  He breaks a gigantic rock in half with his bare hands.  He lifts a statue off the ground with one hand.  While doing this he is spotted by a photographer for the local paper who snaps his picture.
            The next day he is sitting in the bar surrounded by a crowd of people who have come to witness his extraordinary physical prowess.  He is also being filmed by a television crew for a show about people with unusual talents.  He demonstrates his new strength by breaking a table in half, lifting a bar stool out of the floor with one finger, and by lifting one of the angry patrons that used to beat him up on a daily basis above his head with one hand and spinning him around.  Meanwhile, the two extraterrestrial visitors  are watching Mr. Dingle display his strength for the cameras and are disgusted.  They see that he has not used his power for anything constructive as they had hoped but merely exploited it for his own popularity.  They decide to take his powers away.  Mr. Dingle tells his crowd of onlookers that for his next trick he will lift the entire building with only his hands.  Unfortunately, he has now been stripped of his extraordinary strength and the trick does not work.  Not giving up, he attempts to lift another bar stool out of the floor but this also fails.  He then tries to break another table in half but only manages to almost break his hand in the process.  Finally, desperate for a win, he attempts to punch another hole in the wall but this, too, does not work.  By this time the crowd has turned on Dingle and O’Toole ushers them out the door to spare him the humiliation.
            On their way out of the bar the Martians run into two other outer worldly visitors from Venus.  They have come to Earth to give someone superhuman intelligence and the Martians suggest Mr. Dingle.  They agree and give him intellect five hundred times that of the average human being.  And within moments Mr. Luther Dingle, vacuum cleaner salesman, will take another journey into…the Twilight Zone.

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
“Exit Mr. Luther Dingle, formerly vacuum cleaner salesman, strongest man on Earth, and now mental giant.  These latter powers will very likely be eliminated before too long, but Mr. Dingle has an appeal to extraterrestrial note takers as well as to frustrated and insolvent bet losers.  Offhand, I’d say that he was in for a great deal of extremely odd periods.  Simply because there are so many inhabited planets who send down observers.  And also because, of course, Mr. Dingle lives his life with one foot in his mouth and the other…in the Twilight Zone.

Commentary:

"As Dingle felt consciousness slowly stream back into him he became aware of yet another odd and indefinable sensation. It was a warm tingle that ran through and through him and it lasted for perhaps three or four glowing minutes. The ray of light that shot across the room from the invisible two-headed creature could not be seen by any of the sports enthusiasts, but it had landed directly on Dingle's face and remained on him for several minutes."
                 -"Mr. Dingle, The Strong," More Stories from the Twilight Zone

          It goes without saying here in the Vortex that the screwball comedy episodes, most of which were written by Serling, are not among our favorites.  This is not to suggest that the ideas or even the scripts for these episodes are bad but simply that they would be far more suited to a show like The Jack Benny Program than to  a fantasy program of the darker variety like The Twilight Zone.  The show could jump effortlessly back and forth between dark horror and nostalgic sentimentality because there was, despites many different directors, writers, composers, and performers, always a uniform atmosphere.  By design, the primary goal of situational comedy is to make an audience laugh.  And most episodes of The Twilight Zone are chiefly concerned with the human condition and their intent is to make the viewer think, either through self-evaluation or through reflection of the world around them, or, at the very least, to guess the twist at the end of the episode.  Instead of complimenting each other evenly the two drastically different styles clash and the comedy episodes feel awkward and out of place.
          “Mr. Dingle, the Strong” is no exception to this rule.  Director John Brahm realized that he was making a screwball comedy and simply let the episode poke fun at itself and at the science fiction genre as a whole.  The Martians are decorated like cartoons with ridiculous props (the child Venusians are even worse) and the special effects are silly and cheap (despite the fact that this episode ran over budget).  But this self-effacing attitude does little to save the story which feels quickly written and just awkward. 
          What rescues this episode from being a total failure is a surprisingly good ensemble cast.  This was the only episode to feature a young Don Rickles as the Bettor.  Rickles was on the rise as a stand-up comedian and had just begun appearing on television and in films.  Here he basically plays himself and does a more than convincing job as the oppressive bar patron.  Another noteworthy performance is that of James Millholin as ham television host Jason Abernathy.  His time on screen is quite brief and his role small but he still manages to steal the spotlight for the few minutes that he is on the screen.  But the reason anyone remembers this episode at all is of course because of Burgess Meredith.  What is remarkable about Meredith’s four appearances on The Twilight Zone is that his performances are all completely different despite the fact that three of the four characters that he plays are quite similar in that they are all quiet, meek individuals who tend to be pushed around by everyone else.  Here he is totally believable as the downtrodden Luther Dingle, stuttering and all. 
            While the performances in “Mr. Dingle, the Strong” are themselves quite strong they are not enough to make this a memorable episode.  It seems to be the result of Rod Serling’s legal obligation to churn out eighty percent of the show’s scripts himself which, unfortunately, occasionally produced cheap, uninspired episodes like this one.  Unless you are a Burgess Meredith fan, or a Don Rickles fan, then this episode comes poorly recommended.

Grade: D

Notes:
--Burgess Meredith also appears in three other episodes of the show:  Season One’s “Time Enough at Last,” Season Two’s “The Obsolete Man” and Season Four’s “The Printer’s Devil.”  He also appeared in two episodes of Rod Serling's Night Gallery, "The Little Black Bag" and "Finnegan's Flight."
--James Millhollin also appears in Season One’s “The After Hours” and Season Four’s “I Dream of Genie.”
--“Mr. Dingle, the Strong” was made into a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Tim Kazurinsky.  It was also adapted into a short story by Serling in his collection More Stories from the Twilight Zone (Bantam, 1961).  According to his daughter Anne Serling in her introduction to in the 2013 edition to this book published by CreateSpace, it was based loosely on an unpublished story he wrote called "Old MacDonald."
--During the scene where Burgess Meredith lifts Don Rickles over his head and spins him the stunt double's face can be seen clearly for several seconds. Notice in the photograph as well the empty alien costume in the background.


Up Next: Next in the Vortex we'll stop by a boarding house where a nostalgic old man finds a second chance at life in the form of  an antique radio and the songs of his youth.  Don't miss our review of an often overlooked episode called "Static."  Take care, readers.

--Brian Durant

8 comments:

  1. D??? Are you kidding? This is at least a C for Burgess Meredith if nothing else! I love the picture of the stuntman, by the way.

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  2. I'm hard to please I know but I agree with Brian in that I think D is right on the money and maybe even generous. If a C is average and this episode is a C then that's a pretty low opinion of the show. It's one joke stretched for a half hour with at least one obvious blunder along the way. Meredith deserves better and this episode pales in comparison to the other three which feature him, two of which are classics. I can get behind the love for Meredith but not here. It's the type of episode you enjoy as a kid because it's over the top but can't take seriously when writing a critique of the show years later. I enjoy it for nostalgia only. They should have quit with the comedy already but unfortunately there are more goofball episodes to come.

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  3. I know, I know. I was torn between a D and a C because Burgess is so great in this episode. But if the acting is the only thing saving this episode and the writing and direction aren't even mediocre and if I am trying to be objective then it gets a D for sure. There's just nothing to this episode. I was struggling just to find something to say about it aside from Meredith's performance. I know we are biased against the comedy episodes (so expect more D's and F's when we review them) but they just don't feel right alongside the other episodes. But thanks for the comment, Jack!

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  4. I guess I would grade them as C being an average show rather than an average TZ ep! Graded on a curve, you may be right. But I still love Burgess! He'll always be the Penguin in my head.

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  5. I don't hate Mr. Dingle, which I just watched (for the umpteenth time) a couple of hours ago, but I don't love it, either. Like Mr. Bevis, it's slight but very well made and nicely acted. It's also fun to spot some familiar but not very well known players, such as James Westerfield, as the bartender, and Douglas ("Scotty" from The Thing From Another World) Spencer, in, sad to say, his final acting role, as an alien, but I digress.

    The script is mediocre, the story is hokey but easy to take. Like most episodes of the series it benefits from excellent production values. The biggest downside for me,--and I know I'm way in the minority in this--is my loathing for the way Burgess Meredith was cast in his three half-hour Zones. Meredith was a marvelous actor, had a beautiful voice, and as Dingle, like his Bemis in Time Enough At Last, stutters constantly, which makes his character come across as a moron.

    I can't help but wonder why short guy Serling wrote these episodes for fellow "shorty" Meredith, and they do seem tailor made for this particular actor. At least the Klugman "little man" eps lend his character an air of tragedy, dignity, something other than his just being a down at the heels fellow at the end of his rope.

    It's almost as if, to play armchair shrink for a spell, Serling hated who he was, felt or feared that at the core he was as pathetic as the characters Meredith played. At least Mr. Meredith was given a reprieve of sorts in Printer's Devil, in which his diabolical character seems like a dry run for his Penguin on The Batman series.

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  6. Thanks for commenting, John. I'm okay with Meredith as Luther Dingle and Henry Bemis. He does a great job in both episodes simply because he is a great actor even if he is a bit buffoonish. But his comedic performances are not my favorite offerings from him despite the fact that the Penguin is his signature role--his Devil is a lot like the Penguin now that you mention it. "The Obsolete Man" has always been my favorite of his four appearances on the show so I tend to connect with his dramatic performances a little more I guess.

    As for Serling, I agree with your assessment of his personality. He was pretty hard on himself as a writer, a trait that only increased as he grew older. I think his down-and-out protagonists were definitely an extension of himself.

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  7. Yes, I agree, Brian. Thanks for responding. I sense that about Serling's down and out guys, too. His Nervous Man In The Four Dollar room is downright uncomfortable to watch. As a one time (unsuccessful) author of plays I feel especially attuned to the old man in the mirror trick, as it does feel like Serling talking to Serling, with the tall gangster guy a sort of stand-in for a network suit (or maybe advertiser). To put it in (ho-hum) in Freudian terms it's the ego and superego at war with one another.

    I agree that Meredith was much better in The Obsolete Man, which may be his only real "straight" performance on the Zone. He's very good and sympathetic. The late Fritz Weaver shines, too. That aside, it's one of those way too pedantic for my tastes episodes of the show even as it feels strangely prescient in the cyber-age.

    The thing is, that which was done by edict, fiat, special order from above in Obsolete Man is being done "voluntarily" today, as people are falling all over one another to get the new laps, pads, smart phones and the like. Much of the time I'm the only guy on the bus or subway car who isn't either talking on a phone or texting.

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  8. "The Obsolete Man" has always been one of my favorites despite its flaws. This is mostly thanks to Weaver and Meredith. Fritz Weaver's performance is among my favorites from the series. Serling's dialogue is also spectacular. And I hear you about gadgets being too pervasive in society. Despite being still relatively young, I don't think I share my generation's love of technology. E-readers are handy but I usually stick to used paperbacks when out and about.

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