Thursday, July 31, 2014

"A Hundred Yards Over the Rim"

Christian Horn (Cliff Robertson) on his first trip
in the Twilight Zone

“A Hundred Yard Over the Rim”
Season Two, Episode 59
Original Air Date: April 7, 1961

Christian Horn: Cliff Robertson
Joe: John Crawford
Mary Lou: Evans Evans
The Doctor: Ed Platt
Charlie: John Astin
Martha Horn: Miranda Jones
Woman: Jennifer Bunker
Man: Ken Drake

Writer: Rod Serling (original teleplay)
Director: Buzz Kulik
Producer: Buck Houghton
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
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
Editor: Leon Barsha
Sound: Franklin Milton and Bill Edmondson
Music: Fred Steiner

And Now, Mr. Serling:
“Next week you’ll ride up front in this wagon on a trek west.  Your itinerary is across the Great Plains, over the Rockies, to a point in New Mexico.  And you’ll ride alongside Mr. Cliff Robertson in a strange tale of a handful of American pioneers who made a detour in time and found themselves one afternoon on the fringe of the future.  Our story is called ‘A Hundred Yards Over the Rim’ and believe me, it’s quite a view.  I hope we’ll see you there.”

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:
“The year is 1847.  The place is the territory of New Mexico.  The people are a tiny handful of men and women with a dream.  Eleven months ago they started out from Ohio and headed west.  Someone told them about a place called California.  About a warm sun and a blue sky.  About rich land and fresh air.  And at this moment, almost a year later, they have seen nothing but cold, heat, exhaustion, hunger, and sickness.  This man’s name is Christian Horn.  He has a dying eight year-old son and a heartsick wife.  And he’s the only one remaining who has even a fragment of the dream left.  Mr. Chris Horn…who’s going over the top of a rim to look for water and sustenance.  And in a moment will move into…the Twilight Zone.”

1847. A band of tired, hungry travelers stop to rest somewhere in New Mexico in the middle of a desert that asks for no sympathy and gives none.  This group of dirty but otherwise decent, civilized nomads is fronted by a man named Christian Horn.  Horn and his group set out from Ohio eleven months previous and still have not reached their final destination of California.  They haven’t eaten in days and are short on water.  Horn brings with him his wife, Martha, and an eight year-old son who has grown deathly ill.
Once they are stopped several of the travelers approach Chris.  They tell him that they are hungry and desperate and scared.  They have decided that they want to go back.  Chris tells them that they will surely die if they turn back now.  They say they will die if they spend one more day in this desert.  Chris promises them that he will find water and sets out to look for it.  He wanders over a hill and is startled at what he finds on the other side.  He looks back to his wagons and his friends but they are gone.  He looks forward and sees a sight unknown to him: power lines and a paved highway. 
He wanders into the road as an eighteen-wheeler comes blasting around the corner of a mountain.  Chris jumps out of the way and lands face down in a ditch on top of his rifle causing it to fire a shot that grazes his wrist.  He gets up and continues down the road and comes to a café.  Outside of the café is a man who introduces himself as “Joe.”  He owns the café with his wife, Mary Lou.  Joe initially thinks the man is dressed up as part of a gag or a costume party but realizes after speaking with him that perhaps he is not well.  He takes Chris inside and asks his wife to look at the wound on Chris’s hand.  She bandages it and gives him penicillin to prevent infection.  After some conversation as to who he is and what brought him here Chris sees a Calendar and realizes that he is in the year 1961. 
Later, Joe calls a doctor to come over and examine Chris.  The doctor examines Chris in a backroom of the diner and then comes out to speak with Joe and Mary Lou.  He tells them that although Chris’s story is certainly impossible aside from this Chris seems like a perfectly rational, harmless individual.  But he still decides that Chris should be taken into custody and looked at by a psychiatrist and phones the sheriff.  Chris emerges from the back room holding an encyclopedia in his hands.  He has discovered that his son will one day become a famous doctor who will save many people’s lives.  He thanks everyone for their kindness but says that he needs to get back to where he came from.  The doctor attempts to stop him but fails.  Chris races back up the hill from which he came as a police cruiser trails closely behind him.  While running he drops his rifle on the ground.  He reaches the top of the hill and is relieved to see his friends resting peacefully on the other side.  He looks back but sees only desert, no signs of power lines or highways anywhere.  He walks up to his wife and hands her the bottle of penicillin tablets and tells her to give them to their son.  He remembers that Joe mentioned a water spring close by.
Back in 1961 Joe has discovered Chris’s rifle but only now it looks old and rusted, as if it has been lying in the desert for a hundred years.
In 1847 Chris tells his people that there is water nearby.  He looks lovingly at his wife and promises her that everything is going to be fine from now on.  He takes the reins of his wagon and they start off again.

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
“Mr. Christian Horn.  One of the hardy breed of men who headed west during a time when there were no concrete highways or the solace of civilization.  Mr. Christian Horn and family and party, heading west after a brief detour…through the Twilight Zone.”

            With “A Hundred Yards Over the Rim” The Twilight Zone ventured back into the realm of time travel which it would do again many times before the end of its five season run.  As with the majority of the time travel episodes there is no machinery involved here in escorting Christian Horn through time.  He simply discovers, through contrasting imagery, that he has crossed over into another time. “Walking Distance,” “The Last Flight,” and “Back There”—to name but of few of the myriad time travel episodes—all use this same formula.  On The Twilight Zone the attention was always focused on the psychological transformation of the characters and not so much on the transformation of the world around them.  For instance, almost all of the time travel episodes on the show deal within a time frame that the audience can recognize.  Either the characters travel from the then present 1960’s into the past or vice versa.  They rarely travel into the future which would distract the viewer visually from the characters.  Thus, time travel was used not as a device for scientific exploration but simply as a way to explore the human condition like any other genre of fiction.  It’s interesting to note that the majority of the time travel episodes on the series featured likeable protagonists, ones that the audience would root for.  And it’s usually at a time when their lives are in some sort of turmoil as Chris’s is here. 
            Returning to direct his fourth episode of the show is Buzz Kulik.  Kulik had an acute sensibility for directing episodes with an ethereal quality to them.  His credits so far on the show were “King Nine Will Not Return,”” The Trouble with Templeton,” and “Static,” all from Season Two.  I should point out that these episodes all deal with time travel in some way.  He would go on to direct nine episodes in all including the haunting Season Three classic “A Game of Pool.”  His camera work is minimal.  He instead relies on atmosphere to be the predominant influence in his episodes.  Here he lets the desert play second fiddle to Cliff Robertson.  Although Robertson’s trip from 1847 to 1961 is both instantaneous and unexplainable, both to himself and the viewer, Kulik subliminally attributes the time warp to the desert and all its mysticism.  His work outside the Zone includes a debut stint in the live play productions of the 1950’s and 60’s, episodes of Perry Mason, Gunsmoke, Climax!, Rawhide, and Have Gun—Will Travel, and a lengthy career as a director of high quality made for television films, most notably 1971’s Brian’s Song starring James Cann and Billy Dee Williams.
            It’s interesting to note that this episode was filmed back to back with The Rip Van Winkle Caper which aired the week after.  The episodes were both shot not in New Mexico or Death Valley as the scripts would lead you to believe but outside of Lone Pine, California.  Many of the same set pieces were used in both episodes including the truck which nearly runs Cliff Robertson down (thanks to Martin Grams, Jr.’s book The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic for this info).
             Although Cliff Robertson only appears in two episodes of The Twilight Zone he would forever be associated with the program because his performances are so strong.  Here he portrays a tired and desperate Christian Horn, a man haunted by fatigue, hunger, responsibility, and a diminishing hope for the future.  When he shows up at Joe’s Airflite Café in 1961 he has to struggle not only with the fact that he is in a completely foreign place and time but also with the fact that his rescuers believe he is insane.  In Season Three’s “The Dummy” he has to prove his sanity to others once again as a ventriloquist who believes that his puppet is alive.  It’s one of the most memorable performances in the show’s history.  Robertson was a very intense individual and was known as a method actor who would often bring his character’s troubles with him offstage.  The top hat that he sports in this episode was his idea even though Buzz Kulick is said to have hated it.  Today he is best remembered for his performance as a young John F. Kennedy (he was reportedly Kennedy’s preferred choice for this role) in the 1963 film P.T. 109 and as a developmentally challenged young man in Charly (1968), Ralph Nelson and Stirling Silliphant’s screen adaptation of Daniel Keyes’s 1959 novel Flowers for Algernon. Robertson won an Academy Award for this performance.  He also enjoyed a reoccurring role as the villain Shame on ABC’s live action Batman series from 1966 to 1968.  During the last ten years or so of his life Robertson enjoyed a renewed celebrity for his role as Uncle Ben in Sam Raimi’s Spiderman films.  He died in 2011.   
This episode also featured a young John Astin in a bit role several years before he was cast as Gomez Addams in The Addams Family series. 
“A Hundred Yards Over the Rim” is a simple story but one with a lot of heart and a great performance from its leading star.  It’s an atmospheric episode and one that might take a while to grow on people as it did with me.  But I can recommend it as a good example of what this show did best: taking an ordinary individual and placing them in an extraordinary situation.  The outcome of a person’s trip into the Twilight Zone depended entirely on the person.  If they were a kind, decent individual then their trip would go well and if they weren’t then it would not.  Fortunately for Christian he is a genuinely decent character who the audience can relate to and sympathize with so he makes it through his trip unscathed and with a renewed outlook on life.

 Grade: B

Earl E. Mayan illustration for
"Beyond the Rim" from
"Rod Serling's Twilight Zone Revisited"
(Grosset & Dunlap, 1964)
-Cliff Robertson also appears in Season Three’s “The Dummy.” In 1992, Robertson recorded a reading of Rod Serling's prose adaptation of "Walking Distance" for Harper Audio.
-Buzz Kulik also directed Season Two’s “King Nine Will Not Return,” “The Trouble with Templeton,” “Static,” and “The Mind and the Matter.”  He directed the Season Three episodes “A Game of Pool” and “A Quality of Mercy.”  He directed Season Four’s “Jess-Belle” and “On Thursday We Leave for Home.”
-John Astin appeared in two episodes of Rod Serling's Night Gallery, "Pamela's Voice" and "Hell's Bells," and directed three segments, "The House," "A Fear of Spiders," and "The Dark Boy."
-“A Hundred Yards Over the Rim” was adapted into a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Jim Caviezel.
-"A Hundred Yards Over the Rim" was adapted into a short story (as "Beyond the Rim") by Walter B. Gibson for Rod Serling's Twilight Zone Revisited (Grosset & Dunlap, 1964). 
-The Airflite Cafe is still standing today, although it hasn't been in operation in many years. Check out these cool photos taken by Lee Wallender

 Come back next time as we go on a gold heist with four would-be criminals as they take a prolonged siesta into the future.  This one’s called “The Rip Van Winkle Caper.”  Thanks for reading!

 --Brian Durant

Monday, July 21, 2014

"Long Distance Call"

Lili Darvas and Billy Mumy
"Long Distance Call"
Season Two, Episode 58
Original Air Date: March 31, 1961

Chris Bayles: Philip Abbott
Sylvia Bayles: Patricia Smith
Grandma Bayles: Lili Darvas
Billy Bayles: Billy Mumy
Shirley, the Babysitter: Jenny Maxwell
Dr. Unger: Henry Hunter
Mr. Peterson: Reid Hammond
Attendant: Lew Brown
1st Fireman: Bob McCord
2nd Fireman: Jim Turley
Nurse: Jutta Parr

Writers: William Idelson & Charles Beaumont (from Idelson's 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:
"Next week, Mr. Charles Beaumont and Mr. William Idelson deliver a story on your doorstep with the title 'Long Distance Call.' It's uniquely a flesh and fantasy tale involving a small boy, a toy telephone, and the incredible faith of a child. I hope you're around next week at the usual time, which, depending on where you are, varies, and in the usual place, the one that never varies, the uncharted regions of the Twilight Zone."

Rod Serling's Opening Narration:
"As must be obvious, this is a house hovered over by Mr. Death, that omnipresent player to the third and final act of every life. And it's been said, and probably rightfully so, that what follows this life is one of unfathomable mysteries, an area of darkness which we the living reserve for the dead, or so it is said. For in a moment, a child will try to cross that bridge which separates light and shadow, and of course he must take the only known route, that indistinct highway through the region we call the Twilight Zone."

            Little Billy Bayles receives a toy telephone on his fifth birthday from his doting grandmother. It is apparent that grandmother thinks of little Billy as her own son even though Billy's father, her actual son, is the head of the household in which they all live. Billy's mother seems resentful of the grandmother's doting nature and of the grandmother's attempts to monopolize the young boy's attention.
            Soon after the birthday party, grandmother's health takes a turn for the worse and she succumbs to death. Initially, Billy is saddened by this turn of events. Sometime later, his mother hears him excitedly talking on his new toy telephone. When asked to whom is he talking, Billy tells her that he is talking to grandmother. Though the mother is worried by this behavior, Billy's father tells her that the boy's behavior is simply a make-believe game the boy is playing in order to cope with the death of his grandmother.
            The issue becomes serious when Billy is nearly hit by a passing motorist on the street in front of their home. It turns out that Billy willingly ran out into the road. When asked, Billy says that "someone" told him to run out into the road. Billy's mother fears the worst. When next she sees him talking on his toy telephone, she sneaks up from behind him and takes it. She places the phone to her ear for only a moment before dropping it in horror. She tells her husband that she could hear grandmother on the other end, breathing into the toy telephone.
            Billy, under the impression that his mother has broken his toy telephone, rushes from the house and jumps into a nearby fish pond. He is pulled from the water and medical attendants desperately attempt to keep him alive and breathing when Billy's father performs a final act of desperation. Going into Billy's room, he takes the toy telephone and pleads with his dead mother to spare Billy's young life. The spectral hold of the grandmother relents and Billy is resuscitated.

Rod Serling's Closing Narration:
"A toy telephone, an act of faith, a set of improbable circumstances, all combine to probe a mystery, to fathom a depth, to send a facet of light into a dark after-region, to be believed or disbelieved depending on your frame of reference. A fact or fantasy, a substance or a shadow, but all of it very much a part of the Twilight Zone."

            "Long Distance Call" is the last of the six videotaped episodes of The Twilight Zone to air and it is also the best of the lot. Of all the limitations of videotape the one essential element to the success or failure of a particular episode was the format's limitation in rendering physical scope and scale. The more successful videotaped episodes ("The Lateness of the Hour," "Static" and "Long Distance Call") were intimate in scope, utilizing small casts and simple, interior set design to craft small scale drama similar to successful live television. When required to convey a complex scale, such as an outdoor setting, weather, or an expressionistic, dream-like set ("The Whole Truth,” “Night of the Meek,” or "Twenty Two") the videotape format lacked the necessary balance of photographic effects and versatility of movement required to suit a fantasy-based show. For The Twlight Zone, which was filmed on the backlot at MGM, videotape sometimes hideously betrayed the standing sets, essentially destroying any suspension of disbelief required for the show to be successful. Despite videotape, "Long Distance Call" has aged finely due to a combination of an original and effective, an able cast, and memorable production design.
            Reporting on the creation of the script for "Long Distance Call" is a murky affair. What is known for certain is that William Idelson, a former radio actor then working in real estate and wanting to break into television writing, first got the idea for "Long Distance Call" during his son's second birthday (Idelson would later report, however accurately or not, on the definitive DVD commentary for “Long Distance Call,” that it was his son's third birthday). Idelson's elderly mother gave the young boy a toy telephone. When Idelson later observed his son talking to the grandmother on the toy telephone, the incident sparked his imagination and he subsequently crafted a teleplay entitled "Direct Line." Though Idelson has denied in interviews that there was ever a story or story treatment, Martin Grams, Jr., in his well documented volume, The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic (OTR, 2008), states that Idelson had written a story titled “Party Line” before turning the story idea into a teleplay.
At the time the first script was written, Idelson was friends with Twilight Zone writer Richard Matheson. He gave the script to Matheson for feedback and Matheson, reported to have thought the script possessed potential, proceeded to submit Idelson's script to show producer Buck Houghton.
            What happened next concerning the script is where information from Idelson becomes contradictory. Both Marc Scott Zicree, author of The Twilight Zone Companion (Silman-James, 1992, 2nd ed.) and, to a lesser extent, Martin Grams, Jr., rely on interviews with William Idelson, conducted over a span of several years. Idelson also provided, along with actor Billy Mumy, an audio commentary for the definitive DVD release of the episode. The problem with these sources is that Idelson's story on the creation of the script changes between interviews and again in the commentary. Also, his memory of events do not coincide with verifiable information, particularly about the life of co-writer Charles Beaumont. For instance, Idelson claims that it was Charles Beaumont, not Richard Matheson, the latter of whom had originally submitted the script, that later called Idelson to offer him a partnership in writing the teleplay for production. Idelson, under the impression that he had already submitted a production-ready script, inquired of Beaumont about the fate of the script Matheson had submitted. According to Idelson's recollections, Beaumont explained that Cayuga Productions had lost his script and had asked Beaumont to come in and craft a new one in collaboration with Idelson. In a final effort to retain sole possession of his story property, Idelson offered to provide Cayuga with another copy of the same script Matheson had previously submitted on his behalf. Beaumont, relaying the request to producer Buck Houghton reported back to Idelson that the request was denied. Houghton and show creator Rod Serling liked the idea behind the story but insisted Beaumont be brought in to rework the property with Idelson for production. Idelson relented and submitted to the task of reworking his story with Beaumont for an equal share of the credit and pay. Needless to say, Idelson felt taken advantage of and focused most of the resulting ire on Charles Beaumont.
            The truth is almost certainly more prosaic. Beaumont made a habit of helping friends break into television writing by using his connections in the industry to assist with their first sale. This often required Beaumont to rewrite scripts or expound upon story treatments in order to produce a product ready to go before the cameras. Beaumont had previously helped writer George Clayton Johnson break into writing for the show by submitting Johnson's short stories to Rod Serling ("Execution" and "The Four of Us are Dying"). Beaumont also co-wrote scripts with fellow emerging writers O'Cee Ritch and John Tomerlin. Beaumont was no stranger to collaboration outside of the show either. In the late '50s and into the early '60s, Beaumont collaborated on a number of projects. His first novel, Run from the Hunter (Bantam, 1957), was written in collaboration with John Tomberlin under the joint pseudonym Keith Grantland. He wrote a series of humorous science fiction short stories (centered on a character named Claude) with Texas author Chad Oliver. Beaumont's most frequent collaborator was fellow Twilight Zone writer Richard Matheson. The two writers co-wrote numerous teleplays while perfecting their craft and attempting to break into television. The two writers also collaborated on a feature length adaptation of Fritz Leiber's classic fantasy novel Conjure Wife (Unknown Worlds Magazine, April, 1943) which was eventually filmed as a British production by Anglo-Amalgamated (a production company partnered with AIP in the U.S.) in 1962 as Night of the Eagle (released as Burn, Witch, Burn in the U.S.).
            As far as Beaumont's collaboration on "Long Distance Call" with William Idelson, it is likely Beaumont was brought in to prepare Idelson's treatment for production as it was accepted by producer Buck Houghton under that very condition. After a disastrous campaign calling for unsolicited scripts early in the show’s production, Cayuga Productions was not in the habit of accepting un-agented scripts from writers with no previous writing credits, even if those scripts did come under the recommendation of one of the show's principal writers. Even when Beaumont had earlier managed to sell George Clayton Johnson's stories (another un-agented writer with but a single previous credit) to Buck Houghton, Rod Serling produced the finished teleplay from the initial story treatments. Johnson was now allowed to produce his own teleplay for one of his story treatments until using the story rights as leverage to do so with “A Penny for Your Thoughts” from the second season. Johnson had tried to sell a short story titled "Sea Change" to Buck Houghton only to have the show sponsors consider the story elements too gruesome for the series. Houghton tried to get Johnson to buy back "Sea Change" and instead Johnson bartered with the story that became "A Penny for Your Thoughts" in a successful effort to break into writing teleplays for the series.
Houghton had earlier accepted Beaumont's script of another O'Cee Ritch story eventually to see production as "Dead Man's Shoes." Houghton felt that the script for "Dead Man's Shoes" would not work well as one of the videotaped episodes and thus charged Beaumont the task of reworking Idelson's "Direct Line" script for a videotaped episode which would be slightly reworked and (wisely) re-titled "Long Distance Call."
It is true that Beaumont occasionally borrowed story ideas from his friends and shared pay but not credit. This especially became a habit with Beaumont first when the writer became overwhelmed by writing commitments and again when the writer became severely hindered, beginning in earnest in late 1962, with what is believed to have been early onset Alzheimer’s Disease. In regard to “Long Distance Call,” however, it is much more likely that the notion to bring Beaumont in to rework Idelson’s script was put forward by a member of the production team, the likeliest candidates being Buck Houghton and Rod Serling. This especially makes sense when considering that Richard Matheson, and not Beaumont, was the writer to whom Idelson initially gave his script to submit to Cayuga. It is also true that Idelson’s script was changed little from “Direct Line” to “Long Distance Call” but there were changes made besides the title.
            One very significant change made to the script came at the request of Rod Serling at the time of filming. Again, Idelson's recollection of this script change and how it came to be differs drastically over the years. Idelson initially told author Marc Scott Zicree that Rod Serling didn't like the final speech given by the father into the toy telephone. As originally written, the speech focused on the father and his own relationship with the grandmother. Serling wanted it changed to focus on Billy, the boy fighting for his life in the grip of his dead grandmother. Multiple people from the set, including child actor Billy Mumy, recall that the original scene as written was tried and that the rewrite was done on-set, requiring Mumy, a minor, to work longer than legally allowed. Idelson initially reported that the rewrite was performed there on the set by Beaumont and himself. Later, in an interview included in Martin Grams, Jr.'s book, he claims that the rewrite was performed by Rod Serling and that Richard Matheson, who was not present at the filming of the episode, may also have had something to do with it, essentially removing Beaumont from the scene. Idelson also claimed that, at this time, in early 1961, Beaumont was unable to do the rewrite as a result of his early onset Alzheimer's, which had grown so advanced that the writer was unable even to press the keys on his typewriter. The truth is that Idelson is badly confusing his dates. Beaumont's struggles with his degenerative disease did not begin in earnest until late 1962 and into 1963. Though Beaumont had collaborated on many earlier scripts for The Twilight Zone, he began to farm out his writing commitments for the show in 1963 to Jerry Sohl and John Tomerlin as a result of his disease. In show time, Beaumont basically made it healthily into the fourth season. At the time of the writing, videotaping, and airing of "Long Distance Call," Beaumont was still very much a healthy and active writer for the show. Idelson even goes so far as to later remove Beaumont from his memory of the initial airing of the episode. As initially told to Marc Scott Zicree, Idelson said that Beaumont, Richard Matheson, and fellow writer William F. Nolan (all members of the Southern California Group of writers) were all present at Idelson's home when the show first aired. By the time Idelson came to record the DVD commentary for the episode, he claimed that Beaumont was "a vegetable" in the Motion Picture Country Home at the time the episode aired. Considering Beaumont was not yet even submitting to medical exams until the latter half of 1963, it is impossible that he was confined to the rest home where he would eventually die in 1967 when "Long Distance Call" first aired in March of 1961.
            It is unfortunate that Idelson took liberties with information on the creation of "Long Distance Call" because he felt taken advantage of in not receiving sole credit and pay for the episode as well as the allotted prestige with which the show has aged, as it is now regarded as one of the finest television shows ever to grace the airwaves. Though Idelson would go on to be a highly paid comedy writer for television shows such as M*A*S*H, The Andy Griffith Show, The Odd Couple, and The Dick Van Dyke Show, his inability to render one consistent story on the creation of "Long Distance Call" makes it difficult to properly gauge his contribution to the episode outside of his original story idea and an initial teleplay which may have been used almost entirely without change or which may have been changed a great deal.  
            Whatever the case, a rewrite of the final scene was certainly performed on the set and resulted in a much finer climax for the episode and a showcase for actor Philip Abbott, who portrayed Billy's father and the son of the grandmother. Abbott would appear again in the lackluster fourth season episode "The Parallel."
            Billy Mumy, who appears as Billy Bayles in "Long Distance Call," remains of the most recognizable and fondly remembered actors from the show, and among science fiction fandom, mostly on the strength of the second of his three appearances on The Twilight Zone, the terrifying third season episode "It's a Good Life," in which the angel-faced Mumy plays a God-like young boy with a horrifying grip on his hometown, the only place left on Earth. Mumy also appeared in the excellent fifth season episode "In Praise of Pip," both of which were much juicier roles for Mumy's acting ability though he more than ably portrays the frightfully innocent young boy at the whim of his dead grandmother in "Long Distance Call." Mumy would, of course, go on to even greater fame in the role of young Will Robinson in Irwin Allen's television series Lost in Space (1965-1968).
            For the role of the grandmother, Hungarian actress Lily Darvas was cast. Darvas found fame in her native Hungary and also on the German stage, with Max Reinhardt’s company, before fleeing Germany in 1938 as a result of the persecution of European Jews. Perhaps only because of previous Hungarian actors that found roles as villains in American productions (Bela Lugosi, Peter Lorre, etc.) Darvas's obvious foreign nature contrasts against the utterly American family to create an ominous mood and a disorienting quality to the relationship between the characters. It is highly effective and though Darvas is only on screen for half the episode, she is unforgettable. The viewer can easily imagine the sound of her distinctly accented voice on the other end of the toy telephone.
            Either for creative reasons or simply budget and format limitations, "Long Distance Call" remains a highly subtle but no less effective episode. Rarely does director James Sheldon show anything explicitly in the episode and yet the viewer is able to fill in the scares via their own imagination. Two scenes in particular were purposely cut from the episode for fear of being too strong for television broadcast. The first was the death of the grandmother. As written, she was supposed to die on screen. As taped, she dies off screen and her death is signaled by the cry of the boy, a much more effective choice. The second scene cut was a scene in which Billy Mumy was seen floating face down in the fish pond into which he threw himself at the behest of the dead grandmother. Mumy recalled filming the scene but, as taped, the boy in the pond is only hinted at. By keeping the action subtle and psychologically suggestive instead of explicit, the episode remains as effective as when it first aired. A lot of the episode reminds of the horror film cycle from two decades earlier, also characterized by subtle, off screen scares, shadows, and psychological depth, exemplified in the films of John Braham (later to be a frequent Twilight Zone contributor) at 20th Century Fox (The Lodger, Hangover Square) and the films of producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur (the latter the director of the fifth season Twilight Zone episode "Night Call") for RKO (Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, The Leopard Man).
            A final piece of the production that works for the episode is the set design by art director Robert Tyler Lee, especially in the design of the young Billy's room. The design not only reinforces the idea of Billy's innocence and utter vulnerability but also contrast the extremely happy nature of the boy's room (smiling clowns on the floor, etc.) with the dire nature of the plot, which remains one of the show’s most daring (the suicide of a child as prompted by a ghostly grandmother) outside of Rod Serling's socially charged scripts.
            As was becoming increasingly common for Rod Serling and company, the script for "Long Distance Call" brought about two potential lawsuits for Cayuga Productions, both of which eventually came to nothing but for a time caused considerable trouble for the company. Producer Buck Houghton recalled having to spend considerable time shielding the show, Rod Serling, and the other writers from near constant accusations of plagiarism, most of it coming from writers who had previously submitted manuscripts to Serling's company and had since been rejected. The truth is that "Long Distance Call" is a highly original concept and though the idea of a toy becoming animate or malevolent (most commonly used in relation to a dummy or a doll, i.e. season three's "The Dummy" or season five's "Living Doll") the way in which Idelson used the concept is wholly original.
            The result is a highly personal script from William Idelson (who went so far as to state that the son in the story is his son, and the grandmother his mother) refined by the talents of Charles Beaumont, a fine director, and a talented cast to create an unusually dark and effective episode which, despite its videotape limitations, has remained a substantially creepy endeavor. Though the episode would have benefitted from an original score, the effective use of, mostly, Bernard Herrman's first season music cues lends the appropriate atmosphere. Director James Sheldon also lends the episode some style with innovative use of the videotape format, most obviously displayed in a crane shot near the end of the episode when actor Philip Abbott has collapsed after begging his dead mother for the life of his son.
            "Long Distance Call" is a fine and spooky episode all around. It avoids the kind of hokum that would have aged it poorly aged in view of its fifty plus year status. It remains the finest of the videotaped episodes and proves that although videotape was an unwise endeavor for the show, saving $5,000 an episode or not, the limitations of the format could occasionally be exceeded to produce a quality episode.

Grade: A

-Billy Mumy also appears in the third season episode "It's a Good Life" (again with director James Sheldon) and in the fifth season episode "In Praise of Pip."
-Philip Abbott also appears in the fourth season episode "The Parallel." He appeared in Rod Serling's "Noon on Doomsday," an original drama that was shown on April 25, 1956 on The United States Steel Hour. This drama was infamously censored as it concerned the murder of Emmett Till. Also appearing in the drama were fellow Zone actors Jack Warden, Albert Salmi, and Everett Sloane. 
-Director James Sheldon also helmed the second season episodes "A Penny for Your Thoughts" and "The Whole Truth," as well as the third season episodes "It's a Good Life," "Still Valley" and, with William Claxton, "I Sing the Body Electric."
-Lew Brown appeared in an episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery titled "You Can Come Up Now, Mrs. Millikan."
-"Long Distance Call" was adapted as a Twilight Zone Radio Drama by Dennis Etchison, starring Hal Sparks. 

Next time in the Vortex we chronicle Cliff Robertson's journey forward in time in Rod Serling's Old West meets modern world fantasy "A Hundred Yards over the Rim."
--Jordan Prejean

Bonus: A carousel has been created in memory of Rod Serling and has opened in Serling’s hometown of Binghamton, NY. The rounding boards for the carousel were painted by renowned monster fan, artist, and creator of The Witch’s Dungeon Movie Museum in Bristol, CT, Cortlandt Hull, who crafted the paintings around memorable episodes of The Twlight Zone, including “The Howling Man” and “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.” Read about it here

Friday, July 4, 2014

"The Prime Mover"

The hard truth: Ace Larson (Dane Clark) learns a life lesson
at the hands of Big Phil Nolan (Nedson Booth).

“The Prime Mover”
Season Two, Episode 57
Original Air Date: March 24, 1961

Ace Larsen: Dane Clark
Jimbo Cobb: Buddy Ebsen
Kitty Cavnaugh: Christine White
Big Phil Nolan: Nedson Booth
Sheila: Jane Burgess
Trucker: Clancy Cooper
Hotel Manager: Robert Riordan
Desk Clerk: William Keene
Croupier: Joe Scott

Writer: Charles Beaumont (teleplay based on an unpublished story by George Clayton Johnson).
Director: Richard L. Bare
Producer: Buck Houghton
Associate Producer: Del Reisman
Production Manager: Darrell Hallenbeck and 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: Jack Boyer
Casting: Ethel Winant
Editor: Bill Mosher
Sound: Franklin Milton and Charles Scheid
Music: Stock

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:
“Portrait of a man who thinks and thereby gets things done.  Mr. Jimbo Cobb might be called a prime mover, a talent which has to be seen to be believed.  In just a moment, he’ll show his friends and you how he keeps both feet on the ground…and his head in the Twilight Zone.”

            Ace Larson is co-owner and co-operator of the Happy Daze Café along with his pal Jimbo Cobb.  Tired of slaving away with nothing to show for it, he longs to strike it rich and then ask Kitty, a waitress in the sleepy little diner, to marry him.
            While closing up one night Ace and Jimbo hear the sounds of a wreck outside on the highway.  They race outside and see that a car has skidded off the road and smashed into a power supply unit.  It lies upside down on live electrical wires.  Not knowing what else to do, Jimbo uses his secret telekinetic ability to flip the car back over on its wheels, safe from the sparking wires.  Ace looks at Jimbo as if he has just walked on water.  Later, in the rented room they share, Ace asks him how he was able to move the car without touching it.  Jimbo reluctantly tells him that he has always been able to move things without actually touching them.  But he says he gave up his special gift when he was a kid after he began experiencing terrible headaches.  Ace insists that he demonstrate, much to Jimbo’s irritation.  Jimbo lifts his bed off the ground almost to the ceiling and then sets it back down exactly in its place, without laying a finger on it.  Dumbfounded, Ace tosses dice onto the bed and tells Jimbo to make him roll a seven.  He does.  Ace can’t believe that his friend has kept this talent a secret all these years while they were stuck working in their miserable diner.  He sees a failsafe opportunity to make a fortune.  He picks up the phone and calls Kitty.
             The next night Ace and Kitty and Jimbo are in Las Vegas at a roulette table.  Ace wagers his money wildly and he gets strikes it rich every time, thanks to Jimbo.  A few hours into their winning streak Jimbo tells Ace that his head is killing him so the trio go up to their hotel room so he can recuperate.  It’s there that Jimbo tells Ace that he does not want to cheat anymore because it is beginning to weigh on his conscience.  Kitty agrees and tells Ace that she wants to go home.  Ace tells them that they only need one more big score and then they can quit.  Kitty tells him that he has already won more money than he could possibly need and that his desire to earn extra cash in order to better himself has turned into a perverted obsession.  She storms out of the hotel. Jimbo urges him to chase after her.
            While chasing her Ace runs into Sheila, a waitress at the casino.  Angry and insecure over the way Kitty has abandoned him, he asks Sheila if she wants to go with him for a night on the town.  She gives him an ecstatic “yes.”
            The next day Ace sets up a dice game in his hotel room with a man named Phil Nolan, a notorious gambler with deep pockets and even deeper ties to the mob.  With Jimbo’s help, Ace wins every hand and Nolan suspects foul play from the get-go and he lets Ace know about it.  After a few hours of playing Ace goes for the big score and bets all of his money on one play.  At this moment Sheila walks into the hotel room and Jimbo, having apparently not known about her until now, looks disappointed with his friend.  He urgently tries to get Ace’s attention but to no avail.  Ace does not want his friend’s advice at the moment.  He only wants to roll an eleven.  And he needs Jimbo to help him do it.  He throws caution to the wind and rolls the dice, confident that he will get an eleven.  But to his astonishment he rolls a three.  Dumbfounded, he stares at the dice while Nolan and his goons take his money and politely let themselves out.  Jimbo tells Ace that he was trying to get his attention to tell him that he “blew a fuse,” that his power no longer worked.
            Back at the café days later, two service men take away the slot machine that sits in the front of the restaurant.  Ace no longer has the desire to gamble.  He and Kitty seem to have made up and all is well. In a spur of the moment act of valor, Ace clumsily asks Kitty to marry him.  She gives him an enthusiastic “yes.”  During Ace’s proposal, Jimbo accidentally drops a broom.  Without making a big deal of it, Jimbo secretly lifts the broom off the floor using only his eyes and a sly grin.  He looks over at the two lovers lost in each other’s eyes and smiles to himself as a finishes sweeping up for the night. 

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
“Some people possess talent, others are possessed by it.  When that happens the talent becomes a curse.  Jimbo Cobb knew, right from the beginning.  But before Ace Larson learned that simple truth, he had to take a short trip through the Twilight Zone.”

            Like the episode that preceded it, “Static,” which was written by Beaumont based on a story by friend OCee Ritch, “The Prime Mover” is also a Beaumont script based on someone else’s work.  This time the source material came from fellow Twilight Zone contributor George Clayton Johnson.  At this point the only work that Johnson had sold to the show were two unpublished short stories during the first season, “All of Us Are Dying” (changed to “The Four of Us Are Dying” for the show) and “Execution,” both of which were adapted by Serling.  Although his first original teleplay for the show, “A Penny for Your Thoughts” had already aired earlier in the season, Johnson actually sold “The Prime Mover” to Beaumont before that episode was filmed.  As he recounts in an interview on the Season Five DVD set Charles Beaumont was overloaded with work at the time and flat out asked him if he could buy his story “The Prime Mover” and adapt it for the show.  Wanting desperately for his work to make it to the screen in any capacity Johnson agreed immediately.  Beaumont paid him six hundred dollars for the story (the standard five hundred dollar fee that the show paid for source material plus an extra hundred) with the agreement that Johnson would also receive onscreen credit.  When the episode aired, however, it was credited solely to Beaumont.  Houghton insisted that this was a production error and apologized to Johnson, promising that his name would be placed on the episode when it appeared in syndication.
            Secretly attaining help from other writers would unfortunately become a crutch for Beaumont as the show went on and he became increasingly overwhelmed by his obligations to it.  By the end of the fourth season the episodes credited to Beaumont were being scripted almost entirely by friends who were being paid in secret as the ailing writer succumbed to the illness that would eventually take his life.  But for now he appeared simply to have too much on his plate and seemed to enjoy collaborating with friends.  It must be noted here that while he was submitting teleplays to The Twilight Zone Beaumont was also selling scripts to numerous other programs.  He was also scripting screenplays and shelling out short stories and essays to various publications at an astonishing pace, not to mention writing a thoroughly-researched novel which was turned into a film which he wrote and starred in.  So it goes without wonder as to why he called upon the assistance of friends from time to time. 
            Although telekinesis has a long-standing lineage in fantasy fiction, “The Prime Mover” is the only episode of The Twilight Zone that deals with the phenomenon.  While there are other characters in The Twilight Zone that exhibit telekinetic abilities, like the humanoid aliens in Season Five’s “Black Leather Jackets,” Old Ben in Season Three’s “The Fugitive” (another Beaumont script) and the charming Anthony Fremont in Season Three’s “It’s a Good Life,” these characters actually display a wide variety of superhuman abilities, beyond just telekinesis, and the episodes hinge more around the type of people they are rather than their extraordinary powers.
             The performances here are solid particularly that of Dane Clark as the cartoonishly stubborn but likeable Ace Larson.  Although Buddy Epson wasn’t known to the world as Jed Clampett in 1961 he still would have been recognizable to an audience mostly as a star of westerns.  It was less than a year after this episode aired, however, that he was cast in the role that would immortalize him in popular culture.
             It's no surprise that Johnson, who had written the original script for the 1956 Rat Pack film “Ocean’s 11,” would be interested in writing another script about Vegas and gambling.  According to Johnson, Beaumont changed the names of the characters and various other nuances about the story but kept the basic idea and plot structure.  The end result is something that does not register as distinctly Charles Beaumont or George Clayton Johnson but something that could have been written by either of them or even by Rod Serling.  It’s a good, solid script with likeable characters that fits the format of the show perfectly. 

Grade: B

--Richard L. Bare also directed the episodes “Third from the Sun,” “The Purple Testament,” “Nick of Time,” “To Serve Man,” “The Fugitive,” and “What’s in the Box?”
--Dane Clark appeared in an episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery titled "Spectre in Tap Shoes."
--Buddy Ebsen appeared in an episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery titled "The Waiting Room."
--Christine White also appeared in Season Five’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.”
--Nedson Booth also appeared in Season One’s “Escape Clause.”
-- This episode was adapted into a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring David Eigenberg.
--Producer Buck Houghton previously worked with Dane Clark on the television series Wire Service (1956-1957). 

Up Next: Next time we take a trip into the fifth dimension with the parents of a small boy who adores his grandmother and wants to be able to talk to her whenever he feels like it.  Let's just say it'll make you want to screen your phone calls from now on.  Come back next time when we review "Long Distance Call."  Thanks for reading, and good night.
--Brian Durant