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

Cast:
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

Crew:
Writers: William Idelson & Charles Beaumont 
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."

Summary:
            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 grandma. 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 and takes it from him. 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 while Billy's father performs a final desperate act. 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."

Commentary:
            "Long Distance Call" is the last of the six videotaped episodes of The Twilight Zone to air and also the best of the lot. Of all the limitations of videotape the one essential 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," "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 complex scale, such as an outdoor setting or weather ("The Whole Truth,” “Night of the Meek,” "Twenty Two") the videotape format lacked the necessary balance of photographic effects and versatility of movement required for a fantasy-based show. For The Twlight Zone, which was filmed 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 premise, an able cast, and memorable production design.

William Idelson
            William Idelson (1919-2007), 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 third birthday party. Idelson's mother gave the young boy a toy telephone. When Idelson later observed his son play-talking to grandma on the toy telephone, the incident sparked his imagination. He sat down and wrote a story titled "Party Line" before adapting the story into a teleplay titled "Direct Line." 
Idelson was friends with Twilight Zone writer Richard Matheson and gave the script to Matheson for feedback. Matheson was enthusiastic about the script's potential and submitted the script to Twilight Zone producer Buck Houghton on Idelson's behalf.
            What happened next concerning the script is unfortunately where information from Idelson becomes contradictory. Both Marc Scott Zicree, author of The Twilight Zone Companion (1982), and, to a lesser extent, Martin Grams, Jr., author of The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic (2008), rely on interviews with Idelson conducted across a span of several years. Idelson also provided, along with actor Bill Mumy, an audio commentary for the definitive DVD release of the episode. The problem 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 concerning events in life of co-writer Charles Beaumont. 
            Idelson stated that soon after Richard Matheson submitted "Direct Line" to the series on Idelson's behalf, Charles Beaumont called Idelson to offer him a partnership in writing the teleplay for production. Beaumont at the time was contractually obligated to provide five teleplays to the series. The final teleplay he submitted, "Dead Man's Shoes," in November, 1960, written with and based on a story by Beaumont's friend OCee Ritch, was intended to be the final videotaped episode. Producer Buck Houghton, however, was unsatisfied with the script and its potential on videotape and elected to push production of "Dead Man's Shoes" back so that the script could be rewritten and the episode filmed. The result was that the show needed another script. They had Idelson's "Direct Line" in hand and were interested in producing it as the final videotaped episode but wanted rewrites to be performed before the script was ready to go before the camera. Houghton asked Beaumont to do the rewrites with Idelson.
            Idelson, under the impression that he had submitted a production-ready script, had no desire to rewrite his script, work with Beaumont, or to share credit and pay for the sale. According to Idelson's recollections, he inquired of Beaumont about the fate of the script Matheson had submitted. Beaumont explained that Cayuga Productions had lost Idelson's 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 Rod Serling liked the idea behind the story but insisted Beaumont be brought in to rework the story with Idelson. Idelson relented and submitted to the task of reworking his story with Beaumont for an equal share of the credit. Needless to say, Idelson felt taken advantage of and focused most of the resulting ire on Charles Beaumont.

            Beaumont helped 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 expand upon story treatments in order to produce a production-ready work. Beaumont helped writers George Clayton Johnson and OCee Ritch break into writing for The Twilight Zone by submitting Johnson's stories to the series ("Execution," "The Four of Us are Dying") and co-scripting works with Ritch ("Static," "Dead man's Shoes"). Beaumont did run into some trouble when it came to co-scripting the episode "The Prime Mover" with Clayton Johnson, based on Johnson's unpublished story, when the episode aired with credit given only to Beaumont. 
            After a disastrous campaign calling for unsolicited scripts early in the show’s production, Cayuga Productions did not accept scripts from writers with no agent and no previous writing credits, even if those scripts came with a recommendation from one of the show's principal writers. Bringing Beaumont on to perform rewrites of Idelson's script was simply a way for the series to ensure a quality work. Even when Beaumont had earlier managed to sell George Clayton Johnson's stories (another writer without an agent and with but a single prior credit) to the series, the stories were accepted on condition that Rod Serling produce the finished teleplays from the initial story treatments. Johnson was not given the opportunity to produce his own teleplay for one of his story treatments until using the story rights as leverage to do so. Johnson had sold a story titled "Sea Change," about a man whose severed hand grows a body and attempts to destroy him, to the series only to have the show's sponsor consider the story too gruesome. Producer Buck Houghton tried to get Johnson to buy back "Sea Change" and instead Johnson bartered with the story that became "A Penny for Your Thoughts" under the agreement that Johnson would buy back "Sea Change" if he be allowed to write the teleplay for "A Penny for Your Thoughts." Johnson went on to write such episodes as "A Game of Pool," "Kick the Can," and "Nothing in the Dark." 
It is true that Beaumont occasionally collaborated with friends and shared pay but not credit. This first became a practice with Beaumont when the writer became overwhelmed by writing commitments and later when he became severely hindered, beginning in late 1962, with what is believed to have been early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease. William Idelson's problem with working with Beaumont was unrelated to this, however, as Idelson was given credit onscreen and in Rod Serling's preview narration. Idelson was simply irked that his script was to be accepted only under the condition that he work with another writer to rework the material and share credit for the story. However contentious the condition under which the script for "Long Distance Call" was created, the result is one of the show's most tightly-written, disturbing, and ultimately redemptive tales. 

            One significant change made to the script came at the request of Rod Serling at the time of filming. William Idelson told author Marc Scott Zicree that Serling did not 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 the dead grandmother. The original scene as written was tried and proved largely ineffective. A rewrite by Idelson and Beaumont was performed on-set, requiring Billy Mumy, a minor, to work longer than legally allowed. Idelson initially reported that the rewrite was performed on-set by Beaumont and himself but later, in an interview included in Martin Grams, Jr.'s book, claimed that the rewrite was performed by Rod Serling and that Richard Matheson 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. Idelson confused his dates in an attempt to minimize Beaumont's role in the creation of the episode. Beaumont's struggles with the degenerative disease did not begin in earnest until late 1962 and into 1963. Though Beaumont had collaborated on several 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 declining health. In terms of show time, Beaumont was basically healthy through the third 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 went so far as to later remove Beaumont from his memory of the airing of the episode. As initially told to Marc Scott Zicree, Idelson stated that Beaumont, Richard Matheson, and fellow writer William F. Nolan were 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 did not even submit to medical exams until the summer of 1963, and was not entered into the Motion Picture Country Home until March of 1965, it is impossible that he was confined to the rest home when "Long Distance Call" aired in March of 1961.
            It is unfortunate that Idelson felt taken advantage of in not receiving sole credit and pay for the episode and that his experience on the show was not an altogether pleasant one. Idelson went on to become 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. He also scripted the 1963 science fiction thriller The Crawling Hand based on his original story, but again was forced to share writing credit with director Herbert L. Strock and two additional writers.   
            
            Bill Mumy (b. 1954), who portrayed Billy Bayles in "Long Distance Call," remains one of the most recognizable and fondly remembered actors from the series, chiefly 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 Mumy plays a God-like boy with a horrifying grip on a small town. Mumy also appeared in Rod Serling's excellent fifth season episode "In Praise of Pip" alongside Jack Klugman. Mumy went go on to even greater fame in the role of young Will Robinson on Irwin Allen's television series Lost in Space (1965-1968). Mumy returned to The Twilight Zone in the second reincarnation of the series when he appeared in "It's Still a Good Life," a sequel to the original series episode, in 2003.

            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 Nazi persecution of European Jews. The doting nature of Darvas's character creates 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.

            "Long Distance Call" is a subtle but very effective episode. Rarely does director James Sheldon show anything explicit in the episode, electing instead to allow the viewer to fill in the details. Two scenes in particular were cut from the episode for fear of being too strong for television at the time. The first was the death of the grandmother. As written, she was 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 cut scene was one in which Billy Mumy was seen floating face down in the fish pond into which he threw himself at the suggestion 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 today as when it first aired. 
            A final piece of the production that works exceptionally well for the episode is the set design by art director Robert Tyler Lee, especially the design of Billy's room. The design not only reinforces the idea of Billy's innocence and vulnerability but also contrasts the 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 in its approach to the suicide of a child as prompted by a ghostly grandmother. Billy's room is also the perfect stage for the all-important climactic scene in which the father, played by Philip Abbott, pleads into the toy telephone for the life of his son. 

            As was unfortunately becoming increasingly common for Rod Serling and company, the script for "Long Distance Call" brought about two potential plagiarism lawsuits against Cayuga Productions, both of which eventually came to nothing but for a time caused 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, many of which came from writers who had previously submitted unsolicited manuscripts to the series and had since been rejected. Some episodes, such as Charles Beaumont's "Miniature" and Rod Serling's "Sounds and Silences" were for years kept out of syndication due to litigation introduced against the series. "Long Distance Call" is a highly original concept and though the idea of a toy becoming animate or malevolent is a commonly used story trope, the way in which William Idelson used the concept was 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, remains a substantially creepy offering from the series. Though the episode would have benefited from an original score, the effective use of, mostly, Bernard Herrman's first season music cues lends the appropriate atmosphere. Director James Sheldon also gives 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 to spare the life of his son.
            "Long Distance Call" is a fine episode all around. It avoids the kind of hokum that would have aged it poorly and remains the finest of the videotaped episodes, proving 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

Notes:
-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 directed 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 starring Hal Sparks. 
       
--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

3 comments:

  1. Wow--an A! A rare grade. This was an excellent article on this episode. Would you recommend buying the Grams book? I looked at it a few years ago but it was so expensive I never bought it. His book on the Hitchcock show is sloppy but has a lot of info available nowhere else.

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  2. Lili Darvas, who played Grandma in "Long Distance Call", was once the wife of Ferenc Molnar, the great Hungarian playwright, whose masterpiece "Liliom" was adapted by Rodgers and Hammerstein into the marvelous musical "Carousel". (Coincidentally or not, "Carousel" also deals with a person reaching out from beyond the grave to affect the life of someone they loved -- in that case, a father to a daughter). When "Carousel" premiered in New York in 1945, Rodgers and Hammerstein invited Darvas to attend the opening night. When the show was over, they asked her if she had enjoyed it. "I liked it very much", she said. "It will be a great success. But the difference between your show and my husband's play is the difference between the American and the European temperaments. You ended your show with the song 'You'll Never Walk Alone'. Ferenc's message in 'Liliom' was that we ALWAYS walk alone".

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    1. Thanks, Thomas, that's very interesting. And it lends another perspective to the episode. I've always felt it was a strange/interesting touch to cast a European as the grandmother. There was, certainly at this time, a stark difference between the American and European temperaments, although The Twilight Zone presented its share of melancholy, if not outright pessimistic, episodes. That quality is sometimes overlooked by the casual viewer.

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