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 (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."

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 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."

Commentary:
            "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

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 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

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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