Thursday, March 23, 2017

"The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank"

Mr. Jeff Myrtlebank (James Best): declared dead three days ago.

“The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank”
Season Three, Episode 88
Original Air Date: February 23, 1962

Cast:
Jeff Myrtlebank: James Best
Comfort Gatewood: Sherry Jackson
Doc. Bolton: Edgar Buchanan
Mr. Peters: Dub Taylor
Pa Myrtlebank: Ralph Moody
Ma Myrtlebank: Ezelle Poule
Liz Myrtlebank: Vickie Barnes
Orgram Gatewood: Lance Fuller
Ma Gatewood: Helen Wallace
Reverend Siddons: William Fawcett
Strauss: Jon Lormer
Jerry: James Houghton
Tom: Patrick Hector
Mrs. Ferguson: Mabel Forrest

Crew:
Writer: Montgomery Pittman (original teleplay)
Director: Montgomery Pittman
Producer: Buck Houghton
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Director of Photography: Jack Swain
Art Direction: George W. Davis, Phil Barber
Set Direction: H. Web Arrowsmith
Assistant Director: E. Darrell Hallenbeck
Casting: Stalmaster-Lister
Editor: Bill Mosher
Story Consultant: Richard McDonagh
Sound: Franklin Milton, Bill Edmondson
Music: Tommy Morgan

And Now, Mr. Serling:
“A symbol of a sad but rather commonplace event. An impressive funeral, the deceased laid out in a most acceptable manner, but in this case, at the last moment deciding that in matters concerning the trip to the great beyond, perhaps this trip wasn’t necessary. You’ll see it next week on The Twilight Zone when we present Montgomery Pittman’s ‘The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank.’

“Very often when you write for a living, you run across blocks. Moments when you can’t think of the right thing to say. Now, happily, there are no blocks to get in the way of the full pleasure of Chesterfield. Great tobaccos make a wonderful smoke. Try ‘em. They satisfy.”

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:
“Time? The mid-twenties. Place? The Midwest. The southernmost section of the Midwest. We were just witnessing a funeral. A funeral that didn’t come off exactly as planned…due to a slight fallout…from the Twilight Zone.”

Summary:

            On a sunny afternoon somewhere in the Midwest, the residents of a quiet, forgettable town cram themselves inside a tiny church to pay their respects to one Jeff Myrtlebank, a kind soul taken from the world too soon. As the reverend recites the eulogy, the townsfolk begin to notice something strange about the wooden coffin housing Mr. Myrtlebank’s remains at the front of the room. It begins to creak, to move, and before anyone has time to process what is happening, it opens all by itself and a man inside sits straight up and looks directly at the congregation. This is Mr. Jeff Myrtlebank. He has been dead for three days. The church-goers flee the room, screaming.
         Myrtlebank makes his way outside. His friends and family remain in shock and keep their distance from him. Doc. Bolton explains to him that he pronounced the young man dead two days ago after his pulse failed to register. Myrtlebank says he feels just fine. He notices the apprehensive way everyone is looking at him. He attempts to approach his mother and father but they back away in terror. Comfort Gatewood, his sweetheart, also seems troubled by his unexpected return. After assuring everyone that he is fine, Myrtlebank and his family leave for home.
            Over the next few weeks the townsfolk begin to speculate about Jeff Myrtlebank. They say he’s acting strange, different than before. Doc. Bolton claims that Myrtlebank was dead beyond any doubt when he pronounced him as such. It’s not long before the talk turns to otherworldly things. Perhaps Myrtlebank is not who he says he is. Maybe it’s some sort of specter just pretending to be Myrtlebank. A haint. What if it aims to take over the whole town? After coming to the conclusion that there is an evil spirit living in their town that must be stopped at all costs, a mob of angry townsfolk drive out to the Myrtlebank place.
Myrtlebank is there with Comfort. The townsfolk tell him that they want him to leave town and never come back. He tells them that if indeed he is an evil spirit with supernatural abilities then they should probably refrain from upsetting him. The crowd appears not to have thought of this possibility. Myrtlebank tells them that he and Comfort are getting married. The townsfolk abruptly change their tone and seem delighted by the news. After they leave Comfort witnesses Myrtlebank light a match without striking it on anything. He offers her his arm and tells her not to imagine things. She smiles and they walk quietly into the night.

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
“Jeff and Comfort are still alive today. And their only son is a United States Senator. He’s noted as an uncommonly shrewd politician, and some believe he must have gotten his education…in the Twilight Zone.”

Commentary:

            “The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank” marks the end of Montgomery Pittman’s brief time in The Twilight Zone. He directed a total of five episodes of the show, three of which—“Two” “The Grave” and “Jeff Myrtlebank”—he also wrote, making him the only person to write and direct his own material. Unfortunately, this was one of the last projects he ever completed. Cancer would claim his life in June of this same year, only four months after this episode first aired. Pittman’s output is so minimal that his contribution to the show often goes unnoticed, which is unfortunate. His skill as a storyteller can be seen in every aspect of production from story to dialogue to character names to casting. His direction is unique to every episode as is his writing. In just three teleplays he displays enormous versatility delivering a sensitive post-apocalyptic love story, a horror western, and a comedy about a hillbilly being possessed by the devil. One of his scripts features only a few lines of dialogue while the other two function almost exclusively around it. The Twilight Zone seemed to be the appropriate arena for Pittman’s unconventional personality after five years under contract to Warner Bros. Television, bouncing from one series to the next. It was a show that would permit creative experimentation and would not attempt to alter his material, a problem he had encountered several times before. His most recognizable contribution to the show was directing Serling’s season two classic “Will the Real Martian Please Stand up?” While none of his own teleplays for the show ever achieved this level of fandom, all three are solid pieces of dramatic television. More importantly they adhere to the personality of the show. Had he lived and contributed more we might consider Pittman a key figure in the show’s legacy. Instead, he exits the show’s story only a few months after entering it, his episodes recognizable to the vast majority of the show’s fanbase but his name familiar to virtually no one.
Montgomery Pittman
           Pittman is an odd figure in The Twilight Zone’s history. He seems to have appeared out of nowhere at the end of the second season, was enormously productive for a short period of time, and was suddenly gone. Relatively little is known about his early life. His recorded biography is compiled largely of hazy second-hand stories and exaggerations. He was not part of the close community of fantasy writers that made up the bulk of the show’s writing pool and he wasn’t really a recognizable face in Hollywood either. In addition to being the only writer/director the show ever employed, his style of storytelling is unique and his episodes have a strange quality that is hard to describe. And considering that he only directed five episodes he ended up working with a significant roster of performers who would go on to enormously successful careers, likely due in some part to their appearance on The Twilight Zone—Elizabeth Montgomery, Charles Bronson, Lee Marvin, Strother Martin, Lee Van Cleef, and James Best, among others.
            I found only three biographical essays with significant amounts of original material while researching Pittman’s work. Everything else seems to be taken from one or more of these works. The first biographical sketch comes from actor Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. who dedicates an entire chapter of his career memoir My Dinner of Herbs (2003) to his friendship with Pittman. Zimbalist played womanizing private detective Stuart Bailey in ABC’s 77 Sunset Strip, of which Pittman wrote and/or directed twenty episodes, by far his most significant contribution to a single show. The second essay is a tribute to Pittman from Sugarfoot actor Will Hutchins written in 2013 for his column “A Touch of Hutch” for the website Western Clippings. Probably the most informative resource was a piece written in 2010 by television historian John Desmond called “A Somewhat Forgotten Figure to Some Extent Remembered: Notes on Television Director, Script Writer, and Occasional Actor Montgomery Pittman” for Bright Lights Film. Desmond was able to locate many of Pittman’s teleplays, archival news articles written about his work, and inner-office memos in the Warner Bros. Archives at the University of Southern California. He also interviewed Zimbalist and Hutchins several times. The first two memoirs focus on Pittman the man while Desmond spends most of his article analyzing Pittman’s work in television, specifically his contribution to the western genre, citing Pittman’s efforts to push the television western into a mature and authentic arena alongside its big screen counterpart.
Pittman was born in Louisiana—although the city is apparently unknown—in 1917 and later moved with his family to either Oklahoma or Arkansas—again, accounts vary but he may have lived in both states. While still a teenager he left home to sell snake oil in a traveling medicine show. After a stint in the military he settled in New York City to try his hand at acting. It was here that he met actor Steve Cochran (season one's "What You Need") who persuaded Pittman to move to Los Angeles by promising him a job as caretaker of his house. Pittman continued to pursue acting in California, landing bit roles in films like The Enforcer (1951) and Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison (1951). By the mid-fifties, however, he had turned his attention to writing. He found initial success in the live dramas of the time including three teleplays for Schlitz Playhouse in 1954 where he first worked with Buck Houghton. In 1956 he signed with Warner Bros. Television and began writing for ABC, usually for westerns shows like Cheyenne, Sugarfoot, Lawman, and Maverick or for police dramas like Hawaiian Eye and Surfside 6. Pittman wrote several low budget films during this time, the most successful of which is probably Come Next Spring (1956) which starred Steve Cochran and Ann Sheridan and featured Sherry Jackson, Edgar Buchanan, and James Best in supporting roles. He also co-wrote a Tarzan film with Lillie Hayward called Tarzan and the Lost Safari in 1957.
Pittman’s transition into directing was born largely from his disapproval at having his material altered by others. As a director Pittman understood the audience’s relationship with the camera and its influence on the atmosphere of a story. In episodes like “The Grave” and “Dead Man’s Shoes” he saturates scene after scene with high-contrast lighting and peculiar camera angles to draw the audience’s attention to the atmosphere before they know the story or even the characters. This immediately establishes the personality of the episodes, both of which are slightly derivative in terms of plot, and allows Pittman the freedom to be a bit campy in certain scenes because he has established a relationship with the viewer. In episodes like “The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank,” however, or his post-apocalyptic love story “Two,” he lets the characters move the story along, even when they aren’t even speaking. "Jeff Myrtlebank" also features several moments where Pittman uses the camera to give the scene an unsettling atmosphere. The shot of Myrtlebank rising up out of the coffin in the opening scene is highly effective. Pittman combines close ups of the lid opening slowly at first then faster with abrasive music to give the audience the same sense of sudden shock that the characters are experiencing. The fight between Myrtlebank and Orgram is also shot really well.
Pittman also had an eye for casting. Stalmaster-Lister was the agency responsible for casting the show’s third season but according to Lamont Johnson the director still had a significant authority in the casting process. Pittman’s episodes, particularly the three he wrote himself, featured amazing casts with actors who would go on to major careers in film and television.
It is his writing, however, that is likely his strongest skill as a storyteller. In “Two,” probably the best of his writing efforts on the show but only by a narrow margin, Pittman successfully narrates a believable relationship between two strangers with only a few lines of dialogue in the entire episode. His dialogue increases with each episode, however, and by this third teleplay the characters have quite a bit to say and it’s the dialogue that moves much of the episode along. His episodes also feature characters playing against stereotypes. In “Two,” Elizabeth Montgomery is the aggressor not the brutish Charles Bronson. In “The Grave,” Pittman presents the audience with a traditional western scenario, a hired gunman—the hero—chasing a wanted fugitive—the villain. But later in the episode he suggests, through harsh criticism from the supporting characters, that said hero is perhaps a coward, or perhaps not. He leaves it ambiguous. As of this writing his Twilight Zone scripts have yet to be published. The reason for this remains a mystery.
His ear for character names is also noteworthy. Pinto Sykes, Johnny Rob, Mothershed, Steinhart, Comfort and Orgram Gatewood, Jeff Myrtlebank. Creating memorable character names is a difficult task and Pittman makes it look effortless. Even if you only see “The Grave” or “The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank” once, you are not likely to forget most of these names because they are entirely appropriate for both the character and the actor.
During the third season there was a noticeable attempt on the show to feature stories that showcased rural settings, particularly those in the American South, a region largely absent from the previous seasons. Serling penned two episodes set during the Civil War: “The Passersby” and “Still Valley,” his adaptation of Manly Wade Wellman’s story, “And the Valley Was Still.” Wellman was a highly regarded folklorist and historian who set a great deal of his fiction in the Blue Ridge Mountains. He also adapted the light-hearted fable “Hocus Pocus and Frisby” from a story by Frederic Louis Fox. Season three also introduced writer Earl Hamner who would go on to create The Walton’s a decade or so later. Hamner’s first episode “The Hunt,” about an elderly hunter who drowns attempting to rescue his beloved hound dog, takes place in the rural mountains of Virginia, where Hamner was born and raised, and he portrays the region as honestly as possible. Unfortunately, “The Hunt” was poorly translated to the screen due largely to uninspired direction and miscasting. It plays a bit awkward and even culturally insensitive at times. With “The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank” Pittman had the advantage of casting and directing the episode himself. As a result the dialect and mannerisms are completely authentic to rural southern culture.
This was largely achieved by casting actors from the south. Lance Fuller (Kentucky), Dub Taylor (Virginia), Ralph Moody (Missouri), and most importantly Kentucky-born actor James Best who appeared in Pittman’s earlier episode “The Grave” and would later appear in Earl Hamner’s hour-long episode “Jess-Belle” during season four. Although he will forever be remembered as bumbling Hazzard County Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane from The Dukes of Hazzard, Best was an extremely talented and prolific actor of stage and screen. Due to his native southern dialect he was often cast in westerns including a small role in Arthur Penn’s The Left-Handed Gun (1958). He also appeared in Raoul Walsh’s adaptation of Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (1958). His television resume includes practically every popular western series from 1950 to 1970. He did make several appearances on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and in a famous episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, “The Jar,” based on the story by Ray Bradbury. Anxious and intense, and delivering a spot-on accent, Best nails the role of Jeff Myrtlebank. Pittman’s script calls for a handful of absurd expressions—“I could eat the hide right off a bear”—that would sound ridiculous coming from anyone else. Best understands Pittman’s humor and his performance carries a sense of free-spirited spontaneity.
The supporting cast is equally impressive. Edgar Buchanan gives a fantastic performance as the small town doctor. Buchanan starred in dozens of western films and series during his career but is remembered mostly as Uncle Joe from Petticoat Junction and Green Acres. Dub Taylor is also incredible here as angry and suspicious Mr. Peters. Not surprisingly, Taylor was also a regular in western films for most of his career. He appeared in a string of films directed by Sam Peckinpah including The Wild Bunch (1969), The Getaway (1972), and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973). He was also one of the wisecracking bar patrons in Back to the Future Part III (1991). His most well-known role was as Ivan Moss in Bonnie and Clyde (1967), the father of C.W. who helps stage the ambush that leads to the deaths of the outlaw couple.
Sherry Jackson, who plays Myrtlebank’s love interest Comfort Gatewood, is actually Pittman’s stepdaughter. Pittman met her mother, Maurita Gilbert Jackson, through his friendship with Steve Cochran. Pittman frequently worked with friends and family. Buchanan, Best, and Taylor had all worked with Pittman several times before. Maurita co-wrote several teleplays with Pittman for 77 Sunset Strip. Sherry Jackson was a child actor when Pittman met her in the early 1950’s. She achieved notoriety as the daughter of Danny Thomas in Make Room for Daddy from 1953 to 1958. She also appears in the Star Trek episode “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” written by Robert Bloch. Pittman frequently cast her in his films.
Providing the slightly bizarre harmonica soundtrack for this episode is Tommy Morgan. Morgan is a highly regarded harmonica player who made his living scoring films and television series, mostly westerns. His playful melody adds an extra layer of humor to the action of the episode. His music can also be heard in “Hocus Pocus and Frisby” and the season five episode “Mr. Garrity and the Graves.”
“The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank” is not a universally recognized episode of the show nor is it Pittman’s best effort. But it’s definitely worth a few viewings for anyone who has never seen it. Some reviewers have read an underlying didacticism in this episode but I don’t think that was Pittman’s angle. I think he simply wanted to tell an entertaining story. Pittman was a novice in the world of fantasy but he seems aware of his limitations. He kept his plots simple and let the characters and the camera tell the story. His final contribution to the show is an appropriate one for it bears all the hallmarks of his brand of storytelling. It’s weird, it’s overflowing with black humor, it plays with a familiar thematic structure, and it ends ambiguously. Myrtlebank does have some type of otherworldly ability but Pittman leaves it at that. The audience never really finds out what happened to him.
In 1962, Pittman, an avid cigar smoker, suddenly and rapidly developed a large tumor on the side of his neck. He had it removed but the cancer had already spread. He died on June 26 at the age of 45. During a brief but productive career Pittman explored all the avenues of the filmmaking process. He managed to take creative control of his material—a rare luxury in the television industry, especially during the early years of its existence—and sought, with mild success, to intellectualize the television western. The Twilight Zone was Pittman’s first major creative venture outside of westerns and detective shows. It was perhaps the first time he was given total creative freedom. The result is a small handful of episodes which bear the mark of a natural storyteller.

Grade: B

Grateful acknowledgement to:

“A Somewhat Forgotten Figure to Some Extent Remembered: Notes on Television Director, Script Writer, and Occasional Actor Montgomery Pittman” by John Desmond (Bright Lights Film, October 31, 2010)

“A Touch of Hutch” by Will Hutchins. (Western Clippings, January, 2013.)

My Dinner of Herbs by Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. (Lighthouse, 2003)

Dimensions Behind the Twilight Zone by Stewart Stanyard (ECW Press, 2007)


Notes:
--Montgomery Pittman also wrote and directed the season three episodes “Two” and “The Grave.” He also directed Serling’s “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” for the second season and “Dead Man’s Shoes” written by Charles Beaumont and OCee Ritch for the third season.
--James Best also appeared in Pittman’s episode “The Grave” and in Earl Hamner’s season four episode “Jess-Belle.”
--Ralph Moody also appeared in a first season segment of Night Gallery called “Little Black Bag” adapted by Serling from a story by C.M. Kornbluth.
--Ezelle Poule also appeared in season two’s “The Howling Man.”
--Jon Lormer also appeared in the season one episode “Execution,” the season two episode “Dust” and season four’s “Jess-Belle.”
--As I mentioned, Pittman’s Twilight Zone scripts have yet to be published.
--Download the Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Robert Knepp

--Brian

6 comments:

  1. Of all the new pieces of information I learned reading this article, the most surprising was that Ralph Moody is from Missouri! I thought he was British due to his role in Oliver! Nice work. Losing Pittman at a young age was a real shame.

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    1. Yep, he is from St. Louis. Pittman's untimely death is definitely a tragedy. He had a natural ability as a storyteller and seemed like an interesting guy. It dawned on me while I was writing this that three of the show's primary writers died at a young age. For a show with such a short writing pool that seems like a lot.

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    2. The guy who was in Oliver! was Ron Moody, definitely British.

      Ralph Moody, old, craggy, and definitely American, with long tenure in Jack Webb Repertory.

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  2. Pittman was a terrific asset to MAVERICK also, as was another key TWILIGHT ZONE contributor, Douglas Heyes. Both directed their own scripts on that series as well.

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Hal. It was fortunate for us that the television medium often afforded talented guys like Pittman and Heyes to have at least nominal creative control over their material, as both were talented writers and directors. Although I haven't seen their work on Maverick, I know that when Heyes went over to Karloff's Thriller it really turned that show around into the classic we remember today, with a little help from producer William Frye, of course.

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  3. Ralph Moody, Ron Moody--no wonder I get confused.

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