Monday, September 11, 2017

"Hocus-Pocus and Frisby"

Somerset Frisby (Andy Devine) on his biggest adventure yet,
a journey into the Twilight Zone

“Hocus-Pocus and Frisby”
Season Three, Episode 95
Original Air Date: April 13, 1962

Cast:
Somerset Frisby: Andy Devine
Alien #1: Milton Selzer
Alien #2: Larry Breitman
Alien #3: Peter Brocco
Mitchell: Howard McNear
Scanlan: Dabbs Greer
Old Man: Clem Bevans

Crew:
Writer: Rod Serling (based on an unpublished story by Frederic Louis Fox)
Director: Lamont Johnson
Producer: Buck Houghton
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens and Jack Swain
Art Direction: George W. Davis and Merrill Pye
Set Direction: Keogh Gleason
Makeup: William Tuttle
Assistant Director: E. Darrell Hallenbeck
Editor: Bill Mosher
Sound: Franklin Milton and Bill Edmondson
Casting: Robert Walker
Music: Tom Morgan

And Now, Mr. Serling:

“As it happens to all men, a newcomer takes his first step into the Twilight Zone next week when Mr. Andy Devine joins us for a show called ‘Hocus-Pocus and Frisby.’ He plays the role of a storekeeper of the cracker barrel variety who stretches the truth like most people pull on taffy. This one is for laughs and for the congenital liars amongst you. Next week, Mr. Devine, ‘Hocus-Pocus and Frisby.’”

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:

“The reluctant gentleman with the sizable mouth is Mr. Frisby. He has all the drive of a broken cam shaft and the aggressive vinegar of a corpse. As you’ve no doubt gathered, his big stock in trade is the tall tale. Now, what he doesn’t know is that the visitors out front are a very special breed, destined to change his life beyond anything even his fertile imagination could manufacture. The place is Pitchville Flats. The time is the present. But Mr. Frisby is on the first leg of a rather fanciful journey into the place we call…the Twilight Zone.”

Summary:

            Somerset Frisby is an aging small-town yokel who spends his days lazily manning his quiet general store, playing his harmonica, and entertaining the locals with extravagant tales of a life well lived. Taken at his word, Frisby has been a war hero, an accomplished government engineer, and a meteorologist—Old Cumulus Frisby, they called him—to list just a few of his former occupations. His friends don’t believe a word of his fantastical claims but listening to them passes the time just the same.
            While closing up his shop one evening, two men in suits drive up to buy gas. Frisby walks out to greet them. They seem inquisitive and slightly peculiar but Frisby brushes it off as the curiosity of out-of-towners just passing through.
            After the shop is closed and everyone has gone home Frisby hears a voice. Believing it is a prank, he plays along. The voice tells him to walk outside and travel a mile or so down the highway where he will find a great surprise. Before he can make the journey, however, he is whisked away to a barren field where he discovers a spaceship waiting quietly for him. Curious, he climbs inside and finds the two men in suits from earlier.
They believe Frisby to be the most accomplished human being to ever live and they want to take him back to their planet to be studied and marveled. Frisby tells them that his stories are mostly lies, tale tales made up to entertain and pass the time. He demands that the aliens release him at once. They refuse his request so Frisby punches one of them. To his horror the man’s face breaks into several pieces before falling off completely revealing a bizarre figure beneath.
Later, Frisby begins to play his harmonica out of boredom. The creatures immediately clamp their hands over their ears and begin to scream. Frisby plays as loud as he can and the aliens are forced to release him.
Frisby races back to his store and is surprised to find his friends waiting for him. Today is Frisby’s 63rd birthday. He tries to tell them about the spaceship and the aliens but his story is met with good-natured laughs and jeers. They simply wish him a happy birthday and thrust a box into his hands. He opens it to find a trophy inside with the inscription: World’s Greatest Liar.

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:

“Mr. Somerset Frisby, who might have profited by reading an Aesop fable about a boy who cried wolf. Tonight's tall tale from the timberlands of the Twilight Zone.”

Commentary:

            “Hocus-Pocus and Frisby” is Rod Serling’s whimsical adaptation of an unpublished story treatment by Frederic Louis Fox which itself is a twentieth century take on “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” fable as Serling mentions in his closing monologue. This was actually the second Fox story that Serling adapted for the show, the first being “Showdown with Rance McGrew” which aired in February of the same year. Like its earlier counterpart, “Hocus-Pocus and Frisby” has an interesting premise and begins promisingly enough, with an all-star cast and a well-crafted opening sequence, but quickly loses its momentum after the first act. It manages to redeem itself with a light-hearted final scene where Frisby is reunited with his friends who obviously care a great deal about him but by this point the episode has become more or less forgettable. This is unfortunate for several reasons but mostly because it proves a missed opportunity for veteran director Lamont Johnson and a highly talented ensemble cast.
            Frederic Louis Fox (1902 – 1981) enjoyed a fairly successful career as a television writer during the medium’s golden age, contributing primarily to western series such as Lawman, Zane Grey Theatre, Branded, Rebel, and Bonanza among others. His film career was a bit more sporadic but it did produce a handful of feature-length titles including the 1956 crime drama When Gangland Strikes, the 1969 Elvis Presley vehicle Charro! and director Gerd Oswald’s 80 Steps to Jonah (1969), featuring Twilight Zone alumni Keenan Wynn and Mickey Rooney. One of his earliest screen credits was a 1954 Joe McDoakes short film called So, You Want to Be a Banker? which was directed by frequent Twilight Zone director, Richard L. Bare.
In The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic (OTR Publishing, 2008) author Martin Grams, Jr. writes that after completing the script for “Showdown with Rance McGrew” Serling sent a copy to Frederic Louis Fox as a gesture of good will. Fox wrote back complementing Serling on a fine script and attached to his letter a paragraph-long story treatment titled “Mister Tibbs and the Flying Saucer.” In Fox’s story an aging service station owner named Henry Tibbs dreams of traveling the world but is trapped in his small town. Instead, he constructs elaborate imaginary adventures and tells them to his regular customers. Unbeknownst to Tibbs, his fantastical tales are being broadcast on Martian radio. One day he is contacted by a Martian who wants to pay him for his worldly adventures. He asks instead for a trip around the world in a space ship. Upon his return home he learns that he has been awarded first place in the town Liar’s Contest. Dismayed, he decides not to tell people about his trip because he knows they would not believe him. Instead, he keeps a souvenir from his adventure in his home as a secret reminder to himself.
Serling liked the story and promptly wrote back saying that he would be interested in adapting the short treatment into an episode of The Twilight Zone. Overall he remained relatively faithful to Fox’s story. His decision to nix the idea of the main character’s rants being broadcast on Martian radio was a smart one as it makes the plot tighter and easier to follow. It was also smart to have Frisby’s friends bestow upon him the title of World’s Greatest Liar instead of the local paper as it establishes that he has a healthy social life and makes him a likable character despite his tall tales. Most of the other changes—the title and character names—are mainly for stylistic preference.
            This episode has traditionally not received high marks from fans or reviewers. While it has its share of sore spots it is not without its own personal charm. Serling begins his script with a fantastic opening act, full of witty tongue-in-cheek banter from an interesting set of characters played by a remarkable cast. Frisby is an immensely likable character from the moment he appears on screen and the close community of tough-talking friends he surrounds himself with seems natural and welcoming.
It’s the second act that I think loses a lot of people. The audience is abruptly transported from a warm, familiar environment to one that is cold and totally alien to them—no pun intended. The juxtaposition between the sleepy Midwestern town with its charmingly cantankerous peanut gallery and the confines of the alien vessel is obviously intentional on Serling’s part but it simply does not transition well on the screen. It almost feels like two different episodes, not vastly so but to the extent that it loses the audience’s attention and never fully earns it back. The other weak spot of the second act is the rather cartoonish faces of William Tuttle’s alien masks. Tuttle of course was an enormously talented makeup artist and industry legend who provided the show with a number of memorable designs but unfortunately these simplistic masks are not among them.
The cast is really what makes this episode memorable. The opening and closing scenes feature a handful of talented character actors which many will recognize from various television and film roles. Dabbs Greer, who plays Scanlan, the loudest of Frisby’s skeptics, was an immensely prolific actor. His profile on the Internet Movie Database lists over three hundred acting credits on both the small and big screens in every genre imaginable. Among his more well-known television credits are appearences on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Outer Limits, Perry Mason, and Gunsmoke and roles in genre classics like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), House of Wax (1953), and the Jerome Bixby-penned It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958). He capped his film career off with a moving performance in The Green Mile in 1999.
Howard McNear is probably the most familiar face in the supporting cast thanks to his role as Floyd the Barber on The Andy Griffith Show. His other television credits include episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Thriller. His film career includes appearance in Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1960).
            Milton Selzer is probably best known to Twilight Zone fans for his fantastic performance as the greedy son-in-law in season five’s “The Masks.” Selzner was often cast in similar roles playing unlikable characters with overtly pathetic qualities. He seems a bit out-of-place in this episode though. His performance here seems wooden and doesn’t really do the second act of the episode any favors. Selzer later appeared in Buzz Kulik’s 1963 screen adaptation of Whit Masterson’s novel The Yellow Canary which was written by Rod Serling.
           The most memorable thing about the episode of course is veteran character actor Andy Devine as the lovable but highly flawed protagonist Somerset Frisby. Devine’s career goes back to the era of silent films and at the time that this episode originally aired he was one of the biggest names to appear on the show. Commonly recognized by his signature raspy voice and heavy figure he was told repeatedly as a young actor that he would never have a career as a performer. Similar to Frisby, Devine is remembered by those close to him as a loud, lovable prankster who liked to be the center of attention. He was even known for bending the truth to get a reaction from people. For instance, he often told interviewers that he earned his scratchy drawl from a childhood accident in which a curtain rod became lodged in his throat. Several biographers have dismissed this as barely more than a fabrication and Devine’s son said it was one of several stories he used to explain his raspy voice.
Devine was often cast in westerns, usually as the quirky comedic relief but he did occasionally play more serious characters. Over the course of his six decade career he worked with some of most highly acclaimed directors in cinema history. His first major role was as Danny McGuire in the 1937 version of A Star is Born directed by William A. Wellman. Devine would work with Wellman numerous times throughout his career. He also appeared in films made by John Huston, George Stevens, James Whale, Michael Curtiz, Jacques Tourneur, and Victor Flemming. He appeared in five films made by John Ford including Stagecoach (1939) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). He also appeared in ten films with Roy Rogers as his sidekick, Cookie. His unique voice also landed him a career as a voice artist. He worked extensively in radio, most notably for NBC’s The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, which would eventually make the transition to television delivering 112 episodes from 1951 to 1958. He also voiced Friar Tuck in Disney’s Robin Hood (1973) and provided the voice for the rooster in the famous Kellogg’s Corn Flakes commercials during the 1970’s. Frederic Louis Fox originally suggested Ed Wynn for the role of Somerset Frisby and Wynn would have undoubtedly delivered a fine performance. Devine, however, was perfect for the part and is easily the best thing about the episode.
Lending this episode an appropriately nonchalant personality is renowned harmonica player Tommy Morgan. Morgan's career spans over six decades and he is considered one of the most important harmonica players of all time, contributing to a countless number of projects in virtually every medium. As a session musician he has worked with Elvis Presley, the Beach Boys, Johnny Cash, Randy Newman, Ray Charles, and dozens of others. He has composed music for dozens of television series including Gunsmoke, The Waltons, Green Acres, The Rockford Files, and Family Guy. His filmography includes Blazing Saddles, Cool Hand Luke, and How the West was Won. He has also recorded solo albums and written books and instructional guides to playing the harmonica. Morgan also composed the music for "The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank" and "Mr. Garrity and the Grave" and can also be heard on the soundtracks for the episodes "Dust" and "The Big Tall Wish" which were written by close friend Jerry Goldsmith.
            While we will likely never see “Hocus-Pocus and Frisby” crack any top ten lists it certainly isn’t a terrible episode. Fox’s story is charming and Serling’s script is full of witty dialogue far better than most of the banter found in the lighter episodes. This one deserves at least one viewing for those who have never seen it and for the naysayers perhaps even a second viewing if only to discover the quaint and pleasant charm that they may have missed.


Grade: C


Grateful acknowledge is made to:

The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic by Martin Grams, Jr. (OTR Publishing, 2008)

The Joe Franklin Show, Interview with Andy Devine conducted by Joe Franklin (1976)

www.mohavemuseum.org/andy.html

www.tmorganharmonica.com

www.filmmusicsociety.org/news_events/features/2008/121108.htm


Notes:

--Milton Selzer also appeared in the season five episode “The Masks.”
--Howard McNear also appeared in the season four episode “The Bard.”
--Dabbs Greer also appeared in the season four episode “The Valley of the Shadow.”
--Peter Brocco also appeared in the season one episode “The Four of Us Are Dying.” He later appeared in a segment of Night Gallery written by Rod Serling called “Deliveries in the Rear” during the show’s second season. He also played “Mr. Mute” in “Segment II” of Twilight Zone: the Movie (1983) directed by Steven Spielberg and based on George Clayton Johnson’s season three episode “Kick the Can.”
--This episode is one of many to feature the spaceship from MGM’s Forbidden Planet (1956).
--This episode also features a camera shot very similar to the famous opening shot of the earlier season three episode "To Serve Man."

--Check out the Twilight Zone Radio Drama featuring the late comedy legend and “The Mind and the Matter” star Shelly Berman.



--Brian

5 comments:

  1. I recall this episode fondly but your critique is on target. Good article!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Jack. I have a soft spot for this one too but if I'm being objective it's not a great episode. It's worth at least a viewing though.

      Delete
  2. I like the episode better than you guys due to having first seen it on what was likely its initial broadcast. Andy Devine sells it for me. Those old-time actors who play his friends also help put it over. There's a genuine warmth to it. I agree that they might have handled the aliens and their ship better but the idea of the harmonica as an instrument of torture for the aliens amuses me even as an adult several decades after I first saw it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I really do like the episode because I enjoy Andy Devine in anything. The rest of the cast is fantastic as well. But it does have its flaws. It wouldn't be an episode I would recommend to people unfamiliar with the show.

      Delete
  3. That's a nice way to put it, Brian. As I think on it, I agree that Hocus-Pocus wouldn't be a good intro to the Twilight Zone. Actually, an excellent one for the newbie is the first on they broadcast: Where Is Everybody? I never, never tire of it, and I always find something new to enjoy or focus on every time I watch it. The last time it was literally the time: on Earl Holliman's watch, the places he visits, the tropes used to suggest the passage of time, his frantic button pushing at the traffic light.

    ReplyDelete