Monday, December 11, 2017

"Young Man's Fancy"

The late Mrs. Henrietta Walker (Helen Brown)
“Young Man’s Fancy”
Season Three, Episode 99
Original Air Date: May 11, 1962

Cast:
Virginia Lane Walker: Phyllis Thaxter
Alex Walker: Alex Nicol
Mr. Wilkinson: Wallace Rooney
Henrietta Walker: Helen Brown
Young Alex Walker: Ricky Kelman

Crew:
Writer: Richard Matheson (original teleplay)
Director: John Brahm
Producer: Buck Houghton
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Art Direction: George W. Davis and Phil Barber
Set Direction: H. Web Arrowsmith
Assistant Director: E. Darrell Hallenbeck
Casting: Stalmaster-Lister
Editor: Jason H. Bernie
Story Consultant: Robert McDonagh
Sound: Franklin Milton and Bill Edmondson
Music: Nathan Scott
Rod Serling’s Wardrobe: Eagle Clothes
Filmed at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios.

And Now, Mr. Serling:

“Next week through the good offices of Mr. Richard Matheson, we tell you a story of a young man’s fancy which is kind of a euphemistic description of a mortal combat between the living and the dead, between the present and the past. Between Miss Phyllis Thaxter and Mr. Alex Nicol. The battleground is this old house and its front door will be open to you next week...on the Twilight Zone.”

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:

“You're looking at the house of the late Mrs. Henrietta Walker. This is Mrs. Walker herself, as she appeared twenty-five years ago. And this, except for isolated objects, is the living room of Mrs. Walker's house, as it appeared in that same year. The other rooms upstairs and down are much the same. The time, however, is not twenty-five years ago but now. The house of the late Mrs. Henrietta Walker is, you see, a house which belongs almost entirely to the past, a house which, like Mrs. Walker's clock here, has ceased to recognize the passage of time. Only one element is missing now, one remaining item in the estate of the late Mrs. Walker: her son, Alex, thirty-four years of age and, up till twenty minutes ago, the so-called perennial bachelor. With him is his bride, the former Miss Virginia Lane. They're returning from the city hall in order to get Mr. Walker's clothes packed, make final arrangements for the sale of the house, lock it up and depart on their honeymoon. Not a complicated set of tasks, it would appear, and yet the newlywed Mrs. Walker is about to discover that the old adage 'You can't go home again' has little meaning in the Twilight Zone.”

Summary:

            Alex Walker and his wife Virginia are newlyweds about to start a life together. Virginia desperately wants to move somewhere new and start fresh. Alex is more reluctant. He wants to move into his childhood home to be around familiar things and warm memories, many of which include his late mother. Virginia cannot wait to sell the house and get out from under the scrutiny of her late mother-in-law, whose disapproval haunts Virginia even after her death.
          A real estate agent stops by the house with closing papers but Alex refuses to sign. Virginia is livid but does her best to remain calm so she can convince her husband to change his mind. However, Alex’s behavior has become increasingly neurotic. He rambles incoherently about his childhood. He wanders off without a word. She finds him several times in his old room, rummaging through childhood clothes and toys, speaking almost as if she were not there.
          However, there is another problem. Bizarre things are happening in the house. Henrietta’s record player turns on by itself, her favorite song under the needle. The grandfather clock, broken for many years, begins to chime. Virginia finds fresh baked brownies in the living room. Appliances are scattered inexplicably throughout the house. Virginia can feel Henrietta Walker’s presence in every room silently watching her.
           She decides to leave the house immediately. She makes one final attempt to persuade Alex to leave with her. On the way to his room, however, she sees Mrs. Henrietta Walker, recently deceased, standing at the top of the stairs, blocking her path. Virginia tells her that she is going to take Alex away from this horrible place and rid him of her influence. But, as she says this, Alex appears at the top of the stairs beside his mother. He tells Virginia that she is not wanted there and that she should leave. Then, in the blink of an eye, Alex is a child again. Little Alex takes one last look at his wife and then he and Henrietta disappear into his bedroom. Virginia races down the stairs and out the front door.


Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:

“Exit Miss Virginia Lane, formerly and most briefly Mrs. Alex Walker. She has just given up a battle and in a strange way retreated, but this has been a retreat back to reality. Her opponent, Alex Walker, will now and forever hold a line that exists in the past. He has put a claim on a moment in time and is not about to relinquish it. Such things do happen in the Twilight Zone.”

Commentary:

            Richard Matheson’s third and final teleplay for the third season was this bizarre and unsettling take on childhood nostalgia. Much like Reginald Rose’s season four episode “The Incredible World of Horace Ford,” Matheson uses “Young Man’s Fancy” to comment on society’s obsession with nostalgia and the longing for the freedom and blissful naiveté of youth. Instead of indulging in this fantasy he turns it on itself by souring the euphoria with an unsettling twist ending. In “Horace Ford,” Rose comments on our need to indulge in nostalgia by showing us that the past is not always the utopia we remember it to be. Here Matheson makes a similar statement by showing us that our lifelong obsession with wanting to remain young is perhaps not a healthy way to live.
            “Young Man’s Fancy” is an enjoyable episode but is not one of Matheson’s better efforts on the show. The twist in the final scene is fairly effective but the rest of the episode feels a bit slow and the shock element of the ending wears thin after repeated viewings. While none of his third season episodes are particularly terrible—a testament to his ability as a writer—Matheson’s three teleplays for this season are among the least memorable of the fourteen he wrote for the show. Ironically, Matheson probably enjoyed his most successful creative streak during seasons four and five, which many fans consider to be significantly weaker than the previous three seasons.
            “Young Man’s Fancy” looks and feels like a Richard Matheson story as it contains many of the traits that are closely associated with his fiction. By this point in his career Matheson was known for breaking established genre boundaries. Instead of adhering to the standard trappings of horror and fantasy, where characters were emotionally disconnected from the audience and the action was always a safe distance away in a world that was more or less unrecognizable to real people, Matheson placed his characters in a contemporary environment, one familiar to his audience. His characters dressed the way his readers did and spoke to one another in simple, natural conversation. Instead of setting a horror story in an isolated location far removed from the real world Matheson placed it in the neighbor’s house or at the office.
            Matheson was particularly adept at portraying twentieth century American domesticity with stark realism. Much of his early fiction centers on marriage or family interaction. In the introduction to his Collected Stories (Gauntlet Press, 2003) Matheson writes that being the child of immigrants drastically impacted his childhood. His parents moved to the United States from Norway, separately, when they were both very young. Neither spoke English or knew much about American culture so they learned to create emotional barriers between themselves and their unfamiliar environment. Each grew up believing any outside influnce to be a potential threat. This belief system continued even after they were married with three children. This was only amplified by the fact that Matheson’s father left when he was still very young. As a result Matheson and his two siblings and their mother established an extremely tight family unit in which there was rarely room for anyone outside of the family.
Apprehension towards the outside world and its unwanted influences would become the central idea running throughout nearly all of Matheson’s fiction, particularly in regards to relationships and family affairs. In many of his short stories, such as “Trespass,” “Mad House,” “Dying Room Only,” and “Button, Button,” and novels like The Shrinking Man (Gold Metal Books, 1956) and What Dreams May Come (Putnam, 1978), the protagonist’s marriage is threatened by an outside force, often by exploiting a weakness in the relationship. In a variation of this theme, one similar to “Young Man’s Fancy,” his stories “First Anniversary” and “The Wedding” both feature couples whose marriages are threatened by a spouse who turns out to be different then how he or she appears. Matheson admitted that for many years he was intimidated by the idea of marriage despite the fact that he was married at a fairly young age and remained so until his death at the age of 89. His Twilight Zone episodes “A World of His Own,” “Nick of Time,” and “Spur of the Moment” all fall under the same thematic umbrella as this episode.
Lewis Allan's The Uninvited 
           Matheson’s original ending was different from the one that made it to the screen. In his teleplay Virginia does not leave as quickly and instead follows young Alex and his mother into his bedroom, which looks exactly as it did when Alex was a boy. As she stares in disbelief the room begins to transform back into its present form. Alex and Henrietta are gone as are all of Alex’s clothes and toys. There was never a specific reason given as to why this scene was cut but it can be assumed that it was likely due to time or budget restraints. Curiously, Matheson did not seem to be bothered by the omission of this scene, which is a better ending than the one seen in the episode. His only real issue was that the mother was not scary enough. He wanted her sudden appearance on screen to be a surreal experience for the audience because until this point they had made it through almost the entire episode without ever seeing one of its main characters. He envisioned more of a shadowy, ghost-like figure similar to a famous scene in Lewis Allan’s 1944 film The Uninvited.
            The ending is still fairly effective and director John Brahm films Helen Brown in a way that manages to capture the surreal atmosphere of the moment, slowly panning up the stairs from Virginia’s point of view. It is the preceding twenty or so minutes that keep this episode from being more memorable. Not a lot happens in the episode. Having the house gradually transform around Virginia throughout the episode is a clever idea but one that is difficult to put on the screen. Since the audience has no frame of reference—no way of knowing what the house looked like while Henrietta was alive—they must rely on Phyllis Thaxter’s reactions in order to understand what is happening. Despite the fact that she delivers a great performance this gimmick begins to grow stale before the truth is revealed in the final scene.
             Thaxter was a prolific character actress during the middle of the twentieth century, mostly in supporting roles. She was, for many years, married to infamous television executive James Aubrey, who was responsible for cancelling many historically acclaimed television series, including the immensely popular anthology series Playhouse 90. Thaxter's film roles include Bewitched (1945), Come Fill the Cup (1951), and Superman (1978). She also appeared on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour nearly a dozen times. 
             Alex Nicol is equally as impressive as the apprehensive Alex Walker. Nicol was a character actor who appeared mostly in low budget western films. He did appear in supporting roles in several more prominent westerns including Anthony Mann's The Man from Laramie (1955) and Jacques Tourneur's A Great Day in the Morning (1965). He also tried his hand at directing during the fifties and sixties. Matheson said in several interviews that while he enjoyed Nicol's performance he thought that Nicol looked far too old for the part of a 34 year-old newlywed. He was 47 when this episode was filmed.
            Nathan Scott composed original music for two episodes of The Twilight Zone, the other being the first season episode "A Stop at Willoughby." Scott was an immensely prolific composer who worked mainly in film and television. Today he is remembered for composing the music to nearly every episode of Lassie over an eleven year stretch and for his work on Dragnet and Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple (1985).
            An enjoyable but ultimately unmemorable episode, "Young Man's Fancy" feels like a good idea that was stretched a bit too thin for a twenty-four minute production. While the acting, direction, music, and script are all very well done, this one does not quite hold up to the usual Twilight Zone standards.

Grade: C

Grateful acknowledgement to:

-Richard Matheson’s The Twilight Zone Scripts Vol. 1 edited by Stanley Wiater (Gauntlet Press, 2001)

-Richard Matheson: Collected Stories edited by Stanley Wiater (Gauntlet Press, 2003)

-The Twilight and Other Zones: The Dark Worlds of Richard Matheson edited by Stanley Wiater, Matthew R. Bradley, and Paul Stuve (Citadel Press Books, 2009)

Notes:

-- Wallace Rooney also appeared in the season two episode “The Rip Van Winkle Caper” and the season four episode “In His Image.”
--Nathan Scott also composed the music for the season one episode “A Stop at Willoughby.”
--John Brahm directed 11 episodes of The Twilight Zone, more than any other director. He is also the only director to work on all five seasons of the show. Among his credits are the season one episodes “Mirror Image” and “The Four of Us Are Dying” the season two episode “Shadow Play” and the season four episode “The New Exhibit.”
--Richard Matheson wrote 14 episodes of The Twilight Zone and had two of his short stories adapted into episodes by Rod Serling. He also wrote 3 of the 4 segments of Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983). He adapted his short story “Button, Button” for an episode of the 1980’s revival of The Twilight Zone during the show’s first season but was unhappy with the segment and removed his name from it using his pseudonym, Logan Swanson, instead. He adapted an unpublished story by Rod Serling called “The Theatre” for the NBC television special Twilight Zone: Rod Serling’s Lost Classics in 1994. And he co-edited The Twilight Zone: The Original Stories with Martin Harry Greenberg and Charles G. Waugh (MJF, 1985).
--Be sure to check out the Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Tony Plana.

-Brian

3 comments:

  1. Good work. I like Phyllis Thaxter a lot but I don't remember this episode at all.

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    1. Thanks, Jack. Other than her role in Superman, I actually wasn't really familiar with Thaxter before researching this episode. I did notice that she was in nine episodes of AHP/AHH. That seems like a lot. You're certainly the expert, did anyone else appear on that show more than that?

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  2. I don't know if this is a testament to this episode's quality or lack thereof, but according to Martin Grams' TZ book, this episode went the longest from film dates to air date, even longer than the pilot. It was filmed in June 1961 and originally aired in May 1962.

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