Monday, January 15, 2018

"Cavender Is Coming"

Carol Burnett as the hopeless klutz Agnes Grep
“Cavender Is Coming”
Season Three, Episode 101
Original Air Date: May 25, 1962

Cast:
Harmon Cavender: Jesse White
Agnes Grep: Carol Burnett
Polk: Howard Smith
Stout: Frank Behrens
Woman #1: Sandra Gould
Frenchman: Albert Carrier
Matron: Barbara Morrison
Debutante: Donna Douglas
Child: Danny Kulick
Truck Driver: Jack Younger
Field Rep #3: John Fiedler

Uncredited Cast:
Man: Maurice Dallimore
Field Rep #2: Pitt Herbert
Field Rep #4: Stan Jones
Woman #2: Adrienne Marden
Waiter: Robert McCord
Little Boy: Rory O’Brien
Field Rep #1: William O’Connell
Little Girl: Norma Shattue
Bus Driver: Roy N. Sickner

Crew:
Writer: Rod Serling (original teleplay)
Director: Christian Nyby
Producer: Buck Houghton
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Art Direction: George W. Davis and Merrill Pye
Set Decoration: Keogh Gleason
Assistant Director: E. Darrell Hallenbeck
Casting: Robert Walker
Editor: Bill Mosher
Sound: Franklin Milton and Bill Edmondson
Music: stock
Mr. Serling’s Wardrobe: Eagle Clothes
Optical Effects: Pacific Title
Filmed at MGM Studios

And Now, Mr. Serling:
“Next week on The Twilight Zone two incredibly talented people join forces, to show us what happens when an accident prone, discombooberated lady with six thumbs and two left feet meets a hapless guardian angel who knows more about martinis than miracles. Miss Carol Burnett and Mr. Jesse White, they’re the chief ingredients to a very funny stew. Next week, ‘Cavender Is Coming.’”

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:

“Small message of reassurance to that horizontal young lady: don’t despair. Help is en route. It’s coming in an odd form from a very distant place but it’s nonetheless coming.

“Submitted for your approval, the case of one Miss Agnes Grep, put on Earth with two left feet, an overabundance of thumbs, and a propensity for falling down manholes. In a moment she will be up to her jaw in miracles, wrought by apprentice angel Harmon Cavender, intent on winning his wings. And though it’s a fact that both of them should have stood* in bed, they will tempt all the fates by moving into the cold, gray dawn of The Twilight Zone.”

Summary:

            Agnes Grep is a klutz who struggles to hold down a job. Her latest effort, as an usherette at a movie theater, turns into disaster when she struggles to understand the boss’s complicated hand signals. After accidentally crashing through a mirror and into the boss’s office, Agnes is promptly fired.
            It is obvious to the angels that Agnes needs a little help. It just so happens that there is an apprentice angel, Harmon Cavender, who is as hopeless as Agnes in his own occupations. Together, perhaps, they can help each other out. Cavender can improve Agnes’s lot in life and in the process earn his angel wings.
            Agnes may struggle to hold down a job but she is happy at home among the residents of her apartment building and the surrounding neighborhood. When Cavender arrives, he decides that Agnes must live in a fancier place among a high-class crowd. Cavender gives Agnes an expensive apartment and throws her a lavish party. But the apartment doesn’t feel like home and the party is too crowded and too loud.
            Agnes tries to sneak back to her old apartment building only to find that Cavender changed it so that she isn’t recognized by her friends anymore. She pleads with him to change it back to the way it was before. Cavender relents and changes it back.
            Cavender is certain he will never receive his wings but when the boss angel sees how happy Agnes is, he determines that Cavender’s work was a success. He has a new mission for Cavender, however, to continue on and help the many other unfortunate souls whose lives are in shambles.

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
“A word to the wise now to any and all who might suddenly feel the presence of a cigar-smoking helpmate who takes bankbooks out of thin air. If you’re suddenly aware of any such celestial aids, it means that you’re under the beneficent care of one Harmon Cavender, guardian angel, and this message from The Twilight Zone: lotsa luck!

Commentary:

            Rod Serling met Carol Burnett in a chance encounter on the second version of the television variety series The Garry Moore Show. In the spring of 1961, Serling visited the set of Moore’s CBS series to view a rehearsal and discovered that Moore was developing a comedy sketch based on The Twilight Zone for his next broadcast. Cast member Jack Carter was slated to perform the role of Rod Serling as host but Moore asked if Serling would be willing to deliver the humorous introduction himself. Serling agreed to do so.  
On The Garry Moore Show for May 9, 1961, Serling materialized from a suffocating cloud of stage fog to a roar of approval from the audience. Struggling to look into the camera due to the thick fog, Serling intoned: “Good evening. I am Rod Serling. This is The Twi-night Zone, that area in man’s imagination that borders stark reality and the fuzzy nowhere when you’re loaded. Tonight we deal with the commonplace, a story of the ordinary, everyday problems that confront a man who suddenly finds that he’s been turned into a mosquito. And now, won’t you come with me into The Twi-night Zone.”
Serling on the Garry Moore Show
            The very funny segment which followed was titled “The Mosquito” and featured Carol Burnett as the wife of a scientist who transplants his brain into the body of a mosquito. Burnett featured regularly on Moore’s series after first appearing as a guest. When cast member Martha Raye became ill with bronchitis Burnett was contacted about stepping in for Raye. This opportunity resulted in a regular place on the series and, as Burnett later said, the opportunity to get off unemployment. Burnett’s experience on The Garry Moore Show would later inspire her when she developed her own popular variety series The Carol Burnett Show, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary in a highly rated television special.
            When Burnett expressed interest in appearing on The Twilight Zone, Serling jumped at the chance to create an episode for the talented comedienne. A problem arose when Serling held no original content to fit Burnett’s skillset and very little time to create any. Add to this the fact that CBS expressed interest in putting more money and a longer shooting schedule into the production on the chance that it could serve as the pilot episode of a continuing series. Serling’s solution was to revisit material he previously created for a similar situation.
            Serling restructured his teleplay from the first season episode “Mr. Bevis” to suit the talents of Burnett. “Mr. Bevis,” about an eccentric man’s interactions with his guardian angel, also began life as a potential pilot episode for an ongoing series but the disappointing result was passed on by the network. Serling had already recycled some material intended for the “Mr. Bevis” series with his second season episode “The Whole Truth.” Given the fact that both “Mr. Bevis” and “The Whole Truth” are considered among The Twilight Zone’s worst offerings, it is puzzling that Serling had the confidence to revisit the material that created those two disappointing episodes and expect a greater result. Serling’s approach was to switch the focus of the potential series. For “Mr. Bevis,” the series was intended to follow the continuing adventures of Bevis with the guardian angel to feature only in the premier episode. For “Cavender Is Coming,” Serling focused instead on the continuing adventures of the guardian angel, indicated by the episode’s concluding dialogue, delivered by Cavender’s boss (Howard Smith): “It occurs to me that there are other deserving subjects down there who might require a little angelic assistance from time to time. Each one of them will be your project.”
In November, 1961, six months after appearing on The Garry Moore Show, Serling completed the teleplay which became “Cavender Is Coming.” The episode began production under the working series title The Side of the Angels and was filmed with a laugh track. Jesse White, who previously appeared on The Twilight Zone alongside Buster Keaton in Richard Matheson’s ode to silent films, “Once Upon a Time,” was cast as apprentice angel Harmon Cavender, a boozy cut-up who tried to get his angel wings through fumbling attempts to assist a revolving door of clumsy humans. Burnett was cast as Agnes Grep, Cavender’s first clumsy human project.
Serling changed little else in the transition from “Mr. Bevis” to “Cavender Is Coming,” adding more physical comedy, including two ludicrous scenes of characters jumping through panes of glass, and some personal touches for Burnett. Burnett’s first job during her time attending drama classes at UCLA was as an usherette at the Iris Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. Burnett told Serling about the complicated hand signals instituted by her boss and Serling wrote a humorous recreation of Burnett’s time as an usherette into the opening segment of the episode. This segment is easily the funniest portion of the episode. Serling even named another of the usherettes in the sequence “Burnett” as a wink to the actress.
One would not know by viewing the episode that it cost more than a regular episode of the series. The angel costumes appear cheap and uninspired, the sets are dull and stereotypical, and the few camera tricks used were some of the most economical effects available at the time. Most of the extra production money must have gone into the cast and the extras required to fill such scenes as Agnes’s apartment building and the lavish party Cavender throws for Agnes.
The result is a largely unfunny and uninspired episode. Rod Serling expressed his disappointment in the overall product, particularly since it was created as a vehicle for an actress he greatly admired. Serling lamented the direction by Christian Nyby, who had previously directed Serling’s comedy episode “Showdown with Rance McGrew.” Although Nyby’s direction is flat, the principal faults of the episode lie in Serling’s recycled script. Carol Burnett is given very little to do and is left to try and create comedy in the little opportunities afforded her. The brunt of the episode falls upon the shoulders of Jesse White, who is simply not given enough material to develop a comedic rhythm. Comedy appears to have been a genre Serling was intent on featuring on The Twilight Zone but very few of the comedic episodes are successful, and “Cavender Is Coming” is no exception.
The network viewed the episode and passed on developing the idea any further. The segment was retitled “Cavender Is Coming” and repurposed for The Twilight Zone. The laugh track which was initially featured with the episode has been dropped in subsequent showings of the episode. Unfortunately, the whimsical and tiresome musical score, more attuned to a situation comedy, has been retained.
 “Cavender Is Coming” brought about yet another call of plagiarism aimed at Rod Serling. A film industry worker named Ray Williford claimed to have given Serling the idea for the episode while working on the 1958 film Saddle the Wind, which Serling scripted. Serling denied knowing or ever meeting Williford and only visited the set of Saddle the Wind for very brief periods of time. It became clear that the charge was a naked attempt to cash in on Serling’s vulnerable position as the showrunner to a series which required a new story every episode, and nothing occurred as a result.
            “Cavender Is Coming” was adapted as an episode of The Twilight Zone Radio Dramas starring Andrea Evans as Agnes Grep. Evans also appeared in the radio adaptation of “Twenty Two.” The adaptation retains much of the plot but, due to the need for time expansion, provides a bit more background on Cavender, such as the fact that he is in sole charge of Earth, is the oldest angel in his sector, and is responsible both for the invention of gin and for the repeal of Prohibition.
            “Cavender Is Coming” is a recycled version of an uninspired episode with a result that is nowhere near as funny or engaging as Rod Serling intended. Though she has very little to do in the episode, Carol Burnett is the saving grace of the production and the only reason the episode endures.

Grade: D

Grateful acknowledgement to:

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

-“Carol Burnett discusses working with Garry Moore,” video interview by the Television Academy Foundation, YouTube, published August 14, 2012

*Modern viewers may want to silently correct this ungrammatical phrase to “stayed in bed” but “stood in bed” was an American colloquialism familiar during the time this episode was broadcast. It was coined by renowned boxing manager Joe Jacobs. According to Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, Jacobs left his sickbed in New York to go to Detroit in October, 1935 in order to attend the World Series between the Detroit Tigers and the Chicago Cubs. Jacobs bet on Chicago, who lost 4 games to 2, and, when he was interviewed upon his return to New York, Jacobs told the sportswriter: “I should have stood in bed.” Bergen Evans’ Dictionary of Quotations confirms the origin of the phrase. Joe Jacobs is also responsible for the ungrammatical phrase “We wuz robbed!” in reference to Jack Sharkey defeating Max Schmeling in a 15 round bout on June 21, 1932 for the heavyweight title. Special thanks to the Jewish Virtual Library and “Who Said It First and How Did He Really Say It?” by Jack Smith, Los Angeles Times (11/09/1989).

Notes:

--Christian Nyby also directed the episode “Showdown with Rance McGrew.”
--Jesse White also appeared in “The Time Element” and “Once Upon a Time.”
--Howard Smith also appeared in “A Stop at Willoughby.”
--Sandra Gould also appeared in “What’s in the Box.”
--Donna Douglas also appeared in “The Eye of the Beholder” and the Night Gallery episode “Last Rites for a Dead Druid.”
--Danny Kulick also appeared in “On Thursday We Leave For Home.”
--John Fiedler also appeared in “The Night of the Meek.”
--Adrienne Marden also appears, uncredited, in “To Serve Man.”
--Robert McCord appeared in 32 episodes of the series, frequently in uncredited roles, ranging from the first season’s “Mr. Denton on Doomsday” to the fifth season’s “Mr. Garrity and the Graves.”
--“Cavender Is Coming” was adapted into a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Andrea Evans.

-JP 

10 comments:

  1. This one deserves, in my opinion, an "F" along with other Third Season fiascos like "Once Upon A Time" and "I Sing The Body Electric." What Serling saw in guardian angel stories I will never know. Carol Burnett is charming but Serling's ineptness with comedy undermines her appeal over and over again. Still, as awful as this is, the bottom of the barrel still has yet to be scraped: "The Bard," "I Dream of Genie," "Jess Belle," "The Incredible World of Horace Ford," "Sounds and Silences," "The Bewitchin' Pool," "From Agnes With Love," and probably a few others I've earnestly blocked from memory, are just around the corner.

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    1. I can't fault your opinion on this episode, as it's shared by many of the show's viewing audience. I don't think the episode is a complete failure like such earlier efforts as "Mr. Bevis" or "The Whole Truth," mostly due to Carol Burnett who, in my opinion, salvages just enough of the episode. Still, it's certainly not a very good episode and Burnett deserved better. So few of the attempts at comedy were successful and one wonders why they returned to comedy again and again only to fail over and over. I agree that there are some very bad episodes ahead, particularly in the back half of the fifth season, which I'm afraid will have the largest concentration of D and F graded episodes. Thanks for reading!

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    2. I'll agree everything you list are stinkers, but I always watch Jess-Belle because Anne Francis looks so good with dark hair.

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    3. I agree that "Jess-Belle" is the best of that list, as well. In fact, I rather enjoy that episode and would probably nominate it as the best episode from Earl Hamner, Jr., although I understand that "The Hunt" has an unusually strong following.

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  2. I was wondering why you didn't give it an F, but then I saw the cast list. John Fielder and Donna Douglas deserve a letter grade promotion!

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    1. Everybody seems to agree that this one deserved an F but I didn't feel it was a complete failure, and, yes, the cast is pretty good and they do the best with the material at hand. I definitely think it is at least a marginal improvement over the lamentable "Mr. Bevis" and "The Whole Truth," two episodes it is related to.

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  3. I saw this episode recently, and I would agree with the D. Burnett is luminous, and maybe I'm sentimental, but I'm inclined to give Serling a few points just for attempting comedy now and then in such a serious show.

    I just discovered this site, by the way, and it's great. I'm impressed at your being able to still find creative approaches to the show after all this time

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    1. Thanks, Tom! I don't believe the episode is a complete failure and I do admire Serling's repeated attempts to inject comedy into the series even when it so rarely worked.

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  4. My son watched this after seeing many Twilight Zone episodes. He hated it almost as much as me. It was almost unwatchable.

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    1. Many, many viewers feel this way and it is completely understandable, especially in light of mixing it in with the better known, more successful episodes. I always recommend watching every episode at least once but many episodes are good only for that one viewing.

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