Monday, January 7, 2019

"Jess-Belle"

Granny Hart (Jeanette Nolan) offers Jess-Belle (Anne Francis) a dangerous bargain

“Jess-Belle”
Season Four, Episode 109
Original Air Date: February 14, 1963

Cast:
Jess-Belle: Anne Francis
Billy-Ben: James Best
Ellwyn: Laura Devon
Granny Hart: Jeanette Nolan
Ossie Stone: Virginia Gregg
Luther Glover: George Mitchell
Mattie Glover: Helen Kleeb
Obed Miller: Jim Boles
Minister: Jon Lormer

Crew:
Writer: Earl Hamner, Jr.
Director: Buzz Kulik
Producer: Herbert Hirschman
Director of Photography: Robert Pittack
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Associate Producer: Murray Golden
Assistant to Producer: John Conwell
Art Direction: George W. Davis and Edward Carfagno
Film Editor: Edward Curtiss
Set Decoration: Henry Grace and Don Greenwood, Jr.
Assistant Director: John Bloss
Sound: Franklin Milton and Joe Edmondson
Music: Van Cleave
Mr. Serling’s Wardrobe: Eagle Clothes
Filmed at MGM Studios

And Now, Mr. Serling:

“Next week we’ll delve into the realm of American folklore and through the offices of a fine writer named Earl Hamner, Jr. we peruse a little witchcraft to bring you a story called ‘Jess-Belle.’ This exercise in terror and talisman stars Anne Francis and James Best.”

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration: 

“The Twilight Zone has existed in many lands, in many times. It has its roots in history, in something that happened long, long ago and got told about and handed down from one generation of folk to the other. In the telling, the story gets added to and embroidered on, so that what might have happened in the time of the Druids is told as if it took place yesterday in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Such stories are best told by an elderly grandfather on a cold winter’s night by the fireside – in the southern hills of The Twilight Zone.” 

Summary: 
Billy-Ben (James Best)
& Jess-Belle (Anne Francis)
            During a square dance in a rural community, Billy-Ben Turner proposes marriage to Ellwyn Glover, the beautiful daughter of the town’s most prosperous farmer. Elly accepts and the dance turns into a celebration of their engagement. One member of the town not celebrating is Jess-Belle Stone, a darkly alluring young woman who makes a demonstrative exit from the dance. At Elly’s request, Billy-Ben approaches Jess-Belle to ask her to stay. It is revealed that Billy-Ben and Jess-Belle have a history together, a history of intimacy and secret meetings at night. Naturally, Jess-Belle feels scorned by Billy-Ben’s proposal to Ellwyn and vows to have Billy-Ben at whatever cost.
            The cost to Jess-Belle takes shape when she decides to consult the town witch, Granny Hart, an amoral woman who gladly takes Jess-Belle’s soul in exchange for Billy-Ben’s love. The next time Billy-Ben sets eyes on Jess-Belle he is stricken with the witch’s magic and falls head-over-heels in love, breaking away from Elly in the middle of a dance to follow Jess-Belle out into the night.
            Soon, Jess-Belle realizes to her horror that she has become a witch herself, victim of a terrible transformation into a large wildcat after the midnight hour. Jess-Belle hides this from Billy-Ben and continues to put off their wedding day. She returns to Granny Hart to beg relief from her affliction only to be told that she will never change back and the rest of her life will be spent in a witch's body.
            News of the wildcat reaches the men of the town who gather in the night to slay the animal preying on their livestock. They find the wildcat in a loft of Elly’s father’s barn. Billy-Ben fires the shot which kills the beast. It disappears and Jess-Belle is seen no more. Billy-Ben rekindles his relationship with Elly and their lives progress happily toward marriage. Their marriage night becomes a night of horrors, however, as the spirit of Jess-Belle wreaks havoc upon their home.
            Billy-Ben leaves Elly and rushes to Granny Hart’s cabin. There he demands the witch to tell him how to rid himself of Jess-Belle once and for all. After a payment of silver, Granny Hart tells Billy-Ben he must make an effigy of Jess-Belle, dress it in her clothing, and pierce it through the heart with silver. Billy-Ben receives Jess-Belle’s wedding dress and a silver stickpin from Jess-Belle’s mother. He puts the dress on a dressmaker’s dummy and sticks the pin through the heart. Billy-Ben sees a spectral vision of Jess-Belle, shock and relief showing upon her face as she is released from the witch’s curse.
            Elly, who had momentarily been bodily possessed by Jess-Belle, is revived by Billy-Ben. They look to the sky and see a falling star. Elly says: “My mama says when you see a falling star that means a witch has just died.” Billy-Ben agrees and the dark shadow of Jess-Belle is lifted from their lives. 

Commentary: 

            In The Twilight Zone Scripts of Earl Hamner (ed. Tony Albarella, 2003), the writer states: “I was raised on folk songs and folk stories and I suppose it was inevitable that this kind of material would work its way into my writing . . . Looking back I realize that if I made any unique contribution to the series, it was to introduce an American folklore element to it.” Although Hamner did not actually introduce American folklore to the series (this quality was anticipated by Montgomery Pittman’s “The Grave” and "The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank," and by Rod Serling’s adaptation of Manly Wade Wellman’s “Still Valley”) he is a writer closely associated with tales of the rural South. His stories of the people there and the events which befall them remain some of the most compelling moments from the series, and it was this quality in his writing upon which Hamner built a successful career. Hamner’s concerns and, to a lesser degree, writing style felt almost wholly fresh yet his talent was such that he was able to make his scripts feel like a natural extension of the work of the other writers on the series, particularly that of series creator Rod Serling. 
            Hamner’s professional development largely mirrored that of Serling’s. Both came up in regional radio drama before making inroads in live television anthologies in the early days of the medium. Both men eventually went on to create some of the most enduring television in history. Hamner’s talent and professionalism were highly polished when he arrived on The Twilight Zone, making a smooth transition to Rod Serling’s world of ordinary people faced with extraordinary situations, as well as to the show’s high literary standards.  
Hamner was a writer of a characteristic duality. He was clearly interested in folk tales of the rural South, tales which illuminate the everyday magic of a pastoral existence. Hamner was also interested in the lives of the wealthy and cultured upper-middle class. Hamner neatly combined these two elements in his divisive final episode for the series, “The Bewitchin’ Pool,” in which children escape the shadow of their wealthy parents’ divorce by discovering a rural Neverland. This duality is also seen in Hamner’s two significant creative endeavors after The Twilight Zone, the long-running autobiographical series, The Waltons, and the prime-time soap opera Falcon Crest, about infighting between members of a wealthy California family.
            “Jess-Belle” came to life as an emergency replacement script. Series producer Herbert Hirschman saw a proposed script fall through and needed another in place so the tight production schedule would not be affected. Hirschman called Hamner and asked the writer if he had any scripts lying around which could be sent into production. Hamner hadn’t any but assured Hirschman that he could write an hour-long play in a week’s time. Hamner wrote the opening act and an outline for the remainder of the play and sent it to Hirschman. After two days, Hirschman came back with the go-ahead to finish the script by the end of the week. Hamner wrote an act a day and turned in the completed script on time.
Hirschman requested a script with the folksy feel of Hamner's debut episode, “The Hunt,” a sentimental episode which was a rewrite of an earlier Hamner script and which remains popular with viewers. Hamner looked to the folklore of witchcraft, the deal with the devil, and the tale of human transformation to craft a decidedly darker and more complex tale liberated by the hour-long format. Hamner worked well with each producer he encountered during the final three seasons of the series. He later hired Herbert Hirschman to direct several episodes of The Waltons. Typical for the series, Hamner’s script was filmed virtually as written. Only a single notable change was required due to the demands of the production. Unable to find an amiable cougar (the wildcat called for in Hamner's script) the production settled on a docile leopard, with Hamner's approval.* 

            Tales of human transformation date to earliest antiquity but Hamner worked closely with the type of tales he heard as a boy growing up in the hills of Virginia (the setting for “Jess-Belle,” like much of Hamner’s work, is the Blue Ridge Mountains), tales of people cursed by a desperate decision and doomed to pay for that decision body and soul. In these tales witches, magical cats, and transformations are common enough motifs to recur frequently in both the oral and written tradition of the region. One volume which collects such tales, The Silver Bullet and Other American Witch Stories (ed. Hubert J. Davis, 1975) recounts the tale of the “Cat Wife,” a woman who transforms into a cat after nightfall and whose curse falls to her children. Hamner was likely familiar with such tales and paid homage by composing a traditional ballad which runs like a hymn through the episode:
           
            Fair was Elly Glover
            Dark was Jess-Belle
            Both, they loved the same man
            And both they loved him well

            By day, she knew a woman’s form
            By night, a witch’s spell
            For love of Billy Turner
            Accursed was Jess-Belle

            An awful night was spent by all
            On Eagle Rock did dwell
            Strange things were seen by moonlight’s fall
            But none saw Jess-Belle
           
            Warm was Elly Glover
            Cold dead was Jess-Belle
            And husband would be Billy-Ben
            Of the one he loved so well

            Fair was Elly Glover
            Dark was Jess-Belle
            Both, they loved the same man
            And both they loved him well

            Hamner included many traditional aspects of witchcraft in his script, from the witch’s aversion to silver to the (humorous) use of a cauldron and shawl. Hamner also nominally pulled from the story of Jezebel in the Hebrew Bible. Queen of Israel, Jezebel attempted to divert her husband's worship to underground gods. As such, Jezebel has become shorthand for a scheming or manipulative woman. 
Hamner was likely also familiar, at least as a casual reader, with classic and contemporary supernatural fiction, a field in which tales of transformation and witchcraft abound. Some relevant examples include Ambrose Bierce’s “The Eyes of the Panther” (1897) in which a man marries into a family of feline shape-shifters. An Academy Award-winning French short film based on Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” was broadcast on The Twilight Zone during the fifth season as equal parts showcase and cost saving measure. “Ancient Sorceries” (1908) by Algernon Blackwood (a writer later adapted for Rod Serling’s Night Gallery) concerns a traveler who spends a terrible night in a French town whose residents transform into cats after nightfall. It was loosely filmed by director Jacques Tourneur in 1942 as Cat People. The rise of fiction magazines saw such stories as Sax Rohmer’s “In the Valley of the Sorceress” (1916), which uses a witch from ancient Egypt and the familiar black cat to achieve its effects. The American pulp fiction tradition was typically represented by such tales as “The Leopard Woman” by Edith Ross (1929), tales in which females either transform into large cats or are protected by such beasts from meddling males.  

            “Jess-Belle” also leans upon such traditional tales as the deal with the devil and the tale of the wild woman. The Twilight Zone frequently approached the former type of story in such episodes as “Escape Clause,” “The Chaser,” and “The Man in the Bottle,” stories about wishes and desires which turn blackly back upon their owners. The stand-in for the devil figure may vary (genie, strange shopkeeper, witch) but the elements remain the same. The tale of the wild woman, of the woman who lives alone beyond civilization, is often tied to tales of witchcraft and transformation.** Jeanette Nolan (1911-1998), as Granny Hart, brings a strain of humanity to this role in "Jess-Belle," crafting a scene-stealing performance highlighted by a humor pleasantly at odds with the graven quality of the play. Nolan performed well in the prior Hamner episode, “The Hunt,” and would grace Rod Serling’s Night Gallery with two performances, memorably playing another witch in an adaptation of A.E. van Vogt's story, “Since Aunt Ada Came to Stay.” Nolan’s veteran presence brings a professional cohesiveness to a talented cast clearly having a lot of fun with Hamner’s script.
Jeanette Nolan as Granny Hart
            Anne Francis (1930-2011) and James Best (1926-2015) were certainly familiar with one another and their chemistry onscreen bears out this comfortable familiarity. Both continued to express fond memories of filming "Jess-Belle." They previously appeared together in Forbidden Planet (1956)*** (which has its own unique history with The Twilight Zone as the film and its props were put into service on several episodes of the series). That same year Francis and Best appeared in the film adaptation of Rod Serling’s television play, The Rack. Later, Best appeared in an episode of Honey West, a short-lived showcase for Francis. Francis and Best are also familiar to viewers of The Twilight Zone from their appearances in other episodes, Francis as the lead in Rod Serling’s “The After Hours” and Best in two episodes for writer/director Montgomery Pittman, “The Grave” and “The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank.” Actress Laura Devon (1931-2007), a versatile performer who also launched professional careers in modeling and music, was a professional actress for less than a decade, beginning in 1960 and ending in 1967. “Jess-Belle” was her only appearance on The Twilight Zone but she appeared in other genre fare such as The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, The Invaders, and the 1966 film Chamber of Horrors. Another familiar face in the cast is actress Virginia Gregg (1916-1986), who appeared in a later episode also tied to an aspect of American folklore, Rod Serling’s “The Masks.” A prolific actress of television and film, Gregg appeared on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, as well as numerous western and detective programs. Gregg appeared in the 1963 film adaptation of Hamner’s 1961 novel Spencer’s Mountain.
            The episode is aided by excellent production design which heightens the dreamlike atmosphere of the story. Director Buzz Kulik returns to the series for the first time since the third season’s “A Quality of Mercy.” Kulik was one of the most reliable directors on the series who distinguished himself as an actor’s director, bringing out some of the finest performances on the series in episodes such as "The Trouble with Templeton," "A Hundred Yards Over the Rim," and "A Game of Pool." Kulik would end his run on the series with the later fourth season episode, “On Thursday We Leave for Home,” featuring an excellent Rod Serling script highlighted by an equal performance from James Whitmore. “Jess-Belle” is also graced with an original musical score from Nathan Van Cleave, whose music was used in over thirty episodes and whose contributions to the series are often overshadowed by other composers such as Bernard Herrmann and Jerry Goldsmith. 
            “Jess-Belle” is an engaging piece of rural folklore with the seemingly simple yet complex design of a fairy tale. There is a lot to unpack from it if you desire but the story is also as simple as one told by a fire. It features one of the finer ensembles of the series and is given the attention to design, music, and direction to match the high quality of the writing and acting. The hour-long format ultimately benefits the episode, unlike much of the show’s fourth season. Hamner used the extra space to develop character and setting and to spin a larger story. Although Hamner wrote several memorable episodes of the series, “Jess-Belle” will stand as his crowning achievement. "Jess-Belle" simply feels like the episode Hamner was brought on board to write, and he pulls it off brilliantly.      

Grade: A

*There are conflicting reports of the type of wildcat which the production initially attempted to bring in for the episode, with some sources citing a tiger as the initial option. I have chosen to relate the story told by Earl Hamner in the interview portion of his collected Twilight Zone scripts. "I had written in a cougar. Turning into such a 'wildcat' was the price Jess-Belle had to pay for Billy-Ben's love. Cougars are indigenous to the area I was writing about I thought it would have been easy to find such a trained animal. However, Herb Hirschman, who was producing at the time, called to say that he had auditioned several cougars and that they were all bad tempered and unreliable." 

**For more see Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés (1996).

***Best was uncredited as a ship's crewman in the film. 

Notes: 

--Buzz Kulik directed eight additional episodes of the series: “King Nine Will Not Return,” “The Trouble with Templeton,” “Static,” “A Hundred Yards Over the Rim,” “The Mind and the Matter,” “A Game of Pool,” “A Quality of Mercy,” and “On Thursday We Leave for Home.”
--Earl Hamner, Jr. arrived on the series with the third season episode “The Hunt” and wrote seven additional episodes: “A Piano in the House,” “Jess-Belle,” “Ring-A-Ding Girl,” “You Drive,” “Black Leather Jackets,” “Stopover in a Quiet Town,” and the final broadcast episode, “The Bewitchin’ Pool.”
--Anne Francis also appeared in the first season episode, “The After Hours” and in the 1956 film version of Rod Serling’s The Rack. Stewart Stern’s screenplay for the film was an adaptation of Serling’s television script which appeared on The United States Steel Hour on April 12, 1955.
--James Best also appeared in writer/director Montgomery Pittman’s episodes “The Grave” and “The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank.” Best appeared alongside Anne Francis in the aforementioned film version of The Rack.
--Jeanette Nolan also appeared in “The Hunt” and in the Night Gallery segments “The Housekeeper” and “Since Aunt Ada Came to Stay.”
--Virginia Gregg also appeared in “The Masks.”
--George Mitchell also appeared in “The Hitch-Hiker,” “Execution,” and “Ring-A-Ding Girl.”
--Jim Boles also appeared in “The Arrival” and in the Night Gallery segments “Lindemann’s Catch” and “Death on a Barge.”
--Jon Lormer also appeared in “Execution,” “Dust,” and “The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank.”
--Helen Kleeb performed the role of Mamie Baldwin in Hamner’s The Waltons.
--“Jess-Belle” was adapted as a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Stephanie Weir.
--In a rare instance, Rod Serling recorded no closing narration for the episode.

-JP

2 comments:

  1. I agree completely. This one is a personal favorite (I like Hamner's "The Hunt" also, in spite of its flaws) and probably my favorite Hamner script, period. One moment that sticks in my mind is Nolan's introduction to the viewer, and the delight with which she later encourages Jess-Belle to give him "witches' love". Highly rewatchable.

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    1. Thanks, Hal. Nolan really steals the show for me but I like everyone in the cast. I really enjoy Rod Serling's opening narration on this one as well. Great script, great acting, great music. Never understood hearing dislike for this one from some viewers.

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