Monday, June 8, 2020

"The Bard"

William Shakespeare (John Williams) is conjured by Julius Moomer (Jack Weston)

“The Bard”
Season Four, Episode 120
Original Air Date: May 23, 1963

Cast:
Julius Moomer: Jack Weston
Mr. Shannon: John McGiver
Sadie: Doro Merande
William Shakespeare: John Williams
Mr. Hugo: Henry Lascoe
Dolan: William Lanteau
Bramhoff: Howard McNear
Secretary: Marge Redmond
Bus Driver: Clegg Hoyt
Cora: Judy Strangis
Rocky Rhodes: Burt Reynolds

Crew:
Writer: Rod Serling (original teleplay)
Director: David Butler
Producer: Herbert Hirschman
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Art Direction: George W. Davis & Edward Carfagno
Film Editor: Edward Curtiss
Set Decoration: Henry Grace & Edward M. Parker
Assistant to the Producer: John Conwell
Assistant Director: John Bloss
Music: Fred Steiner
Sound: Joe Edmondson & Franklin Milton
Mr. Serling’s Wardrobe: Eagle Clothes
Filmed at MGM Studios

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:
“You’ve just witnessed opportunity, if not knocking, at least scratching plaintively on a closed door. Mr. Julius Moomer, a would-be writer who, if talent came twenty-five cents a pound, would be worth less than car fare. But, in a moment, Mr. Moomer, through the offices of some black magic, is about to embark on a brand-new career. And although he may never get a writing credit on The Twilight Zone, he’s to become an integral character in it.”

Summary:
            Julius Moomer is an enthusiastic yet untalented aspiring television writer and the bane of his agent Mr. Hugo. When Mr. Hugo gets wind of a new television series Julius begs for a chance to write a pilot episode. Mr. Hugo agrees under the condition that Julius completes the script by Monday morning. The subject of the new series is black magic. Since Julius knows nothing about black magic he stops in at a used bookstore hoping to find a volume on the subject. The eccentric shop owner informs Julius that they haven’t any books on black magic when a moment later an old book floats off the shelf and drops to the floor. Julius picks it up and discovers it to be exactly the book he needs.
            Back home, Julius consults the book and sets about casting a spell for help in writing a television script. Julius makes convenient substitutes for several of the spell’s ingredients and predictably does not achieve the desired effects. However, when Julius speaks the name William Shakespeare the great writer appears in a cloud of smoke in Julius’ apartment.
            Once he gets over the shock of the dead man’s presence, Julius sets Shakespeare to work on the new television script. At a meeting on Monday, television executives sense the potential of the script, despite its archaic language, and greenlight the pilot. Julius, who submitted the script under his name, is turned into an overnight star, making appearances on television shows and meeting with sponsors and high-ranking executives. Shakespeare, meanwhile, is prepared to return to the great unknown having completed his task. Julius is reluctant to let Shakespeare leave, wishing to keep a good thing going and have Shakespeare write more scripts. Shakespeare agrees to remain on the condition that when he attends rehearsal the following day he will witness his play being performed with accuracy and respect.
            To Shakespeare’s horror, his script has been butchered by rewrites and sponsor demands. To make matters worse, the lead in the play has been cast with Rocky Rhodes, an arrogant and contentious method actor. Shakespeare is appalled to the point of punching out Rhodes and storming out of the rehearsal and out of Julius’ life.
            Julius has a backup plan, however. When Mr. Hugo gets wind of a new television series on American history, Julius shows up to the agent’s office with an entourage of famous figures from American history, having conjured them with his spell book.

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
“Mr. Julius Moomer, a streetcar conductor with delusions of authorship. And if the tale just told seems a little tall, remember a thing called poetic license, and another thing called The Twilight Zone.”

Commentary:
John Williams (L) with Burt Reynolds (R)
            It is clear at this point in the series that, for reasons which remain unclear, Rod Serling and company were intent on regularly featuring broad comedy on The Twilight Zone. For a series which remains notable for its introspective, often dark, fantasies concerning topical subjects, these comedic episodes strike the viewer as a jarring juxtaposition to the show’s average fare.
Perhaps comedy was simply a way to create variety in the show’s approach to its chosen subject matter. The series tried a variety of different strategies in bringing lighter fare to The Twilight Zone, from reworking old scripts (“The Mighty Casey”) to gimmicks such as silent film (“Once Upon a Time”) to featuring notable comedic performers (“The Mind and the Matter,” “Cavender Is Coming”). Incredibly, the episodes “Mr. Bevis” and “Cavender Is Coming,” some of the most ineffective material produced on the series, were initially written to launch television series.
These broadly comedic episodes, which also include such offerings as “Mr. Bevis,” “Mr. Dingle, the Strong,” “Hocus-Pocus and Frisby,” and “From Agnes – With Love,” are typically viewed as among the least successful episodes of the series by all except those reluctant to criticize any of Rod Serling’s scripts. It could be worth a writer’s time to explore why comedy did not work on the series, especially in light of the talent in front of the camera, with the likes of Shelly Berman, Buster Keaton, Andy Devine, and Carol Burnett appearing on the series.
            In some respects, comedy was effectively featured on the series. Several episodes, such as “The Chaser,” “A World of His Own,” “A Penny for Your Thoughts,” “The Prime Mover,” “Dead Man’s Shoes,” and “A Kind of Stopwatch,” featured a lightness of touch which, if not outright comedy, was about as close to farcical as the series could comfortably operate. Other episodes, such as “The Fever,” “A Most Unusual Camera,” and “A Piano in the House,” offered dark, and perhaps unintentional, humor. It is apparent that anything broader in comedic scope than, for example, Dick York struggling to adjust to his newfound mindreading abilities in “A Penny for Your Thoughts” was an overabundance.

            “The Bard” has much in common with earlier comedic episodes, particularly “Mr. Bevis,” “Mr. Dingle, the Strong,” and “Cavender Is Coming.” Like these earlier episodes, it features a luckless character who, by chance or magic, is gifted extraordinary abilities or an entity to perform extraordinary feats on their behalf. William Shakespeare performs much the same role as the guardian angels in “Mr. Bevis” and “Cavender Is Coming,” or the aliens in “Mr. Dingle, the Strong.” He arrives to assist a person whose primary quality is their failure to successfully launch along the course of life.
“The Bard” subtly recreates, or recalls, scenes from earlier comedic episodes, as well. The eccentric bookshop proprietor and her crowded, dusty shop recalls A. Daemon’s apothecary shop from “The Chaser,” while her baseball obsession recalls “The Mighty Casey.” “The Bard” includes a scene of mischief on a city bus reminiscent of a similar scene in “Cavender Is Coming,” complete with finger writing in the air. “The Bard” also features an element which recurred with regularity on the series and which perhaps strikes the modern viewer as unusual, this being the featured relationship between an adult man and a female child. In “The Bard” it is used for comedic effect as Julius Moomer trades barbs with Cora, his landlady’s smart-mouthed young daughter. Producer Herbert Hirschman was particularly wary of the language used in these scenes. In other episodes, such relationships were used to elicit empathy (“On for the Angels,” “The Fugitive”) or menace (“Caesar and Me”).

An appealing aspect of “The Bard” is the biting satire in Rod Serling’s script, a quality not seen in this quantity since the dismal second season episode “The Whole Truth.” “The Bard” was hardly the first time Serling approached the dehumanizing aspect of trying to create art or quality in an essentially commercial endeavor, but chose to approach the subject this time not with the blunt force of a drama but with the sharp edge of satirical comedy. This theme pervades much of Serling’s work, dating back to his first great success as a professional writer, the Kraft Theatre production of “Patterns” (1955), in which a new executive is forced to confront his personal morality in a cutthroat business environment. On The Twilight Zone, Serling examined the theme in “Walking Distance” and, most memorably, “A Stop at Willoughby.” In “The Bard” this quality is played for laughs (Serling is, after all, using the most revered figure in English literature to illustrate the plight of the television writer) but it should not be lost on the viewer that “The Bard” is, in some ways, a culmination of Serling’s career-long battles with networks and sponsors. If the viewer is versed in their Twilight Zone history, they know that the prevailing narrative concerning the creation of The Twilight Zone is that Rod Serling wished to create a series over which he had greater control after repeatedly seeing his scripts censored at the hands of network executives and sponsors. Serling also felt that he could approach topical issues with less interference if he cloaked his stories in the trappings of fantasy and science fiction. This oversimplified genesis story still contains an essential truth of Serling’s career. As one of the “angry young men” of television drama, Serling consistently battled for control over his scripts and their content.
The Twilight Zone, however, was still a place where the network and the sponsors exercised a certain amount of censorship and control. One situation on the series which mirrors the butchering of Shakespeare’s script in “The Bard” is the aborted production on George Clayton Johnson’s second season episode “Sea Change.” Johnson’s story, about a man who loses his hand in a boating accident only to discover that the hand has grown into a full bodied doppelganger intent on his destruction, was nixed by the show’s sponsor, a food manufacturer, because it was thought that the grisly subject matter would put the audience off their appetites. Buck Houghton, then producer on the series, was forced to ask George Clayton Johnson to buy back his story, allowing the writer to move himself into a bargaining position to write scripts for the series (to that point he had only sold stories to the series).
            Ironically, the satire in “The Bard,” which was aimed squarely at network executives and sponsors, was enjoyed by the executives at CBS. It was series producer Herbert Hirschman who battled Serling over the script. Hirshman issued Serling numerous requests to change content in the script, pushing production on the episode dangerously close to deadline and forcing Serling to, unsuccessfully, demand a stop to the requests for changes. It became clear that “The Bard,” though perhaps not as funny or effective as Hirschman would have liked, was a script which was important to Serling and a story he was intent on telling. Readers interested in the particulars of the requested changes are advised to see the entry on “The Bard” in Martin Grams, Jr.’s The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic (2008), an excellent production history compiled chiefly from scripts, letters, interoffice memorandums, financial documents, contemporary reviews, and interviews.
                       
            Outside of certain inherent qualities in Rod Serling’s script, and despite an overuse of "hip" jargon and Shakespearean quotes, “The Bard” is elevated by its excellent cast and their commitment to the material.

            Jack Weston’s (1924-1996) energetic turn as Julius Moomer largely prefigures Richard Erdman’s performance as McNulty in the fondly remembered fifth season episode “A Kind of Stopwatch.” For his part, Weston is remembered as one of the great villains on The Twilight Zone, the antagonistic Charlie Farnsworth in Rod Serling’s “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” Weston’s two appearances on the series provide a good view of the parameters of the actor’s versatility. His many film and television roles ranged from slimy villains to lovable buffoons, typified by appearances as George Stickle, friend to Don Knott’s The Incredible Mr. Limpet (1964), and the conman Carlino in Wait Until Dark (1967).
In our sphere of interest, Weston got his television start on the short-lived, pioneering science fiction anthology series Out There (1951-1952), appearing in an adaptation of John D. MacDonald’s “Susceptibility.” Weston appeared on Alfred Hitchcock Presents in the fifth season episode “Forty Detectives Later,” written by Henry Slesar, the prolific mystery and science fiction writer behind Twilight Zone’s “The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross” and “The Old Man in the Cave.” Weston twice appeared on Boris Karloff’s Thriller, in Robert Bloch’s “The Cheaters,” from the first season, and the less-successful second season episode “Flowers of Evil,” directed by John Brahm from a story by Hugh Walpole.
Weston later appeared in two episodes of the Roald Dahl-hosted anthology series Tales of the Unexpected: “A Dip in the Pool,” from the first season, and “Mr. Botibol’s First Love” from the second season. These episodes have a curious connection as in both Weston portrays a character named Botibol. The characters are not the same, however, and possess no connection other than their unusual surname and their kinship as products of Roald Dahl’s imagination. “Mr. Botibol’s First Love” was adapted from a 1948 story by Dahl while “A Dip in the Pool” was based on Dahl’s 1952 story from The New Yorker (collected in Someone Like You (1953)). Keenan Wynn, son of Ed Wynn (Twilight Zone’s “One for the Angels”) and star of Twilight Zone’s “A World of His Own,” previously portrayed Botibol in an Alfred Hitchcock Presents adaptation of “A Dip in the Pool.”

John McGiver (R) with Howard McNear
Second-billed is inimitable character actor John McGiver (1913-1975) as the bored, insensitive television sponsor Mr. Shannon. McGiver later assumed the lead role in the fifth season episode “Sounds and Silences,” a lesser-known episode partly due to its many years of being held out of syndication packages of the series. McGiver got a relatively late start in professional acting but made up for lost time with a hugely prolific output. He is remembered today for character roles in such films as Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), and Midnight Cowboy (1969).
McGiver twice appeared on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, in the third season episode “Fatal Figures” and the fourth season episode “Six People, No Music.” McGiver appeared in a television adaptation of Fritz Leiber’s novel Conjure Wife on the short-lived anthology series Moment of Fear, appearing alongside fellow Twilight Zone performers Larry Blyden (“A Nice Place to Visit,” “Showdown with Rance McGrew”) and Janice Rule (“Nightmare as a Child”). McGiver also memorably featured in “The Croaker,” perhaps the most bizarre episode of the off-beat anthology series ‘Way Out, a David Susskind-produced, Roald Dahl-hosted series which briefly aired on CBS as a companion of sorts to The Twilight Zone in the spring and summer of 1961. In “The Croaker,” McGiver portrays Mr. Rand, an eccentric who discovers a way to transform his neighbors into frogs.

John Williams (1903-1983), a dryly sarcastic William Shakespeare in a ludicrous bald cap, was best-known for his appearances in the films of Alfred Hitchcock, especially his portrayal of Chief Inspector Hubbard, recreated from Broadway, in Dial M for Murder (1954). Williams recreated the role for a 1958 television adaptation of Frederick Knott’s play. Williams also secured roles in Hitchcock’s The Paradine Case (1947) and To Catch a Thief (1955). Williams appeared in an impressive ten episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including the John Collier (Twilight Zone’s “The Chaser”) episodes “Back for Christmas” and “Wet Saturday,” both directed by Hitchcock, and the three-part episode “I Killed the Count,” directed by Robert Stevens, director of Twilight Zone’s “Where Is Everybody?” and “Walking Distance.” Williams appeared on Boris Karloff’s Thriller in an adaptation of Robert Bloch’s “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper,” based on Bloch’s most famous tale before the publication of Psycho (1959). Williams later appeared in two of the finest segments of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, the first season episode “The Doll,” based on the story by Algernon Blackwood, and the second season episode “The Caterpillar,” from the story “Boomerang” by Oscar Cook.

The most memorable performance in “The Bard” is the relatively brief appearance of Burt Reynolds (1936-2018) as Rocky Rhodes, a highly amusing and spot-on spoof of Marlon Brando and method acting. His exchanges with the television director, an uncredited Jason Wingreen (Twilight Zone’s “A Stop at Willoughby,” “The Midnight Sun”), and John Williams’ Shakespeare are perhaps the most effective comedic exchanges on the entire series. It would be interesting to know what Serling thought of the works of Tennessee Williams as Serling’s script leans hard into lampooning not only method acting but also the works of Williams, with particular mention made of A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. This was likely just a playful jest on Serling’s part as Williams’ work would seem to appeal to Serling’s sensibilities. Burt Reynolds appeared in the Playhouse 90 production of Serling’s “The Velvet Alley” (1959), which also covered much of the thematic material behind “The Bard.” Reynolds also appeared in the fifth season Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode “Escape to Sonoita.” A string of appearances in critically and commercially successful films, beginning with director John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972), catapulted the actor to international film stardom.

Director David Butler (1894-1979) steps behind the camera for his first and only time on The Twilight Zone for “The Bard.” A native of San Francisco, Butler began his career as a stage manager in his native city for theater producer Oliver Morosco. Butler moved into acting in 1910, appearing in films for such directors as John Ford, D.W. Griffith, and Thomas Ince. Butler enjoyed a prolific acting career throughout the silent era before turning his attention to directing in 1927. Over the course of his career, Butler directed some of the biggest stars at 20th Century Fox and Warner Brothers, including Shirley Temple, Will Rogers, Bob Hope, and Doris Day. Butler did very little genre work but is notable for having directed (as well as produced and co-wrote) You’ll Find Out (1940), a comedic mystery film from RKO featuring Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Peter Lorre. Butler specialized in family films, light comedy, and musicals which made him a sensible choice to helm a lighter episode like “The Bard.” Butler moved almost exclusively into directing television in 1955 with an episode of Studio 57. After “The Bard” Butler spent an extended time on Leave It to Beaver. He retired from directing in 1967.

If responses on social media are broadly indicative, “The Bard” is a fiercely disliked episode. However, “The Bard” is, in my view, the most enjoyable of the broadly humorous episodes, due to Jack Weston’s energetic performance, its juxtaposition to John Williams’ sedately sarcastic Shakespeare, a marvelous cameo from Burt Reynolds, and the satire at the center of Rod Serling’s script. Despite the (ironic) difficulties Serling faced in bringing “The Bard” to the series, he clearly relished taking aim at the television industry and that energy feels infectious among the excellent cast. “The Bard” is also very well-paced, especially in relation to less successful fourth season episodes, due not only to Serling’s script but also to the veteran hand of director David Butler. Nearly all regular viewers of The Twilight Zone have one or more episodes which, objectively, they know is not among the show’s best offerings but which they still enjoy. “The Bard” is one such episode for me. 

            “The Bard” also marks the conclusion of the penultimate season of The Twilight Zone, a season where the show emerged from a challenging situation in which it was cancelled, brought back as a mid-season replacement in a new time slot and with a new time format, with its longtime producer gone, and its creator geographically separated from the production. In many ways, the series was irreparably damaged by the chaos of this rapid death and rebirth. The creative collective which anchored the first three seasons was eroding, and the final two seasons of the series are characterized by an inconsistence in quality.
Despite facing enormous odds, the fourth season provided a number of pleasures. Bittersweet among these was the work of writer Charles Beaumont. Beaumont produced perhaps his best season of work, and the best work of any writer during the season, shortly before the effects of early-onset Alzheimer’s robbed him of the ability to write. Bert Granet and Herbert Hirschman were excellent producers on the series, capable not only of occupying the vacancy left by the departure of Buck Houghton but also of managing a production in which Rod Serling was largely absent. The fourth season also showcased the excellent cinematography of Robert Pittack, who photographed the late third season episode “Person or Persons Unknown” before alternating duties on the fourth season with Emmy Award-winning cinematographer George T. Clemens. Pittack remained on the series into the fifth season, photographing such memorable episodes as “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” “Living Doll,” “Night Call,” and “Stopover in a Quiet Town.”
The fourth season featured memorable performances from notable newcomers to the series, such as Dennis Hopper, Robert Duvall, Dana Andrews, Pat Hingle, James Whitmore, and Burt Reynolds, as well as a score of familiar faces from the series, highlighted by George Grizzard in “In His Image,” Jack Klugman and Ross Martin in “Death Ship,” Anne Francis and James Best in “Jess-Belle,” Burgess Meredith in “Printer’s Devil,” Martin Balsam in “The New Exhibit,” and the wonderful collective of “Passage on the Lady Anne.”
For some viewers, the fourth season will always remain an anomaly which produced little if any quality material. For these viewers I suspect the hour-long format is simply too large a hurdle to clear. A half hour and a twist ending are paramount to some viewers’ enjoyment of the series. The Twilight Zone, however, was far more than a stock formula and its writers too talented to collapse beneath a change in format. Aided by the steadying presence of a veteran crew and a bevy of quality performers, the fourth season remains an underrated gem which showcased the versatility of the series and the talents of its creators.

Grade: C

Grateful acknowledgement to:
-The Internet Movie Database (imdb.com)
-The Internet Speculative Fiction Database (isfdb.org)
-Grams, Martin Jr., The Twilight Zone: Unlocking a Door to a Television Classic (OTR, 2008)

Notes:
--Jack Weston also appeared in the first season episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” He appears in "The Bard" alongside Marge Redmond, his wife at the time. 
--John McGiver also appeared in the fifth season episode “Sounds and Silences.”
--John Williams also appeared in two of the most memorable segments of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery: “The Doll” and “The Caterpillar.”
--Howard McNear also appeared in the third season episode “Hocus-Pocus and Frisby.”
--Clegg Hoyt also appeared in the second season episode “Static.”
--“The Bard” was adapted as a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring John Ratzenberger and Stacy Keach, the latter of whom also hosted the series.
--The final sequence in the episode in which Julius arrives at Mr. Hugo’s office with an entourage of historical figures will perhaps remind some viewers of the 1989 film Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, in which two high school losers, who are worshipped like gods in the far future, use a time machine to gather historical figures in order to pass a history class which will determine their futures. Several viewers have pointed out that it is odd that Julius selected historical figures rather than writers from earlier in history to assist him. As Marc Scott Zicree points out, in The Twilight Zone Companion, it is not research but writing that is Julius’ problem.

-JP

1 comment:

  1. Congratulations on finishing season four! I look forward to season five, especially SHATNER!!

    ReplyDelete