Monday, April 11, 2011

"The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine"

Ida Lupino as Barbara Jean Trenton
“The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine”
Season One, Episode 4
Original Air Date: October 23, 1959

Barbara Jean Trenton: Ida Lupino
Danny Weiss: Martin Balsam
Marty Sall: Ted de Corsia
Jerry Hearndan: Jerome Cowan
Sally: Alice Frost

Writer: Rod Serling (original teleplay)
Director: Mitchell Leisen
Producer: Buck Houghton
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Art Direction: George W. Davis and William Ferrari
Set Decoration: Rudy Butler, Henry Grace
Assistant Director: Edward Denault
Casting: Mildred Gusse
Editor: Bill Mosher
Sound: Franklin Milton and Jean Valentino 
Music: Franz Waxman

And Now, Mr. Serling:

“This motion picture projector and this film provide a background to next week’s story when a most distinguished actress takes a journey into The Twilight Zone. Miss Ida Lupino stars in “The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine,” a haunting story of a haunted woman that I think you’ll find interesting and perhaps shocking. We hope you’ll join us then. Thank you and good night.”

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:
“Picture of a woman looking at a picture, movie great of another time, once brilliant star in a firmament no longer part of the sky, eclipsed by the movement of earth and time. Barbara Jean Trenton, whose world is a projection room, whose dreams are made out of celluloid. Barbara Jean Trenton, struck down by hit and run years and lying on the unhappy pavement, trying desperately to get the license number of fleeting fame.”


     Barbara Jean Trenton, an aging, reclusive actress, spends nearly all of her time in the darkened screening room of her Beverly Hills mansion, drinking heavily and attempting to recapture the glory days of her youth by endlessly screening the old movies in which she starred. She fantasizes about the leading men that shared the screen with her two decades or more ago. One actor in particular, Jerry Hearndan, has always held a special place in her heart and she watches the movies they made together over and over.
     Barbara Jean’s maid, Sally, and her agent, Danny, become increasingly concerned about her unhealthy fixation on the past and the amount of time she spends in the dark watching old movies. Danny, in an attempt to break Barbara Jean out of her unhealthy habits, arranges for an audition with a large movie studio. Barbara Jean excitedly agrees to read for the part, despite the fact that it is for a movie producer she has never liked, Marty Sall. Barbara Jean dreams of a romantic leading role, like the ones she’s had in the past, in a love story or a musical.
     When she arrives at Marty Sall’s office, she quickly realizes that the part the producer has lined up for her is a small role that makes her advanced age glaringly apparent. Barbara Jean erupts in anger and refuses to even read the script. Sall gets angry, too. The producer harshly tells the aging actress that she is living in the past and she doesn’t have the clout in the movie industry that she once had. Barbara Jean storms out of his office and Danny, the ever-loyal agent, verbally puts Sall in his place before returning with Barbara Jean to her home.
     For Barbara Jean, the horrible encounter with the producer is the breaking point. She has decided to fully live in the past, to allow her fixation to totally consume her. She believes that if she wishes for it hard enough, she can will herself to return to the past she is desperately obsessed with. She tells Danny that she wants to throw a party and invite all of her friends from years ago. Danny, knowing that this regression is not healthy, attempts to convince her to give up the past, to move on, that the other actors from years ago have since moved on or died. Barbara Jean will hear nothing of it. Danny leaves and she resigns herself to the dark screening room.
     When Danny returns the next day he is greeted by a very distraught Sally, who tells him that, when she enters the screening room, she swears that Barbara Jean isn’t in the room at all, that she is only up on the screen. Danny brushes this aside. He is excited with good news and he rushes to the screening room to tell Barbara Jean about it. Reluctant to let him in, she finally caves when he mentions that he has asked Jerry Hearndan, her leading man of years past, to visit her home that same afternoon. Excited as a young girl, Barbara Jean rushes off to prepare for his visit.
     When she emerges she is faced with a harsh truth in the physical form of Jerry Hearndan. Now aged twenty five years, Heardan is a bald, bespectacled old man that has given up acting to run a chain of supermarkets outside of Chicago. Barbara Jean, in her twisted mental state, refuses to believe this, insisting that the old man is not really Jerry Hearndan but an aged imposter. She turns her back on him and Jerry leaves. Danny, distraught at the disaster of Hearndan’s visit, leaves as well. Barbara Jean is alone and she once again retreats to her screening room where she can see Jerry Hearndan as he was when he was young and handsome. She talks to the screen, willfully wishes it to be real once again. Later, the maid enters the screening room and is greeted with a shocking sight. Screaming, she drops a serving tray with a crash on the floor and runs out.
     Danny arrives at the house and, at the behest of Sally, enters the screening room. Sally has turned off the projector and becomes anxious when Danny decides to turn it back on. They both watch the screen. There, on the screen, is a film of Barbara Jean’s home, the very home they now sit in. From the front doors enter a costumed array of young people, all actors from twenty five years ago, all actors from Barbara Jean’s movies, even those actors that have since died. Then Barbara Jean enters the film and greets all of her guest, inviting them to continue the party at the poolside. As she is walking away on the arm of the young Jerry Hearndan, Danny calls out to the screen, calling for Barbara Jean to come back. As though she hears him, Barbara Jean turns and looks. Then, with a goodbye wave, she tosses her scarf across the threshold of the stairway and retreats off screen. The film ends, the screen goes black.

     Danny walks out of the room, stunned. In the hallway, on the floor, he finds Barbara Jean’s scarf. He picks it up and holds it near, smiling, knowing that Barbara Jean has indeed wished herself back into the past, forever.

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
“To the wishes that come true, to the strange, mystic strength of the human animal, who can take a wishful dream and give it a dimension of its own. To Barbara Jean Trenton, movie queen of another era, who has changed the blank tomb of a projection screen into a private world. It can happen, in The Twilight Zone.”


Martin Balsam as Danny Weiss
     “The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine” is an underrated episode, one of the mostly forgotten episodes that are not good enough or bad enough to stick in the memory of the average viewer but which still present a high level of quality in one or more areas of production. "The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine" is underrated not because of its plot (derivative and predictable), or script (littered with stilted dialogue and lapsing into mood killing sentiment), or even the characters (largely stereotypical), but because of the performances, which lift the episode above the deficiencies in these other areas. It is the performances that draw the viewer back to the episode again. With capable directing, the episode builds to a pitch-perfect mood of sinister atmosphere that brings to mind all of the darkness, mystery, and bizarre culture that characterized the Golden Age of Hollywood. 
         The episode is chiefly concerned with the fatal allure of the past (a subject of fascination for Rod Serling), but it is also concerned with death, and, metaphorically, the death of old Hollywood, a time highly romanticized in the cultural mind. The films of this era (1920's-1940's) had the simplicity, and the casual brutality, of fairy tales, films of broad humor or sweeping romantic adventure or brooding Gothic horror. On the opposite side of this is the suggestion of immortality through art, in this case old films. It is the suggestion that there exist an immortality of sorts inherent in the cultural products of the past that lends the episode its power.  
          The episode is structured like a fable, the forgotten princess locked away in a castle who longs for a prince from her past to rescue her. The story is crowned with a largely illogical happy ending that represents hope and sentiment despite the dark and obsessive nature of the episode. This ending greatly destroys the carefully built mood and tension of what had come before. The strange Poe-meets-Hollywood feel of the story is swept away the moment Martin Balsam picks up the scarf by the staircase, smiles and says, “To wishes, Barbie.” It’s a complete one hundred and eighty degree turn in terms of mood and atmosphere.  
     When Danny views the final footage of Barbara Jean walking off into her fantasy netherworld along with all of the dead or long gone actors from the past, the atmosphere should reinforce the idea that she is walking off with ghosts, that Barbara has essentially chosen death over living her life to the fullest in the here and now. Of course there is an interpretation of the episode that sees Barbara Jean escape into the happiest moments of her life. But at what cost? When the projector screen goes black, it should be a disturbing moment, not a reassuring one. The obvious inspiration for this episode, Billy Wilder's 1950 film Sunset Boulevard, gets the message right. There is no going back. Where one desires to go back to is never as one remembers it being through a haze of nostalgia. 
       Serling was conflicted about a person's longing for the past and what the past ultimately signifies to the person we are at present. It was a subject he returned to again and again throughout his career, and for as many stories as he wrote about not being able to go home again ("Walking Distance," "No Time Like the Past," "They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar"), he wrote a number displaying that an escape into the past is possible ("A Stop at Willoughby"). 
     Ida Lupino is simply perfect as Barbara Jean Trenton. She was an astonishingly talented woman from a family of artists who became the only person to both star in an episode of the series as well as direct another. She was the only woman to direct an episode of the series, as well, the fifth season episode, "The Masks," from a Rod Serling script. That episode happens to be one of the finest the series has to offer, largely due to Lupino's moody direction, and is Rod Serling's final great masterpiece of the series. Lupino here plays the role of the obsessed film star with compassion while avoiding the temptation to emulate Gloria Swanson's manic performance in Sunset Boulevard. Lupino was an versatile actress and director who was particularly well versed in film noir in both capacities. As an actress she appeared in They Drive by Night (1940), High Sierra (1941), alongside Humphrey Bogart, Road House (1948), and On Dangerous Ground (1951). She directed the hard hitting film The Hitch-Hiker in 1953 for RKO. Lupino also directed episodes of Kraft Suspense Theatre, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and a whopping 9 episodes of Boris Karloff's Thriller, including the classics "Trio for Terror" and "La Strega." She was something of a child prodigy, acting and writing in her own productions by age 7, and harbored dreams of being a writer. Her father, Stanley Lupino, a legend in musical comedy, encouraged her talent in acting and Ida began serious study of the art form in her early teens. By the late 1940's, Lupino was writing, producing, and directing independent films while navigating the studio system of Hollywood. She died in Los Angeles on August 3, 1995, aged 77. 
       Martin Balsam, an Academy Award winning actor that should be a familiar face to genre television and film fans everywhere, is reliable as always. Balsam is the type of character actor one comes to appreciate not only for his range but for the way in which he not only adjusts to the character but also adjusts the character to himself. He is not an actor that is going to slip completely into a role but he is going to be convincing and believable. Balsam held roles in two exceptional thrillers from the sixties (Psycho (1960) and Cape Fear (1962)), starred as the psychologist trying to help a doomed time traveler in Rod Serling's "The Time Element," for Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse (the unofficial Twilight Zone series pilot), and appeared again in the season four episode “The New Exhibit.” A prolific actor, Balsam is also remembered for his role in 12 Angry Men (1957) and appeared in two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, one of which, "The Equalizer," plays on Balsam's small stature. 
        As noted earlier, "The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine" was unquestionably influenced by director Billy Wilder's 1950 film noir Sunset Boulevard, starring Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond, a washed up and reclusive film starlet from the silent era who still lives thirty years in the past while remaining secluded in her dilapidated mansion. Norma also, like Barbara Jean Trenton, spends much of her time watching prints of her old movies, yearning to be young again. By chance, Desmond meets a handsome aspiring screenwriter named Joe Gillis, played by William Holden, and works to keep him as her "pet" writer while he produces a screenplay that will bring her back into the limelight. Of course, it all ends in tragedy with Gillis's death at the hands of Desmond in a desperate act of lover's rage. By the time Serling came to produce "The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine," Sunset Boulevard already held a reputation as an exceptional film.
        A note about the exceptional music in the episode. It is provided by legendary German-American composer Franz Waxman, who, ironically, also provided the score to Sunset Boulevard (for which he won an Academy Award). Waxman's music will sound familiar to genre fans from movies such as Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Rebecca (1940), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941), Suspicion (1941), and Rear Window (1954). Unfortunately, this is the only episode Waxman lent his talents to. He died in 1967. It is interesting to note here that director Mitchell Leisen and composer Franz Waxman were once titans in Hollywood but were no longer in demand by the time they came to work on The Twilight Zone. It lends a poignancy to this story about a love of the past, and of past glories in the golden days of Hollywood. 

Grade: C


-Rod Serling went on record several times as saying he held no love for this episode and considered it an all-around failure.
-Ida Lupino also directed the exceptional season five episode “The Masks,” scripted by Rod Serling. 
-Martin Balsam also appeared in the unofficial pilot for The Twilight Zone, "The Time Element," from The Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, and the season four episode “The New Exhibit.”
-Alice Frost played the part of Aunt Amy in the season three episode “It’s a Good Life.”
-"The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine" was adapted into a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Kathy Garver and Charles Shaughnessy. 
-"The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine" was adapted into a short story (as "The 16-Millimeter Shrine") by Walter B. Gibson for Rod Serling's Twilight Zone Revisited (Grosset & Dunlap, 1964). 

--Jordan Prejean


  1. Great commentary. From a fellow Twilight Zone fan. Rod Serling was so ahead of his time and his work reflects more of the present time

    1. Thanks for reading, RedBelle. And I agree wholeheartedly with your assertion on Rod Serling. The best of Serling's writing, and really the best of all the writing on the series, has the timeless quality of fable and the show endures because it hardly seems to age outside of the obvious cultural references and the limitations of the television medium at that time. This episode in particular displays what I think is one of Serling's strongest qualities as a writer, that of taking a story seed planted by another writer (in this case the episode's similarity to "Sunset Boulevard") and expanding upon it in a meaningful and idiosyncratic way. I've always felt this was an underrated gem of an episode that possesses a perfect blend of unsettling and haunting.

  2. Great episode
    Foreshadow: Betty holding her neck next to screen...
    Betty depressed and an alcoholic.
    Later on the maid brought tea and screamed...
    and was immortalized on the silver screen forever, (like Marilyn Monroe!)
    Her manager symbolically trying to come to grips with her death.
    Deep episode.

  3. I would certainly have given this episode a higher grade than "C". Any show that lets you spend time with two people as gifted as Lupino and Balsam is a pleasure by definition. I also don't see Barbara's retreat into her fantasy world as a copout, but as a commentary on the ridiculous (and distinctively American) view that a woman is uninteresting and over-the-hill after 40. (Katharine Hepburn, who defied and defeated this attitude, as she did so many other silly conventions, went on giving Oscar-nominated performances until she was 74). And even those of us who don't share Barbara's animus towards (then) modern films do share her feeling of loss over the disappearance of glamour and elegance from movies. The chess game between Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway in "The Thomas Crown Affair" is a heavily viewed YouTube segment, precisely because it was one of the last examples of that kind of sophistication in American films.

    1. I do regret giving episode ratings in the form of letter grades because it is often a point of contention and doesn't seem to fully indicate that the grade is given relative to the series. In other words, we feel that this is an average episode compared to, say, "It's a Good Life" or "The After Hours," or any of the episodes we rate higher than this. If we gave this episode an A rating it would be like saying it was as good as "Nick of Time" or "A Game of Pool," which it clearly is not. An average TZ episode is still very good, however, just not comparable to the best of the series.

      In this case, I think it's a fair grade. I also think Lupino and Balsam are the best thing about the episode. It must be admitted, however, that the episode is highly derivative. It's Serling's version of Sunset Boulevard with a fantasy element, and like Sunset Boulevard, I think the changing film industry is a device used to explore the larger theme of wasting one's life living in the past, of losing the ability to see what is in front of you because you are always looking behind. Barbara Jean doesn't learn this lesson but instead escapes back into the past, a past which does not reflect reality but rather Barbara Jean's fantasies. Her redemption is artificial. It's akin to being redeemed by losing one's mind. In a way, it is the opposite of "Walking Distance," a thematically related episode in which a character learns the danger of yearning for the past while blinding themselves to the possibilities of the future.

      I don't know how distinctly American the view that a performer is over-the-hill beyond 40 is but I do think it has its parallels in reality. You can find dozens, perhaps hundreds, of examples of performers, female and male, who found steady work when young but struggled to remain relevant as they aged. I think the episode is less a commentary on gender than it is a commentary on the ruthless and fickle nature of the entertainment industry, something Serling was outspoken about. And, again, the clear model here is Sunset Boulevard, and Barbara Jean Trenton is virtually a stand-in for Norma Desmond, a faded film star driven mad by an obsession with "the good old days." The ending of "The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine," like the ending of Sunset Boulevard, strikes one as disturbing but, unlike Sunset Boulevard, is oddly played for sentimentality, striking a tonal discord. I think a lot of the density of theme in "The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine" is inherited from its model but still remains effective.

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting. You've caused me to re-examine an episode I haven't thought about in a long while. And though we may disagree on some of the finer points of the episode I think we can agree that it remains, like almost all TZ episodes, a fascinating story which affects different viewers in different ways.


  4. Great insights Jordan as usual. I always enjoy reading background info on the writers, directors, and producers on the TZ. I also agree with some of the posters that Sixteen Millimeter Shrine is an under-rated episode. It is ironic that the handkerchief that is thrown through the screen on Sixteen is almost symbolic of what Peter Corrigan discovered after he returned to the Potomac Club. I agree, however: with your grade of "C" compared to other episodes dealing with antagonists longing for the past such as "Walking Distance (the best one!), No time like the Past, and Willoughby. I share the same longing for the past like the aforementioned episodes but would only like to go there for 1 day then return just for the experience such as the mid-to-late 1960's! Thanks Jordan!

    1. Thanks so much for reading! I, too, with exceptions, really enjoy these episodes dealing with a longing for the past. I'm nostalgic by nature, I suppose. Very interesting connection with "Back There." Serling's writing is littered with these sort of interesting connections but this is one I hadn't considered before.

  5. Yes, I never put two and two together with the handkerchief before reading your comment yesterday. One episode which was my least favs of all the TZ compilations is " Once upon a time". I think it was you or another contributor that mentioned that whenever, Rod Serling made an attempt at comedy, it usually fell flat. "Once upon a Time" was IMHO, a parody of the "Key Stone Cops" and yes, I get it, Busty Keaton reprized his character of the 20's in slapstick comedy, but to me, detracted from the TZ gems it was known for..

    1. Yeah, comedy rarely worked on TZ, although some of these episodes have grown on me over the years. I enjoy "Once Upon a Time" and "The Bard" but I won't defend these episodes in terms of quality. I've never understood why the series insisted on producing comedic episodes well into the fifth season. Very few of them work and the ones that do are usually less broadly comedic, such as "The Chaser" or "A Penny for Your Thoughts," or darkly comedic episodes such as "A Nice Place to Visit" or "A Most Unusual Camera."

  6. Response to Jordan Prejean's comment of 12 November 2019: How I wish that you and I could spend an afternoon over coffee, talking about film and television! (And theater, which is my medium.) Even when I don't agree with you, you have such a concise, elegant way of expressing yourself that I'm always left wanting more.

    You clearly share my EXTREME affection for "Sunset Boulevard", so I'd like to make a few comments about it. Just as "Hamlet" is, wrongly, thought of as a play about a terminally indecisive man, so "Sunset Boulevard" is thought of as a story about a decaying, deluded diva of yesteryear. Norma Desmond is, in fact, such a dynamo (that face! that voice!) when she's talking to Joe that one is left wondering why in the world her career didn't continue into the sound era. (As I just mentioned, it certainly wasn't due to any vocal insufficiency). The answer is contained in the grand, bravura, over-the-top way in which she expresses herself. Actors and actresses HAD to make large-scale gestures in silent films, to do the work of the absent dialogue -- and many, sadly, couldn't scale themselves down after 1927, and let their spoken words do their proper work. (On the other hand, several biggies could -- Charlie Chaplin, Janet Gaynor, Lillian Gish, and Greta Garbo, to whom Norma even refers when she's screening the movie for Joe). Norma's tragedy is that she identified so much with her on-screen persona that she lived it 24-7, and couldn't get off the carousel. (This has been known to actually happen to actors. Raymond Massey, who scored a HUGE success playing Abraham Lincoln, became so relentlessly Lincolnesque in his day-to-day life that his friend Oscar Levant eventually quipped: "Ray's at the point where he won't be happy until someone assassinates him.") As between Norma and Joe, it's Joe who's the pathetic figure. Norma may be a has-been NOW, but she accomplished a tremendous amount in her day. (How many women get maharajahs to travel halfway around the world to beg them for one of their stockings?) Joe is a "never-was" (and clearly would have remained so even without his ingestion of lead). Among other things, it's HIS version of the "Salome" script that DeMille rejects. Why on earth didn't he write a GOOD version of "Salome", and switch it with Norma's version -- especially since Hollywood actually MADE a version of "Salome" three years later, with Rita Hayworth? Any writer worthy of the name who knew that Cecil B. DeMille would be reading his work would milk the opportunity for all it was worth.

    Well, that's enough of me (for now). Keep up the good work.