Monday, April 23, 2012

"Nightmare as a Child"

Image from a nightmare: Janice Rule as Helen Foley and Terry Burnham as Markie
“Nightmare as a Child”
Season One, Episode 29
Original airdate: April 29, 1960

Helen Foley: Janice Rule
Markie: Terry Burnham
Peter Selden: Shepperd Strudwick
The Doctor: Michael Fox
Police Lieutenant: Joe Perry
Little Girl on Stairs: Suzanne Cupito

Writer: Rod Serling 
Director: Alvin Ganzer
Producer: Buck Houghton
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Director of Photography: George T Clemens
Art Direction: George W. Davis and Merrill Pye
Set Decoration: Henry Grace and Keogh Gleason
Assistant Director: Don Klune
Editor: Bill Mosher
Sound: Franklin Milton and Philip Mitchell 
Music: Jerry Goldsmith

And Now, Mr. Serling:
“Next week, you’ll spend a few rather unforgettable hours in this living room watching Miss Janice Rule and Mr. Shepperd Strudwick partake of a dramatic delicacy that is one part nursery rhyme, one part terror.  This is designed for those of you who are getting too much sleep.  Next week on the Twilight Zone, ‘Nightmare as a Child.’  I hope we’ll see you then.  Thank you and good night.”

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:
“Month of November…hot chocolate…and a small cameo of a child’s face—imperfect only in its solemnity.  And these are the improbable ingredients to a human emotion, say, like fear.  But in a moment, this woman, Helen Foley, will realize fear.  She will understand what are the properties of terror.  A little girl will lead her by the hand and walk with her into a nightmare.”

Helen Foley is a young school teacher who lives a quiet existence alone in her small apartment.  Upon entering her apartment building one day, she encounters a little girl sitting in the stairwell in front on her apartment door humming a nursery rhyme.  She strikes up a conversation with the girl and invites her in for some hot chocolate.  Once inside, Foley immediately begins to feel uncomfortable her.  The girl says her name is Markie and that she lives in the building.  She begins to interrogate Foley by asking her about her childhood.  She seems to know a great deal about her like, for instance, how she got the scar on her arm.  Foley admits to Markie that she does not remember much about her childhood due to a highly traumatic incident she witnessed as a little girl.  Markie asks Foley about the man she saw in town today even though Foley has not mentioned him.
                During their conversation the man in question arrives at Foley’s door.  Before she is able to let him in Markie runs out the back door.  Foley opens the door and the man invites himself in.  His name is Peter Seldon and he was a friend of Foley’s late mother, who was murdered right in front of Foley when she was only a child.  He asks her if she remembers him at all and Foley tells him she doesn’t.  After her mother’s death she moved away to live with relatives and has only recently moved back.  Foley then hears the faint sounds of a child singing somewhere in the building and she recognizes it as Markie’s voice.  She asks Selden if he hears it but he says he doesn’t.  She tells him about the conversation she had with Markie just prior to him arriving at the apartment.  He tells her that “Markie” was her nickname as a child and he shows her a picture of herself when she was young.  The girl in the photograph is unmistakably Markie.  Seldon tells Foley goodbye and takes his leave.
                Some time later, Markie returns.  Again, she begins her rigid interrogation of Foley.  Irritated, Foley suggests that perhaps it’s time Markie went home to her mother.  Markie tells her that she has no mother, at least not anymore.  After pressing Foley even harder to come to a realization, Markie raises the curtain on the mystery and tells Foley that they are, in fact, the same person.  Not emotionally able to cope with the realization that Markie is not a real child but only a frightening manifestation of herself as a child, Foley collapses on the floor, weeping.  When she finally looks up she sees Seldon standing over her.   He informs Foley that she has been living in ignorance for far too long.  He confesses that he was the one who killed her mother.  After discovering that Sheldon was pocketing money from the place where they both worked, Foley’s mother told him that she was going to notify the police.  Enraged, he strangled her to death right in front of eight-year-old Foley causing to child to scream with terror.  Neighbors rushed over before he was able to kill the child.  Afterwards, Seldon learned that Foley did not remember anything about the incident.  So he waited.  One day the pieces would come together for her.
                Realizing that her life is in danger, Foley rushes out of the apartment and into the hallway.  Seldon runs after her and they struggle intensely before he loses his balance and tumbles down the stairs, snapping his neck before landing face down on the floor below.
                Afterwards, after the police and other emergency officials leave, Foley hears the sounds of a child singing just outside her door.  Hesitantly, she opens a door sees a little girl seated on the stairs.  To her relief, it’s not Markie.  She tells the girl that she has a beautiful smile, and that she hopes it’s with her always.

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
“Miss Helen Foley, who has lived in night and who will wake up morning.  Miss Helen Foley, who took a dark spot from the tapestry of her life and rubbed it clean-then stepped back and got a good look at the Twilight Zone.”

Episode 29 of The Twilight Zone offers a bizarre story of psychological confrontation.  “Nightmare as a Child” is quite similar to several other Serling episodes that examine the realm of suppressed emotional turmoil, most notably Season Three’s “The Arrival” and Season Two’s “King Nine Will Not Return.”  As with these episodes, “Nightmare” is almost entirely devoid of any supernatural elements because much of the action takes place in Foley’s mind.  Serling may have been inspired by Truman Capote’s 1946 O. Henry Award-winning story “Miriam” when he wrote this episode.  While the two stories are different in many ways there are also quite a few similarities between them, and chances are that Capote’s psychoanalytical story of identity crisis would have appealed to Serling for it is a theme that can be found throughout his work on The Twilight Zone—“The After Hours,” “Judgment Night,” “The Lateness of the Hour” and “Where Is Everybody?” are only a few of the episodes written by Serling that explore the world of mistaken identity.  Capote’s story centers around a sheepish, soft-spoken woman named Mrs. Miller who meets a young girl named Miriam one day at a movie theatre.  Coincidentally, Mrs. Miller’s first name is also Miriam.  The next day the girl shows up at Mrs. Miller’s apartment; Mrs. Miller is a widow and lives alone.  She invites Miriam into her apartment and for the rest of the story the young girl verbally berates and antagonizes her host to the point of tears.  Terrified of her, Mrs. Miller runs downstairs to the apartment of a young couple whom she does not know and tells them about the horrible child who refuses to leave her alone.  The man goes over to her apartment to check on Miriam but when he returns he claims not to have seen her anywhere.  Reluctantly, Mrs. Miller returns to her apartment, realizing that there is no Miriam and that she might possibly be losing her mind.  She sits down on the couch and closes her eyes and after deliberating on her sanity for some time she suddenly hears the sound of a bureau drawer opening and closing and silk being ruffled.  Then she opens her eyes.  The last line of the story, “’Hello,’ said Miriam.” is ambiguous because Capote does not specify whether it is spoken the young girl or Mrs. Miller.  While Serling’s story is different in terms of plot, being a fully realized story versus “Miriam” which is more of a character sketch, thematically these stories are very similar.  Both of them concern women who have experienced the loss of someone close, in Mrs. Miller’s case it’s her husband and for Helen Foley, her mother.  Foley’s fear of confronting her mother’s murder has manifested itself into the image of Markie while Mrs. Miller’s overbearing loneliness and uninspired lifestyle may be the cause for her mental hallucination.  But Serling’s story is far less ambiguous and it places a solid link between the character of Peter Seldon and the reason for Helen Foley’s mental breakdown.  And while this episode may or may not have been based on Capote’s story, the similarities between the two stories are interesting just the same. 
                While this episode does achieve a chilling atmosphere, for the most part it seems to fall flat.  It’s a story that most likely worked well in Serling’s original script but when transferred to film it loses much of its desired effect.  For one thing, it is quite apparent almost from the moment she first appears on screen that Markie is a younger incarnation of Helen Foley.  Likewise, from the moment we first see Peter Seldon and listen to his story we are absolutely certain that he is in some way responsible for the murder of Foley’s mother.  This appears to be done intentionally by Serling in order to heighten suspense and make Foley a vulnerable protagonist.  Not a terribly bad plot structure at all but, once again, it seems to lose much of its effectiveness on the screen and instead of looking vulnerable Foley comes off as painfully na├»ve and unsympathetic.  There are also several times during this episode where Serling unnecessarily explains the plot to the audience which, in many ways, shatters the subtlety of the story.
                But even if this episode does fall short in many places it’s saved by the delicate, dreamlike atmosphere created by director Alvin Ganzer and composer Jerry Goldsmith.  Ganzer already had two episodes of The Zone on his resume, “The Hitch Hiker” and “What You Need,” both of which have the same ethereal quality found in “Nightmare as a Child.”  As this episode has a great deal of dialogue, Ganzer chose to minimalize Goldsmith’s score and keep most of the scenes very quiet which cloaks this episode in a dreamlike haze and makes the scenes with music that much more effective.

Shepperd Strudwick as the horrible Peter Seldon
                Of the three leading roles in this episode the one that obviously stands out to most viewers is that of Markie played by Terry Burnham.  She never shows any restraint in her interrogative discourse with Foley and her character is the most frightening thing about this episode.  Burnham enjoyed mild success as a child actress in the 1960’s but seems to have abandoned acting upon entering adulthood in the early 1970’s.  Janice Rule turns in an adequate performance here as Helen Foley.  Rule enjoyed a fairly versatile career in television, film and on Broadway.  Because she was known for rebelling against the sexism of the Hollywood studio system in 1950’s, she was often given roles portraying strong, independent women.  She bounced easily from comedy to drama and her notable films include Bell, Book and Candle (1958) with James Stewart and Kim Novak, The Chase (1966) with Marlon Brando, The Swimmer (1968) with Burt Lancaster and 3 Women (1977) with Shelley Duval and Sissy Spacek.  She died in 2003 at the age of 72.  Character actor Sheppard Strudwick, sometimes appearing under the name John Sheppard, garnered his reputation on Broadway before moving to Hollywood in the early 1930’s.  Given his dark, chiseled facial features and chilling voice he often played villains or other visceral-type characters and despite a very successful theatre career he never achieved leading-man status in Hollywood.   He appeared as Edgar Allan Poe in The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe (1942) and in the Hollywood classics Joan of Arc (1948), All the King’s Men (1949) and A Place in the Sun (1951).  He died in 1983 at the age of 75.
                While it is not generally considered a memorable first season episode, “Nightmare as a Child” does have moments of heightened suspense that are as chilling as some of the more well-known episodes.  It is an interesting take on what would be a prevailing theme of the series.

Grade: C

--Rod Serling named the main character, Helen Foley, after his favorite high school English teacher.  Richard Matheson would later borrow this name for Kathleen Quinlan’s character when writing the script for Twilight Zone: the Movie (1983).
--Joe Perry also appeared in an episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery titled "Midnight Never Ends."
--Alvin Ganzer also directed the Season One episodes “What You Need,” “The Hitch-Hiker,” and “The Mighty Casey.”
--"Nightmare as a Child" was adapted into a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Bonnie Sommerville.

--Brian Durant

Monday, April 9, 2012

"A Nice Place to Visit"

Rocky Valentine (Larry Blyden) feels like he's in Heaven.
"A Nice Place to Visit"
Season One, Episode 28
Original Air Date: April 15, 1960

Henry Francis "Rocky" Valentine: Larry Blyden
Mr. Pip: Sebastian Cabot
Beautiful Girl: Sandra Warner
Craps Dealer: Peter Hornsby
Parking Attendant: Bill Mullikin

Writer: Charles Beaumont
Director: John Brahm
Producer: Buck Houghton
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Art Direction: George W. Davis and Merrill Pye
Set Decoration: Henry Grace and Keogh Gleason
Assistant Director: Don Klune
Editor: Joseph Gluck
Sound: Franklin Milton and Philip Mitchell
Music: Stock

And Now, Mr. Serling:
"Greetings from the low- rent district. Next week we follow the fortunes and misfortunes of Mr. Larry Blyden, who plays the role of one Rocky Valentine, an itinerant second-story man who was shot dead in an alley one night then goes to his just reward, this little item here being one of them. This one you can watch with a tongue in your cheek. It's called 'A Nice Place to Visit,' next week on The Twilight Zone."

Rod Serling's Opening Narration:
"Portrait of a man at work, the only work he's ever done, the only work he knows. His name is Henry Francis Valentine but he calls himself Rocky, because that's the way life has been, rocky and perilous and uphill at a dead run all the way. He's tired now, tired of running or wanting, of waiting for the breaks that come to others but never to him, never to Rocky Valentine, a scared, angry little man. He thinks it's all over now but he's wrong. For Rocky Valentine, it's just the beginning."

                Henry Francis "Rocky" Valentine is a second-rate, petty thief. When he gets busted attempting to clean out a pawn and loan store, he takes to running instead of giving himself up to the pursuing police. An ensuing shootout in the alley beside the store leaves Rocky dead on the pavement. Moments later, Rocky is awakened by a portly, white-bearded man dressed in a white suit who introduces himself as Mr. Pip, Rocky's guide. Rocky doesn't yet realize he hasn't survived his encounter with the police, who just happen to no longer be around. Suspicious by nature, Rocky doesn't trust the inviting and accommodating Pip and pulls a gun on the other man. Pip, however, remains calm and tries to explain to Rocky that he can have anything he wants, anything at all. Everything, Pip says, is Rocky’s for the taking. With his pistol trained on the other man's back, Rocky follows Pip to a high class hotel suite. Despite what Pip tells him, Rocky doesn't believe that all this now belongs to him. Rocky, trying to rationalize his situation, believes that Pip wants him to pull a job in exchange for all the nice things presented to him. Pip insists otherwise, tells Rocky that there is no catch to the situation. Tired and beleaguered, Rocky decides to postpone his protests for now and to clean himself up.
                Rocky finds a wardrobe full of exceptional, expensive suits. He cleans up and puts on a new suit, which just happens to fit him perfectly, then sees a spread of food that Pip has put out of him. Rocky becomes suspicious of a possible poisoning and attempts to shoot Pip, firing several times at near point blank range without doing any damage to the other man. It is only now that Rocky realizes that something truly strange is going on. With a little help from Pip, Rocky finally realizes that he didn't survive the shootout with the police in the alley. Suddenly, Rocky becomes very excited, believing that he has died and gone to Heaven. Pip, he reasons, must be his own personal guardian angel, there to give him anything he wants. Without waiting for any information from Pip, Rocky begins to take full advantage of his situation.
He requests Pip bring him loads of cash and gaggles of beautiful women. Rocky spends nearly all of his time at the casino playing his favorite games and miraculously winning every single time he places a bet. The only problem that Rocky encounters is when he asks Pip to see some of his, Rocky’s, old friends. Pip informs Rocky that this place is Rocky's own private domain and that everything in it, except for Rocky and Pip, are like props in a movie. At this point, Rocky takes a minute to talk to Pip. Something, Rocky says, has been bothering him. He can't figure out how he made it to Heaven as he can't remember doing very many good deeds in his lifetime, or doing any good deeds at all. Pip informs him that there is a file on him in the Hall of Records. Rocky wants to see his file and Pip leads the way.
                At the Hall of Records, Pip retrieves Rocky's file. Reading it aloud, Rocky soon realizes that it is actually a list of every bad thing he's ever done since childhood. He becomes confused and angry and asks Pip if maybe somebody made a mistake and he's not supposed to be here. Pip tells him that it's very unlikely that a mistake has been made. Satisfied, Rocky goes back to enjoying all the pleasures at his whim. Those pleasures, however, soon turn to torment.
                After a month of winning every game he plays and of hours of mindless interaction with the beautiful, yet robotic, women, he is ready to burst at the seams with boredom. He can’t even play a game of pool for his first shot clears the entire table. Rocky calls on Pip and tries to explain his situation, about how it's no fun to win every time you take a chance, and that there’s no excitement because there is no actual danger involved in anything. When Pip attempts to appease Rocky by offering to fix a game or two so that he will lose every now and then or to arrange for Rocky to rob a bank or a jewelry store, Rocky nearly screams in frustration. It won't work if he knows it's a fix. Then an idea occurs to Rocky. Maybe a mistake has been made and he doesn't really belong in Heaven. Maybe he belongs in the other place. To which Pip replies with sinister seriousness: "Whatever gave you the idea this is Heaven? This is the other place!"

Rod Serling's Closing Narration:
"A scared, angry little man who never got a break. Now he has everything he's ever wanted, and he's going to have to live with it for eternity, in The Twilight Zone."

Sebastian Cabot as Mr. Pip
                Writer Charles Beaumont's final first season episode is a simple, quickly constructed comical script which offers much more levity than his previous offerings. The episode hinges not only on a single twist of plot but really on a single line of spoken dialogue, making it, in essence, a long joke dependent upon a punch line. The episode is an entertaining bit of dark humor and the two leads are near perfect as the episode is a two-man show completely dependent upon the actors to carry it beyond being a mundane offering.
Tony Award-winning actor Larry Blyden (born Ivan Lawrence Blieden) was all over episodic television in the 1960s, appearing in episodes of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Fugitive, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Route 66, and Dr. Kildare, as well an additional episode of The Twilight Zone, season three's "Showdown With Rance McGrew." He also landed a supporting role in the 1970 Barbara Streisand film On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. Blyden is also remembered for hosting the popular game show What's My Line? from 1972 until 1975. That same year, Blyden hosted the pilot episode of a new game show, Showoffs, and was replaced as host after his untimely death by Bobby Van. 
      For "A Nice Place to Visit," Blyden plays the character of Rocky Valentine way over the top and for some viewers the performance may come off as too strong. Producer Buck Houghton explained Blyden’s over-the-top performance as the actor's attempt to give some movement and action to a dialogue-heavy script that, if played overly straight, would come off as extremely static. So, Blyden hoots and hollers for most of the episode and plays up the wise guy stereotype to a comical degree. It works in the context of the episode insomuch as the entire play is a caricature and a charade, an outlandish fantasy, even for The Twilight Zone. Rocky Valentine is an eccentric character and everything within his own private hell is a reflection of that eccentricity. Blyden's performance is enjoyable and if Beaumont's script can be static in places it still contains more than a few good bits of dialogue that Blyden and Sebastian Cabot, as Mr. Pip, nail in their characterizations and deliveries. Blyden died tragically in a single car accident in Morocco at the age of 49 in the summer of 1975. Interesting, some controversy surrounds Blyden's death, as one accident report states Blyden's injuries as minor, leading to the suggestion that there was something, or someone, else involved in the actor's death. As documented on Wikipedia, actress Barbara Rush, who appeared alongside Blyden in "What Makes Sammy Run?," a two-part episode of NBC Sunday Showcase, approaches the subject of Blyden's death on the audio commentary included on the DVD version of "What Makes Sammy Run?" Rush claims that Blyden was in fact the victim of carjackers and died from injuries sustained during the attack. 

                A professional actor since the early 1940s, Sebastian Cabot is most recognizable as Mr. Giles French in 130 episodes of the television comedy A Family Affair, which ran from 1966-1971. Cabot also worked several times with the Walt Disney Company, providing voices for the full-length animated features The Jungle Book and The Sword in the Stone, as well as narrating several Winnie the Pooh films and three episodes of Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color. For the character of Mr. Pip, Cabot delivers one of my favorite villainous performances of the first season, precisely for the fact that he plays it with such subtle, yet sinister, sophistication. When the final revelation occurs, and that final line of dialogue is spoken, Pip appears all the more menacing as the episodes ends on his evil, hysterical laughter. Cabot brings the same sophistication and creepiness to his demonic role as did actor Thomas Gomez to Mr. Cadwallader in the earlier episode "Escape Clause," with the necessary discretion in characterization to preserve the twist ending. An interesting production story about Cabot is that he was, as an actor, eminently recognizable by his well groomed jet-black hair and beard. For the role of Pip, the production team knew that Cabot had to appear angelic and, white being the color of the angels, his hair and beard had to be turned white. The only method, at the time, for turning black hair white, without the method appearing fake, was to bleach the actor’s hair. Cabot reluctantly agreed to undergo the bleaching of his hair despite the fact that it would take several months for the color to grow back.
                Though writer Charles Beaumont initially wanted Mickey Rooney for the role of Rocky Valentine, he suggested that Twilight Zone creator/narrator/lead writer Rod Serling attempt the role himself if producer Buck Houghton was unable to secure Rooney for the role. Serling, of course, declined to attempt the role himself, Rooney couldn't be secured, and Larry Blyden was eventually brought in. In a letter to Serling, Beaumont suggested that Serling, like Beaumont himself, must have a desire to act, as Beaumont believed all creative people intuitively did. The truth of the matter is quite different. Though the voice and visage of Rod Serling is immediately recognizable today, he was always terribly nervous in front of the television cameras. When Serling began to appear on camera before each episode beginning with the second season of The Twilight Zone, getting the introductions filmed could be a nerve wracking experience for the writer. As an attempt to get genuine results from Serling's natural charisma, the production team would often film the rehearsal of Serling's introductions, unbeknownst to Serling himself, who had no idea he was being filmed and therefore acted in a more natural manner. Charles Beaumont, for his part, appeared in a supporting role in the 1962 Roger Corman film The Intruder, based on Beaumont's own novel and screenplay adaptation. Though Mickey Rooney wasn't pegged for the role of Rocky Valentine in "A Nice Place to Visit," he would eventually appear, in a very un-Mickey Rooney role, on The Twilight Zone in season five's "The Last Night of a Jockey."
                "A Nice Place to Visit" is of the same type episode as the more famous "Time Enough At Last," "Third from the Sun," and "People Are Alike All Over," albeit with a much stronger shot of dark humor. These type episodes present the audience with a situation, either outright strange or seemingly normal, and then turn that situation on its head at the very last second. Many first time viewers enjoy these episodes and for longtime fans of the show these type episodes seem to stick in the memory and can be remembered years later with great clarity. If these episodes were jokes, they would be the equivalent of one-liners. Unfortunately, for "A Nice Place to Visit," that one line can be seen coming from a mile away. It has little to recommend it beyond the performances of the two leads as it is a weak point for both writer Charles Beaumont and director John Brahm, two creators that typically bring a high level of imagination and execution to their endeavors. 
               The set design on the episode is one area in which some interesting aspects can be found. Typical to a John Brahm directed film, there is a strange symmetry to the set design and, for "A Nice Place to Visit," Brahm decided to use a mix of minimalist and surrealist design work to illustrate the strangeness, and the malevolence, of Rocky Valentine's private hell. The design of the Hall of Records, simply a tall, wide stone staircase in a vast outdoor emptiness, is an exceptionally moody design. It appears at the turning point in the episode, for both the viewer and Rocky Valentine, when it becomes apparent that all is not as it seems and a certain creeping menace can be felt. The music at this point also swings from the high and happy to the deeply ominous.
                "A Nice Place to Visit" is, at best, par for the course for everyone involved. It's not an exceptional episode by any means but neither is it a total bomb. There were very few of the latter type episodes in the first season which seems, taken as a whole, to be the most even in quality of any season of the show. It is certainly worth a look or two and shows that even when The Twilight Zone was just average, it was still setting the precedent for production and design on a science-fantasy anthology series.

UPDATE (8-16-14)- Recent research has uncovered a connection between this episode and a previously aired radio play that bears a striking similarity. In film historian Gregory Mank's profile of actor Colin Clive (Henry Frankenstein of the 1931 film and 1935's Bride of Frankenstein) in his book Hollywood's Maddest Doctors (Midnight Marquee Press, 1998), he notes that the actor appeared on the November 14, 1935 episode of radio's The Fleischmann Hour in a play titled "The Other Place." Clive played a man who died in a car accident and finds himself awakened in a place where his every desire is met and he is served by a seemingly benevolent butler (voiced by Leo G. Carroll). Much like Larry Blyden's character in "A Nice Place to Visit," Clive's character is driven insane with boredom. The final dialogue runs thus:

Clive: "I want to suffer. I'm sick of Heaven. I can't stand this confounded everlasting bliss. Well, whatever the devils do to me can't be as bad as this. I want to go to Hell!

Carroll: "Why, sir, wherever do you think you are? This is Hell, sir!"

It can safely be assumed that Beaumont, who wrote fondly of the Golden Age of radio in his book of nostalgia Remember? Remember? (Macmillan, 1963), was familiar with this broadcast. The final portion of the last line of dialogue in "A Nice Place to Visit" is actually the title of the previous radio play, "the other place" though that source material is not credited in the production.  

Grade: C

--Larry Blyden also appears in the third season episode, "Showdown With Rance McGrew."
--John Brahm directed such excellent episodes of The Twilight Zone as "Time Enough at Last," "Shadow Play," and "Person or Persons Unknown," the latter two also being exceptional offerings from writer Charles Beaumont.
--"A Nice Place to Visit" was adapted into a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Hal Sparks.

-Jordan Prejean

Monday, April 2, 2012

"The Big Tall Wish"

Portrait of a washed-up hero: Ivan Dixon as Bolie Jackson with Frankie Van as referee
“The Big Tall Wish”
Season One, Episode 27
Original Air Date: April 8, 1960

Bolie Jackson: Ivan Dixon
Henry Temple: Stephen Perry
Francis Temple: Kim Hamilton
Joe: Walter Burke
Thomas: Henry Scott

Writer: Rod Serling (original teleplay)
Director: Ron Winston
Producer: Buck Houghton
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Art Direction: George W. Davis and Merrill Pye
Set Decoration: Henry Grace and Keogh Gleason
Assistant Director: Kurt Neumann
Editor: Bill Mosher
Sound: Franklin Milton and Philip Mitchell
Music: Jerry Goldsmith

And Now, Mr. Serling:
“The man who lives in this tenement is an aging fighter named Bolie Jackson.  Over the hill at age thirty-six from leaving too much of himself in too many arenas, for too many years, before too many screaming people.  And next week he looks for a miracle and he finds it in a little boy.  On the Twilight Zone next week, ‘The Big, Tall Wish.’  Something very, very special.  I hope we’ll see you then.”

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:
“In this corner of the universe, a prizefighter named Bolie Jackson, one hundred eighty-three pounds and an hour and a half away from a comeback at St. Nick’s Arena.  Mr. Bolie Jackson, who by the standards of his profession, is an aging, over-the-hill relic of what was, and who now sees a reflection of a man who has left too many pieces of his youth in too many stadiums for too many years before too many screaming people.  Mr. Bolie Jackson, who might do well to look for some gentle magic in the hard-surfaced glass that stares back at him.”

An aging boxer named Bolie Jackson stands in his tiny boarding room staring into a mirror at a man worn thin by his past.  By his side is Henry, the ten year old boy who lives in the same apartment building.  Henry sees past the scars and misery etched into Bolie’s face and instead sees the hero he once was.  Bolie is only a few hours away from a fight which will either thrust him back into the spotlight or lock him out of it forever.  On his way out, the boy tells Bolie that he is going to make a wish for Bolie to win the fight tonight.  The Big Wish, Henry calls it.  Bolie tells him goodbye and Henry’s mother tells Bolie how much he means to her son, how much Henry looks up to him.  Then she tells him an interesting story of how they needed some extra money for the rent one month.  Henry had told his mother not to worry, that he was going to wish for it.  A few days later she received a package in the mail which contained the exact amount they needed.  Bolie is charmed by this story and by Henry’s genuine exuberance for life.  He only wonders when it will all fade away for him.  At what age do we stop believing in magic? he wonders.  And at what age do children stop being children?  He walks away solemnly, thinking to himself, no doubt, about his own youth, and wondering where it went. 
                In the locker room before the fight, Bolie sits with his trainer and a fight promoter named Thomas.   Bolie has hired Thomas as a promoter for tonight’s fight but it’s obvious that Bolie does not like him.  Thomas offers Bolie a job working for him as a fighter.  Bolie knows that Thomas hires only washed up boxers who can no longer fight and then bets money against them.  Bolie then realizes that this is exactly what Thomas has done tonight.  Enraged, he swings at Thomas and misses, striking the cinderblock wall and fracturing his hand.  He cringes in pain and at this exact moment someone comes into the room to tell him that they are ready to start the fight.  With a broken right hand he walks out of the room toward his inevitable defeat.
                In the ring Bolie does terribly.  It is not very long before he is knocked flat on his back.  The referee begins to count.  Back in his apartment, Henry decides it is time to make the Big Wish. At the count of ten Bolie is suddenly back on his feet with the referee holding his arm triumphantly in the air.  Lying motionless on his back in the middle of the ring is his opponent.  Underdog Bolie Jackson has won the fight by a knockout.  There is a look of panic and confusion on Bolie’s face as he attempts to comprehend what has just happened to him.
                Back in the locker room, Bolie confides in his trainer that he is unable to remember getting back up after being knocked down.  His trainer acts as if Bolie’s comment was meant to be taken as sarcasm and tells Bolie that he was never knocked down.  Unable to believe this, and fearing that he might be losing his mind, Bolie leaves the arena in a trance-like state of unease.  On the way back to his apartment he is greeted warmly by everyone in the neighborhood and they congratulate him on his spectacular performance in the ring.  Once inside his apartment building, Bolie visits Henry’s apartment.  Henry is ecstatic with excitement over Bolie’s win.  He tells Bolie that when he was down he made the Big Wish for him and that is why he won the fight.  Bolie, who has now convinced himself into denial, says Henry is mistaken; Bolie won the fight because he was the better fighter.  Henry tells Bolie that he has to believe in the magic or it will not work.  Bolie says that he couldn't believe in magic even if he wanted to because he is too old.  He has spent his life wishing for things and has nothing to show for it.  Henry begs him to believe but Bolie admits that he simply cannot.
                Flashback.  Bolie is lying on his back in the middle of the ring, unconscious.  The referee hovers over him, shouting a succession of numbers into his face.  At the count of ten Bolie is still out and the ref calls it.  Bolie Jackson has lost the fight.  Back in the locker room, Bolie’s hand is killing him.  His trainer pats him consolingly on the back and tells him not to take the loss too personally.  On his walk back home, Bolie receives grimaces and disappointed looks from his neighbors.  Inside his apartment building, he visits ten-year-old Henry, who is already in bed.  Bolie explains to Henry how he went into the ring with a busted right hand.  Henry tells him that it doesn’t matter, he is proud of him all the same.  Then he says that he is not going to be making any more wishes.  He is too old to believe in magic.  As Bolie is leaving Henry asks him if he thinks magic is real.  After considering this a moment, the boxer tells Henry that perhaps magic is real, but maybe the problem is that there are not enough people in the world that believe in it, and maybe that is what keeps people from knowing that it’s there.   With this, he tells the little boy goodnight and closes the bedroom door quietly behind him.

Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
“Mr. Bolie Jackson, a hundred and eighty-three pounds, who left a second chance lying in a heap on a rosin-spattered canvas in St. Nick’s Arena.  Mr. Bolie Jackson, who shares the most common ailment of all men: the strange and perverse disinclination to believe in a miracle, the kind of a miracle to come from the mind of a little boy, perhaps only to be found…in the Twilight Zone.”


"In this corner of the universe, in a shabby, sparsely furnished bedroom inside an aging and decrepit brownstone tenement, stood a prize fighter named Bolie Jackson, staring at himself in the dresser mirror. He weighed a hundred and sixty-three pounds and was an hour and a half away from a comeback at St. Nick's."
          -"The Big, Tall Wish," More Stories from the Twilight Zone 

For the first time since his Emmy-winning Playhouse 90 drama, Requiem for a Heavyweight (1956), Serling returned to the sport of boxing to pen this touching morality tale of a washed up fighter trying to recapture a part of his life that no longer exists. Serling apparently had great admiration for boxing and his stories about boxers were always sentimental in tone and warmly sympathetic in their portrayal of the aging fighter who suddenly finds himself in a world he no longer understands. While training as a paratrooper in the 11th Airborne Division during WWII, Serling took up amateur boxing as a means of coping with the pre-combat anxiety he was experiencing prior to being sent overseas and his familiarity inside the ring no doubt led to his fascination with the sport and his affinity for boxers. His first published short story, "The Good Right Hand," which appeared in the March, 1948 issue of his college literary magazine, The Antiochian, explores a boxing manager's grief over the suicide of his former protege who was forced to give up the sport after injuring his hand. A year later Serling received his first major recognition as a writer when his script, "To Live a Dream," about a washed up boxer battling leukemia, won the runner-up spot in a contest held by the nationally syndicated radio series, Dr. Christian. As he did with many of his protagonists, Serling seems to have held a genuine affection for the bruised and battered athletes that give so much of themselves for the sake of public entertainment, only to be discarded and forgotten once their careers are over. Requiem for a Heavyweight and “The Big, Tall Wish” share a likeness thematically and structurally in that the heroes are both at a crossroads in which they have to leave the life they wanted behind them and seek out another means of making a living. Both stories take place at the end of one chapter and the inevitable beginning of another. Much like Mountain McClintock in Requiem, Bolie is hesitant of unlacing his gloves because he is frightened of what life is like outside of the ring. The difference here, of course, is that Bolie gets to choose his own path and Mountain is not awarded such a luxury. Also, as in the earlier story, the audience is left to form their own ever-after for Bolie as the story ends not long after he loses the fight. He may very well continue to fight until he has nothing left of himself to give, much like Lee Marvin in the Richard Matheson-penned Season Five episode “Steel,” which is an even bleaker depiction of boxing than either of the aforementioned stories. But the implied assumption here is that his career as a boxer is over. The story may end on a relatively somber note but it was most likely Serling’s intention to leave the audience with a sense that Bolie is, at the very least, moving on to a more fulfilling life than the one he had when they first met him, which also makes him a far more fortunate man than the tragic Mountain McClintock, whose story ends on uncertain terms.
                Magic is the overlying motif in “The Big Tall Wish,” an episode that questions whether or not it is morally sound to alter preordained fate. Is it right to undo what has already been set in motion for our own benefit? Historically, wishes are almost always a bad thing in horror fiction. If this story took place in a darker corner of the Twilight Zone, then it might have more in common with episodes like “The Man in the Bottle” and “Of Late I Think of Cliffordville” and the repercussions of Henry’s wishes would have terrible consequences. But Henry uses his magic sparingly and does not use it self-servingly so he is spared the fate of a W.W. Jacobs-like aftermath and his wishes come true with little expense. Looking at it another way, this episode is also a stark contrast to the Season Three classic “It’s a Good Life” in which six-year old Anthony Freemont wreaks psychological havoc on the residents of Peaksville, Ohio by constantly threatening them with his selfish and erratically morbid wishes. The recipients of Henry’s magic are always people he cares for and his wishing is never an unwanted intrusion into their lives.
                This episode can be interpreted many different ways, with magic usually being the deciding factor. If taken literally, as Serling’s closing monologue suggests, then Bolie Jackson has regrettably passed up a second chance at immortality by failing to believe in this magical gift that is given to him. He has not only let himself down but he has also shattered Henry’s belief in something quite special. This outcome seems contrary to the sentimentality of the rest of the episode and it seems odd that Serling would want to leave the audience feeling depressed and angry at a character that is otherwise very vulnerable and sympathetic. But Bolie Jackson could simply be a character that is too honest to accept his good fortune under false pretenses. And in choosing not to believe in magic, he refuses to accept what is not rightfully his and seeks to restore balance to the world and to his own frame of mind. But perhaps magic is not as literally relevant as the viewer is led to believe. In several ways, this story seems quite reminiscent of Ambrose Bierce’s often anthologized “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (later to be made into a short film by French director Roberto Enrico and re-broadcast as an episode of The Twilight Zone). This may be a risky comparison considering that Bierce’s story is also notorious for its numerous interpretations. At the end of his story the main character, Peyton Farquhar, is mysteriously transported back to the hangman’s noose that he escaped from earlier. Similarly, once Bolie stops believing in Henry’s magic he ends up back in the ring, only now he lies battered and motionless on his back as the crowd cheers for his opponent, the winner of the fight. And from this point on his victory is never mentioned again. Nor is anything said of Henry and Bolie’s conversation about the Big Tall Wish. It is possible that Serling is suggesting that this event took place only in Bolie’s mind while he was lying on his back in the middle of the ring, much the same way that many interpret Peyton Farquhar’s escape and journey back to his plantation to be just an elaborate episode that exists only in his head. “The Big Tall Wish” may simply be a story about aging and the things people let go of as they grow older. For Henry, magic is real because he believes it to be. His hero’s loss could be seen as a coming-of-age event in his life, his first disillusionment with reality. And if this is the case then he handles the situation relatively well. He isn’t angry with Bolie, nor is he upset to the point of tears. He simply accepts this life lesson with a kind of understanding melancholy which leads the audience to believe that in the long run everything will be okay. Bolie also goes through a transformation as he realizes that his days as a boxer are probably numbered. But at the age of thirty-six this is a fact of life that is inevitable. However, by the end of the episode he seems ready to accept that this part of his life is over and he is ready to move on to a more conventional lifestyle. Serling leaves unspoken the relationship between Bolie and Henry’s mother but the audience is well aware that the intimacy is there, whether the characters have realized it or not.
                This episode revolves around the relationship between Henry and Bolie and because of the superb performances from Dixon and Perry there is never a time when their chemistry is not believable. In the early 1950’s Dixon had made a name for himself on Broadway before crossing over into television and film. His many early television appearances include roles in Have Gun-Will Travel, Perry Mason, Dr. Kildare, and The Outer Limits. Today, however, he is probably best recognized for playing Sergeant Kinch on Hogan’s Heroes from 1965 to 1970.  Later in his career he more or less abandoned acting to become a director and his credits here include episodes of The Waltons, The Rockford Files, and Magnum P.I.  A year or so after “The Big Tall Wish” Dixon and Perry worked together again in the critically celebrated film adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun.
                This is the second episode directed by Ronald Winston and he does a spectacular job with it, particularly with the fight sequence.  It is a noticeable and pleasant change of pace after the slow emotional scenes that precede it.  To give the audience the sense of a crowded, noisy boxing arena Winston employed the use of still photography that allows the audience to see the actions of the crowd without ever actually seeing the crowd.  This was also a good way to heighten suspense. Winston also chose to shoot Bolie from underneath the canvas of the ring during the knock-out scene. To do this he had Dixon lie on a clear piece of glass and he just shot from underneath it. It’s a simple idea but it proves to be a very cool effect and adds an extra kick to the already highly stylized scene.         
                “The Big Tall Wish” has the distinct honor of being one of the first television shows to feature a nearly all-black cast. It should be noted that this was six years before programs like Star Trek and I Spy began to consciously tear down the racial barriers of Hollywood. The fact that both of the lead roles (and most of the supporting roles) were played by black actors was a bold move for Serling and Houghton and it could have potentially had major repercussions. During the 1950’s black actors were rarely cast in leading roles unless the project dealt with racial issues in some way. The thing that makes “The Big Tall Wish” unique is that it is not a social commentary on race relations. Nowhere in the script does Serling make any mention of race, nor are the characters in any way identified by their ethnicity. Bolie could just as easily have been an Irish or Latino boxer and the story would have played out exactly the same way as it does here, without changing a single line of dialogue. In many ways, this non-direct approach is a far more effective form of social commentary than a script that is overbearingly didactic. While it is non-confrontational thematically, the decision to cast mostly black actors was a conscious one.  In Marc Scott Zicree’s The Twilight Zone Companion Serling, in defense of this episode at the time of its original broadcast, is quoted as saying:

“Television, like its big sister, the motion picture, has been guilty of the sin of omission. Hungry for talent, desperate for the so-called new face, constantly searching for a transfusion of new blood, it has overlooked a source of wondrous talent that resides under its nose. This is the Negro actor.”

In any event, this episode was a big step in the desegregation of television and apparently made quite an impression when it was first broadcast in 1960. In 1961 Rod Serling was awarded the annual Unity Award for Outstanding Contributions to Better Race Relations.  He was also praised by several national organizations dedicated to racial equality including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In 1962 CBS adopted a policy that encouraged producers to begin casting more black actors on their programs. 
Grade: B

Grateful acknowledgement to:

The Twilight Zone Companion, second edition by Marc Scott Zicree (Silman-James Press, 1989)

Rod Serling: His Life, Work, and Imagination by Nicholas Parisi (The University Press of Mississippi, 2018)

--Rod Serling adapted this episode into a short story for his book More Stories From the Twilight Zone (Bantam, 1961). You can also listen to it as a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Blair Underwood (Falcon Picture Group, 2002). It was also adapted into a graphic novel by Mark Kneece with art by Chris Lie as part of a series developed by the Savannah College of Art and Design published by Walker & Company Books (2009).
--Ivan Dixon also appears in Season Five’s “I Am the Night—Color Me Black.”
--Henry Scott also appears in Season Four’s “The Thirty Fathom Grave.”
--Walter Burke also appears in an episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery titled "Deliveries in the Rear." 
--Ronald Winston also directed Season One’s “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” and Season Five’s “Stopover in a Quiet Town.”

Updated 6/23/19