“The Monsters are Due on Maple Street,” a Rod Serling teleplay that stars Claude Akins as a man trying to use logic and reason to calm an increasingly hostile mob, isn’t entertaining. Some of it is dated, particularly in the performances, but that’s not what makes it an awkward and uncomfortable experience. It’s unsettling and awful, and watching it should be a mandatory experience.
We’ve never liked to discuss prejudice and bigotry in this country; as a society, we’re getting more and more squeamish about it with every passing presidential administration, while at the same time becoming more and more entrenched in the language of fear and hatred. Don’t like being reminded that the overwhelming majority of mass shootings in this country are the handiwork of white men? Bring up “Chicago violence,” and four or five people will nod sagely, knowing what you really mean.
Literally yesterday (Oct. 14), the Associated Press reported that the Biloxi MS school system has removed To Kill a Mockingbird from the eighth grade curriculum, because it was making people uncomfortable. It’s meant to.
I read the screenplay for “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street” in my seventh grade textbook. It’s stayed with me ever since. We may not ever win against uncontrolled fear, hysteria, and prejudice, but any victory that we can manage will only come with kindness and compassion. Just be kind. Now that I think about it, that’s what we’re trying to teach our son.
“The Hitch-Hiker” is, of course, utterly magnificent. Rod Serling’s teleplay about a terrified young woman who keeps seeing the same man on a cross-country trip was based on a radio play written by Lucille Fletcher. It had been staged by various iterations of Orson Welles’ group at least three times in the 1940s and soon entered the world of urban legends, and it’s been told and retold by kids on camping trips ever since.
And our blasted kid didn’t get it!
Oh, this broke my heart. He’s just too young to understand the twist, even when the fate of the driver is hammered home by a specific explanation. I knew he’d be confused by hitchhiking, generally, so we started with an explanation of that, and how you never see anybody hitchhiking in this country anymore*. But it didn’t occur to us that he’s also completely unfamiliar with ghost stories, period. He hasn’t sat around any campfires yet.
Ah, well. This is one to come back to when he’s older. It’s an absolutely perfect episode and still retains its chilling power. It’s just as effective now as it was 57 years ago, and it will still be effective whenever he revisits it.
(*Upon reflection, he has seen hitchhiking in an episode of Isis, which I’m sure we talked about. Guess it didn’t take!)
Back to The Twilight Zone for eight more tales from the first season, and did I ever pick a turkey. If you’re a grown-up, you’ll see this twist coming from about two minutes into the story, and it requires the astronauts who have crashed on an asteroid to be quite honestly the dumbest astronauts to ever fly a rocket, and that includes Barney and Junior in Far Out Space Nuts.
On the other hand, if you’re six, like our son, you won’t see this ending coming, which is nice, because we haven’t shown him Planet of the Apes yet, where Serling reused the twist to much, much greater effect. I guess the archaeology-minded writers among you might be interested to see this idea in a nascent form. With characters so stupid and played as so unlikable, I just found this tedious.
I’d like to claim that we made peace with the reality that our son has absolutely no memory for faces whatsoever, but for pity’s sake, he just saw Patrick Macnee last night, and he still had no idea who that guy playing number one on the doomed SS Queen of Glasgow was. Of course, on the other end of the spectrum, there’s me, spending half my life wondering what episode of what ITC action show that one guy playing the henchman in this other ITC action show was in. Maybe ignorance is bliss.
Macnee spent the late 1950s doing lots of work for American and Canadian television. He was seen frequently in the sort of sponsor-driven drama anthologies common to the era, with titles like Alcoa Theater and General Motors Presents. He was in a couple of Playhouse 90 features, and had a small role in Disney’s mini-series The Swamp Fox. He had to go back to the UK for fame and fortune, though. The first episode of The Avengers aired thirteen months after this episode.
For what it’s worth, this story is about a man played by Nehemiah Persoff who’s suffering from amnesia and deja vu in 1942, convinced that a U-boat is due to sink the ship where he’s awakened without memory at 1:15 in the morning. It’s a grim twist this week, and, unlike what we saw in the much better known “Time Enough at Last,” this fellow has his cruel fate coming.
We’re going to take a short break from The Twilight Zone, but stay tuned! We’ll return with more episodes from season one in October!
Here’s a strange coincidence: in the first eight episodes of the show, The Twilight Zone featured three future Batvillains. Pretty neat little average there.
“Time Enough at Last” is the famous one where Burgess Meredith finds himself with all the time to read all the books that he never can enjoy only to break his glasses in a gloomy little twist. But it’s not a satisfying one. I’d misremembered this completely – I saw this one just once, more than thirty years ago – and thought his finale was a comeuppance. It certainly isn’t. It’s a very mean-spirited little story. Our son hated it – he bellowed “Boring!” at the end – and I didn’t like it much either.
I wondered how in the world his character, the hapless Henry Bemis, could have ever ended up married to somebody who hates books when all that he wants to do is read. Many decades ago, people would get engaged after holding hands at the newsreel, but these two people are miserable. Some folks complain the divorce rate is too high these days. Some folks shouldn’t have married each other in the first place.
I’m enjoying watching our son’s physical reactions to shows when he likes or dislikes a program a little more one way than the other. If he’s happy, he’s moving around a little, energy building up to a big action scene. If he’s unhappy, he’s as quiet as the grave. And tonight’s trip to The Twilight Zone was as crypt-like as you can get.
He was really unhappy with this story about a convict sentenced to fifty years of solitary confinement on an asteroid. After four years, he’s given a robot for companionship and is initially cruel to her, thinking that the supply ship commander who visits every quarter was mocking him. But he eventually… but wait, this was a program made for family audiences in 1959. He eventually comes to think of her as a real woman. He certainly doesn’t fall in love with her. The sponsors would have choked.
(Oh, another point from 1959: the word robot is consistently pronounced “row-butt,” as it usually was back then.)
There’s not a “twist” to this story in the way that Zone became famous for employing, just an unexpected dilemma and a sad conclusion. And the story was a little sad for our son already; he is too young to understand just why the convict is so mean to the robot when they could and should be happy together. Eventually they get there, which made the conclusion even sadder for him. No, he didn’t enjoy this one at all.
But what a cast it has! Jack Warden plays the convict and Jean Marsh is the robot. She had appeared in a couple of American productions in 1959. Unless I’m mistaken, she may be the only Doctor Who companion to appear in any of the various Twilight Zone series. John Dehner, who had appeared in my all-time favorite Maverick episode the year before this, has a small role as the supply ship’s commander. I think that it’s a very good little half hour, even if my boy does not agree.
In pretty sharp contrast to the most recent episode of The Avengers that we watched, which featured an element that your typical secret agent show had never seen before, here’s an episode of The Twilight Zone with a twist that I can’t imagine any adult in 1959 finding at all surprising. I picked this one for its guest appearance by David Wayne as a bored hypochondriac, but the real fun is seeing an actor called Thomas Gomez, who plays the Devil, under the name “Mr. Cadwallader,” with a mischievous sense of fun with all the dialogue that he’s been given.
Again, we had to pause to explain the narrative a little bit. Newly immortal, David Wayne’s character becomes a thrill-seeker arranging accidents and then collecting thousands in insurance money. Sometimes, we watch the story unfold with a little smile before remembering that there’s a six year-old in the audience. “So… this probably doesn’t make any sense at all to you, does it?” Still, he understood enough to see what a mess Wayne had got himself into with the devil, and facepalmed admirably when the inevitable problem came crashing down, which is delicious for younger viewers if obvious to their parents. The sentence the court passes on this immortal character for the crime of murdering his wife is, of course, life imprisonment.
One thing I hadn’t figured on when watching The Twilight Zone with a six year-old: sometimes Rod Serling’s purple narration is going to go straight over his head. As a case in point, here’s a tale of a fifty-something retired actress, Barbara Jean Trenton, played by the great Ida Lupino. As the episode begins, we see Trenton watching an old romantic film in which she had starred twenty-five years earlier. And Serling says:
“Picture of a woman looking at a picture. Movie great of another time, once-brilliant star in a firmament no longer a 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.”
In other words, we’re in Sunset Boulevard territory, and needed to pause the episode to explain what in the world that meant to our kid.
Lupino is just terrific as the unhappy and unpleasant Trenton, with Martin Balsam suffering stoically as her agent and friend. Unlike the twist in the previous episode that we watched, this one’s sharp turn into the supernatural won’t be such a surprise to grownups, but for kids, it really is a fun one. It’s helped along by Alice Frost, as Trenton’s maid, letting out a completely fabulous scream of horror when she sees what has happened.
When the twist is revealed, our son, wide-eyed, said “That is really scary and mysterious!” Good; he’ll be all ready for Sapphire & Steel in a few years, where such a turn wouldn’t be out of place. Frankly, I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to see David McCallum show up to confiscate Trenton’s copy of the old movie. It’s that good.