Sometimes, it’s fair to say that Rod Serling’s prose could get very purple. In “The Masks,” he never uses two words when ten would do. Almost all of the story’s weight is placed on the shoulders of the family patriarch, played by Robert Keith in his final screen role. He died almost three years after this first aired in March of 1964. The story is structured so that almost all of the exchanges are variations on Keith telling his awful family “You’re all terrible people,” and the ungrateful kin politely replying “Please don’t say such awful things.” They have to be polite. They’re in this for his money.
So I was pleased that our son was able to follow along no matter how florid the language became, and he laughed at the insults. It helped that the rotten children and grandchildren were so obviously rotten, drawn in absurdly broad strokes to make the twist work. I think this one could have benefited from being made in the previous season as an hour-long episode. With more time available, the characterization could have been more subtle and the twist more delicious. At least these jerks deserved their fate, which isn’t always the case in this show. As with many other stories we’ve watched, this one got a pronouncement of “creepy!” I think our kid enjoyed it more than he has many others.
I was interested to see that “The Masks” was directed by Ida Lupino, who had starred in the memorable Zone installment “The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine” back in season one. She was doing lots of television directing in the mid-sixties, on shows as disparate as The Fugitive, Gilligan’s Island, and Honey West, when she wasn’t acting.
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.
Far out, baby! Your mind’ll be blown when those wild hepcats, the mad mod Dr. Cassandra and Cabala, totally flatten those square superheroes, Daddy-O! Or not.
So here’s Stanley Ralph Ross’s final episode of the show, and it appears to have been made for no money at all. They didn’t have budget left for stuntmen in the fight scene – which, in the episode’s best moment, Commissioner Gordon clocks at usually lasting forty seconds – so the villains are given invisible pills. Then Batman turns out the lights.
The villains include six of the most famous arch-criminals on the show, all freed from jail to work with Dr. Cassandra: Joker, Riddler, Penguin, Catwoman, Egghead, and, bizarrely, King Tut, whom we just saw two installments previously restored to health and memory. The villains are played by stand-ins who don’t get any dialogue and who aren’t seen in close-up. It’s a phenomenal missed opportunity on one hand – again, imagine how a contemporary superhero series would do this at the end of a season – but it completely convinced Daniel. This might have been one of the highlights of the entire series to him, seeing six classic villains teamed up with newcomers. He’s too young to realize what a big fake-out it really is! And he loved the fight. Seeing our heroes flail around the set being “punched” by invisible villains had him howling with laughter.
As for the newcomers, they’re played by Ida Lupino and her husband Howard Duff. The actors were actually separated at the time, but they wouldn’t get around to divorcing for another sixteen years! Lupino had a long list of disparate film and TV credits and is remembered as one of the first women directors in Hollywood, with a few movies and lots of sixties TV episodes – everything from The Fugitive to Gilligan’s Island – to her credit. Duff had played Sam Spade for years on radio, and starred in ABC’s Felony Squad. He’d actually made a Batclimb cameo in season two in character as his Squad character Detective Stone. Together, the couple had starred in the CBS sitcom Mr. Adams and Eve for two seasons in the fifties.
Tune in next time for the final episode, and, more than a year after she was first approached to play a role, Zsa Zsa Gabor!