Night Gallery 1.1 – The Dead Man / The Housekeeper

After a successful pilot, NBC ordered a six episode first season of Night Gallery. They aired the episodes as part of the umbrella series Four in One starting in December 1970 and led with an hour that comprises two absolute turkeys. You can pretty much sum them up as “dated, sexist trash.” I found a thing or two to like about each installment, but nobody else in the house did.

Both installments were scripted by Douglas Heyes, a great, great writer who was responsible for some tremendously good episodes of Maverick. “The Dead Man” is an adaptation of a short story by Fritz Leiber, and maybe it would read better as a creepy little tale. Unfortunately, when you dramatize a story like this, you have to put the story’s lone female character front and center. Fickle and hungry for a younger lover, she’s ready to ditch her older husband, a doctor running a private clinic, for his hunky blond patient.

When the patient dies in an experiment, she loses her freaking mind, and turns hysterical in the way that fiction demands but real life never actually sees. It builds to a creepy crescendo that would tell magnificently around a campfire deep in the woods, but on television leaves the woman looking inhumanly stupid. At least her screams as she runs through the graveyard were sufficient to creep our kid out. It wasn’t the denouement, but the screams, so credit to the actress. (Interestingly, a screaming female villain at the end of a recently-watched Kolchak similarly had him wide-eyed.)

By any objective measure, “The Housekeeper” is even worse, but I got a kick out of Larry Hagman’s performance as the villain. I felt the need to point out to our son that he was the villain because I was afraid he might think that the protagonist was the hero, just a jerk of one! Hagman’s looking for a kind-hearted “old hag” to undergo a magical personality transplant with his younger, sexier, hateful and rich wife, who’s about to leave him and cut him off. Jeanette Nolan, under some heavy makeup and blacked-out teeth, is sweet enough to see his point of view, but maybe that’s not the only point of view that she sees. Again, unfortunately, actually giving the women in the story dialogue and body language underlines what a feeble, male fantasy concept this is. Hagman didn’t need a nice old lady with a kind heart; he needed Lady Macbeth, Norma Desmond, or Cruella de Vil. Better luck next time, you amateur.

The Twilight Zone 4.7 – Jess-Belle

Did it just not occur to this girl’s parents that naming her Jess-Belle was asking for trouble?

A couple of nights ago, our son got intrigued by the preview for tonight’s story, which was written by Earl Hamner Jr., because it mentioned witches and showed a big jungle cat. I was interested because the jezebel in question is played by Anne Francis. If it’s 1963 and Anne Francis wants to buy a love spell and bewitch me, then I’m totally fine with her turning into a big jungle cat from midnight until dawn.

Hamner is best remembered as the creator of The Waltons and Apple’s Way, and he worked on the cartoon adaptation of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. He seemed to enjoy telling stories of folklore from the Appalachians and the Ozarks, or much farther away and and just set in an electricity-free Blue Ridge Mountains. These are God-fearing people, and they practice a faith that I believe is rarely seen on contemporary television, and as such, they are not likely to be very sympathetic to witchcraft. That said, it might seem a little odd that everybody simultaneously knows all about Jeanette Nolan’s character’s spells and potions and yet gets very concerned about the right way to kill witches. That’s the way in northeast Georgia. People will drive to church and buy salves from the wart witch in the gravel lot after the sermon. It’s only when people actually turn into leopards that there’s a problem.

James Best is fairly awesome as the fellow who’s been bewitched, and I really enjoyed seeing this story unfold and, like the last one we saw, stretch out and breathe and not follow the strict Zone formula, but our son felt a little bit betrayed. There was a whole lot less of people shooting at wild animals than he hoped, and a whole lot more smooching. The embraces, the kisses, the talking of marriage, the dancing… we’re lucky he sat as still as he did!

The Rescuers (1977)

Did my son wake you this morning? Today, we watched what he pronounced as his all-time favorite movie. He went all Spinal Tap on it. I asked him how much he enjoyed Disney’s The Rescuers on a scale of one to ten, and he replied, “If ten is my absolute favorite movie ever, then this is a ten! No! It’s an ELEVEN!” This was after the longest, loudest fit of laughter I can remember. From the bit where the albatross, Orville, gets his tailfeathers singed by a firework to the destruction of the old organ on the rotting riverboat a quarter of an hour later, he was in stitches.

He’s seen a few Disney cartoon films before, most recently Robin Hood, but he’s never loved one quite as much as this. I agree completely. You, dear reader, almost certainly enjoy Disney cartoons more than I do – I just scrolled down the list and maybe find about five tolerable – but there are two that I adore: this and 1970’s The Aristocats.

But actually, looking over Disney’s animation work, I see that The Rescuers was made at a really curious time for the company. For some weird reason, they were only releasing a new cartoon feature about once every four years. I think that they all at least looked splendid – The Rescuers in particular is blessed with some amazing painted backgrounds – but, in the sixties and seventies, these were all taking a back seat to their far superior live-action films.

And I think that this corporate malaise and disinterest in cartoons is what cost Disney their best asset at the time: Don Bluth. He was apparently the lead of four credited “animating directors,” working under three other credited as “directed by,” and, sick of the bureaucracy and wasted time, set up a rival studio with about 20% of Disney’s staff, and then spent a decade kicking the mouse’s rear at the box office. I’m also deeply disinterested in almost all of Bluth’s output, with only Secret of NIMH and Anastasia of any note, but I find the history fascinating. And I think it’s really neat that The Rescuers and Pete’s Dragon, on which Bluth also worked, both came out in 1977. Good year for for a talent like Bluth to flex his muscles. I can believe that had Disney not turned things around in ’89 with the successful Little Mermaid, they probably would have retired their feature animation unit entirely, and our popular culture would be radically different today.

The Rescuers features Eva Gabor and Bob Newhart as two employees of the International Rescue Aid Society, whose office is in a mousehole in the UN building. Gabor plays Miss Bianca, an agent from Hungary, and Newhart is Bernard, a brave-but-shy janitor who is assigned as her co-agent. Other voice work is provided by people who had some more history with Disney, like Bernard Fox and John Fiedler. Jeanette Nolan and John McIntire would come back to do voice work for Disney’s next cartoon, The Fox and the Hound.

The movie is paced brilliantly. It’s a lean 77 minutes, with songs at the appropriate moments, and the action is really funny. Madame Medusa admittedly may not be in the upper tier of Disney villains, but she’s amusingly vulgar and violent. I love the scene where she’s threatening Penny while removing her false eyelashes before bed. She’s so garish and hideous.

Sure, there’s a lot about The Rescuers that falls into standard tropes, like all the heroic animals being capable of speech and the big mean henchbeasts (here a pair of alligators called Nero and Brutus) mute and stupid, but it’s a movie which is funny when it needs to be and nail-bitingly dramatic when it’s called for. The scene where Penny and the mice find the missing diamond and only have moments to extract it before the tide comes in is just remarkably tense, a downright perfect little scene.

I think that The Rescuers came at an interesting time in animation. I don’t believe this film was shown on HBO, but I still group it, emotionally, with some other favorites that were shown on that channel in 1979-81 or so, movies like The Mouse and His Child (which I’d love to see again), The Water Babies, Dot and the Kangaroo, that Raggedy Ann movie with the blue camel, and, of course, Watership Down. I wasn’t aware of them at the time, but Galaxy Express 999 and the Lupin III film everybody knows, Castle of Cagliostro, which are both excellent, also came out during that period. It was a good time for good cartoons, I think. Maybe we’ll watch some for the blog down the line, and see whether any of them get rated as high as eleven.