The Twilight Zone: Two Games of Pool

Tonight, we switched things up a little and enjoyed a small experiment. In the late 1980s, after CBS had cancelled the revived Twilight Zone, the production company decided to shoot thirty more half-hour episodes as cheaply as possible to make a syndication package. One of these was a remake of George Clayton Johnson’s “A Game of Pool.” We watched the original version of this, starring Jonathan Winters and Jack Klugman, a couple of years ago.

We started by talking about what it meant to the world of the past to have enough episodes for a syndication package. This was a huge problem for studios and production companies in the past, but it doesn’t mean anything anymore. On streaming services, it doesn’t matter if you have 65 or 100 episodes or just two. I don’t know whether CBS Access has ordered a third season of the modern version of Zone, but if they don’t, nobody’s going to shell out for six more episodes to beef the total to 26, are they?

“A Game of Pool” was remounted in 1988 with Esai Morales and Maury Chaykin in the roles of Jesse Cardiff and Fats Brown. I’m going to quibble about this Fats being dead for fifteen years with a late eighties haircut like that, but otherwise it was very interesting to see the choices the director and actors made. The original ran a couple of minutes longer, since TV had fewer ads in 1961, so the color version moves faster and loses some of the monologues. There are almost no two-shots, and far fewer closeups. I’d really recommend any aspiring filmmakers take an hour and watch this more closely than I did; I’m sure they will learn a huge amount about the choices made to present this story.

I’m also sure that, even with the possible presence of a shark to manipulate the tables when the camera is not on the actors, there is enough visual proof of all four actors sinking shots for me to know that I would have lost a game of pool against any of these four men.

The most interesting change about the remake is that they restored the ending of Johnson’s script. It was changed for the black and white run so that Cardiff wins the game, beats Fats, and gets to spend eternity being called down to pool halls from Sandusky to Statesboro to defend his name. In the color version, Cardiff loses, expects Fats to murder him or claim his soul or something, and Fats has a more spirit-crushing fate in mind. Either way, I think the lesson I take from “A Game of Pool” is that playing games to have fun with friends is probably going to be more fulfilling for me than playing against a legend’s reputation.

Our son was attentive but not really appreciative of this experiment. Rewatching the original was all he needed; doing it again felt like work. I confess I’m a little curious now to compare the original version of “The After Hours” to the 1986 one with Terry Farrell, but maybe I won’t make him sit through both of those with me!

This is our 2300th post! We haven’t run out of steam yet though; there are plenty more TV shows and movies to watch!

Alakazam the Great (1960)

For this morning’s movie, we enjoyed a Toei film directed by Taiji Yabushita. It was called Journey to the West when it was first released in Japan in 1960, one of several dozen adaptations of the old folk tale about the monkey king and his companions. In the US, a quite heavily rescripted adaptation was released by B-movie distributors American International Pictures, and featured voiceovers by Jonathan Winters, Arnold Stang, and fandom legend Peter Fernandez, along with five new songs sung by Frankie Avalon.

Alakazam the Great did the rounds of second features and dollar kiddie film matinees in the 1960s before finding its way to every UHF station that didn’t have a lot of money for movies, and most every kid who saw it found it completely charming, funny, and full of action. But it largely vanished from circulation in the 1980s. There was a VHS release through Orion, but the only way to legally see the movie in North America these days is to stream it through Amazon Prime or possibly Netflix or wait for an old, beat up print to make its way to a revival house.

Our son just had a ball with it. Alakazam starts the movie as a coward who gets scared by crickets and spiders, which makes him endearing to a female monkey who really does put up with a lot of crap from him after that. It’s predicted that he will become king of all the animals, so he summons up the courage for the initiation test, and quickly becomes an insufferable, power-mad creep who needs to be taken down many pegs and learn the values of humility, mercy, and wisdom.

So he gets put in his place by a very powerful magic-using king of a higher realm, and sent on a quest with that realm’s prince. Along the way, they have a pair of squabbles with some unpleasant villains, but rather than killing them, Alakazam shows mercy and asks them to join the quest. There’s slapstick comedy, lots and lots of fighting, weird magic, and erupting volcanoes. It’s pretty much everything an eight year-old kid would want from a movie, except possibly swapping out one of the lame Frankie Avalon songs for another fight scene.

Taiji Yabushita directed several animated films for Toei, including 1958’s Panda and the Magic Serpent amd 1967’s hallucinogenic Jack and the Witch, which I’d like to show our kid sometime, so somebody put that out on Blu-ray, please! I really enjoyed this movie’s visual language and attractive artwork, though I’ll blame a bad night’s sleep for contributing to me nodding off a couple of times this morning. Maybe someday, somebody will give this film a nice restoration and a more accurate script and I’ll give it another try without my eyelids getting heavy. In the meantime, our kid liked it enough for both of us.

The Twilight Zone 3.5 – A Game of Pool

Time once again to take a journey into The Twilight Zone. For season three, I’ve picked eleven episodes. These include my all-time favorite story from the series, a classic that I’ve never actually seen, and several, like this one, which have really great actors in them. George Clayton Johnson’s “A Game of Pool” may have been commissioned as a lower-priced entry to shore up the budget. It only has two sets, one fellow offscreen to make some of the trick pool shots, and two speaking parts.

The speaking parts, however, go to a pair of incredibly great actors: Jonathan Winters and Jack Klugman. Winters plays Fats Brown, who died fifteen years ago but has a legend that haunts Klugman’s Jesse Cardiff. The poor man is very good, but he’s chosen to live his life in Fats’s town, in Fats’s pool hall, where he can’t win anything without being compared to Fats. Because I’m stupid, I supposed he must really like the chili dogs in this pool hall, otherwise he could get out of Chicago and play someplace where they’ve never heard of Fats. It took me a second to realize that wouldn’t work. Somebody else’s legend would always precede him.

Our son probably started getting incredibly skeptical when he figured out that’s all this episode was going to be: one high-stakes game of pool between two tense men, one of them dead but with a long shadow. He was pretty restless, and he also didn’t understand the ending at all. I admired the end for its quite elegant simplicity; it didn’t need to hammer the point home, except perhaps to six year-olds, it was telegraphed ahead of time and the whole theme of living up to a legend made it an inevitable conclusion given the rules of this world and its depiction of an afterlife.

As for me, I was more satisfied by Winters’ excellent performance than by the script. I’m so used to seeing Winters in comic parts that the intelligent and nuanced character he played here was a real treat. A later production of The Twilight Zone remade this story in 1989, with Maury Chaykin (Nero Wolfe) as Fats. I wouldn’t mind seeing that.