If I might risk being accused of echoing the same good-ole-days-isms that Rod Serling kept coming back to in season one of The Twilight Zone, the audiences of 1961 had one big advantage over the audiences of 2018. Just about everybody who sat down to watch Richard Matheson’s “Once Upon a Time” knew who Buster Keaton was. And it’s not as though he’s unknown today, but I think that even when I was six years old in 1977-78, I knew who Keaton was, if by stunts and not necessarily by name, and what silent films were. But since time has marched on, and since there’s simply so much more film and television being made today than in the 1970s, audiences have to make more of an effort to go back and see something old. When there were only eight channels, you’d run into older stuff without trying.
My son needed a crash course, so before we watched this morning’s episode, we spent nine minutes watching a 2015 episode of Every Frame a Painting on YouTube. He enjoyed a few good chuckles and got a quick handle on the title cards and player piano language of silent movies. I had never seen this particular episode of Zone, so I wasn’t sure what specifically to emphasize. I was right to point out the physicality of Keaton’s work. He was 65 years old when this episode was made, and still pulled pratfalls and stumbles that looked like they really could have hurt, and he ran down the streets of the backlot chasing one fellow or another with the energy of a man in his twenties.
The episode is a charming delight, and our son really got into it. He loved the slapstick and the physical humor, and got amusingly outraged when some juvenile delinquent on roller skates pilfers Keaton’s Time Helmet. His character, who’s sent on a half-hour trip seventy years into his future, even gets to do some Catweazle-like gags about the baffling technology of the modern day, and our son had definitely seen those sort of yuks before.
One final note just to praise the co-star: casting Stanley Adams was a stroke of genius, because when the episode goes from silent movie to noisy modern day, who better to cast than an actor with as deep and booming a voice as Adams? It makes the juxtaposition even funnier. And one thing I didn’t specifically point out to my son when we watched the YouTube episode was that in Keaton’s old movies, the characters within the frame could only see what the audience could see. There’s a terrific set of gags that require Keaton to hide behind Adams’ larger body, making him completely invisible to a policeman who in reality would certainly have seen him. But it works so well because everybody making this comedy is telling a classic, well-worn joke to an appreciative audience. Since our son likes silly things much more than serious things, except when there are explosions, he certainly appreciated this one.
Tonight’s episode of The Twilight Zone gave us the opportunity to talk with our son about superstitions. That’s after we got him calmed down from this remarkably effective half-hour of horror. He was so frightened that he was shivering!
So this time, Charles Beaumont has written the script from one of his short stories. The great John Dehner – he played the villain in my all-time favorite episode of Maverick – plays an oil company executive who has paid careful attention to the superstitions and magic rites of a tribe in Africa who will be displaced by his company’s hydroelectric dam project. He’s a marked man and his fate is inevitable, but getting there is thirty minutes of quiet, growing terror as something in the silent, three-in-the-morning streets of New York follows him.
There’s a really terrific scene where Dehner’s colleagues scoff at his explanation of the curse that has been threatened, but he points out the hypocrisy in their use of rabbit’s feet and horoscopes and buildings that don’t have a thirteenth floor. “Why doesn’t it have a thirteenth floor,” asked our son. We mumbled we’d tell him later. When the episode was finished, he was too scared to really care.
I amused myself last night by telling our son, who, like little Anthony Fremont, is six, that this episode of The Twilight Zone is about a boy who can have everything that he wants, only it’s told from the adult’s perspective. He puzzled over what that might mean while I chuckled.
The really interesting thing about watching Bill Mumy’s star turn in “It’s a Good Life,” written by Rod Serling from a short story by Jerome Bixby, in the company of a six year-old is comparing Anthony’s utter lack of emotional maturity with our boy’s. Our son, of course, has been told “no” many, many times. He watched in real fascination as this horrifying story unfolded, with John Larch and Cloris Leachman absolutely riveting in their portrayals of parents crippled with fear at what their son has become.
“One teeny thing I like about The Twilight Zone is that it teaches you a lesson,” our son offered unexpectedly. We talked a little bit about how important it is to be told you can’t do something, and to understand why, when possible. I’m sure that won’t keep him from wishing we could be teleported into some cornfield the next time that we tell him he’s had enough screen time for the day, but maybe he’ll not judge us too harshly now that he has seen what can become of kids who get absolutely everything that they want.
Montgomery Pittman’s “The Grave” is absolutely packed with top-shelf acting talent. Shown above, that’s Lee Marvin, Stafford Repp, and Strother Martin. Lee Van Cleef and James Best are on the other side of the room.
With that many good actors, it’s easy to overlook the nothing of a story. Like some of the other, lesser Zone installments that we’ve watched, this is just a three-page comic book ghost story. Our son thought it was okay. I wouldn’t have even thought it was as good as that had Lee Marvin not been growling and drawing his gun so fast that he didn’t look human.
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.
I knew going in that “The Obsolete Man” was probably going to be a little over our six year-old’s head. I also knew the blasted kid would fail to recognize Burgess Meredith yet again, and I was right. Rod Serling’s story is a warning about a totalitarian state which, having proved that God does not exist and books are unnecessary, has begun a long purge of citizens who do not contribute to society. Librarians like Meredith’s character are in line to be “liquidated,” leading to a war of nerves between Meredith’s character and a State chancellor played by Fritz Weaver.
The concept was a bit heady for him, although drawing a comparison to the original film of Logan’s Run, which, honestly by chance, he rewatched just a couple of days ago, helped him understand that this is one of those stark and awful futures where the government decides who lives and dies and the people just go along with it. He was still a little thrown by the visuals, though. The librarian’s apartment is handled simply enough, but the State office is a minimalist nightmare with a towering podium. It is designed and lit like something from German expressionist cinema; the citizens who pass judgement on their fellows’ obsolescence move like dancers hired for an experimental theater production. It’s very exciting to see something that looks so thunderously strange and written with such anger and passion shown on a major network.
I was very pleased to hear him quizzing his mommy about what he’d seen. They had a good discussion about the value of people. This was a very worthwhile half-hour.
That’s all from the second season of The Twilight Zone, but stay tuned! We’ll be looking at some highlights from season three in March.
There are a couple of more obvious visuals that one might provide to illustrate the famous and delightful Rod Serling story “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?,” but I didn’t want to be obvious. Even though one photo of Barney Phillips is so iconic that it’s used as his main biography picture at IMDB, I think there may yet be one or two people in the world who don’t know where this episode goes. They even use the photo as the illustration in the DVD booklet! Life is full enough of spoilers, and the ending is so amusing that it should have been kept a little more secretive.
I had hoped that our son might play along and try to guess which of seven bus passengers stranded in a rural diner called the Hi-Way Cafe might be a space alien, but he didn’t. He was more concerned about why the Martian landed his ship in a pond. It just goes to show you, sometimes there’s a deeper mystery to consider than the one that the program makers wish for you to ponder.
Anyway, other than Phillips, this episode features a small cast of notable actors, including John Hoyt and Jack Elam, who’s aggravatingly blocking a funny little sign promising buttermilk hot cakes for 60 cents in the picture above. You could add ham or bacon for fifteen cents more. Coffee is a dime a cup, and they charge for refills. Does anybody remember paying a buck forty for fourteen cups of coffee? Sometimes the past isn’t just another country, it’s another planet. Mars, probably.
Elam also namechecks Ray Bradbury when the state troopers foolishly let everybody know that they’re looking for a space alien. Bradbury would contribute a teleplay to The Twilight Zone‘s next season, which of course we plan to watch. Look for that in the spring. And, in a funny but still disagreeable moment, those Oasis cigarettes that we talked about last time make an in-story appearance, where one of the characters comments on their pleasant taste. Maxwell House should have sponsored that dime-a-cup coffee, so somebody could note that it’s good to the last drop.
Overall, I have been much, much happier with the season two episodes that I selected for us to sample, but I had to hit a loser eventually. In Rod Serling’s “The Rip Van Winkle Caper,” Oscar Beregi Jr. and Simon Oakland are among a group of four criminals who heist a train and go into suspended animation for a century to avoid detection. Weirdly, Serling didn’t do anything with the resulting situation that even required suspended animation and de facto time travel, just the desperation of criminals in the desert. There are some good performances – Oakland’s character is remarkably vicious – but I was left wanting them to get on with it and check out the world of the 2060s already.
By far the most interesting thing about the presentation was seeing Rod Serling endorse Oasis cigarettes after a preview of next week’s installment. Evidently, Oasis offered “the softest taste of all.” It doesn’t quite have the “I can’t believe I just saw that” cache of the Flinstones hawking Winston cigarettes, but it was an oddball little surprise. Since so many of these sponsorship ads from the period were trimmed from the films for rebroadcast, it was nice to see this in such splendid quality! Although clearly Oasis should have enlisted the services of the Flinstones because they still make Winstons, unfortunately, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard of Oasis before this evening.