Last week, we watched The Twilight Zone not to learn answers or to receive moral lessons. Instead, Rod Serling unsettled us with the fear of the unknown, the situation that has no answer. This week, in the most classic of the episodes we watched, Serling shows us that he can scare us and explain it all away. Instead of science or space, we find something . . . stranger, even if the settings are a typical family home, a pool hall, or a bright, busy department store.
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“The After Hours” (written by Rod Serling; original broadcast 6/10/60)
So far, our class has watched only one episode centered around a female character. That was “The Hitchhiker,” and while there are a couple of scenes where Inger Stevens is seemingly menaced by different men, in actually gender means very little in that story. In fact, the original radio played featured Orson Welles in the part!
“The After Hours” is another story: Anne Francis makes this episode, turning in one of the strongest performances by an actress in the entire series. Her beauty, the fearful reactions to the unknown, and her – dare I say it? – stiff performance at the end all justify why this one is a classic.
Francis plays Marsha White, a customer at a large, bustling department store straight out of a 50’s sitcom. The music that opens the episode is stock light-hearted fare, while the employees, maddeningly cheerful to the customers, are played for laughs, exemplified by the great James Millhollin, whose face you should recognize from his appearances in hundreds of TV shows.
Marsha is looking for a gold thimble, and her search leads her and the audience to this great dichotomy between the soulless cheer of a big store and something darker and creepier. She finds herself alone on an elevator, taken by a strange elevator boy to the 9th floor, which is empty – except for an equally strange salewoman (Elizabeth Allen) with one item to sell: a gold thimble.
Francis does a brilliant job showing Marsha’s growing disquiet and its transformation into terror when she returns to the main floors to discover that her thimble is scratched, the store doesn’t even have a ninth floor, and the salesgirl, whom Marsha spots near the manager’s office, turns out to be – a mannequin.
The second half of the episode, where Marsha awakens to discover she has been locked inside the closed store, is a study in ramping up suspense. There is no music, only the sound of Marsha’s steps on the hard floor. The store was a repurposed movie set that had served as a giant newspaper office, and it allows Heyes to create long fluid shots of Marsha walking through the deserted displays.
Those who, like me, love their musical theatre, will no doubt be reminded of Stephen Sondheim’s 1966 television musical, Evening Primrose, about an eerie subculture of people living their lives in a closed department store. It was based on a 1940 short story by John Collier, and Rod Serling was actually accused of plagiarizing Collier’s work, although the charge never amounted to anything. One of the strongest similarities between the two works is the delicate fantasy that hangs over the respective communities. The very real denizens of Evening Primrose have distant memories of the real world but seek refuge from it in the store. In one of the most beautiful of Sondheim’s songs, a young woman somewhat like Marsha recalls what it was like:
I remember sky
It was blue as ink
Or at least I think
I remember sky . . .
I remember days
Or at least I try
But as years go by
They’re sort of haze
And the bluest ink
Isn’t really sky
And at times I think
I would gladly die
For a day of sky
Some of the commentaries I read stress the horror and/or grimness of “The After Hours.” In the end, however, what we are given is pure fantasy: in this TZ world, mannequins have the power to live one month out of the year amongst the “outsiders.” That was what Marsha was doing; her turn was over, and she simply forgot to return. Her return to her own reality is traumatic, for Marsha and the viewer, but once she accepts the truth and returns to her “old job,” we get a bit of reassurance from Jim Millhollin, as Mr. Armbruster, strutting about at the start of a new workday, only to be stopped in his tracks by a familiar face!
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“A Game of Pool” (written by George Clayton Johnson; original broadcast 10/13/61)
This episode, about a man playing the match of his life for the highest stakes there are, is made more meaningful by the fact that it was also comedian Jonathan Winters’ first chance to play a dramatic role. Personally, there are many instances for me where I prefer a comedian when he plays it straight: rubber-faced clowns like Jim Carrey and Robin Williams excelled in their rare entry into dramatic roles. Jonathan Winters does a fine job here as Fats Brown, the world’s greatest billiards player, who is literally called down from heaven to take on the challenge of Jesse Cardiff (Jack Klugman), a fine living player who chafes under the legendary status of the late Fats. The contest becomes a battle to the death, and of course there’s a twist.
And there’s the rub.
I don’t like the twist. I don’t much like the episode, despite the intense work by Klugman that more than equals Winters. Jesse’s loud frustration that he can’t prove himself a better player than a dead man is highly childish, but when Fats appears before him and issues a challenge to the death, Jesse isn’t an idiot. He is respectful of Fats and considers betting his own life on a game of pool to be as stupid an idea as it sounds. Ultimately, the late champion goads Jesse into agreeing to this duel of cues – a nice way of putting it since George Clayton Johnson’s dialogue zings like the clack of cues against balls.
What it all leads to is sort of a pain, if you ask me, and it’s fascinating that producer Buck Houghton complained that this episode was a bear to end. They abandoned Johnson’s original ending, where Jesse loses the game and, instead of dying, is informed that he will live an ignominious life. Instead, they ended up with Jesse winning and becoming stuck as the new heavenly champion who, like Fats before him, must now answer the call of every boastful wannabe with a stick in his hand.
What are we supposed to make of this in the end? That’s it’s tiresome being a legend for eternity? That Ella Fitzgerald and Agatha Christie and Gandhi and Jesus get bored over being called out by future singers and authors and saviors who want to better them? The thought seems ridiculous to me. Watch this episode for two fine performers knocking back some sharp dialogue. As for the rest . . . well, unlike Jesse, I’m going to hold my tongue.
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“Long Distance Call” (written by William Idelson and Charles Beaumont; original broadcast 3/3/61)
A little boy’s sickly grandmother loves him so much that before she dies she gives him a toy telephone so that her ghost can call him and drive him to suicide.
I suppose this one will hit some people in terms of how we deal with grief and the loss of a parent or child, and indeed the early scenes are effecting But the darkness of the idea of a grandparent willing their little grandson to die feels too morbid for classic Twilight Zone. The parents are good parents; the kid deserves a life, and you would think that an elderly woman would understand this. There’s nothing about the early section of the script to suggest that Grandma is as awful as she turns out to be. The ghoulish possibility that, in death, Grandma isn’t, er, thinking straight may have been explored in dozens of modern horror films, but here it doesn’t feel earned. Of course, in the end, Grandma comes to her senses and lets Billy live. Thank you, Grandma.
This unpleasant little tale does not benefit from the fact that it was one of a half dozen episodes to be recorded on videotape. As a result, it looks cheap and is physically confined by technical limitations to appear like an old-time live TV performance. The acting of Billy Mumy as the little boy is the highlight; he seems to cut through the low-key hysteria that permeates the script.
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For me, this week was only one-third successful, and it’s telling that our bonus material has tenuous connections to The Twilight Zone. Steven Spielberg’s second full-length TV film Duel came up in class for two reasons: first, it was written by Richard Matheson, who penned some fine episodes of TZ, and secondly because we all appreciated Dennis Weaver’s performance in “Shadow Play.” Spielberg also embraced Serling’s belief that our fear of the unknown is the most unbearable. Both men had wonderful results with that one. (Jaws is at its best in the first half, before the shark is seen!)
But I come here to discuss The Twilight Zone. Anne Francis appeared in another episode, my favorite of that year, and it gives me a chance to speak about the ill-fated fourth season of the series.
After three successful years, TZ brought on a new producer, Herbert Hirschman, and made some big changes. The title became just Twilight Zone, and a new opening was created. This last may be the best change of all, but then I may be biased due to the fact that it was the opening I knew best: the crashing window (“SOUND!”), the opening eyeball (“SIGHT!”), the scuba diver (HUH?) That is the Twilight Zone I remember from my youth.
The biggest change was that the show was expanded to the hour. This was as bad an idea as it sounds. According to Marc Zicree in The Twilight Zone Companion, Richard Matheson said, “The ideal Twilight Zone started with a really smashing idea that hit you right in the first few seconds, then you played that out, and you had a little slip at the end, that was destruction.” Both Rod Serling and former producer Buck Houghton acknowledged that hour-long episodes required padding that destroyed this formula. According to Houghton: “People go along with an old gag. You say, ‘Hey, I’ve got this fellow who can walk through walls.’ ‘OK, what else you got?’ By the time the fortieth minute comes along, you gotta be walking on water to keep an audience.”
The change in format, accompanied by a later switch in broadcast time, all but eliminated the mass of kids who flocked to the series. After one ill-fated season, Twilight Zone returned to the half-hour format for its final year. It’s no accident that we have been assigned not a single hour-long episode . . . but some of them are pretty good, and one of them is a favorite of mine.
In 1963, Earl Hamner Jr. was on the cusp of media greatness. In May, his movie Spencer’s Mountain would be released, and just under a decade later it would serve as the basis for Hamner’s long-running TV success, The Waltons. He would go on to create the nighttime soap, Falcon Crest, but Hamner’s forte was bucolic country fare. He wrote eight episodes of Twilight Zone. Most of them were in the back seasons and included the last episode shown: “The Bewitchin’ Pool” tells the story of two children who escape their battling parents by diving into their swimming pool and emerging in a paradise of cornpone happiness.
To me, Hamner’s best episode was “Jess-Belle”, an original folk tale come to life that’s a cross between the Bette Davis classic Jezebel and a country version of Val Lewton’s 1944 horror film The Curse of the Cat People. Once again, Marc Zicree provides a wonderful story of the episode’s genesis: Hamner got a call from producer Hirschman telling him that an upcoming script for the series had had to be scrapped and a new one needed to be substituted in a week! Nervously, Hamner accepted the assignment and came up with a beautiful script and an original folk song by the deadline.
Anne Francis plays Jess-Belle, a backwoods country girl who has fallen in love with Billy-Ben Turner (James Best). Their torrid dalliance ends when he proposes to a “proper” girl, the beautiful and kind Ellwyn Glover (Laura Devon). In desperation, Jess-Belle visits a local woman named Granny Hart who is reputed to be a witch.
Jeanette Nolan plays Granny Hart to the hilt, transforming on camera from a hideous crone to an elegant lady with a mere change in posture and expression. She gives Jess-Belle a love potion but extracts a terrible price: the girl’s soul. The rest of the episode is a series of battles between good and evil until all is made right at the end.
There’s not an ounce of irony, not the hint of a twist here. Instead, we get an old-fashioned love story tempered by magic. It is well-directed by Buzz Kulik and beautifully photographed by Robert W. Pittack, while Van Cleave’s score is countrified when it needs to be and ramps up the horror whenever there’s witchcraft brewing. Even though she does terrible things, Jess-Belle is not really evil; in fact, she doesn’t even understand until it’s too late what her love has cost her. Another fine actress, Virginia Gregg, plays Jess-Belle’s mother, who reminds Billy-Ben just before the final showdown that there was enough good in her daughter that that she would be thankful for whatever he needed to do to end this curse. (One can’t help but thing of the poignancy at the end of The Wolfman here.)
Re-watching this episode after so many years, I’ll admit I was afraid that I would find it corny or, worse, tedious. But it is beautifully written and doesn’t suffer a bit from the 4th season curse of padded episodes. It’s a highpoint of Season Four – something just a bit different for The Twilight Zone.
Next week, we learn where Annabelle, MEGYN and Chucky came from. Oh, and we take a little trip . . . with a gremlin!!!
4 thoughts on “THE TWILIGHT ZONE, PART 6: Other Dimensions Are Where You Find Them”
I don’t think it’s that Ella Fitzgerald and Agatha Christie and Gandhi and Jesus get bored over being called out by future singers and authors and saviors who want to better them. It’s really more a matter that their reputations are unfairly subject to jealous malignment due to their record. How many watch CITIZEN KANE the first time, not with an openness to enjoy or appreciate, but with mentally folded arms, thinking, “this is the greatest? Prove it to me!” How often do we hear (or even feel) about all types of works, “I guess my expectations were too high because I heard such wonderful things about it.” (Hell, my ongoing criticism of THE MOUSETRAP is not as much based on its own merit as a cute, harmless play, but as its undeserved status as the longest running play in history).
Think of the resentment given films such as CAVALCADE, or actors such as Luise Rainer, less treasured for deserved merit than resented for their undeserved awards (it’s now rather a cliche that second place winners on the likes of America’s Got Talent really have it better than the winners in public esteem— we’re always ready to admire “cheated” underdogs, and resent undeserved winners). And even deserved winners are constantly up against the “prove it to me” mindset— reputation is a punching bag, and world records are the greatest punching bags of all. Being the best— especially being KNOWN as the best— is more an invitation for jealousy than admiration; to be the greatest is to be Mr. Denton on Doomsday. So, no, the spirits of the greatest aren’t weary of comparison, but their reputations will always be subject to movements to bring them down rather to be cherished, and an often unconscious desire to prove that they’re really not “all that.”
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Well, you raise some interesting points. When I did my research to write about 100 years of Christie during the Centennial of Styles, I am covered a lot of evidence that suggested the reason many successful mystery. Writers disdained Christi was because her continued, overwhelming popularity pushed aside the achievements of some modern authors. And that is what is going on with Jack Klugman here: evidently he is a really great pool player, but the late reputation of Fats gets in the way of the adoration he feels he deserves. Fatts says that he keeps coming down to weed out the undeserving people. It implies that the whiny Klugman is such a person, but I’m still a bit baffled that he his punishment is to be as adored as he wanted to be. He should enjoy coming down from heaven to prove it. Of course, the suggestion here is that he – and Fats before him – is eternally “on call.” it makes me wonder why his resting place is depicted as heavenly, rather than hellish. But then Rod Serling created all sorts of interesting depictions of hell.
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So glad to see JESS-BELLE getting some love, it’s a real favourite of mine. And not just from season 4. I know what you mean about GAME OF POOL, it’s one of several cost-savings episodes with 3 characters or less in a single set (apart from some dry ice). It’s beautifully shot and the actors are great but it doesn’t quite come off (the 1980s remake uses the other ending by Johnson so worth seeing). Apparently several other writers also claimed that AFTER HOURS pinched its premise (including the great Jack Finney) but it’s Serling through and through I think. Very typical of his brand of existential angst.
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I was hoping you would get to The After Hours and pleased when I saw this post. It was one of the first Twilight Zone episodes I ever saw years ago and hooked me forever on the show’s brilliance with surprise endings.
While some may be critical of the slow pacing in the first half (focused too much on Marsha’s shopping trip), I think this was done on purpose to increase the tension slowly and catch the viewer off guard. For me it is a memorable and influential episode as it features the show’s ability to create striking imagery and eerie, unsettling atmospheres.