Thursday, December 23, 2010

TZ Promo: "The Night of the Meek" (12/23/1960)

"The Night of the Meek"
Season Two, Episode 11 (#47 overall)
Cayuga Production # 173-3663

The second of season two's six videotaped offerings, "The Night of the Meek" manages to transcend its humble production limitations and offer something truly remarkable. It's transcendent, period. I watch it every year around the holidays, where it stands proudly alongside such venerable classics as It's a Wonderful Life, White Christmas, and Miracle on 34th Street. Tonight, this delightful episode turns 50.

There is literally nothing wrong with this episode, which is a bit of a surprise, given that it's a light comedy by Serling (Serling and comedy mix about as well as oil and water). Art Carney is utterly charming, swimming in pathos but eager to please, as Henry Corwin, a drunken bum who, once a year, works as a department store Santa Claus (how he survives the rest of the year is a mystery).

John Fiedler is equally impressive as the prickish department store manager who berates him, fires him, then sics the cops on him. We dislike him, but we never really hate him. C'mon, it's Christmas. We don't hate anyone this time of year. By the end of the episode, we'll actually kinda like him.

1994's The Santa Clause stole its basic premise from this episode, which is my way of telling you how this episode turns out without actually telling you. 2003's Bad Santa, meanwhile, stole the idea of a drunk who works as a department store Santa. However, Henry Corwin is nothing like the slimy criminal that Billy Bob Thornton portrayed. He's a decent guy, terminally sad, usually drunk. He reminds us of Jack Klugman's Joey Crown, from season one's "A Passage for Trumpet."

In a strange way, the blurry videotape look actually works in the episode's favor. There's an immediacy to it, like live TV, and a spontaneous vibe that adds to the magic. The impressive set, which looks about the size of a full city block, is perpetually blanketed in falling snow.

And there are reindeer! REAL LIVE reindeer!

Our friends at Bif Bang Pow! have a Henry Corwin/Santa Claus action figure in the works (a prototype was shown at Comic Con in July; he's in the background above), but we likely won't see it till late 2011.... just in time for the holidays, I imagine.

Next week: Repeat city, folks. Season One's "A Stop at Willoughby" gets its second showing. In two weeks: We're back to film again (man, season two's like a yo-yo!), where we find a young man on the eve of his execution. If you're still glowing with holiday cheer by then, this should take care of that.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

TZ Promo: “A Most Unusual Camera” (12/16/1960)

“A Most Unusual Camera”
Season Two, Episode 10 (#46 overall)
Cayuga Production # 173-3606

I have a simple rating system when it comes to The Twilight Zone: good-to-excellent, mediocre, or lousy. Fifty years ago tonight, an episode of the third, least-desirable variety premiered.

Written by Rod Serling and directed by John Rich, “A Most Unusual Camera” starts off with a pretty cool concept: an instant camera whose pictures depict events five minutes in the future. A trio of quarrelsome thieves comes into possession of the camera as part of their latest heist and, once they discover its unique properties, they form a plan to use it for their own financial gain. Well, of course they do. That’s not really the problem. The problem is that there’s never really any tension, particularly when the thieves become greedy (okay, greedier) and start turning on one another (a similar group-disintegration will occur later this season, much more effectively, in “The Rip Van Winkle Caper”).

The cast is comprised of the three thieves and a nosy hotel employee, and all four of them are gratingly unpleasant, particularly Jean Carson in the female lead. Again, the whole thing is just lousy. It’s not “Mr. Bevis” lousy, but it’s… just damned lame. Worse, the whole thing is played as a comedy, and like so many other Serling attempts at comedy, it just ain’t funny.

Ugh. What else can I say? There’s nothing redeeming to be found here. The idea of a camera that captures images from the future is immediate and promising, and it’s completely squandered. I can only wonder what Jack Finney would’ve done with such an idea.

On the subject of Finney: many of his short stories from the 50’s and 60’s (collected in The Third Level and I Love Galesburg in the Springtime, both out of print and well worth tracking down; I have worn copies of both and cherish them) would’ve made ideal The Twilight Zone episodes; however, none of them were ever adapted for the series. Much attention has been paid over the years to the fact that only one script by science fiction luminary Ray Bradbury was produced on the series but, for my money, The Finney Shutout (as I’ve come to call it) is even more shocking. “Of Missing Persons,” “Where the Cluetts Are,” “The Coin Collector,” “Lunch Hour Magic”... that’s four, right off the top of my head, and there are many more. It’s a damned, depressing shame that Finney and The Twilight Zone never crossed paths.

Next week: Just in time for Christmas! Art Carney stars as the original Bad Santa. A holiday perennial, and a great one at that. Don your stocking cap and mittens and tune in.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

TZ Promo: "The Trouble with Templeton" (12/09/1960)

“The Trouble With Templeton”
Season Two, Episode 9 (#45 overall)
Cayuga Production # 173-3649

Tonight’s episode, first aired on this date exactly fifty years ago, features a man in a morose state of nostalgia who somehow finds himself transported to his coveted past. No, his name isn’t Martin Sloan.

“The Trouble with Templeton” is a competent production, but in all honesty, I’ve never felt particularly warm toward it. Perhaps my “meh” feeling stems from the fact that, on a thematic level, nothing happens here that we haven’t already seen in previous episodes, most notably season one’s “Walking Distance”… and on every level, this episode is inferior to that gentle masterpiece. Like I said, it’s competent enough on its own, but there’s really nothing transcendent going on here.

Oh, except for one thing. There’s a jaw-droppingly beautiful shot late in the episode: Templeton has sought out his dead wife in a speakeasy, where he hopes for a sweet reunion with his lost love. He’s met instead with a raucous barrage of loud Dixieland jazz and general obnoxious behavior. He objects, gets himself slapped across the face, and flees. The ghosts of his past abruptly drop their drunken merriment act as they watch him go. The music stops, everyone stands still, and the lights go down… except for a single spotlight, which the beautiful Pippa Scott steps into, an incalculable longing in her eyes.

I guess that’s an interesting point, one that perhaps elevates the episode a bit. Templeton aches for the dead past, but it appears that dead past aches even more for him. A sobering thought.

“The Trouble with Templeton” is written by E. Jack Neuman, so at least it’s not Serling pilfering himself this time around (he’ll do enough of that as the series progresses). Buzz Kulik directs. Brian Ahern and the aforementioned Pippa Scott star.

Interesting cast note: the snooty theater director is played by a young Sydney Pollack, who would go on to a rather impressive directing career (he won an Academy Award for 1982’s Out of Africa). Pollack continued to act periodically as well, turning in memorable performances in Tootsie (which he also directed) and Eyes Wide Shut, among many others. He passed away in 2008. Here, he’s an arrogant ass… which is exactly what he’s supposed to be.

I would be remiss if I failed to mention the lovely score by Jeff Alexander. It's comprised mostly of fairly generic Dixieland-style jazz, but sprinkled throughout are some very lovely cues. One in particular, "Cerebellum," will reappear in season four's "Death Ship" and season five's "Probe 7 - Over and Out." It's a beautiful little piece of music.

Next week: A band of thieves gets their grubby mitts on a camera that takes pictures of the future. Intriguing concept, right? Don't get your hopes up. Say cheese and tune in.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

TZ Promo: "The Lateness of the Hour" (12/02/1960)

“The Lateness of the Hour”
Season Two, Episode 8 (#44 overall)
Cayuga Production # 173-3652

50 years ago tonight, something quite bizarre happened on The Twilight Zone, and it had nothing to do with the story being presented. The picture looked… well, different somehow. Perhaps viewers didn’t notice, given the low quality of TVs back then, but the filmed program they’d been enjoying every week for a year-and-a-half was suddenly not film at all.

Videotape. Oh god, the dreaded videotape. Six episodes were shot on video during season 2 as a cost-cutting measure. Videotape was a primitive format in 1960; it certainly wasn’t the high definition format of choice that it’s evolved into over the past 50 years. Back then, it looked terrible. It’s like watching the show through a fishbowl smeared with Vaseline. Thankfully, the cost-cutting wasn’t that consequential, so they stopped after six and returned to film. The experiment, unfortunately, yielded six episodes that are permanently and irrevocably inferior to their 35mm siblings; happily, though, most of them are actually fairly decent (and watchable) episodes despite their visual failings. One of them, however, is just plain awful… but we’ll get to that one next month. Another of them, meanwhile, is an absolute treasure that transcends its technical limitations… we’ll be checking it out in three weeks, just in time for Christmas (that’s a hint, folks).

The first of the six to be broadcast, “The Lateness of the Hour,” stars the lovely Inger Stevens (last seen in “The Hitch-hiker”) as Jana, the terminally unhappy daughter of Dr. Loren (John Hoyt), who has staffed their mansion with robot servants and apparently keeps her confined to the house at all times. Jana hates the robots, and demands that her father get rid of them. More unhappiness ensues.

Written by Rod Serling and directed by Jack Smight (who directed three of the six videotaped episodes, plus season 1's "The Lonely"), “The Lateness of the Hour” is infused with a palpable sense of claustrophobia, due in part to Jana’s confinement to the house, and also due to the limitations of shooting on video. The entire episode takes place in two rooms (and a staircase). Since this particular story is light on action and heavy on dialogue (it could easily translate to a stage play), not much is ultimately lost by shooting it on video.

Next week: Speaking of stage plays, we’ll spend some time with one Mr. Booth Templeton, a renowned thespian who yearns to escape to his younger days. Like Martin Sloan before him, he’ll get his chance… but with a catch.