Cayuga Production # 4821
“You can’t stop kids from playing kick-the-can. It’s like statues, and hide-and-seek. It’s in their blood! It’s a special summer ritual. Did you ever stop to think of it? All kids play those games, and the minute they stop--- they begin to grow old. It’s almost as though playing kick-the-can keeps them young. Did you ever notice that?”
That’s Charles Whitley, who’s just figured out the secret of youth. Ben Conroy, his lifelong friend and fellow resident at Sunnyvale Rest, steadfastly and stubbornly disagrees. 50 years ago tonight, one of them was proven right.
“Kick the Can” is George Clayton Johnson’s fourth and final* Twilight Zone script, and it’s easily his best (if only the other writers could’ve gone out with a similar bang). This is one of those episodes where everything, from Johnson’s script on up, works beautifully. There is a palpable air of sentimentality, but it never becomes cloying or maudlin. The scene in which the nursing home residents, led by Whitley, endeavor to sneak out for a nighttime game of kick-the-can is a sheer delight. There's a simple sweetness that's irresistible.
Ernest Truex is wonderful as Whitley. You can’t help but sympathize with him right off the bat. The opening scene, in which he says his goodbyes to his fellow residents, fully believing that his son is about to pick him up and take him home, is staged masterfully (we only hear snatches of dialogue between father and son; most of the scene consists of the other residents on the front porch, leering expectantly, figuring out that things aren’t going according to Whitley’s hopes). When Whitley’s son drives away without him, and he sits down beneath a nearby tree, near tears, our hearts break for him (which is pretty amazing, given we’ve only known this guy for three minutes). Truex’s face is marvelously expressive, conveying disappointment and heartbreak. From there, his growing elation at figuring out the secret of youth (playing the titular game of kick-the-can) is just plain fun to watch.
Truex was last seen in season one’s “What You Need,” playing a peddler with a supernatural knack for providing exactly what people need at the exact time they need it. He was fine there, but here he truly shines. It’s a shame The Twilight Zone didn’t utilize his talents more.
Equally great is Russell Collins as Conroy. Bitter and tired, he has no patience for Whitley’s sudden flights of fancy and reacts brusquely and without sympathy. The scene in which he discusses Whitley with Sunnyvale’s superintendent, however, belies a convincing concern for his friend, which adds a nice dimension to the otherwise gruff character. And just watch his turnaround at the end of the episode…. It’s just damned heartbreaking.
Burt Mustin has a minor role as another of the Sunnyvale residents (we last saw him in season two’s “Night of the Meek,” where he received a new pipe and smoking jacket from Henry Corwin, aka Santa Claus).
Whitley’s son is played by Ernest Truex’s real-life son Barry. A nice touch (even though the poor guy didn't get screen credit!).
The child playing the transformed Whitley is similarly uncredited, but he reminds me of Hermie Brandt (Jerry Davis) from season 4’s “The Incredible World of Horace Ford.” Compare these two shots:
I dunno, maybe it's the messed-up teeth. Or maybe it's the lamp globes. Are they the same kid? The answer lies somewhere... in The Twilight Zone.
“Kick the Can” was one of four episodes remade in 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie. It plays out more or less like the original, except it ends with most of the residents ultimately rejecting the opportunity to be young again. This version lays on the sugar and sentiment pretty thick, but the cast is great (Scatman Crothers in particular). Steven Spielberg himself directed this segment of the film, and it fits squarely in with his other 80’s work (E.T., TV’s Amazing Stories, etc). Not terrible by any means, but the original beats it hands down.
“Kick the Can” is stock-scored. While it’s too bad Cayuga didn’t deem the episode worthy of its own score, at least they were smart enough to pull stock cues from season one’s “Walking Distance” by Bernard Herrmann. Wistful and yearning, the music fits in perfectly here.
Next week: Barry Morse! A player piano with supernatural properties! It can’t lose… right? Well…..
* Of course Johnson's contribution to the series extends beyond four teleplays. Three other TZ scripts were based on his ideas or unpublished short stories, and he did submit a fifth teleplay for season 5 called "Tick of Time," based on his own unpublished short story "The Grandfather Clock." It ended up heavily revised by another writer, to the extent that a chagrined Johnson requested that he be credited under a pseudonym. Therefore, "Kick the Can" is Johnson's final contribution in which he is properly credited as the sole writer. We'll delve into this more when we get to that particular episode (which, by the way, was aired as "Ninety Years Without Slumbering") next December.