Friday, May 25, 2012

TZ Promo: “Cavender is Coming” (5/25/1962)

Season 3, Episode 36 (101 overall)
Cayuga Production # 4827

Hey, remember season one’s “Mr. Bevis?”  That silly, light-hearted story of a quirky guy with terrible luck who gets some unexpected help from a guardian angel?  Remember that?  I sure do.  Who could forget it?  It’s by far the single worst Twilight Zone episode in the entire five-year run of the series, and I absolutely hate it.  Nah, “hate” is too kind a word.  My despising of it is passionate and eternal, a seething ember that never quite dies out.  It’s so bad that I opted to barely discuss it when it reached its 50th birthday two years ago (see for yourself here).  Rod Serling gave us some of the series’ greatest episodes.  He also gave us many of its worst, and “Mr. Bevis” is the worst of the worst.  Two years on, and what does he do?  He rewrites the same goddamned story with different characters.  And yes, it still sucks.

“Cavender Is Coming,” the penultimate episode of the show’s third season, turns 50 tonight.  It stars the delightful Carol Burnett as Agnes Grep (ugh, wotta name), a luckless charmer who can’t hold onto a job because, well, she’s a clitzy dutz.*  Harmon Cavender (Jesse White) is a guardian angel desperate to get his wings, so he tries to reverse her misfortune by bestowing upon her a fortune.  Hilarity (or not) ensues.

Yes, “Cavender Is Coming” is the latest in a (seemingly endless) stream of attempts at comedy by Serling, in a series that really has no business trying to be funny.  When you think of The Twilight Zone, you think of mystery, suspense, supernatural intrigue, terror.  Are any of those things funny?  Nope.  Almost every attempt at humor by Serling falls flat on its ugly face, and this week's installment is no exception.  Maybe that’s why they slapped a canned laugh track onto it, to trick us into thinking it's funny.  Yup, that’s right, folks:  it’s a Twilight Zone sitcom.  Christ on a cracker.  Worst… idea… ever.

Carol Burnett is of course wonderful here, like she is in everything she's ever done. Despite the narrative wreckage all around her, she remains arrestingly radiant, charming and adorable, impossible not to love.  It’s a testament to just how truly shitty the script is that even her considerable talents can’t save things.

The depiction of Heaven, with its 3rd Celestial Division (Angel Placement Bureau; foreshadowing The Adjustment Bureau by half a century!), is a bright spot amid all the muck (you’ve gotta love a cloud with a door!).  Howard Smith, the boss-from-hell Mr. Misrell from season one’s “A Stop At Willoughby,” returns to The Twilight Zone as Cavender’s boss Polk.  He’s still gruff, but not nearly as loathsome this time around.  And John Fiedler, delightful as always (but unfortunately underused here), appears as “Field Representative #3” (we last saw him in season two’s “Night of the Meek,” as Henry Corwin’s boss-from-hell… hey, how are all these bosses from hell getting into heaven…?).

I guess all things considered, “Cavender Is Coming” isn’t irredeemably awful.  It’s just…. well, really really dumb and, since we've already seen this tale unfold in "Mr. Bevis," it's 100% unnecessary.  It’s not the bottom of the season three barrel (which is where you’ll find “The Gift” and “Four O’clock," not to mention "The Mirror"), but it dwells awfully low.  Watch it once, and then move quickly on to better things.

Next:  “The Changing of the Guard” closes out season three with a snow-swept tale of sad old men and merry ghosts.  No, Dickens didn’t write it.

* The (admittedly semi-offensive) term “clitzy dutz” is a vulgar tongue-twisting play on “clutzy ditz.”  I have a dim memory of a friend and I bandying the term around in the 6th grade, and it pops into my head every so often even at this late date.

Friday, May 18, 2012

TZ Promo: “I Sing the Body Electric” (5/18/1962)

Season 3, Episode 35 (100 overall)
Cayuga Production # 4826

50 years ago tonight, The Twilight Zone aired its landmark 100th episode.  Thankfully, Cayuga didn’t pick a dud to mark the occasion (see “The Whole Truth,” which was the 50th episode aired).

“I Sing the Body Electric” was written by sci-fi luminary Ray Bradbury, his only contribution to the series.  We meet a grieving widower (his name is never given, he’s simply referred to as “Father”) who endeavors to purchase a robot to act as a maternal proxy for his children.  It appears that a company called Facsimile Limited has just what he needs… unfortunately, his oldest daughter’s bitterness over losing her mother is a much bigger roadblock than he realizes.

“I Sing the Body Electric” is moderately successful (while fairly soap-operatic), but the scenes inside Facsimile Limited elevate things considerably.  There’s a delightful phantasmagorical quality to its selection of body parts, not to mention a chute in which one’s selections are deposited.  If only we could build our spouses and children in such a way…. maybe the New Life Corporation should partner with Facsimile Limited…?

“Grandma” (similarly unnamed) is well-played by Josephine Hutchinson, warm but never cloying.  Genre fans may remember her as Elsa von Frankenstein in 1939’s Son of Frankenstein (I didn’t, despite the fact that I’ve seen it numerous times and own it on DVD twice over; good thing I have the internet to do my remembering for me!).

“Father” is played by David White (best known as Larry Tate, Darin’s boss on TV’s Bewitched), who last visited The Twilight Zone in season one’s “A World of Difference,” where he played harried agent to Jerry Regan (or was it Arthur Curtis?).

Vaughn Taylor, the Facsimile Limited rep, is a TZ vet.  We first saw him in season one’s “Time Enough at Last” as Henry Bemis’s stick-in-the-mud boss at the bank, then again earlier this season as a grizzled warlock in “Still Valley.”  Here he’s a congenial salesman with just a hint of Willie Wonka about him (Facsimile Limited is a bit magical, after all, not entirely unlike Wonka’s storied chocolate factory).  Quite a diverse trio of roles; happily, Vaughn is quite good in all three.  He appeared in several episodes of TV’s The Fugitive, but he’s probably best remembered as Janet Leigh’s boss in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.

Veronica Cartwright is quite good as the eldest child Anne, sullen and distrustful of the new addition to the family.  Watch her face light up when she finally gives in and accepts “Grandma.”  Cartwright is something of a fixture in the sci-fi genre: she was most recently seen as the beleaguered human-alien hybrid Cassandra Spender on TV’s The X-files; she also met a gruesome end in Ridley Scott’s original Alien.

Many have lamented the fact that this is Ray Bradbury’s sole contribution to the series.  I’m not going to go into the troubled history between Bradbury and Serling, but I will say that, while I’m a big fan of Bradbury’s work, I think it usually works best on the printed page.  Most all adaptations of his work… well, just don’t work for one reason or another.  And it’s not always because of Bradbury’s unique dialogue either… Serling himself said that Bradbury is “hard to dramatize,” and I completely agree.  Not everything needs a visual translation (I’m talking to you, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  You too, Hunger Games).   Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is one of my all-time favorite novels, and (IMO) the 1966 Francois Truffaut adaptation leaves a lot to be desired (despite featuring my all-time favorite film score, by none other than Bernard Herrmann).  No mechanical hound?  C’mon, seriously?  

Anyway, Bradbury’s prose approaches the poetic, and adapting it for TV or film strips that aspect away.  Sure, the story’s still there, but the Bradbury voice is silenced.  Something huge and wonderful gets lost.

Having said that, I quite like “I Sing the Body Electric.”  It’s not one of the more popular TZ episodes, and it’ll never make my top 20, but I do like it.  It’s funny: Serling was so hot on serializing his lame guardian angel idea (see the god-awful “Mr. Bevis” and next week’s “Cavender in Coming”), but don’tcha think Facsimile Limited would’ve made a much better springboard for an anthology series?  A different electric grandmother each week, a different family…. Ah, the possibilities!

Next:  “Mr. Bevis” --- that wretched creature --- gets a remake.  The horror!  The horror!!!

Friday, May 11, 2012

TZ Promo: “Young Man’s Fancy” (5/11/1962)

Season 3, Episode 34 (99 overall)
Cayuga Production # 4813

50 years ago tonight, a blushing bride got c-blocked by that dreaded beast known as Mama’s Boy Syndrome.

Richard Matheson’s “Young Man’s Fancy” introduces us to Alex Walker and Virginia Lane, newlyweds who swing by his late mother’s residence to finalize the sale of the house and commence their new life together.  The past, however, will have none of it:  Alex is promptly overcome with nostalgia for his childhood days.  Virginia, meanwhile, is assailed by physical manifestations of the past:  copies of old magazines, a vintage vacuum cleaner, a Victrola turntable that spins the oldies of its own volition.

What we’re seeing is a tear in the fabric of space and time, willed into existence by Alex’s icky longing for his dead mother (Psycho, anyone?).  It sounds intriguing enough, but unfortunately the whole thing is one big yawnfest.  There’s never any real sense of tension, even when Virginia faces off against the specter of Alex’s dead mother (who, by the way, looks bored as hell).  Even when we find out that the late Mrs. Walker isn’t even to blame for Alex’s reversion, the revelation doesn’t pack anything resembling a wallop.  John Brahm, who directed such atmospheric TZ entries as "Judgment Night" and "Shadow Play," clearly phoned this one in. The subject matter demands creepiness, dammit, and this episode simply fails to deliver it.

Ultimately, the fault lies with Matheson’s script.  The case can also be made that he cribbed this idea from Reginald Rose’s superior “The Incredible World of Horace Ford,” a 1955 production by Studio One, in which a nostalgic toy designer gradually wishes himself into boyhood again (ironically, Rose would adapt his teleplay for The Twilight Zone’s fourth season).  Closer to home, Matheson may have found, um, inspiration in George Clayton Johnson’s “Kick the Can,” which featured a group of rest home residents who escape into their childhoods.  In any case, Matheson’s story kernel isn’t original in the least; not necessarily a crime in and of itself, but impossible to overcome with a limp script.  Throw lackluster direction on top of it, and mediocrity is all but guaranteed.

“Young Man’s Fancy” features an original musical score by Nathan Scott (who also composed the score for season one’s “A Stop at Willoughby”); unfortunately, it’s every bit as generic and forgettable as the episode itself (imagine what Jerry Goldsmith might've done here!).  The production number (4813) indicates that the episode was produced early in season three (which explains why the opening music is the earlier non-Herrmann version of the Constant theme); however, it wasn’t aired until the tail end of the season…. presumably because it’s just so damned weak.  Or wait!  What if it was held back to coincide with Mother's Day...?  Eeeew.

Bottom line:  you’ll watch, you’ll yawn, you’ll forget it almost immediately.  It’s not quite in the heinous category (“Four O’clock,” “Mr. Bevis,” etc), but it's nothing great... or even particularly good.

Next week:  “I Sing the Body Electric” introduces us to Facsimile Limited, where you can build an electric grandmother from scratch.  So much for the prescience of science fiction:  50 years later, the closest we’ve come is Build-A-Bear. 

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Kanamit's Cookbook Set announced!

Ha! I knew Bif Bang Pow! wouldn't stop at just one TZ exclusive for this year's San Diego Comic Con (they previously announced the Invaders Classic Moments diorama, detailed here and available for pre-order here).  The other exclusive is a tasty offering of cannibalistic culinary delights.

The Kanamit's Cookbook Set brings together all of Bif Bang Pow!'s "To Serve Man" items into one convenient three-course meal.  It includes the Kanamit Tin Tote (aka lunch box) and the Kanamit Cookbook Journal (aka 160-page blank book), both available separately.  The third item is the real draw, the main entree, as it were.  Remember the marvelous Kanamit action figure from 2010 (reviewed here)?  Well, he's back, only this time he's clad in black, so now collectors (me included) can own both distinct Kanamits!

Imagine all the geeks who will reenact this scene.  I know I will.

While the tin tote appears to be identical to the stand-alone version, the journal included in this exclusive set appears to differ from it's individually-sold counterpart.  The basic journal is spiral-bound affair (pic directly above), but the exclusive version appears to be bound like a paperback book (pic further above). The cover on the exclusive journal looks like it might be velvety, but pictures can deceive.  Either way, awesome!

July 2012 is the projected release month, and $29.99 is the asking price here.  It's a great value if you break it down:  TZ action figures run $20.00 each, the lunchbox on its own is $12.99,and the journal is $9.99 on its own. This set represents a savings of $13.00, so it's both mouth-wateringly awesome and a great bargain.  Again, it's a SDCC exclusive, so don't delay.  Put on a bib and dig in!

I'll be alone no more.  Oh joy!

New TZ Bobbleheads Available for Pre-Order!

Our pals over at Bif Bang Pow! have revealed two more Twilight Zone bobbleheads, both scheduled for release in July.  One is brand new, and the other is a very welcome update.  Read on....

Everyone's favorite bookworm-slash-last-man-on-earth is brought to tragic life in the Henry Bemis bobblehead.  The Burgess Meredith likeness is pretty good, and check out those broken glasses!  He's seated on a stack of books on the library steps, right where we left him at the end of season one's "Time Enough at Last."  $12.99 and he's yours, right here.

Next up is Icons of The Twilight Zone Revisited.  The first Icons bobblehead (pic below) was a San Diego Comic Con exclusive last year, and it sold out pretty fast (I was fortunate to get one; see my review here).  It was a frankly stunning piece, and the revised version looks to be just as amazing.  The spiral and the flying saucer have been replaced by the shattering window and the mannequin, which means that this version is entirely season four/five specific (note also that the clock has been augmented with a bell on top; however, it's still 2:00).  It also appears that they've enhanced the base with some front-side support (the first version tends to tip forward).  Anyway, this one's thankfully NOT an exclusive, so it should be easy to obtain: a measly $14.99 is all they're asking here.

Version 1.0.

Friday, May 4, 2012

TZ Promo: “The Dummy” (5/04/1962)

Season 3, Episode 33 (98 overall)
Cayuga Production # 4834

“He talks when I don’t talk.  He tells jokes I’ve never heard before.  He gives me bum cues.  He’s alive, Frank.  That’s why I locked him in that trunk.”

That’s ventriloquist Jerry Etherson, explaining to his manager why he can’t use Willie --- his most popular dummy --- in his act anymore.  Is it all in his head?  Or is Willie in fact alive? 

“The Dummy,” written by Rod Serling and directed by Abner Biberman, premiered 50 years ago tonight.  Cliff Robertson, last seen in season two’s “A Hundred Yards over the Rim,” is excellent as the tortured Jerry.  Sure, he might drink too much, and he might just be imagining the whole thing, but Robertson makes his torment so real, so immediate, that we feel for him even if it is his own damned alcohol-fueled fault.  Of course, this is The Twilight Zone, so there’s probably more to it… right?

Aw, screw it.  There’s no way I can write this whole thing without spoiling it.  Willie is indeed alive, and he’s actively rebelling against Jerry.  But there’s more to it than that:  by the end, Willie will somehow switch places with Jerry altogether.  That’s right, Willie will become human and the unfortunate Jerry will be reduced to a wooden puppet.  And while this allows for a marvelous reveal shot, it certainly opens up some questions.

Now, I’m on board with the psychological struggle between master and puppet. I’m cool with an alternate personality transmogrifying into a living being.  But honestly, they lose me a little bit when they have Jerry --- an innocent, decent guy --- literally turned into a dummy.  It’s just plain unfair; furthermore, how the hell did Willie pull it off?  Is there some sort of witchcraft curse at play here?  Maybe Willie was carved from the trunk of an ancient tree, which was inhabited by an evil forest spirit?  We don’t know, because we’re never told.  It just happens. Somehow Willie just has crazy awesome powers, and we’ve got no choice but to roll with it.

Otherwise, “The Dummy” is a fine episode.  There’s some great cinematography to savor, particularly in high definition:  Willie’s visage, reflected in a broken mirror at the end of the act one. The tilted camera angles as Jerry desperately paws at a go-go dancer to avoid being alone.  Willie’s shadow on a wall as Jerry runs around backstage like a lunatic after hours.  And again, the fabulously-staged reveal shot when we see Jerry’s fate and Willie’s triumph.

"The Dummy" features one of my favorite Serling intros. It's nothing particularly innovative or surprising... it's just good ol' Rod, sitting at a table in the nightclub, but goddammit, he is just plain OWNING that room. Arlen Schumer said it best:  "Serling had that authority that makes him one of the three coolest guys of the early ‘60s. Him, John F. Kennedy… and there was something about Serling, he had that sort of Frank Sinatra... swanky, sophisticated look, but he had that dark charm of Bond, James Bond."  If anybody ever gets around to making a Serling biopic, I think Jon Hamm (of Mad Men fame) would be a great choice.  They'll have to work around Hamm's excessive height, however....

Since I'm providing some suave male eye candy, I should also point out that "The Dummy" features a whole bevy of TZ Babes.  Check 'em out!

Bif Bang Pow! has immortalized Willie the Dummy twice, in both action figure and bobblehead form.  Both are still available as of this writing from Entertainment Earth. See here and here for my reviews of ‘em.

The Twilight Zone will revisit the living dummy idea in season five’s “Caesar and Me.”  And yes, it will suck pretty badly.  But that’s a couple of years off yet.

Next week, “Young Man’s Fancy” proves that you can take the mama’s boy out of the house, but you can’t take the…. wait…. aw damn it, never mind.  Thought I had something clever there.  Now who’s the dummy?