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?