Thursday, January 31, 2013

TZ Promo: "Mute" (1/31/1963)

Season 4, Episode 5 (#107 overall)
Cayuga Production # 4858
Originally aired January 31, 1963

Before we start, notice anything strange about that title card?  That lettering is positively GIGANTIC.  Okay, the title is a measly four letters long, but other short-titled episodes didn't get an oversized card (“Dust” and “Two,” for example). Oddly enough, the title is regular-sized in the end credits.  After the missing quotation marks two weeks ago (“Valley of the Shadow”) and now this, I’m starting to think Pacific Title had a gremlin on staff, tampering with their output.

Richard Matheson’s “Mute” opens on a clandestine meeting in which several couples enter into a secret pact to raise their children in silence, to (hopefully) promote telepathy.  It’s not disclosed if this consortium has already achieved some success in this rather peculiar endeavor, or if they’re flying completely blind.  It’s so crazy, it might just work.

And work it does.  Fast forward ten years to a house fire in the quaint little town of German Corners, PA.  A young girl, Ilse Nielsen, is found outside the house, safe and sound, while her parents are charred to a crisp inside.  Volunteer fireman-slash-town sheriff Harry Wheeler brings the girl home temporarily until her disposition is decided.  Ilse doesn't speak to anyone, but she can hear them plainly enough, and through a series of telepathic flashes, we see that this kid is the real deal.  Cora, Ilse’s new foster mother, dotes on her to the point of hysterical obsession (we discover that the Wheelers’ only child drowned, so I guess we can cut her a bit of a break… just a bit now); meanwhile, her new schoolteacher, Miss Frank, apparently wants to eat her for lunch, piece by quivering piece.

What we have here is your basic fish-out-of-water story.  Will Ilse retain her unique individuality, or will she go native and start talking like the other chimps in town?  My God, the suspense is unbearable! Okay, I’m being a bit flippant here, but there actually is a fair amount of tension throughout. We immediately identify with Ilse (especially compared with the rest of the characters), so naturally we want and hope for the best for her… but what exactly is best for her?  That’s the question at the heart of this story, and unfortunately Matheson gets it completely and utterly wrong.

 Extra crispy.

The episode succeeds best in those moments in which we’re offered glimpses inside Ilse’s thoughts (she’s able to  highjack someone else’s eyes to witness the discovery of her parents’ charred corpses, for example). The shrill echo effect used to represent how Ilse hears spoken voices is effective (if it’s harsh on our ears, imagine her discomfort!).   

Ilse is well-played by Ann Jillian, acting mostly with her eyes. Jillian, who would grow up to be a staggeringly beautiful woman, is probably best known for playing herself in The Ann Jillian Story, a 1988 TV movie chronicling her battle with breast cancer (for which she won a Golden Globe and an Emmy nomination).  Is it creepy to consider her a TZ babe?  Probably, since for our purposes she’s a kid.  Dammit.

Frank Overton plays Harry Wheeler with what appears to be an all-consuming resentment for everything and everyone.  We last saw Overton in season one’s “Walking Distance,” in which he wasn't nearly as cranky.

The highly annoying and frequently-hysterical Cora Wheeler is played by Barbara Baxley.  She’ll return to The Twilight Zone 23 years later in “Profile in Silver” (incidentally one of my favorites of the revived series).  Don’t worry; she’s not nearly as gratingly manic there.  Maybe she’s mellowed with age…?

Twilight Zone veteran Oscar Beregi (“The Rip Van Winkle Caper,” “Deaths-Head Revisited”) essays the Karl Werner role competently enough, but it’s the least interesting of his three TZ roles.  Blame Matheson’s script, which doesn't give an actor of his magnitude nearly enough to do.

Irene Dailey is quite effective as Miss Frank, the teacher-from-hell who misdiagnoses Ilse’s unique condition and relentlessly badgers her to speak.  Dailey is best remembered for her work on TV’s Another World (which I've never seen, so I can’t comment on her work there.  Days of Our Lives, on the other hand, well… that’s another story).

The fire at the Nielsen residence is well-staged (that’s a real fire, folks), which adds some nice production value.  However, some unintentional comedy arises from Percy Helton’s cameo as a firefighter on the scene.  Helton is impossible to miss in anything he ever did, given his comically raspy voice (imagine a slightly-less obnoxious Andy Devine).  We’ll see (and hear) him again in season five’s “Mr. Garrity and the Graves.”

If the sight of Ilse fleeing the house and out into traffic seems painfully familiar, it’s because we just saw the exact same scene played out a mere seven episodes ago, in season three’s “I Sing the Body Electric.” Both were shot on the same city park/town square set (MGM Lot 2; thanks again, Martin Grams!), and both use almost-identical shots:

I've been talking about the series’ visual identity a lot lately, examining the recurrence of specific imagery across multiple unrelated episodes, but I think this crosses the line a bit (a lot, actually).

“Mute” is the first episode of the fourth season to feature an original music score.  Fred Steiner (who will contribute a full two-thirds of the original scores in this abbreviated season) delivers a compelling work heavy on the strings (particularly the viola) with the occasional harp flourish thrown in for good measure.  The cue used at the start of the prologue (a zither piece that sounds like a reject from Anton Karas’ score for The Third Man) isn't by Steiner, though: it’s an uncredited library composition called "Peasant Waltz" (see cute sheet above). Steiner scored a total of seven Twilight Zone episodes (including season three’s "The Passersby," which is easily one of my top 5 favorite TZ scores), matching the output of Bernard Herrmann and Jerry Goldsmith, but he’s probably best remembered as the composer of the themes for both Perry Mason and The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.

“Mute” is ultimately hard to watch because so many of the characters are just plain unpleasant. Sheriff Wheeler is gruff to the point of cruelty, his wife Cora is a trembling basket case set to erupt at the drop of a hat, and Miss Frank, Ilse’s school teacher, is an unabashed sadist.  Ilse’s struggles are primarily due not to the loss of her parents, but to the emotional and psychological chaos inflicted upon her by these three individuals, chaos that will undoubtedly continue after the end credits roll.  The script implies that Ilse’s unconventional upbringing is a form of abuse, and that her new life in German Corners represents her salvation, but Matheson completely wrecks it by making her saviors so toxic. If Ilse’s new parents were Jonathan and Martha Kent, I might feel differently… but they aren't, and I don’t.

The climactic moment when Ilse finally capitulates and speaks is effective enough from a dramatic standpoint, but impossible to accept as a triumph.  We could argue the questionable merits of the consortium’s antisocial (and anti-verbal) methods, but at the end of the day, they've figured out how to cultivate and promote telepathy, and the profound implications therein demand further research and development.  By leaving Ilse in German Corners, the Werners both squash her budding talent and abandon her in an emotionally hostile environment.  So yeah, even the well-meaning Werners, who came to America to save Ilse, end up screwing the poor kid over like everybody else.  The girl can’t win.

I would've liked to see Ilse’s telepathy explored more; and perhaps expanded to include telekinesis.  I’d love to see her wreak some good old fashioned havoc on German Corners (maybe toss that bitch Miss Frank out a window or something).  At the very least, maybe a quick end scene suggesting that Ilse will continue developing her talents on her own, in secret…. yeah, that might've made quite a difference.  As it is, “Mute” ends with Ilse smiling contentedly, which is supposed to signify a happy ending… but it’s anything but that.  Despite the window dressing, we've just watched a goddamned tragedy unfold before our eyes.

Next week:  Matheson redeems himself with season four’s finest episode.  Three guys in a flying saucer land on a remote planet and face the darkest horror imaginable.  Not to be missed.

1 comment:

octobercountry said...

Now this episode just ticked me off. The moral this story imparts appears to be “for true happiness, destroy and suppress any unique gifts and characteristics that make you special, so that you can be just like everyone else.” For me, this message of conformity is in direct opposition to the spirit of The Twilight Zone, and I finished viewing the episode feeling very annoyed.

I had some problems with the logistics of the plot as well. I didn’t understand why learning to speak would destroy Ilse’s telepathic abilities. After all, her teacher retained her ability to “mind-speak” even after she learned to communicate in the usual manner. And all the adults in the experiment could speak readily enough, as well as read minds. So why is Ilse so different?

Man, I disliked both the sherriff and the teacher at first sight; as the episode went on, I wanted to punch both of them in the throat. (Wow, so violent!) But---seriously, what jerks they were. First off, all the suppositions the sheriff made about Ilse from the get-go irritated me no end. He knew NOTHING about the girl and her home life. Why would he assume that her parents never taught her anything? Why would he think there was no physical reason she couldn’t speak, before the doctor even looked at her? Why wouldn’t he even assume she was in severe shock at the beginning, thus robbing her of the ability to speak? He specifically said shock wouldn’t do that---but certainly shock COULD have that effect on a child. Why was he so surprised that she got out of the house when her parents didn’t?

I have to say, never in the history of the postal system has anyone mailed a letter by pinching the corner of it in the mail box and leaving the rest of the letter hanging out in the open, in mid-air. That was ridiculous---just as ridiculous as apparently never trying to contact Ilse’s parents’ friends after that one time. Why didn’t he make repeated efforts to get hold of them? He could even have tried to get phone contacts, by using the addresses.
As for the teacher, why did she think that telepathy=communicating with the dead? There is no connection, that I can see.

While Ilse can’t speak to those beyond the grave, she obviously had a lot more than basic telepathy going on, since she could not only hear other people’s thoughts, but she could mentally see what others were seeing/doing. She also could apparently see into the future a bit---for instance, she knew when the phone was going to ring before it actually did so. Quite a gift she had---all to be needlessly, wastefully, forcibly squandered by those who supposedly had her best interests in mind.

Little goof in the interior set design---I noticed another door directly to the left of the front door in the Wheeler’s house. This couldn’t have led anywhere, as it was in an exterior wall and there was no corresponding door on the outside of the house.

Anyway… yeah, plenty of little nit-picks from me for this episode, as well as a primary disagreement with the moral of the story. So, not one of my favourites. The high point of the episode is an excellent performance by Ann Jillian.