Season 4, Episode 7 (#109 overall)
Cayuga Production # 4855
Originally aired 2/14/1963
Fair was Elly Glover
Dark was Jess-Belle
Both they loved the same man
And both they loved him well.
On Valentine’s Day exactly fifty years ago, The Twilight Zone returned to Appalachia to present a bewitching tale of lust, love and tragedy.
Earl Hamner Jr.’s “Jess-Belle” opens with good ol’ boy Billy Ben Turner popping the question to his sweetheart, Ellwyn Glover, during a barn dance. Casting a bit of a shadow on the proceedings is Jess-Belle Stone (a previous conquest of Billy Ben’s), who suggests that Elly shouldn't buy that wedding dress just yet. Yup, sounds like a triangle all right, and it sounds like Jess-Belle’s planning to stir up some trouble.
She visits Granny Hart, the resident witch of these back hills, looking for help. She trades her soul for a love potion that will make Billy Ben blind to every woman but her. It works all too well: he promptly dumps Elly and proposes to Jess-Belle instead. Jess-Belle has successfully landed her man, but now it’s time to pay the price: every night, she transforms into a leopard. Yes, you heard me right. A LEOPARD.
The two women warring for Billy Ben’s affections are nicely contrasted: Elly is blonde and affluent, sweet but somewhat dull, while Jess-Belle is dark-haired and troubled, unrefined yet complex. Billy Ben’s quandary is easy to understand: Elly represents wealth and status (and gosh, won’t their kids be gorgeous?), while Jess-Belle… well, she puts out. Billy Ben’s got some wild oats, and he just wants to sow ‘em before he settles down. Ellwyn is the long haul, while Jess-Belle is right now.
A literal roll in the hay.
In the hands of a less-capable actor, Jess-Belle could easily come off as villainous and conniving, but Anne Francis imbibes her with so much passion and pathos that she somehow emerges as the heroine of the piece (albeit a tragic one). It’s pretty apparent that Billy Ben took advantage of her in the past, so her motivations seem sourced more in emotional damage than possessiveness. We don’t really blame her for her actions, since her all-consuming, aching need for love is portrayed so utterly believably.
I must mention that Anne Francis is impossibly hot, even more so with that jet black hair (sigh). We last saw her in season one’s “The After Hours.” And hey, Forbidden Planet alert! Francis was delicious to behold as Altaira in the 1956 sci-fi classic whose imagery and props frequently pop up on The Twilight Zone.
Laura Devon is certainly easy on the eyes as well, but the superficial character of Elly Glover doesn't give her a whole lot to work with as far as complexity of character goes. She truly shines, however, in the all-too-brief scene in which she is possessed by Jess-Belle’s spirit. She becomes lusty and aggressive, as if some carnal switch was suddenly flipped on inside her.
There’s a great scene in act three in which Jess-Belle encounters Elly in a meadow, picking flowers (I imagine birds and mice help her get dressed in the morning, like the Disney princesses she strongly evokes), and the claws come out:
“Lots of wildflowers around here. Saw a patch of old maid’s fern up on the mountain.”
“I notice a lot of vixenwort around here myself.”
Oh, snap. Cat fight!
“Jess-Belle” is chock full o’ TZ alumni. James Best (Billy Ben Turner) appears for his third and final episode (we saw him in season two’s “The Grave” and season three’s “The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank”). Jeanette Nolan, last seen in season three’s “The Hunt,” is excellent as Granny Hart. The town minister is played by Jon Lormer in his fourth and final TZ appearance (we saw him in season one’s “Excecution,” season two’s “Dust,” and in season three’s “The Last Rites of JeffMyrtlebank”). Luther Glover, Ellwyn’s father, is played by George Mitchell in his third of four TZ appearances (we saw him in “The Hitch-hiker” and “Execution” in season one, and we’ll see him again in season five’s “Ring-a-Ding Girl”). Ossie Stone, Jess-Belle’s beleaguered mother, is played by Virginia Gregg, who will return for “The Masks” in season five. And finally, Obed Miller is played by Jim Boles, who also appeared in season three’s “The Arrival.”
Thank cue (groan).
Nathan Van Cleave contributes a perfectly serviceable score (some cues of which are reminiscent of his earlier “Perchance to Dream” and “A World of Difference” scores), but what’s really memorable is the original song (music by Van Cleave, lyrics by Earl Hamner, Jr.), gradually interwoven throughout the episode one verse at a time. Note that each verse shares its title with the corresponding cue; however, I prefer to think of the collective song as, simply, “The Ballad of Jess-Belle.” I've gone ahead and pieced the verses together for your listening enjoyment:
“Jess-Belle” is one of the better offerings of TZ’s fourth season, elevated considerably by Anne Francis’s tortured performance in the lead. And did I mention there’s a real live leopard?
Next week: Robert Duvall finds a tiny little soul mate.