Friday, October 25, 2013

Episode Spotlight: "The Last Night of a Jockey" (10/25/1963)

Season 5, Episode 5 (125 overall)
Originally aired 10/25/1963
Cayuga Production # 2616

50 years ago tonight, a little man’s dream of being big came true.  No, this isn’t the Tom Hanks movie.

Rod Serling’s “The Last Night of a Jockey” introduces us to disgraced horse jockey Grady, where we find him brooding drunkenly in his apartment after being banned from racing for horse doping. He engages in a conversation with a mysterious “inner voice” who describes itself thusly:

I'm your memory, your conscience, Mr. Grady. I'm every one of your aspirations and recollections. I'm every one of your failures and defeats. I also wear the wreaths of all your victories. I'm what you call the Alter Ego. 

Later, it elaborates further:

I'm the fate every man makes for himself. You generally find me down at the bottom of the barrel. I'm the strength dredged up in desperation. I'm the last gasp. In some cases I'm something very good. In some cases, depending upon the person I'm representing, I can work miracles. I come with heroism, sacrifice, strength. And even better than that, I can epitomize everything noble in men. 

The Alter Ego offers to grant the diminutive Grady a single wish. Grady, who harbors a grudge against the universe for his slight stature, wishes to be big. He takes a nap (or, more likely, passes out) and, when he awakens, is delighted to discover that he’s suddenly eight feet tall. He then receives a call from the racing commission with the unexpected news that he’s been granted a second chance. He looks ahead to future glories on the track, until a crash of lightning interrupts his reverie. He’s now ten feet tall, rendering his return to racing impossible.

It’s evident that Grady’s Alter Ego is much more than a simple voice in his head; it appears to be some sort of celestial entity capable of modifying its target’s physical form at will. This entity is only masquerading as a voice inside Grady’s head as a means of communicating with him. But what exactly is said entity? I have a theory: call me crazy, but I believe Grady’s Alter Ego is none other than The Twilight Zone itself.

The Twilight Zone isn't an easy thing to define. Despite Rod Serling’s opening narrations, it’s not really a physical location that you can “cross over into.” It’s more conceptual, more abstract: sometimes it’s a state of mind, sometimes it’s a strange situation or circumstance, sometimes it’s a supernatural event. Like ice cream or toothpaste (or even vodka these days), it comes in many flavors. But if there’s one prevalent manifestation of this nebulous entity, it’s a device by which cosmic justice is dispensed, righting that which is wrong through unusual means.  We see it time and time again throughout the series’ run: innocent or luckless people are granted second chances, while the cruel and selfish are knocked for a loop befitting their misdeeds. Grady falls into the latter category: his reinstatement (which turns out to be an unattainable carrot after his supernatural growth spurt) is nothing if not comeuppance for his years of cheating.

Rod Serling’s “The Last Night of a Jockey” is a fascinating variation on his earlier “Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room.” Both concern small, petty men, both of whom encounter alternate versions of themselves in mirrors. Both feature tour-de-force performances from their respective leads, and we get both ends of the retribution spectrum by comparing them: Joe Mantell’s likable but misguided Jackie Rhodes (the titular Nervous Man), receives The Twilight Zone’s patented second chance, while the coarse and hostile Grady is given the proverbial other end of the stick. While many of Serling’s contributions to the show’s fifth season are warmed-over retreads of earlier, better episodes, this is an unexpected (and quite welcome) exception; a Yang to a pre-existing Yin, if you will.

Yin and Yang... in The Twilight Zone.

In the late 80’s, CBS/Fox released a number of episodes on VHS, each volume containing two half-hour episodes (there were 22 of these tapes released, I believe). The episodes chosen for each volume often shared similar themes (“The Prime Mover” and “The Fever” are both set in Las Vegas; “Perchance to Dream” and “Shadow Play” involve nightmares; “The Last Flight” and “King Nine Will Not Return” concern military aircraft; etc.).  Neither “Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room” or “The Last Night of a Jockey” found inclusion in these releases; however, they would’ve made a natural, quite complimentary pair.

“The Last Night of a Jockey,” which takes place entirely in Grady’s cramped studio apartment, has an effectively claustrophobic vibe (which intensifies as Grady’s size increases). The sight of the ten foot-tall Grady stomping around his (now tiny) apartment is an effectively surreal sequence (I’m reminded of Orson Welles engaging in a similar room-trashing tantrum in Citizen Kane). 

Presumably Mickey Rooney was chosen for this role because of his previous work as a horse jockey in 1944’s National Velvet, not to mention his 5’2” height. It’s certainly tempting to dock this episode a point for typecasting; however, Rooney’s performance more than transcends any surface relation to that earlier role (or potential stereotyping). He’s an absolute revelation here, alternately violently hostile and mournfully self-loathing as Grady, and at the same time articulate and smug as Grady’s Alter Ego.

“The Last Night of a Jockey” has the distinction of spawning one of the strangest DVD commentary tracks ever recorded. The track (which first appeared in the Definitive Edition DVD season five set, and was surprisingly carried forward to the blu-ray edition) features an argumentative and uncooperative Rooney repeatedly barking at an unnamed interviewer and exhibiting several bizarre behaviors. When asked for any memories he has about appearing in the episode, he answers “No, I don’t remember it. I don’t care anything about it!” When asked how he might explain the episode to younger viewers, Rooney replies as follows: “The younger audience doesn’t want to see this. They’re all watching sex and things!” There’s much more where that came from; trust me, it’s a surreal and frequently uncomfortable listen.  Wait, I wonder if he was in character as Grady when he recorded it…? If so, the man’s a goddamned genius.

“The Last Night of a Jockey” is a welcome comeback after last week’s flaccid offering, setting the bar back up where season five started out. Sadly, that bar won’t stay up there for long.

Next week: She’s the doll that does everything. She moves, she talks, she…. kills???

Friday, October 18, 2013

Episode Spotlight: "A Kind of a Stopwatch" (10/18/1963)

Season 5, episode 5 (124 overall)
Originally aired 10/18/1963
Cayuga Production # 2609

50 years ago tonight, a Chatty Charlie talked his way straight into The Twilight Zone. Yeah, I know, that’s a pretty lame opening line, but frankly, this episode doesn’t merit me bringing my A game.

Patrick Thomas McNulty, in the words of writer Rod Serling, is “the biggest bore on Earth, (who) holds a ten-year record for the most meaningless words spewed out during a coffee break.” His mouth clearly lacks a pause button, which means he registers pretty high on the ObnoxioMeter™ (I’m gonna squeeze him in between Henry Bemis and James B.W. Bevis).

"A Kind of a Stopwatch" features one of the simplest, most basic plots ever presented on the series. Guy is given a stopwatch by a stranger. The stopwatch stops time. Guy uses stopwatch to attempt a bank robbery. Guy accidentally breaks stopwatch, freezing time forever.

“A Kind of a Stopwatch” is limp and uninvolving; further, it’s difficult to ascertain what Serling’s intent was here (it plays like a light comedy up until the “surprise” tragic ending). I can’t begin to imagine why Serling would waste such an intriguing concept on such a lifeless story, but it’s not the first time he’s done this (“Mr. Dingle, the Strong,” I’m looking at you). The various questions raised by the script are not so much unanswered as outright ignored. Why does the magic stopwatch exist? What’s the point of freezing time? What application would such a thing be useful for (other than self-amusement or petty crime)? Since the stranger (Potts) is apparently ignorant of the watch’s magical properties, we can presume that he had no hand in creating it (and extrapolate from there that he in fact isn't a supernatural being with godlike powers), but this presumption leads to more questions: where the hell did the thing come from? And how did Potts end up with it? 

And if you start dwelling on the science of the whole thing, well…. it just leads to more frustration. It appears only people and animals (goldfish and, in a ridiculously stupid montage of stock footage, race horses) are affected by the stopwatch, since McNulty is able to eat a doughnut and steal money from the local bank, so inanimate objects are apparently immune. But wait, we also witness automobiles and other vehicles being affected (including a helicopter, which freezes in mid-air, which opens up even more questions), so apparently only some inanimate objects are affected.  I’m clearly overthinking this, but in the absence of anything interesting to lock onto, the mind can’t help but start digging. I’m totally cool with suspending my disbelief if I’m being entertained. If I’m not being entertained… well goddammit, things better at least make some kind of sense.

I've mentioned before that, as the series sputters toward its inevitable demise, we find copious examples of Serling borrowing from earlier, superior episodes.  Here, the ending is uncomfortably reminiscent of season one’s “Time Enough at Last” (the teleplay for which Serling also wrote). Instead of breaking his glasses, as the ill-fated Henry Bemis did, McNulty breaks the magic stopwatch; in both cases, the respective protagonists are cursed with a lifetime of solitude (but hey, at least the world isn't a decimated wasteland here).  The first scene in Joe’s Bar recalls “Mr. Dingle, the Strong” with its baseball conversations (Abner Doubleday’s name even gets dropped again!). There’s also a bit of “The Mind and the Matter” here too, I guess (but Archibald Beechcroft was able to will the human race back from wherever he’d sent them… the cornfield? I dunno). And McNulty is certainly reminiscent of the talkative Jamie Tennyson from “The Silence.”  Jesus, it’s like Serling just threw several pre-existing scripts into a blender and came up with this.

After freezing and unfreezing his goldfish, McNulty attributes his newfound ability to stop time to an alcohol-induced hallucination and turns in for the night.  We see a “clock wipe” transitional effect which advances the action to the next morning, which is the only time in the entire series that we see this particular visual clichĂ©. I’d like to think this was intentional, since the episode deals with the concept of time, but I doubt there was that much thought behind it.

“A Kind of a Stopwatch” was semi-remade as “A Little Peace and Quiet” on the CBS revival series in 1985. The enchanted device wasn’t a watch; rather, a mysterious amulet did the time-stopping. The only thing interesting about it is the ending, in which the protagonist (A Christmas Story’s Melinda Dillon) freezes time mere seconds before a devastating attack on the US (presumably by Russia). The episode closes on a motionless tableau of panicked citizens and a nuclear missile hanging still in the sky overhead which, while effective, is blatantly ripped off from a 1952 short story by Arthur C. Clarke entitled “All the Time in the World,” which ends more or less the same way.


“A Kind of a Stopwatch” features an original music score by Nathan Van Cleave, who contributed a number of memorable scores to the series (among them “Perchance to Dream” and “The Midnight Sun”), but this isn't one of them. The only bright spot in this collection of comedic cues (Fred Steiner’s score for last season’s “The Bard” comes to mind) is a recurring melody loop evoking the passage of time, which appears several times throughout the episode. Here's the cue written for the first time-stopping event, appropriately titled "The First Time":

Van Cleave’s score for “A Kind of a Stopwatch” has never been released, but you’ll find it available as an isolated music track on the Definitive DVD and blu-ray sets for season five.


While I find Richard Erdman annoying here as the loquacious McNulty, I absolutely love him in the 1951 film noir Cry Danger, in which he co-stars with Dick Powell.  More recently (that’s right, the 88 year-old guy is still kicking as of this writing), he’s enjoying a recurring role on NBC’s Community as Leonard, Greendale Community College’s oldest student. I’m a big fan of the series (it’s my second favorite comedy currently in production, right after Modern Family).

Joe the Bartender is played by Herbie Faye, who also played Charlie the Bartender in the 1962 big-screen adaptation of Serling’s Requiem for a Heavyweight. He also appeared in episodes of both The Odd Couple and Quincy, M.E., both of which starred our beloved TZ alum Jack Klugman (I know, it’s a pretty tenuous connection, but I’ll take any opportunity to mention Klugman’s name).

The announcer heard giving the play-by-play during the televised baseball game in Joe’s bar is Sam Balter, who played sportscasters in several other TV shows (including The Adventures of Superman and Climax!) and feature films (including 1951’s Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man and 1955’s Kiss Me Deadly, another favorite noir of mine).  His work here, according to the Internet Movie Database, is his final credited role.

Ken Drake, here appearing as an unnamed customer in Joe’s bar, was also seen in season two’s “A Hundred Yards over the Rim.” He’ll also provide the spectral voice on the other end of Gladys Cooper’s telephone line in “Night Call” later this season. Oh, and he played the judge who pronounces the android Adam Link guilty of murder in the “I, Robot” episode of The Outer Limits.

And last but not least, Doris Singleton plays McNulty's boss's secretary. We never hear her name, but McNulty calls her "Doll," "Honey Doll," and "Honey Baby" at various points in the episode. Sexual harassment? Perhaps. TZ babe?  Definitely.

“A Kind of a Stopwatch” isn't exactly awful on the level of “Mr. Bevis,” but it’s pretty bad all the same. It feels much longer than 25 minutes which, given the time-freezing gag, is probably appropriate (oh, the irony!). It’s season five’s first true dud and, sadly, it won’t be the last.

Next week:
Mi Taylor, fifteen years after National Velvet:  older, certainly not wiser, and a whole lot sweatier.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Artist Spotlight: Woody Welch

If you frequent various Facebook groups devoted to classic sci-fi, you may have seen the work of Woody Welch, who sketches and paints iconic genre characters with amazing (sometimes startling) near-photorealistic precision (I should also mention that he does some really, um, enticing nudes). He’s also a really nice guy, nice enough to both grant me permission to showcase his work here and to answer a few boring, run-of-the-mill questions that he’s probably answered a million time before.

CB: Take us back to the beginning...Have you been an artist since you were first able to hold a pencil, or did your considerable talents develop later?

WW: I was born in New York City and my mother was a pin-up for about 19 years for artist Rolf Armstrong. Sometimes I would hang around the studio he had when I was four and five years old. They'd give me paper and pencils to play with and even at that young age I was able to see what he would do with charcoal, pastels and so forth...that's how I began to learn to draw. Armstrong had done this great portrait of the Frankenstein Monster in 1935...he still had it and I was fascinated by the art and the photos that were taken at the time...when I asked who the "square-headed" guy was they told me and that was the birth of THIS monster kid. I got the first issue of Famous Monsters the following year and there was no looking back after that.

CB: I seem to recall some amount of Hollywood fame within your immediate family...?

WW: No...but Rolf Armstrong's cousin was the actor Robert Armstrong, (KING KONG, MIGHTY JOE YOUNG) and that's how I learned about those particular types of special effects....stop motion, matte paintings, etc. I think i was eight when i first met "Uncle Bob". [I actually meant your mother, WW. In my universe, pin-up models ABSOLUTELY count as celebrities! -CB]

CB: What were some of your early subjects?  If you say you have been doing nudes since you were a little kid, I'm going to have a new level of respect for you.

WW: (laughs) I drew mostly dinosaurs because I was obsessed with them....and movie monsters, because I loved them and i could get great reference pictures from the pages of Famous Monsters and Castle of Frankenstein and all the rest. The nudes started in middle school....I got caught and had to get a note from my mother..she wanted to see what I had done. When she saw the work she said that if I wanted to do this, that i should not do it in school where i should be learning, but at home. The next day she brought home several "men's" magazines...Playboy, Swank, etc. "If you want to draw nude girls, here are some that you can use for modeling." she said. I became "charlie potatoes" by the time I got to high school. Kids would ask me to draw nudes of Nancy Sinatra and so forth, and I would charge them five bucks a piece. I would hide the money I made in the hollow legs of my Aurora Monster kits because my mom would never think to disassemble something that I had made. I built up quite a bank account in those monster kits!!!

CB: Describe a typical day in the life of Woody Welch. How many commissions would you be juggling at one time?

WW: Well, thanks to the internet, I have reached lots and lots of people, and they have commissioned several things, for example...I am doing covers and science fiction pin ups for magazines in England and I just finished doing a DVD cover for someone, but that's a secret for now...and every once in a while i do storyboards or work on advertising campaigns for films. Mostly though, I do art for me and sling it around to various groups on Facebook, now that I am semi-retired. I have a big one bedroom apartment in a 1930 art deco building in the Hancock Park area of Los Angeles and it has an enclosed balcony which is my workshop. Mostly, I go for walks to my favorite Hollywood restaurants, and engorge myself.

CB: I'm sure you're proud of your impressive body of work in general, but what specific works are you most proud of? What do you hope will live on after you?

WW: I don't think I've done that piece of art yet...I had a blast working on HALLOWEEN: RESURRECTION, so that goofy thing will live long after I drop dead, and I built, along with my buddy, Jeff Copeland, the giant spider that is attached to the upper face of HOLLYWOOD TOYS, and that damn thing has withstood earthquakes, windstorms and pigeon poop so I know that the fiberglass arachnid will be there long after I have left to join the choir invisible.

Woody's spider, perched comfortably at 6600 Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles.

CB: When did you discover the OUTER LIMITS? Did it immediately occur to you to capture its various aliens and monsters on paper? Have you drawn or painted all of them?

WW: I "discovered" the OUTER LIMITS like most kids my age, (I was eleven) during the waning days of the summer of '63 I believe. All those tv commercials made it look like a show right up my street...and it was. I sculpted several creatures from the show out of modeling clay...the only one I drew was the Thetan from THE ARCHITECTS OF FEAR...drew that in the back of math class...old habits die hard. My favorite are the Zantis because i am a big stop motion nut. Recently I did a drawing in Prismacolors with acrylic washes from a little black and white reference photo I found on the internet. It turned out okay.

Just "okay"??? This is amazing! *

I also did a great deal of character studies of actors and other "things' from the TWILIGHT ZONE over the summer. My favorite of those, would have to be the "reverse angle" of the plane flying over the brontosaurus from ODYSSEY OF FLIGHT 33, simply because it is something that you didn't see in the show. I don't want to paint or draw from photos ALL the time, because you tend to get dependent on them and the creative parts of your brain become softer and squishy.


Robert Cummings in "King Nine Will Not Return"

Anne Francis and James Millhollin in "The After Hours"

CB: Do you have a favorite OUTER LIMITS character or TWILIGHT ZONE character? If so, what about them speaks to you?

WW: For the OUTER LIMITS it would have to be ALL of the soldiers in NIGHTMARE because each one of them is a part of us...the mama's boy, the poet, the leader(a father figure),  the minority, the strict by-the-book fellow...etc. For the TWILIGHT ZONE, all of the characters in THE MASKS for pretty much the same reason....not just the horrible family, but the good too.... doctor, the butler, and the old millionaire as well.

CB: What's on the horizon for you?

WW: (laughs) I don't know....and that is what makes life worth living. I have friends in Europe and I fly back and forth to see them. I have plans to eat my way through all the finest restaurants in Budapest.....AGAIN!!!!

Jonathan Winters in "A Game of Pool"

 Jean Marsh in "The Lonely"

Wow, what an amazing talent (and a great guy)!  I can't thank Mr. Welch enough for sharing with work (and his words) with me. Next time I find myself in Los Angeles... well, the drinks are on me.

And there's lots more where this came from, so I'll be posting Woody Welch goodies regularly over the coming months. Stay tuned.

* Just okay? I happen to LOVE Woody's Zanti. In fact, I've been using it as wallpaper on my phone for the past month or so....