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???

1 comment:

Bill Huelbig said...

Rooney's commentary track was downright frightening. If you like Mickey Rooney, you won't want to hear him like this. I regretted having listened to it. But a few years later (Oct 2009) I met Rooney at an autograph show, and he couldn't have been nicer. I guess everyone is entitled to having a very bad day.