Friday, December 20, 2013

Episode Spotlight: "Ninety Years Without Slumbering" (12/20/1963)

Season 5, Episode 12 (132 overall)
Originally aired 12/20/1963
Cayuga Production # 2615

My grandfather's clock was too large for the shelf
So it stood ninety years on the floor
It was taller by half than the old man himself
Though it weighed not a pennyweight more
It was bought on the morn of the day that he was born
And was always his treasure and pride
But it stopped short, never to go again
When the old man died
Ninety years without slumbering
His life seconds numbering
It stopped short, never to go again
When the old man died

“My Grandfather’s Clock”
(Henry Clay Work; abbreviated)

76 year-old Sam Forstmann lives with his pregnant granddaughter Marnie and her husband Doug. He shares his room with a grandfather clock, which he’s owned all his life and obsessively maintains. It’s his steadfast belief that, should the clock stop ticking, he will die. Marnie is increasingly worried about him so, to placate her, he agrees to sell the clock to a neighbor (on the condition that he be allowed to continue maintaining it).

The new owners of the clock take an unexpected trip and, without Sam’s daily upkeep, the clock begins to slow down. Sam’s attempts to break into the house are stopped by police intervention. Dejected, he returns home and goes to bed, certain that he will die that night.

The clock stops. Sam’s spirit appears to separate from his body, and the two engage in a lively debate about the merits of his long-held belief that the clock is intrinsic to his existence. Sam essentially talks himself out of this belief and, the next morning, surprises Marnie with his new outlook on life.

Wait, what?

Yeah, you heard me. We just spent twenty-five minutes feeling sorry for this old man because of his clock obsession, which is really just a fear of dying, which we can certainly all understand and sympathize with, and then ---- at the crucial moment ---- he simply changes his mind. Sucker punch!

I get where the title of the episode comes from, but it’s confusing because Sam is 76, not 90. They could’ve made him 90, but then they’d lose the “Spirit of ‘76” joke that pops up in Sam’s conversation with his own spirit (which seems kinda dumb anyway; it wouldn't have been a big loss). We last saw Ed Wynn five years ago (in season one’s “One for the Angels”), and he seems to have aged quite a bit. I’d buy him as 90.

The rooms in Doug and Marnie's place seem abnormally large. Look at the size of Sam's bedroom!

The teleplay was written by Richard de Roy, adapted from “Tick of Time,” a teleplay by George Clayton Johnson. Johnson was unhappy with de Roy’s changes and chose to be credited under his pseudonym Johnson Smith. I'm not sure which of them to thank, but the script features one of my favorite lines in the whole series. It’s in Serling’s closing narration, and was featured prominently in Arlen Schumer’s Visions from The Twilight Zone.


“Ninety Years without Slumbering” features an original score by Bernard Herrmann, his seventh and final for the series.  His work here interpolates the melody from “My Grandfather’s Clock,” an old British standard written in 1876 by Henry Clay Work (which has been recorded by several acts over the decades, most notably Johnny Cash in 1959 and, more recently, R&B’s Boyz II Men in 2004; never thought you’d see a Boyz II Men reference here, didja?). As such, the melodic score sounds nothing like his typical TZ output (which consist largely of dramatic and moody, often ethereal cues).  An exception is the music underlying the scene in which Sam is confronted by his own spirit (titled, simply, “Ninety Years without Slumbering XI”; this particular score uses only numbers as cue titles): vibraphone and harp dance atop and around brooding bass clarinet chords, evoking Herrmann’s earlier work in “The Lonely” and “Eye of the Beholder” (as well as his “Outer Space Suite,” a CBS Music Library work used in many TZ episodes). The original Herrmann recordings have never been officially released; however, they can be obtained via the isolated music tracks present on both the DVD and blu-ray sets of season five (from Image Entertainment).

Additionally, Joel McNeely recorded all seven of Herrmann’s TZ scores (along with his various title themes) in 1999 for a 2-CD set released by Varese Sarabande Records (discussed recently when we covered “Living Doll”). I do have some reservations about McNeely’s interpretations but, given the relative simplicity of “Ninety Years without Slumbering,” his take on it sounds fine (though, purist that I am, I’ll never place it above Herrmann’s original recording).


Ed Wynn (Sam Forstmann) first crossed paths with Rod Serling in 1956’s “Requiem for a Heavyweight” on Playhouse 90, and then again in the aforementioned “One for the Angels” in 1959. It should be noted that he’s the father of Keenan Wynn, who starred in season one’s “A World of His Own” and co-starred with his dad in the aforementioned “Requiem for a Heavyweight.”

From left: Keenan Wynn, Jack Palance, Ed Wynn

Mamie Kirk, Sam’s pregnant granddaughter, is played with familial sweetness by Carolyn Kearney, who also appeared in the TZ proto-pilot “The Time Element” on Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse in 1958 (as the newlywed Mrs. Janoski). I called her a TZ babe then, but I feel less inclined to lust after her here (probably because her character is quite pregnant and, believe it or not, I’m not a total cad).

Fortunately, my lust needs are covered here by Carol Byron, playing the tasty dish next door (also named Carol). She’s kinda adorable, which assists me in looking past her overeager housewife-in-a-commercial acting (just listen to her exclaim “George doesn’t think I’m a bargain hunter; wait’ll he hears about this!”).

William Sargent (the psychiatrist, Dr. Mel Avery) previously passed through The Twilight Zone as the Project Manager in season four’s “The Parallel.” He also appeared on a variety of other genre TV series, including Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Star Trek, and The Invaders.

Dick Wilson (Mover #1) appeared in season one’s “Escape Clause” as an exasperated insurance adjuster, but I’m sure he’s much better remembered for his role (as opposed to roll, har har) as Mr. Whipple in 25 years’ worth of Charmin commercials. Mover # 2, meanwhile, is played by stuntman Chuck Hicks, last seen as The Maynard Flash in “Steel” a couple of months back. He has another (very tenuous) Serling connection: he played a boxer in a 1963 episode of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis titled, punnily enough, “Requiem for an Underweight Heavyweight.”

I wrote and directed a teleplay back in 1995 or so called “Nothing to Fear,” in which a time-obsessed man uses a pocket watch to keep himself organized and alert in an attempt to stave off a murderous creature whom he believes will strike if he lets down his guard. The resultant half-hour film (shot on 8mm video), which starred a couple of friends (Donovan Littlejohn and Jason Ulven; ‘sup fellas?), went on to repeated airings on the Tualatin Valley Public Access channel here in Portland (which was probably happy to air something other than local Freedom of Speech champion Jim Spagg’s naked rantings and ravings; if you've never heard of Jim Spagg, Google him for some, um, eye-opening fun). 

In retrospect, “Nothing to Fear” was a half-baked idea to begin with, and the creature’s existence was never really adequately explained, but I suppose worse things have shown up on TV (about half of Tales from the Darkside’s four-year run, for example). Oh, in addition to writing and directing the piece, I shot it, edited it, composed and performed its electronic music score, and appeared in a cameo role. Sextuple threat!

Damn, I had a lot of hair back then.

The acting is uniformly good in “Ninety Years without Slumbering,” but unfortunately the strong thespianism on display is largely wasted on a disappointing, pedestrian script. The fascinating concept of time obsession is merely name-dropped instead of being examined and explored. Throw in the implausible last-minute reversal to create a happy ending and you end up with precious time wasted.

Next week: Ring-a-ding-a-ling-a-ding-dong!

No comments: