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.
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.
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.