Friday, January 17, 2014

Episode Spotlight: "The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross" (1/17/1964)

Season 5, Episode 16 (136 overall)
Originally aired 1/17/1964
Cayuga Production # 2612

I recently turned 44, which isn’t terribly old in the grand scheme of things, but I’m experiencing some fairly significant hair loss. It really bugs me to see older men --- like really old --- sporting full heads of hair. They’ll probably be dead within a few short years; meanwhile, I've still got a few decades left, during which I’ll continue to lose hair. It doesn’t seem fair, dammit. Old men don’t need hair in their twilight years; in fact, it’s kinda strange to see an old man who isn’t balding. They’d probably prefer to live longer and have less hair, given the choice, and I’d happily trade a few of my years for a thick, lustrous head of hair. Sounds like an equitable trade to me.

Fifty years ago tonight, a man inexplicably gained the ability to make such impossible trades. “The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross” is exactly what it sounds like: the titular Salvadore Ross uses his newfound supernatural bartering talents to better himself. 

Sal is aggressively courting Leah; it’s not a matter of love, it’s a matter of possession. He makes no attempt to hide it, either: “I want her,” he unabashedly tells Leah’s disapproving father. Leah, however, has standards when it comes to choosing a mate, and the crude and directionless Sal doesn’t measure up. Sal angrily punches a wall after she breaks things off with him and ends up in the hospital.

He’s kept overnight for some reason (did a broken bone really require an overnight hospital stay back in the 60’s?), and is roomed with an old man with the flu. They joke about trading maladies and, the next morning, Sal is shocked and delighted to discover that his hand is healed, but he has a cold. The old man objects; his new broken hand will never heal, given his advanced age. No take-backs, Sal decrees as he leaves.

Sal then uses his new talent to systematically improve himself: he sells his youth for a vast fortune, then regains it by buying time from others, a year at a time. Soon he’s young again (but still quite rich) and back on Leah’s scent. She’s still not interested, though, seeing as how he lacks the non-material qualities she prizes most: kindness, selflessness, compassion.

When we next see Sal, he’s a changed man. Leah sees the change and relents; he is the man she wants after all. Her father will have none of it, and pulls a gun on Sal. Sal begs for him to show him mercy and compassion, to which he coldly replies: “Compassion? Don’t you remember? I sold it to you yesterday.” He pulls the trigger.

Written by Jerry McNeely from a short story by Henry Slesar, “The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross” is one of the better offerings of the fifth season despite the ridiculously implausible and confusing ending. Leah is convinced that Sal has evolved into a man worthy of her love… in a single day? Sal’s proven himself to be a manipulative bastard in the past; she has no reason whatsoever to think he’s not simply putting on an act. Why does Sal ask Mr. Maitland for compassion when he knows for a fact he no longer possesses it? Does the acquisition of compassion somehow impair his memory? And if Mr. Maitland is the upright saintly type we've been led to believe he is, why would he ever sell his compassion --- his defining, honorable trait --- to anyone, especially a slimeball like Sal? It’s sloppy, expedient and… yes, another example of the dreaded deus ex machina. The end renders everything before it moot.

If there’s one thing I like about the ending, it’s that it serves as a nice bookend for season one’s “The Four Of Us Are Dying,” which also ends with Don Gordon getting shot by an old man. But that ending was organic and jibed with the events that preceded it; I guess we can argue that cosmic justice is indeed served here by Sal getting blown away, but at what cost? A good man (Mr. Maitland) is now a soulless shell of a man (and will almost certainly go to prison for murder), and the innocent Leah just lost the man she loves and her father in one shot (har har). If this is cosmic justice, it’s hugely skewed.

But “The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross” is still an entertaining episode, thanks largely to the great cast and the clever story (up till that ending, that is). The concept of buying and selling years is a fascinating one: the 2011 sci-fi film In Time uses this idea as the basis for its parallel-earth society, the citizens of which have built-in bio-clocks that keep them frozen at the age of 25 forever… as long as they continually acquire time, which is their currency.

There's particularly effective bit at the top of act two. The elderly Sal enters an elevator, which is operated by a young man. When he gets off, he's young again... and the bellhop is now an old man, holding a big fat check in his hands.

Rod’s not smoking during his opening narration: he’s holding a pair of sunglasses. I dunno, maybe sponsor American Tobacco was giving away sunglasses in some kind of promotion or something (remember all that Joe Camel and Marlboro Man merchandise?).


The episode is stock-scored, mostly with non-TZ cues from the CBS Music Library; however, we do hear a few bits of Fred Steiner’s scores for “King Nine Will Not Return” (“Sand”) and “The Passersby” (“Morning,” which was also used in last week’s “The Long Morrow”).


The major players this week should be quite familiar to Twilight Zone fans. First up is Don Gordon (Salvadore Ross), who memorably played one of Arch Hammer’s alternate identities in season one’s “The Four of Us Are Dying.” He also appeared on The Outer Limits twice (“The Invisibles” and “Second Chance”).

*Sigh* Gail Kobe (Leah Maitland) is on hand for her third and final TZ appearance (she made me swoon in season one’s “A World of Difference,” then again in season four’s “In His Image”). Like Don Gordon, she popped up on The Outer Limits twice (“Specimen: Unknown” and “Keeper of the Purple Twilight”).  If you can’t tell, I have something of a crush on her. She passed away last August. Rest in peace, you beautiful thing you.

Mr. Maitland is played by Vaughn Taylor in his fifth and final TZ excursion (he appeared in season one’s “Time Enough at Last,” season three’s “Still Valley” and “I Sing the Body Electric,” and season four’s “The Incredible World of Horace Ford”). He also did two episodes of The Outer Limits (“The Guests” and “Expanding Human”).

The unnamed old man in the hospital is played by J. Pat O'Malley, whom you may remember from “The Chaser” in season one and “The Fugitive” in season three. He’ll also be back later this season for “Mr. Garrity and the Graves.” Interestingly, the unnamed hospital nurse is played by Kathleen O'Malley… his daughter!

“The Self-Improvement of Salvadore Ross” is quite good, better than many season five offerings, and it shines despite its unsatisfying conclusion. If we could just take a page from Sal’s book and trade its ending for a different one….

Next week:
“The Eye of the Beholder,” but without the pig people. It’s better than it sounds.

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