Underrated Twilight Zone Episodes: “The Whole Truth”
In The Twilight Zone’s “The Whole Truth,” a used-car salesman experiences his worst nightmare: he unwittingly buys a “haunted” car that forces its owner to be completely honest.
Uh-oh. Given the demands of his chosen profession — making people believe that every jalopy is a jewel — it’s easy to understand his distress. As he mutters to his assistant at one point: “Did you ever hear anything more ghastly?”
After all, the only way to regain the ability to lie is to get rid of the car. Since it’s preventing him from uttering even one falsehood, that’s practically an impossible task.
Imagine if you were saddled with that car and were asked an uncomfortable question. If it were mine, for example, and someone said, “How do you feel about this episode?” Hey, I can’t lie. I might hem and haw a bit, sure, but then I’d say, well, I kind of like it.
Yep. Gotta be honest!
I know, I know — it’s near or AT the bottom of the list for many fans. I get it. But I have a bit of a soft spot for this one.
Mind you, I’m not saying it’s a great episode. Not at all. It’s nowhere near my top 25. It’s one of TZ’s “comedy” episodes, and we all know how our beloved Rod Serling, despite being incredibly funny in private, wasn’t particularly adept at writing jokes.
Worse, in the eyes of many fans, is the fact that “The Whole Truth” is one of six episodes put on videotape, not film. Some could argue that the resulting “live” look helps episodes like “Twenty-Two” or “Static”, but still — videotape was hardly the best method for transporting viewers to “a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity”.
Of course, “The Whole Truth” is pretty earth-bound. In fact, it’s pretty set-bound. The whole 25-minute story takes place on a used-car lot owned by a man named Arthur Hunnicut.
That’s where we watch him in his element, glibly and quickly dishing out whatever exaggeration, fib, or outright lie he deems necessary to move his motley merchandise. And it’s where we see him grappling with confusion after he buys a unique Model A from an enigmatic old man and finds himself blurting out, yes, the whole truth about the ailing autos on his lot.
That’s where the fun comes in, at least for me. The casting really helps. Jack Carson, who plays Arthur, perfectly embodies the stereotypical used-car salesman. From his loud look — vertical stripes on his jacket, a leopard-print on his vest, and horizontal stripes on his tie — to his silver-tongued patter, this is a man who is only too glad to glad-hand. He was born to bamboozle.
Look at his first interaction with the young couple poking around the lot at the start of the episode. He assures them that he’s not interested in pressuring them in the least. But as soon as the man (played by a young Jack Ging, near the start of a long career in TV and movies) says they want a “late” (or newer) model, Arthur — who doesn’t appear to have a single car that isn’t at least 10 years old — slips right into his routine:
“Late? You shock me, you know that? You know your husband shocked me just then?”
“Well, he was only … “
“Do you know why he shocked me? It’s because you’ve succumbed to the propaganda of every cement-headed clod up and down this street. I said propaganda! They like to push the late models, don’t they? Do you know why they push the late models? Do you think it’s because they’re honest, law-abiding, rigidly moral churchgoers? Let me tell you something, young man. They push the late models because that is where the profit margin is. They’ll cram those post-‘54s down your gullet because they would rather make a buck than a friend. They would rather make a profit than a relationship. They would rather cram their wallets full of cash than fill their hearts with the fellowship of men to men.”
The man is unsure, though. Wouldn’t something new be better? Arthur responds as if “new” is a dirty word:
“That’s where you’ve gone completely wrong. That’s where you’ve suddenly gone amiss. That’s the juncture that headed you into a blind alley. You don’t want a new car. You don’t want one of those rinky-dink, slapped-together on an assembly line, covered with chintzy chrome, fin tails, idiotic names and no more workmanship then you can stick into a thimble.
“No. I’ll tell you what you want. You want the craftsmanship that comes with age. The dependability of proven performers. The dignity of traditional transportation.”
Carson, a veteran of such classic Hollywood fare as “Arsenic and Old Lace” (with Cary Grant, no less), gives this ridiculous line of argument such an enjoyable spin, you almost want to believe him. And the couple do seem to be wavering. He gets them behind the wheel of one of his heaps, and a sale may be imminent.
But, alas for Arthur, as the couple continues to ponder, he completes the transaction for the old car … and now, when he returns to seal the deal with them, it’s a different story. He tells them it’s no longer for sale. They ask why, and Arthur replies:
“I guess I’m not pushing it anymore. This is a wreck. It’s a rumdum. It hasn’t got any points. It hasn’t got any rings. It hasn’t got any plugs. And it’ll eat gasoline like it owns every oil well in Texas. But the tires … are very bad. And the chassis’s been bent. And if I said anything about it being a runabout, I meant it will run about a block and then stop. And it’ll cost you double what you pay for it when you start taking it in for repairs, and you’ll start taking it in for repairs every third Thursday of the month.
“I haven’t anything else worthwhile to show you. Everything on this lot should have been condemned years ago. I got more lemons per square foot than a fruit grower in Salinas.”
I don’t know why, but I’m a sucker for old-school one-liners like this, and “The Whole Truth” is full of them. Reminds me of M*A*S*H, which I’m also a great fan of.
And the formula behind it is, like one of Arthur’s autos, pretty tried and true. Long before Serling wrote this episode, Bob Hope starred in 1941’s “Nothing But the Truth”, about a man who (because of a bet, not a curse) has to be completely honest for 24 hours. And anyone who’s seen the 1997 Jim Carrey movie “Liar, Liar” know that it uses the same comic device. We’ve seen this idea surface in many other shows and skits over the years.
Carson is certainly less acrobatic than Carrey, but it’s still fun to hear him forced to level with his wife about his after-work poker games, and admit to Irv, his assistant salesman (Arte Johnson), that his promised six-month raise is a ruse.
“The day you get more money out of me, it’ll be below zero in the Fijis. Every yokel who works here starts and stops at the same salary. I only dangle that raise in front of them just as long as it takes them to get wise. Irv, for you to get more money out of me would be just about as easy as pouring hot butter into a wild cat’s ear.”
I don’t blame Irv for being angry, but even in the fifth dimension, the sight of the 5’4” Johnson flooring the 6’2” Carson with a punch to the jaw is about as believable as an brochure promising beach-front property in Nebraska. (Good grief, he’s got me doing it now!)
But it’s Arthur’s conversation with a local politician who calls himself “Honest Luther Grimbley” that’s the real centerpiece of the story. Could there be two more stereotypically dishonest professions? Unfortunately for Arthur, he’s still handicapped by the curse, so unloading the car onto Grimbley (played by Loring Smith, an actor who’d been around since vaudeville) proves a herculean job.
At first, though, it looks as if Arthur will get away with it. In a clever touch, Serling has the politician assume that Arthur’s honest talk about the car and its faults is itself a selling device. He even offers Arthur twice what the salesman paid for the car. But Arthur can’t help himself. The truth about the curse comes out. Grimbley is naturally horrified:
“Buddy boy, I’m in politics. When you tell me I gotta start telling the truth all the time, holy Hannah! You know something? I couldn’t make a single political speech! I couldn’t run for office again.”
This realization, though, gives Arthur an idea. The next thing we know, he’s somehow arranged to sell the car — in person — to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. An improbable finale, to put it mildly, but Serling obviously decided that he needed a big finish. I know Marc Scott Zicree criticized Serling for this rare foray into politics, but it’s all in fun, so why not go big?
I really enjoy as well the way Carson puts his lines across. Before he owns the car, he’s breezy and self-assured. But afterwards, whenever he can’t stifle that impulse to be honest, he looks like a kidnapper is holding a gun on him and making him recite a script. It’s a great touch that makes the episode more fun.
So, am I totally sold on “The Whole Truth”? Of course not. I’m not buying it. I’m not even leasing it. But … I may rent it and take it out over the weekend. It’s not a “proven performer,” no. But it’s no “rumdum” either. It’s a nice break from the more serious fare we typically get on the Zone. That makes it worth a little spin now and then, don’t you think?
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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!
Posted on 09/04/2020, in Twilight Zone and tagged Arte Johnson, Jack Carson, Jack Ging, Loring Smith, Nikita Khrushchev, Rod Serling, The Whole Truth, Twilight Zone. Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.