Serling’s Re-Framing Efforts: Night Gallery’s “A Death in the Family”
I hope you haven’t found the previous stops in my Night Gallery “Re-Framing Efforts” too unnerving … because our next sojourn in this shadowy world takes place at a funeral home. Get ready to meet Jared Soames, played by legendary actor E.G. Marshall. He’s probably the most compassionate undertaker you’ll ever meet.
He’s also the weirdest. Because if a particular corpse strikes his fancy, he won’t give it a dignified burial. He’ll bury a weighted coffin and adopt the dearly departed into the “family” of corpses that he keeps in the basement, all carefully arranged in a birthday-party tableau. (Spoilers ahead, naturally, so if you’d rather see the Gallery version first, check it out on DVD before reading further.)
We see Soames in the beginning as he takes possession of a charity burial. He’s disturbed by the cavalier attitude of the ambulance drivers, who turn over the body of one Simon Cottner with all the decorum of an Amazon package. Where, he asks earnestly, are the flowers, the music, and the mourners? They look at him like he’s crazy. Simon had no friends, one of them tells him. There’s no one to miss “the stiff,” as they call him more than once.
And they don’t seem all that broken up about it. To them, it’s just a job. But to Soames, this is a mission.
As he tells his latest charge after they’ve left: “Simon, old man. You lived 81 years. You deserve more than a $100 funeral. But don’t you worry. You shall have more. Much more.”
Sometime after Simon is lowered into the ground — or at least a coffin that supposedly contains his body is — we see Soames driving along a rain-soaked street at night. The police have a roadblock up, and they’re checking all cars for an escaped convict who is said to have been wounded badly by a gas-station attendant he tried to rob.
Switch to the funeral home, where we hear but don’t see Soames at first. He’s singing “For he’s a jolly good fellow” to … someone. He leaves the room for something, only to encounter the convict, a young man named Doran (played by Desi Arnaz Jr.), who’s broken in a window and is holding a gun on him.
Who’s he singing to? Doran asks. He investigates for himself, and comes across Simon Cottner, seated … er, stiffly at the dining-room table. Soames explains — very calmly; this guy doesn’t seem the least bit rattled, even with a gun pointed at him — exactly who Simon is and how he was supposed to be buried. “But I have other plans” for Simon, he explains.
Doran takes this in a sort of “that figures” kind of air, and admits that a funeral home is pretty close to what he needs (foreshadowing!). He’s soaking wet, bleeding, and desperate for Soames to give him some dry clothes and a car to escape in. But Soames urges him to stay and rest. He gets him settled in his parlor, speaks gently to him, covers him with a blanket, and goes to make him some tea.
Doran sleeps, then awakens later with a start. He goes looking for Soames. The dining room is empty. But then he hears “For he’s a jolly good fellow” again, and follows the sound down to the basement, where he pushes open a door … and meets “the family.”
Each corpse … er, member is introduced individually by a smiling Soames — and everyone is in party hats. His wife … children … mother … brother … “and this,” he says, gesturing to Simon, “is my father, who just arrived tonight.” He tries to persuade Doran to stay in this place where there is only “love and peace,” but Doran, not surprisingly, is having none of it.
The doorbell rings. Soames goes to get it, telling Doran it’s probably the police and that he should just hide himself until they leave. But Doran is determined to flee, telling Soames to get out of his way, and is waving his gun around.
We cut to the officers outside, who hear shots and shoot their way in the front door. They follow the trail of blood Doran left behind earlier to the basement, where we find Doran dead in a chair, and Soames — who’s now mortally wounded himself, smilingly introducing the officers to his family … before slumping in a chair and expiring. They back away and … fade to black.
Now let’s take a look at the original short story by Miriam Allen DeFord, an American writer of sci-fi and mystery tales. “A Death in the Family” was published a decade earlier, in 1961. She lived, by the way, until 1975, so she was still alive when her story was adapted for Night Gallery. I don’t know what her reaction to it was, assuming she even watched it, but if she did, she would have seen some key differences.
In DeFord’s story, our protagonist is named Jared Sloane, and based on her description of the man, it’s easy to picture E.G. Marshall. We discover his “family” much sooner; the story opens as he’s wrapping up his workday, and heading down to the basement room where the members are all embalmed and posed.
But there’s no singing, and no party decorations. Everyone — frozen in place, of course — is merely enjoying a simple night at home, with his “mother” fixing a sock, “Grandma” taking a nap, Brother and Sister playing cards, his “wife” playing the piano, and his “son” playing with a model ship.
And every night he just hangs out after work, chatting with all of them, then saying good night and going up to bed.
All that’s missing, to him, is a daughter. And that’s what drives the action of the story. Because the Jared of DeFord’s story has patiently looked for just the right people to populate his little family, then pulled the old switcheroo, so he could adopt them for himself. The Jared of Serling’s story has obviously collected a family, yes, but there’s a distinct emphasis on his concern for the downtrodden, the neglected, the forgotten. You get the impression he’d take in anyone that his heart went out to.
There’s none of that in DeFord’s story. Her Jared is on a mission to build a very specific family, and that’s it. So here, as he did so often in his career, we see Serling putting some real heart in a story. There’s no convict, for example, in DeFord’s story; that was entirely a creation of Serling’s.
Instead, in her telling, we have a scene where one night a bundle is left on Jared’s doorstep. But it’s not a live baby. It’s a dead girl of about eight or nine — someone that he recognizes is the victim in an infamous kidnapping case that’s been all over the news. Apparently she died in their charge, and they decided to make their flight easier by leaving the body on the steps of a funeral home.
And wouldn’t you know it? She’s just the right age and look to be Jared’s “daughter.” So he takes her in, dresses her up, etc. And then, soon enough, comes the knock on the door. The police are looking for her. It seems they caught the kidnappers, and they confessed to leaving the body at a funeral home — and they remember the name “Sloane” was on it.
The resulting conversation should be familiar to anyone who’s watched Martin Balsam and Anthony Perkins spar in “Psycho.” At first, Jared is friendly and cooperative, then — as they press him and ask to search the premises — peevish and defensive.
He insists they need a warrant. They leave to get one, saying they’ll be back in an hour, and he’d better not attempt to remove the body. So he figures the jig is up. He goes down to the “family,” turns on all the gas jets, kisses his “wife” of 10 years goodbye, and sits down to wait. And then … he strikes a match. The end.
But for my money, Serling’s most enduring contribution isn’t making it less explosive, shall we say. It’s what I mentioned earlier: the heart. Doran (again, Serling’s creation) wants to know why Soames is being nice to him. When Soames finds out that Doran has no family, he relates his own upbringing in an orphanage.
As Doran ponders the lengthy prison sentence he’s sure to get for “murder one,” he says, “Until tonight, the only hand I ever got was the back of it. That, and a kick in the pants, and a taste of the sidewalk. It’s a funny thing. I gotta wait until the lights are half out, and I’ve got one foot in hell, and I crawl on my hands and my knees to a dead house to find somebody. Somebody living. Somebody warm.” And Marshall, as Soames, is listening to this with tears in his eyes, telling him to just rest.
Well, that’s all Serling — who demonstrates once again that he’s truly a “jolly good fellow.”
Between his writing, Marshall’s acting, and Jeannot Szwarc’s direction (Serling’s favorite ever since he saw Szwarc’s work on “Class of ’99”), we have every ingredient necessary to make a true Night Gallery classic.
You can read DeFord’s story in the anthology “Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories that Scared Even Me.” It’s out of print, but you can find used copies on Amazon and other booksellers.
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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!
Posted on 07/18/2022, in Night Gallery and tagged A Death in the Family, Desi Arnaz Jr., E.G. Marshall, Jeannot Szwarc, Miriam Allen DeFord, Night Gallery, Rod Serling. Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.