From Reel to Real: “The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine”

The Twilight Zone has a pretty straightforward moral code. The evil are punished. The proud are humbled. The good are rewarded. The forgotten are remembered.

True, there are some exceptions. “Time Enough at Last,” for example, appears to be a prime instance of Fate punishing an innocent. The earthlings in “To Serve Man” did nothing to merit becoming “an ingredient in someone’s soup.” But by and large, you deserve the ending you get.

And then there’s “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine”.

It’s the earliest example in TZ of someone yearning for the past. It aired just before “Walking Distance”, which explored this theme so beautifully that it inevitably overshone its predecessor.

But Shrine‘s problem isn’t merely standing in the shadow of “Walking Distance”. I think this episode fails to really resonate with fans because the main character, Barbara Jean Trenton (played by the amazing Ida Lupino, who would later direct TZ’s “The Masks”), is a hard figure to sympathize with.

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Spotlight on Season 4: “Passage on the Lady Anne”

The usual criticism of Twilight Zone‘s 4th season is familiar to most fans: Stretching the series from a half-hour to an hour meant bloat. Something was lost. Suddenly more added up to less.

“Mute”

Sure, the series still brought us the elements of fantasy that had served it so well throughout the first three seasons: time travel, space travel, horror, and loads of irony. But the extra length mean the writers inevitably drifted more toward drama. Instead of snap, there was sag.

But hey, we’re still talking about the amazing Twilight Zone. And we continued getting stories from Rod Serling, Charles Beaumont, and Richard Matheson. So we may have been denied the classic Zone formula, but we weren’t exactly getting junk.

Freed from the need to sprint to the finish line, the writers had room to explore their themes a bit more deeply. This meant padding at times, but on other occasions, it gave the material a chance to breathe and draw us more deeply into the world of the story. Read the rest of this entry

The Carousel That Helped Inspire Twilight Zone’s “Walking Distance”

The Twilight Zone, as every fan knows, is home to many wild settings that exist only in our imaginations. But one of the most magical is very real: the carousel in Rod Serling’s hometown of Binghamton, NY.

No, the much-beloved episode “Walking Distance” wasn’t actually filmed there, but this is the very carousel that Rod rode as a child. His nostalgia for that simple ride led him to feature a carousel rather prominently in the conclusion to that bittersweet story.

The carousel (which you can read more about at this link) still works. It even got a facelift in 2011 that included some TZ-inspired artwork by Cortland T. Hull in the panels above the horses. Here they are, snapped by yours truly on a visit to Binghamton. Can you recognize all the episodes? (Click any pic to enlarge it.) Read the rest of this entry

Serling Fest 2018: Celebrating TZ — and More — in Rod’s Hometown

My disappointment over Syfy ditching the July 4th marathon was, I’m happy to say, fairly short-lived. On July 5, I hit the road for “Serling Fest 2018” in Rod’s hometown of Binghamton, New York.

It was a first for me. I’d never been there before.

Surprised? I don’t blame you. Considering how long I’ve been fanning publicly over Serling’s work (starting when I set up my Twitter page in September 2010), you’d think I’d have visited long before now. But the timing or the money (or both!) was never right — until now.

It was a long drive (four hours one-way), but well worth it. It’s one thing to read about Serling’s childhood experiences, or to view pics online. It’s another to walk the streets he did and reflect on the fact that you’re in the very spot where, for all intents and purposes, The Twilight Zone was born.

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No Twilight Zone Marathon on July 4th? Say It Ain’t So, Syfy

This isn’t the Twilight Zone marathon blog post I thought I’d be writing.

I was sure I’d be continuing my late-June tradition of publishing the schedule for the Syfy channel’s July 4 line-up of TZ episodes. But we recently learned they won’t be airing a marathon that day – unless you’re counting their replacement: an all-day slate of “Nightmare on Elm Street” movies.

Hey, I enjoy some Elm Street action at times. But I think even Freddy Krueger would admit the real horror here is leaving people without their biannual fifth-dimensional fix.

It’s true that this isn’t unprecedented. In 2011, Syfy ran a Greatest American Hero marathon over the Fourth. Granted, that’s more thematically appropriate, but you mess with TZ fans at your peril. They complained – mightily – and TZ returned in 2012. Read the rest of this entry

No Laughing Matter: Serling’s “The Comedian”

The first time I saw “The Comedian,” I was astonished.

I knew it was one of a trio of works from the early days of live television drama that had earned Rod Serling his first three Emmys. But that was it. An avid Twilight Zone fan, I had watched the live version of “Patterns” (January 12, 1955), then “Requiem for a Heavyweight” (October 11, 1956), and immediately saw themes in these beautiful plays that would later emerge on his signature series.

Then I watched “The Comedian”.

Think Mickey Rooney is on fire in Twilight Zone‘s “The Last Night of a Jockey”? That episode plays like the warm-up act for his off-the-hook performance in “The Comedian” (February 14, 1957). Rooney is Sammy Hogarth, an old-school comic in the style of Milton Berle. He stages big TV specials packed with skits, monologues and musical numbers — and he makes life for his staff and family a living hell. Read the rest of this entry

Serling’s 1972 Speech to Graduates: “Cherish What You Believe”

With graduation season in full swing, it seems an ideal time to share these illuminating passages from Rod Serling’s May 13, 1972 commencement address to New York’s Ithaca College:

Commencement means beginning. Those robes you now sweat under will soon be replaced by lab aprons, business suits, and whatever are the working uniforms of your chosen profession. And some of those professions will prove to be back-breaking impossibilities.

For some of you, the frustrations are only beginning. For all of you, the world society beyond this campus is going to prove tough, competitive, demanding, unforgiving of error, and full of rebuttals to the things you most earnestly believe.

So first – and most important – cherish what you believe. Don’t job off one single value judgment because it swims upstream against what appears to be a majority. Respect your own logic, your own sense of morality. Death and taxes may be the only absolutes. It’s for you to conjure up the modus operandi of how you live, act, react and hammer out a code of ethics. Read the rest of this entry

“Eye of the Beholder”: The Face Under the Bandages

She starred in one of the most iconic Twilight Zone episodes of all time. And yet if you passed Maxine Stuart on the street, you probably wouldn’t recognize her.

That’s because she spent all of her screen time under a thick layer of bandages in “Eye of the Beholder”. Yes, Stuart played poor Janet Tyler, whose only crime was not upholding the standards of beauty in some skewed dystopia.

Of course, she wasn’t the only actress who played Janet Tyler. Once the bandages were off, we saw only the face of Donna Douglas (the future Elly May Clampett on “The Beverly Hillbillies”). So why the switch? Why wasn’t the part handled entirely by either Stuart or Douglas?

Primarily because of how director Douglas Heyes opted to handle this amazing script. He wanted the twist ending to land with a real wallop. That led him to stage it so that we never see the faces of the doctors and nurses until the big reveal.

It also led him, he later said, to audition the actors and actresses with his back to them. He knew their voices were key. So for the medical personnel, he picked ones with warm, caring voices, to make it all the more shocking when we see how they really look.

We’re supposed to assume that Janet Tyler is horribly ugly. Since her appearance is only talked about for the first three-quarters of the episode, we have to use our imaginations. So, to convey (at least aurally) the notion that she’s ugly, he cast Maxine Stuart at least in part for her somewhat rough-sounding voice. Read the rest of this entry

Saddling Up With Serling: A Pre-TZ Wild West Detour

Got a sibling? If so, did he or she ever make trouble for you? Did you ever get into arguments? Maybe even engage in some physical fights?

It’s almost silly to ask. If you have a sibling, the answer to my other questions is a resounding yes. Even if you get along now, you probably didn’t at one time, at least not when you were growing up.

Well, no matter how bad things were, I can practically guarantee that you had it better than Steve and Tony Sinclair. They’re the oil-and-water duo at the heart of “Saddle the Wind”, a 1958 feature film written by Rod Serling.

This western is about as far away from the fifth dimension as you can imagine. Instead of stark black-and-white images on a TV set, we get the panoramic open plains and mountains of the Wild West, shot in sharp, wide-screen Technicolor.

There isn’t an alien or time-travel machine in sight. This tale is set strictly in the real world (or as real as anything we ever get out of Hollywood). No specific year is given, but it clearly occurs shortly after the Civil War. Indeed, one’s former allegiance to either the North or the South comes heavily into play more than once. Read the rest of this entry

Serling on the “Special Irony” Surrounding Martin Luther King’s Death

Four days after the April 4, 1968 assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., The Los Angeles Times published a letter from Rod Serling:

There is a bitter sadness and special irony that attends the passing of Martin Luther King. Quickly and with ease, we offer up a chorus of posthumous praise—the ritual dirge so time-honored and comfortable and undemanding of anything but rhetoric. In death, we offer the acknowledgement of the man and his dream that we denied him in life. In his grave, we praise him for his decency—but when he walked amongst us, we responded with no decency of our own.

When he suggested that all men should have a place in the sun—we put a special sanctity on the right of ownership and the privilege of prejudice by maintaining that to deny homes to Negroes was a democratic right. Now we acknowledge his compassion—but we exercised no compassion of our own.

When he asked us to understand that men take to the streets out of anguish and hopelessness and a vision of that dream dying, we bought guns and speculated about roving agitators and subversive conspiracies and demanded law and order. We felt anger at the effects, but did little to acknowledge the causes. We extol all the virtues of the man—but we chose not to call them virtues before his death.

And now, belatedly, we talk of this man’s worth—but the judgment comes late in the day as part of a eulogy when it should have been made a matter of record while he existed as a living force. If we are to lend credence to our mourning, there are acknowledgements that must be made now, albeit belatedly.

We must act on the altogether proper assumption that Martin Luther King asked for nothing but that which was his due. He demanded no special concessions, no favored leg up the ladder for his people, despite our impatience with his lifelong prodding of our collective conscience. He asked only for equality, and it is that which we denied him. We must look beyond riots in the streets to the essential righteousness of what he asked of us. To do less would make his dying as senseless as our own living would be inconsequential.

— Rod Serling

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