TV: The Twilight Zone - Top 3 Episodes of 1960
by Joe Rubenstein
Joe Rubenstein: Greetings to you. Joe Rubenstein here, producer and host of Real Time 1960s. I want to thank you very much for joining me today for Episode 3 of this portal into the past, where I document and reflect on the ‘60s, in real time, with both podcasts and our daily timeline, which features posts, video, the best images I can possibly find of what happened exactly 60 years ago. And that timeline, along with all our podcasts, social media links, contact info, so you can reach me directly with your feedback, all that can be found on our website, www.realtime1960s.com.
Last time, we talked about Psycho, which was dominating the big screen in 1960 and making people think about showers in a whole new way. But today, we migrate to the small screen and The Twilight Zone, the landmark anthology series created by Rod Serling and broadcast on CBS from the fall of 1959 to the spring of ’64. My opinion, this show offers more creativity than any other show of its era. And I also think, if you had to pick one year for your desert island collection, 1960 would be a very good choice. Thirty-five episodes broadcast that year. So today, my personal picks for the top 3 of those 35. And after that, I’ll give you a few of my runners-up as well. So, now it's time for you and I to enter The Twilight Zone, and we'll do it right now. [Music]
You know, one of the many pleasures of reviewing this show is spotting actors who would soon become household names: Charles Bronson, William Shatner, Dennis Hopper. But the beauty of The Twilight Zone, for me, is the fact that that the writer/creator is the star. And the beauty of the half-hour anthology series is, first of all, the half-hour time limitation forces concision. There can be no filler. And the nature of the anthology series, with a new cast and story and setting every week, it really forces you to tell a good story. With a show like The Sopranos, which I loved, part of the appeal, at least for me, was getting to know such an interesting character as Tony Soprano. It was almost like making a new friend -- a horrifying friend, sometimes -- but a flesh-and-blood human being. And of course, with a serial, there’s cliffhangers as well that draw the viewer back. But no recurring characters and no cliffhangers to fall back on for The Twilight Zone. Each episode is a standalone story that ends, for good, after 25 minutes.
One of the reasons that Serling gravitated to the sci-fi/fantasy subject matter, which he’d done some of in his earlier work, but was not his primary focus.... The Twilight Zone was his first series. But if you look at his two most prominent, one-off productions prior to that, neither are science fiction. The first, his critical breakthrough, called Patterns, was presented in 1955 as part of an anthology series called Kraft Television Theatre, and that dealt with the cutthroat world of big business in New York. Doesn’t hold up that well for me, but Serling got the first of his six Emmys for Dramatic Writing for Patterns. Requiem for a Heavyweight was presented on Playhouse 90 the following year and then was later made into a feature film in 1962, with Anthony Quinn, Jackie Gleason, and a cameo by a very young Cassius Clay, as he was then known, who appears as Quinn's opponent in a boxing match at the very beginning. He throws his signature, lightning-fast punches directly at the audience. But the TV version, with Jack Palance and Keenan Wynn, was also well received. A different kind of an exposé, I guess, that helped shine a light on the issue of brain damage among boxers.
But Serling, in those early years, as a pure writer, not a producer, so with no real control, often found himself frustrated by the censorship of the era, which could be extreme. This was an era, the 1950s, when you couldn’t show a married couple, on TV, sharing the same bed. They always had two twin beds separated by a night table. And on I Love Lucy, when Lucille Ball’s real-life pregnancy was written into the storyline, they couldn’t use the word “pregnant.” They had to say “expecting.” With Serling, often, it was trivial. Like, when he had a character in one of his teleplays light a match, they said, “No, you have to change that because the sponsor sells lighters.” And then a different sponsor, the Ford Motor Company, demanded that the Chrysler Building be removed from a shot of the New York skyline. Stupid, but trivial.
Not trivial was a notorious incident that occurred between Patterns and Requiem. Serling wrote a hard-hitting show -- at least it was before the censors got their mitts on it -- called Noon or Doomsday, for the United States Steel Hour, based on the Emmett Till murder. For those who may not know, Emmett Till was a 14-year-old African American kid from Chicago who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 for the high crime of offending a white woman in her family’s grocery store. How, or if he even did that, we don’t know. There were conflicting stories. But Till was abducted by the husband of this woman and a friend of his and brutally murdered, and he became this kind of icon of the civil rights movement. Now, what made this a worldwide sensation was the fact that Emmett Till’s mother insisted on a public funeral, with an open casket, so everyone could see her son’s mutilated, bloated body. He had been tossed in a river after being beaten and shot in the head. So, the horribly disfigured corpse of Emmett Till was photographed and printed in Jet magazine and elsewhere, and this photograph made international news. You can see the picture online. His face doesn’t even look like a human face anymore. That’s how bad it is.
So, Serling -- it wasn’t just the murder that got him so agitated, but the total, almost insolent lack of repentance that he saw from this Mississippi town where the lynching had occurred. There was this sham trial, which was, really, the first major media event of the civil rights movement. This little town was totally besieged by national reporters. But with an all-white jury, the murderers walked. And there were witnesses, by the way, to the abduction, and the two guys were IDed. But the jury took a little over an hour to acquit. One of them was quoted as saying, “If we hadn’t stopped to drink soda pop, it wouldn’t have taken that long.” So, this is what had Serling so grilled, and he wanted to dramatize it in a teleplay -- fictionalized, but true to the incident.
But the Steel Hour sponsors were so terrified of boycotts that, first, they made the ridiculous demand that the story be taken out of the South. That makes about as much sense as taking Schindler’s List out of Europe. Right? That’s a deal-breaker right there. But then, to add insult to injury, they demanded that the victim not even be black. They watered it down to just some random, white foreigner in an unnamed town. So you can see how, after that frustration, the sci-fi landscape represented, not a surrender into monster-of-the-week flying saucer escapism, but an avenue where Serling could pursue potentially controversial ideas indirectly. Which brings us to the focus of today’s podcast, my top 3 episodes, the crème de la crème of 1960. And spoilers ahead. You know, I tried to figure out a way to discuss these, in depth, without revealing the endings. It just was not possible. And I’ll discuss these in the order in which they were aired.
So, the first is a Season One episode, written by Richard Matheson, called “A World of Difference.” Matheson is probably best known for his novel I Am Legend, about the survivor of a global pandemic which has turned his fellow humans into vampires, so a sneak preview of 2020. And Matheson really established that post-apocalyptic genre. And the enormously gifted lead actor in “A World of Difference” is Howard Duff, whose film career started in the ‘40s with a couple of very good film noirs: Brute Force, a prison flick; and Naked City, both directed by Jules Dassin. But Duff’s career, and Dassin’s, were temporarily derailed by the blacklist. Duff, unlike Dassin, had never been a Communist. Dassin had joined the party back in the ‘30s and left it in 1939 after Stalin signed that nonaggression pact with Hitler. But Duff certainly was a lefty, and he had attended a 1948 Hollywood dinner for Progressive party presidential candidate Henry Wallace, who was also not a communist, but I guess was endorsed by the Communist party. And certainly, Duff’s association with Jules Dassin did not help. And that was enough, in those days, to get you a one-way ticket from Hollywood to Siberia. But Duff was very fortunate in that his wife, Ida Lupino -- who was a great actress and director in her own right -- used her influence to kind of salvage his career.
Now, the thing about Howard Duff -- you know, there’s a phrase I love from Hegel, the German philosopher, “the tension of opposites.” Hegel used it more in a historical context, but it can be applied to the arts as well. And I thought of this phrase watching Howard Duff. He has a very masculine presence. But opposing that is his facial trademark, these worried eyebrows that give him an intriguing touch of forlorn vulnerability, which is perfect for this episode.
So, in the beginning, we see a spacious, unoccupied office, desk with two photographs -- obviously, the occupant’s wife and daughter. And as we take the measure of this room, Serling, in that terrific, hard-boiled style of his, immediately sets up Matheson’s theme, telling us that we are “looking at a tableau of reality, things of substance, of physical material. These things exist and have dimension.” And then, in walks Howard Duff in a business suit, obviously his office. And Serling continues, “Now, this is Arthur Curtis, age 36, who also is real. But in just a moment, we will see how thin a line separates that which we assume to be real with that manufactured inside of a mind.” So then, Arthur’s assistant Sally enters, and they have this mundane conversation about how he hasn’t yet bought his daughter a birthday present, about some contracts she’s been working on, about his plans for a trip to San Francisco with his wife the coming weekend, all of it completely plausible, completely undramatic, nothing special about it whatsoever.
And yet, Serling’s intro has created a worm of uneasiness as we watch this unremarkable exchange. That word “tableau,” implying that what we’re seeing has somehow been arranged or fabricated. So, Arthur enters a separate section of the office to make a phone call, but the line is dead. So, he turns his back, starts to walk away from us, and then we hear this kind of irritating and irritated male voice say "cut," at which point, the camera, which has been stable to that point, immediately becomes shaky. They must have lifted it off the tripod. It’s a subtle but very effective indicator that we’re now kind of off the rails.
So, Arthur turns around, with those worried eyebrows, and we see that there’s a large film crew behind him, staring him down with these merciless eyes. It’s not an office anymore; it’s part of a soundstage. And the director starts speaking to him, not as businessman, Arthur Curtis, but as actor, Gerald Raigan. So, from here to just before the end of the episode, everyone he deals with has an unshakable belief that he is this Gerald Raigan, and for his part, he never wavers from his belief that he is Arthur Curtis. So, for the viewer, kind of a problem, right? He appears confused, obviously, but he’s not confused about his identity. His confusion stems from this Kafkaesque situation of being recognized as someone he is not.
So, the task of the viewer -- which proves to be a very engaging task -- is to decide if this man is Arthur Curtis, suffering some sort of transient hallucinatory episode -- you know, maybe somebody spiked his morning coffee with LSD -- or he’s an actor whose fragile identity has been completely subsumed by a fictional role. Now, I have my own answer to that question, which I’ll reveal later. But for the rest of the episode, this man, who I’ll refer to as Arthur, tries to prove to his director, to his agent, to Mrs. Raigan -- who he is apparently divorcing but fails to recognize -- that he is Arthur Curtis. And it’s significant that these people are all pretty unpleasant. The movie people are disrespectful. His wife obviously hates his guts and keeps begging him to sign a divorce agreement, which he refuses to do, on the grounds that he’s not Gerald Raigan. In their eyes, he’s a somewhat pitiful actor with a drinking problem, whose star power is rapidly waning and who seems to be having some sort of self-willed, psychotic episode.
And the viewer -- you can’t help but notice that the evidence is stacking up, heavily, for the anti-Arthur forces. He drives Mrs. Raigan to a home that he claims is his, but it’s not there. He sees a young girl who, from the rear, looks like his daughter, but when he grabs her and spins her around, it’s not his daughter. He calls information for the phone number of the firm where he works, or claims to work, no listing. In true Kafka fashion, Arthur continues to flunk all of his own tests. So finally, the agent says that, in light of this nervous breakdown, the production of the film will now be halted permanently. And the office set -- which Arthur views as his office -- will be torn down, which drives Arthur into an absolute panic.
So, as he races back, Arthur’s last hope is to get back to that office before it's torn down and somehow re-enter this portal back to reality. And to our relief, he apparently succeeds in this attempt to regain his life. The set has not yet been torn down. He finds his wife, Marion, calmly standing there, calling him Arthur. So he grabs his wife, and he says, “Let’s not wait until Saturday for that trip to San Francisco. Let’s switch that flight and leave right now,” which they do. So, exit Arthur and Marion, but we stay in the room. And there’s that crew again, looking for Gerald Raigan, who is nowhere to be found. And the final shot, or second-to-last shot, rather, is a long, slow pan as the crew starts to take down the set. And the camera finally settles on a closeup of the script, and we see the title of the now-aborted film, which is called The Private World of Arthur Curtis. Then there’s an on-camera outro by Serling, which I’ll get to.
Serling got a ton of mail after this episode aired. People were really confused about, you know, who was the real guy? Was it Arthur Curtis or Gerald Raigan? Which you can kind of understand. The episode is sort of like one of those paintings by the Dutch artist, M.C. Escher, with their impossible objects. Two components look totally functional, but merged together, the thing just doesn’t work, on a dimensional level. You know, they’re optical puzzles that are unsolvable. But my interpretation -- and you may view this very differently -- but my opinion is that the true character Duff is playing is the actor, Gerald Raigan, whose life is this miserable trap, and whose identity is so fragile that he has adopted this role of Arthur Curtis as an escape hatch. So, to me, it’s not the director, the wife, the agent, the crew that are the hallucinations, but Marion, the wife at the end, who isn’t really there. She signals that Gerald’s breakdown is now complete, sort of like Norman Bates at the end of Psycho, where his mother has completely taken over his mind.
But for the viewer, the dice are kind of loaded in the opposite direction because we start the episode with Arthur. So, starting off not in reality, but in a kind of fantasy world -- and this technique was later used brilliantly by David Lynch in Mulholland Drive, from 2001, which I had to see twice before I truly understood it. What makes that film and this episode so confusing is that we begin in the unreal. And since Arthur and his apparent world, in that office, seem fundamentally good to us -- or, at least, innocuous -- we’re on his side. So what we’re rooting for, in effect, throughout the episode, is insanity. We’re pulling for a delusion. So, it’s fascinating, on an emotional level, that our relief at the end -- if I’m correct -- is that this man is now completely psychotic. Now, if I’m incorrect, then what we have is, essentially, a businessman who just had a really rough day between the ears, which to me, doesn’t ring true or have any kind of philosophical resonance.
But after that closeup of the script, The Private World of Arthur Curtis, we see a plane taking off, presumably Arthur and Marion taking off for San Francisco. And Serling says: “The modus operandi for the departure from life is usually a pine box of such-and-such dimensions, and this” -- death, that is -- “is the ultimate in reality. But there are other ways for a man to exit from life. Take the case of Arthur Curtis. His departure was along a highway, with an exit sign that reads, ‘This Way to Escape.’” So even there, we get mixed messages, which is probably what confused viewers so much and led to all that fan mail. Serling still refers to him as Arthur Curtis, not Gerald Raigan. But he describes an exit, an escape, which supports my interpretation, which is that he’s not escaping a delusion of being this alcoholic actor, he is an alcoholic actor escaping into a delusion. But it’s a fascinating episode that holds up to multiple viewings because, first of all, the concept -- but also the acting, the pacing.
The music is great. The score was composed by a guy named Van Cleave. He was the first composer to use the theremin in TV scores. It had been used in films, most famously, in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, of 1945. But for those who don’t know, the theremin, which is used very effectively in this episode, is an electronic instrument named after its inventor, Leon Theremin, who was a Russian physicist who developed it in the 1920s as part of a Soviet government-sponsored research into proximity sensors. So, the theremin is actually controlled with no physical contact by the performer. It has antennas that sense the position of the performer’s hands, one of which controls pitch, the other, volume. And the theremin became associated with creepy films, where it was generally used to indicate insanity -- Spellbound. It was also used that same year, 1945, in The Lost Weekend, about a mentally deteriorating alcoholic who suffers hallucinations. So, the music too adds to the atmosphere of this episode.
You know, sometimes on The Twilight Zone, you’re presented with a typical kind of surreal situation, for example, the series premiere, which is called “Where Is Everybody?” You have an amnesiac man wandering around a seemingly abandoned town. And the scenario just doesn’t really develop. It’s kind of hammered into the ground, to the point where you’re just, like, “Okay, pull out the rug out and give me the twist.” But here, you’re really on the edge of your seat, because it’s genuinely unclear just what the hell is going on. But certainly, a first-rate episode.
All right, the second of my top three episodes was released on April 8th, 1960, same day that the Civil Rights Bill of 1960 was passed. Which is kind of an interesting coincidence because this episode, “The Big Tall Wish,” about a bitter, over-the-hill boxer named Bolie Jackson, is played by an almost entirely African American cast. It was around this time, 1960, that the NAACP was really charging hard at the film and TV industry for its discrimination, as far as both underrepresentation for black actors, and also, the types of roles -- which maybe, in 1960, those roles weren’t as blatantly racist as the kind of cringeworthy stuff you see from the ‘30s and early ‘40s. You did see a decrease in those really ludicrous, Stepin Fetchit, Butterfly McQueen-type roles starting in the mid-40s. I think, the war and maybe Jackie Robinson, as well, had a lot to do with that. But still, the roles were far from plentiful in 1960 and not that great. Actually, the NAACP had been on this issue for decades. They organized nationwide protests of Birth of a Nation, which is, essentially, a celebration of the Klan, way back in 1914. But with the rise of the civil rights movement -- Jackie Robinson, Emmett Till, the Montgomery bus boycott right after that, the sit-ins of 1960, various school desegregation crises -- you know, in 1959, 1960, this issue, civil rights, was slowly making its way from the back pages to the front.
So, a guy named Edward Warren, the president of the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP, raised the possibility, publicly, of not just pickets, if this unfair casting continued, but that charges might be referred to the California attorney general, which in the past, would’ve been ignored. But in 1960, the new attorney general in California was a guy named Stanley Mosk. He was a liberal, Jewish guy, originally from Texas, who was very big on civil rights and, actually, created the attorney general’s Civil Rights Division in California. But Edward Warren’s charges were pretty much undeniable. This is what he said: “Films will show a scene with a baseball crowd, and you don’t see a single Negro. This is ridiculous. You will see city street scenes and not a single Negro. Ridiculous.” And I would add that you’ll see boxing film after boxing film, from that era, with no black boxers. Ridiculous. Black men made up a huge portion of the boxing community, going back decades. So, it sort of makes you understand why Ralph Ellison called his 1952 novel about the black experience, The Invisible Man.
So, Serling, around this time, said this: “Television, like its big sister, the motion picture, has been guilty of the sin of omission. Hungry for talent, desperate for the so-called ‘new face,’ constantly searching for a transfusion of new blood, it has overlooked a source of wondrous talent that resides right under its nose. This is the Negro actor.” And so he wrote this story, “The Big Tall Wish,” with all black characters. It begins with Bolie Jackson, who, like so many Serling protagonists, is contending with middle age and encroaching irrelevance. He’s only in his thirties. Actually, the actor who plays him, Ivan Dixon, was only 29. But athletes age faster, especially boxers. So Bolie’s looking in the mirror as he gets ready to head out and face a very tough young fighter named Consiglio. But sitting next to Bolie, as he stands in front of this mirror, is an eight-year-old kid named Henry, the son of a woman in a neighboring apartment. So, as Bolie kind of traces the terrain of his personal history in the ring, using the various scars and bumps and bruises on his face as a kind of road map, the kid, Henry, suddenly pipes up and tells him that he’s going to win tonight, that Henry is going to make a “big, tall wish,” which Bolie kind of gently laughs off as he heads out to the arena, fully expecting to get his head taken off by this up-and-comer, Consiglio.
In the dressing room, the fight doctor shows up. But instead of giving Bolie a checkup, he offers him a fix and a share of the take if Bolie goes down in the third, which Bolie refuses to do. And he becomes so enraged that he punches a wall and smashes four of the knuckles on his right hand. So, any microscopic sliver of hope is now gone. This will now be, basically, a public execution for a paying audience. And the fight itself is filmed very creatively. First, we hear the sounds of combat, and then, before we actually witness the massacre, the camera pulls in tight on the hands of various audience members: a woman, shielding her face as she watches Bolie get battered; a guy, sort of indifferently, almost robotically, shoveling popcorn into his mouth; another guy, vicariously experiencing the fight, punching one hand into the other; the radio broadcaster, his hand gripping the mic. And then, finally, we see Bolie taking his punishment.
Now, if you’ve grown up, as I did, on Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, which, in addition to being a fascinating character study, features the most brilliant rendering of boxing ever -- and credit where credit’s due, the editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, had a lot to do with that, as did the incredible sound design of Frank Warner. His technique, during the fight scenes, of alternating silence with a wide assortment of really unusual sources including animal sounds, elephants, horses, and then, rifle shots, you hear melons being smashed. If you haven’t seen it and you have the stomach for Raging Bull -- which some people, especially women, don't, which I get. I mean, the scenes of domestic violence are tough to take. But if you do see it, listen to, as well as watch the La Motta-Robinson fights in that film. They’re incredible. But if Raging Bull is your reference point, looking at old boxing films, or even more recent ones, can be a pretty dismal experience. But this reaction-shot technique of Serling’s is effective. And it kind of reminded me -- very different kind of thing -- but if you’ve seen Tarantino’s Django Unchained, there’s a scene where a disobedient slave is killed by a pack of dogs, which we hear -- and that’s bad enough -- but other than a few flashing images, we see entirely through the facial reactions of Christoph Waltz as he watches this horrible death. That’s one of the great performances of the century, in my opinion.
But anyway, Bolie is finally knocked out. And that, too, is shot creatively. I guess they had the actor lie on a transparent surface, because the camera is beneath his prone body, which I’m not sure I’ve ever seen, not even in Raging Bull. So, we’re beneath Bolie, looking up at Consiglio, as the referee begins to count. But before we get to 10, total freeze frame. All those hands in the audience we see, again, are frozen in time. The referee is still as a statue with his arm in the air. Then we see another pair of hands, which are unfrozen. These are Henry’s hands, as he sits before his TV set, watching the fight, and making his “big, tall wish.” All of a sudden, the action resumes; but the roles are reversed. Consiglio is now lying, dazed, on the mat, and it’s Bolie standing over him, in triumph. It’s a confused triumph; he still remembers the prior reality. But Henry’s wish has been granted. Bolie has scored a knockout with a right hand whose knuckles are now unbroken.
So, a victorious Bolie Jackson walks home, as everyone in his neighborhood runs up to congratulate him. And he starts to take credit for the knockout that he had nothing to do with. So, he goes to see Henry up on the roof of their building. The kid is feeding some rabbits in cages, which is kind of an interesting, creative touch. Usually, in these urban-themed shows of that era -- like On the Waterfront, for example -- you’ll see somebody caring for pigeons on the roof. But the rabbits, to me, are meant to evoke the magical element. You know, magicians like Henry take rabbits out of hats. So Henry tells Bolie all about this big, tall wish that he made. So, here’s the big test. Can Bolie shed his cynicism and believe in something positive that defies his sense of what’s possible? And it’s a test that he fails. He struggles with it, but the rational part of his mind, his ingrained cynicism, plus, the puffed-up ego -- you know, who wouldn’t want to take credit for this miraculous upset?
But there’s one moment when he stops, and he says, “Was I? Was I really out?” And here, the boy is standing in front of the open cage with the rabbits inside, sort of like a gatekeeper between Bolie and these symbolic manifestations of magic. And Henry nods quietly. You know, “Yes, you were out.” But Bolie says, “Nobody remembers it. I thought it happened, but it didn’t.” And then he makes a great little speech. It’s the best writing in the entire episode. It’s not cruel, but it’s full of pain and dashed hopes when he says, in effect, “No, I can’t believe in magic anymore. It’s a cruel world of cement and heartache and scars.” And this is one of the spots where I did detect a racial subtext. He says to Henry, as the kid starts to cry, “Somebody’s got to take you by the hair and rub your face in the world so you get a taste and feel for the way things are.” But Henry keeps objecting, saying, “The magic won’t work if you don’t believe.” But Bolie just -- he’s not capable.
So, bam, we’re back in the ring, prior to that freeze-frame. And this time, Bolie is on the mat again, and he gets counted out for good. So the fruits of that big, tall wish have evaporated. And on his second walk home, this time, the people turn their backs on him. And what I like about how Ivan Dixon played this scene -- probably directed this way -- I mean, the obvious play, after this defeat, would be to walk home with slumped shoulders, kind of dejected. But he actually looks more comfortable having lost. It’s like his worldview has been confirmed; whereas, before, he looked kind uncomfortable having won. Which is a brilliant commentary on defeatism, you know, how defeat can become, not just a self-fulfilling prophecy, but a habit, a warm bath of failure where nothing is expected of you; you're a loser, so the pressure's off. So, he actually smiles as he walks home, this second time, but it’s a complicated smile. It’s a smile that says, “Yes, everything is in its right place; I lost, as predicted.”
So, his second reunion with Henry takes place, not on the roof, but in Henry’s apartment. The kid is in bed and sad, not so much that Bolie lost, but sad that he refused to believe. And there’s a kind of isolation about Henry. He’s now the only person in the world who knows about this bizarre, kind of self-willed reversal of fortune. But there’s a touching line here, where he says to Bolie, “You looked like a real tiger in there, even so.” You know? And the two of them are still friends, make plans to go to a hockey game the next day. So, that magic still exists, that bond between the two of them. But then, Henry says quietly, “From now on, I won’t make any more wishes. There’s no such thing as magic." Which, after what you’ve just seen, hits you like a quiet sledgehammer.
So, writing, directing, acting, all top-notch. The music, by Jerry Goldsmith, really good choices. Just as the theremin evoked Jerry Raigan’s encroaching insanity, here, the harmonica is employed as a kind of nod to the blues and the racial environment. And there’s two ways of looking at this episode, from a racial perspective. One, is that it’s not about race at all. It’s about idealism or the lack thereof, period. You know, we’ve become so race-conscious that it’s become a kind of cultural reflex, any time you see a black role, to interpret it through that lens. Which, you could argue, is a different kind of racism, different from what the NAACP objected to -- not as bad, I guess -- but a racial limitation, all the same. You're putting somebody in a box, after all, because of the color of their skin, by interpreting everything as a commentary on race. So, I do think that’s a valid perspective, in general, with which I'm normally quite sympathetic. But given the era in which this episode was filmed, just when the civil rights movement was gathering that full head of steam, I couldn’t help detecting a subtext here, especially, seeing that switch from the white fighter standing over the black fighter and then its reversal. It’s a very potent visual image.
And as I was watching it, and Bolie’s first, triumphant walk home, that phrase, “I have a dream,” from Martin Luther King, just kind of popped in my head. Now, that speech was delivered in August of 1963, so about two and a half years after this episode aired. Although, actually -- I learned this recently -- that speech was partially derived from earlier speeches by King, one of them delivered in 1960 to the NAACP, called “The Negro and the American Dream.” And he actually used that refrain, “I have a dream,” in sermons and speeches prior to the March on Washington. You know, there's a performative element to those charismatic preachers. And in a sense, they work on and develop material in front of an audience just like musicians or comedians do. But seeing this magical transformation in Bolie’s fortunes, I thought about that phrase, “I have a dream,” and about the bedrock of belief, of faith, whatever you want to call it, that provides the foundation for that enormously influential speech that we all still watch today. Obviously, various Supreme Court decisions and legislation in the mid-60s had a major impact. But you can’t tell me that King didn’t help pave the way for all that with his charismatic advocacy. And how much of an impact would he have had without his ability to wish or to believe or to dream of a better future? Right? Not a whole lot. So, there’s a real-world example of a big, tall wish -- backed by positive action, of course -- but the belief helped inspire that action and changed the world.
As far as the casting, what Serling did here, in his own small way -- and continued to do, because this was not the last time he gave black actors significant roles -- did not go unnoticed. I do think that it helped influence other producers and filmmakers, as you saw more and better roles for performers like Sidney Poitier and others as the ‘60s progressed. And even though the casting may seem like small potatoes by modern standards, it was so groundbreaking, at the time, that The Twilight Zone, on the basis of this episode, was awarded the Unity Award for Outstanding Contributions to Better Race Relations in 1961, which is kind of bittersweet -- sweet that the step was taken and acknowledged, bitter that such a small step was noteworthy nearly a hundred years after the Civil War had been fought and won.
Okay, last up in my top three episodes might be the most famous of the entire series, “Eye of the Beholder,” which aired just three days after JFK was elected president. And the theme, here, is conformity. Now, there’s a political angle, as well, that’s kind of grafted on, which I’ll get to. I found that aspect a bit clumsy and gratuitous. But I chose this episode because, first of all, the enormously compelling mood that it creates; and secondly, the creativity employed in keeping the big reveal, at the end, a secret. So, the mood, or the look, of this episode, I’d call it "futuristic noir," which, if you look at sci-fi films from the ‘50s and early ‘60s, there is a kind of film noir look to most of it; partially, because so many, like The Twilight Zone, were shot in black and white, but also, the use of shadow, of darkness, of high-contrast lighting -- films like The Thing from Another World, from 1951, The Day The Earth Stood Still, Them, the 1954 classic about the enormous radioactive ants. But this episode is much more claustrophobic than any of those. It takes place entirely within the confines of a hospital, in an undisclosed time and place.
So, as the episode begins, Janet Tyler, who's played by two actresses -- for the majority of the episode, when most of her head is obscured by bandages, as we await the results of her 11th surgery to repair a horribly disfigured face -- the implication is that’s not from an injury but, rather, some sort of birth defect. So here, she’s played by Maxine Stuart. And then, during the last few minutes, after the big reveal, Janet is played by Donna Douglas. I guess they wanted a specific vocal style in the first case and a certain look in the latter, which maybe Stuart didn’t have. But Janet’s 11th surgery will be her last. The state mandates that, if the 11th surgery of this type fails -- why 11, I don’t know -- but after the 11th failure, the patient will be either segregated or euthanized. If the surgery succeeds, of course, the patient can be integrated into society. And the surgery is performed, not by cutting, but through the use of an unspecified drug. They use the word ‘surgery’ throughout but, with no incisions, probably ‘treatment’ would be a more accurate term. I think Serling, who wrote this episode -- you know, the word ‘surgery’ has a certain frightening connotation, and he probably added the drug business to take scarring out of the equation for those last few minutes.
But the doctors and nurses -- whose faces, like Janet’s, we do not see -- are generally presented as caring and humane, especially the lead doctor, who has a very comforting voice and gentle hands as he massages Janet’s shoulder while trying to reassure his deeply anxious patient -- so, excellent bedside manner. He’s clearly somebody we can trust. But in sharp contrast to the warmth and competence of the doctor, Janet -- both her voice and her physical movements in the hospital bed -- a little grating on the eyes and ears. The face is obscured, as I said, but the hands are constantly moving in this kind of flailing, slightly uncoordinated way, sometimes taking on claw-like formations. The voice has an unpleasant sort of metallic edge to it, just a touch of sandpaper in the lower register. And this is certainly deliberate. Through this casting and this performance, we are subtly prepared for Janet to be hideously deformed. And we’re also prepared by the dialogue. At one point, out of Janet’s earshot, one of the doctors refers to Janet’s pre-surgery face as “a pitiful, twisted lump of flesh.” So, we start to dread the removal of those bandages.
And the scene in which this takes place is expertly paced. They do everything possible to slow the tempo and draw out that tension and, like the boxing match in our last episode, after the last bandage comes off, we don't see Janet's face, immediately. We see and hear the staff’s reaction. One nurse lets out a horrified gasp, another throws an arm over her face -- we still haven’t seen their faces, by the way -- and then, they cut to the doctor’s hand as he drops the scissors in dismay and steps back from this apparently revolting sight. And then, the payoff: Janet’s face, it turns out, is shockingly beautiful, at least to my eyes, and, I imagine, to the vast majority of beholders in the audience -- a little like Marilyn Monroe, but less cartoonish, a little softer. They may have used some sort of filter on the lens to soften her up even more. But her face, which she touches and then buries in her hands before bursting into tears and running away, is stunning. And then, part two of the payoff is the revelation that the staff, the doctors and nurses, have faces which, to our eyes, are grotesque. If you haven’t seen the episode, picture a short-snouted pig who’s just gone twelve rounds with Mike Tyson. The faces look slightly rearranged and sagging. The noses -- or snouts, as I called them -- are bent sideways. But in this world, that’s the norm: distorted pigface.
Now, the political element that I mentioned is transmitted through a telecast, of which we hear snippets throughout. They have TV monitors installed in the hallways of the hospital. And the leader of this society is giving a speech, preaching glorious conformity. And his vocal type and hand gestures are clearly meant to evoke Adolf Hitler, which to me is a little heavy-handed. First of all -- and maybe this wasn’t as true in 1960, but it’s certainly true now -- Hitler and Nazi references have become so ubiquitous and are used so inappropriately, in the sense that they kind of trivialize Nazi Germany, they’ve really lost all their potency and meaning. But I also think that Serling did not need to make this world explicitly fascist to make his point. Of course, there was extreme regimentation in Nazi Germany, as there was in Mao’s China, or Stalin’s Soviet Union, but conformity -- that’s an issue in every human society, including democracies.
You even find it with animals. I’ll never forget this. I once saw a show, on BBC, about African wildlife, and there was this Thomson's gazelle that had been born albino. The Thomson’s gazelle is normally reddish-brown with a white belly, but this one was all white. And so this little albino gazelle was forcibly rejected by the herd. When he tried to join, or tried to feed, they would physically bully him away. And they didn’t show it, but in these cases, the narrator said, the isolated animal either starves or gets bumped off by a leopard or something. You see things on some of those shows that are worse than any horror movie. There was one that showed a Cape buffalo -- I'll never forget this -- this buffalo had the misfortune to get stuck in a mud pit. And this pack of filthy, disgusting, yelping hyenas basically ate him alive from the rear. That’s something I will never unsee. If there’s one species I could vanish from the planet -- as long as it wouldn’t disrupt the ecosystem -- that would be it, hyenas, gone.
But anyway, this televised speech by this Hitleresque leader has been playing, in the hospital, throughout the episode. He says, at one point, “We must cut out all that is different like a cancerous growth.” That’s classic Hitler, who was always using disease metaphors. And like the doctors and nurses, the leader’s face is hidden until the end, when his pigface is revealed. And as for the faces, I mean, it’s 1960 network TV on a budget. Obviously, they’re masks. They do look kind of fabricated and artificial. But first of all, it’s not like CGI existed. And second of all, who cares? When you’re in the hands of a Rod Serling or an Alfred Hitchcock or a great storyteller like that, you’re happy to suspend disbelief and forgive those details because the mind and the emotions are so fully engaged. Part of the problem with having all this CGI and advanced audiovisual technology, today, is that so many films, of this type, become about that, you know? They turn into a kind of science-and-technology exhibit. So, I do think our era is marked by a surplus of technology and, perhaps, a conceptual deficit, but that’s a whole other diatribe.
So, Janet finally ends up in a room with a man named Walter Smith, who, like her, is hideous by societal standards but handsome to us. So, he and one of the doctors convince Janet to go off with Walter to this segregated village, so she can live in peace with people like herself and so the majority can be spared the sight of her hideous face, which sort of reminded me -- there was a book about World War I, published a few years ago, very good book called My Fellow Soldiers, which reconstructs that war through the letters of those involved. And there’s a section, at the end, that describes President Wilson’s visit, after the Armistice, to a U.S. military hospital in France that had a special section called, innocuously enough, the “Jaw Ward.” And the patients, in that ward, had had portions of their faces blown off -- just horribly disfigured. Even hardened doctors and nurses dreaded their rotations in the Jaw Ward. So, Wilson, to his credit -- you know, flawed president, for sure, but certainly, no warmonger. I mean, his campaign slogan, in 1916, was "He kept us out of war.” But he'd been the one to declare war, and he bore that burden. So, Wilson spent an entire day in the Jaw Ward, with each and every patient, on an individual basis. The few that could speak, he listened to -- sometimes, with great difficulty -- and the others he just sat with. And at the end of that day, according to the nurse who wrote this letter about it, he emerged pale as a ghost.
But they did have special societies, or villages, back then, where such patients could live amongst themselves, very similar to “Eye of the Beholder.” Now, how they felt about that, I don’t know. I’m sure it was mixed. And how we’re supposed to feel, at the end, as Janet and Walter walk off together and the hospital staff kind of looks on in pity, that’s an open question as well. She won’t be euthanized, and she does have companionship, which is good. But how will she view herself, going forward? Can she shed that self-hatred, that sense of being a freak? This, we don’t know. There’s a touching moment, just before they go off together, where Janet asks Walter, with such pain in her voice, “Why do we have to look like this?” And I mentioned, earlier, the tension of opposites. Her physical beauty adds a whole other level to that line delivery.
But the effectiveness of this last segment is really set up well by the skill in hiding the staff’s faces for the first 20 minutes. I wouldn't be surprised if original viewers did not really register that the faces were obscured. They do it, first of all, with interesting camera movement that captures our attention; wonderful acting with the hands; the use of that noir shadow and darkness that I mentioned, that style is very conducive to concealment. And then, other creative touches, like zooming in on a pack of cigarettes and having that simple activity of a nurse removing a cigarette, handing it to the doctor, lighting it for him, to keep our eyes busy so we don’t miss the faces as much. That was an especially good choice, I thought -- impossible today, obviously, in our non-smoking culture. I mean, film directors, just on a professional level, must have been really bummed out with the decline of smoking culture. Think of how many scenes in old movies and TV shows were visually enriched by the various activities surrounding smoking. It’s a great development, health-wise, don’t get me wrong -- and Serling was a very heavy smoker, even by contemporary standards, and it killed him. He was dead at the age of 50. But that association, when you see that cigarette being lit for the doctor, even though you don’t see his face as he smokes it -- the camera’s behind him, and the nurse’s head is out of the frame -- it creates this subliminal image, in your mind, of a cigarette being smoked in a normal mouth in a normal face. You’ve seen it literally thousands of times. So, this is another way of reinforcing the false impression of normality.
So again, great episode that, unlike some other great ones, was seen as such immediately. The Twilight Zone won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing Achievement in Drama for Season Two, and this is the episode that Serling submitted for the jury’s consideration. So clearly, Serling knew what he had here. And it remains, as I said, the most famous and highly-rated episode of the entire series, although, in my opinion, the other two we discussed, especially “A World of Difference,” are just as good.
So, if you haven’t seen these three episodes, and I haven’t completely ruined them for you, you can stream them on either Netflix or Hulu. Now, my runners-up from 1960, I had 4, all from Season 1. So, first of all, “Nightmare as a Child,” about a woman -- well-played by Janice Rule, she’s always good -- who has repressed a childhood trauma, the details of which are brought to the surface with the aid of a strange young girl. Then, “A Stop At Willoughby” is about a desperately unhappy advertising executive who slips off his commuter train into a comparatively innocent, 19th-century America. “The Last Flight," also, deals with time travel. It’s about a British fighter pilot, in 1917, who flies into a cloud and then lands on an American airbase in 1960. And finally, “The Hitch-Hiker,” about a troubled woman, played well by Inger Stevens, a Swedish actress. You see her a lot in films from the ‘60s. Her specialty was fragile characters which, unfortunately, she was in real life; she committed suicide in 1970. But in “The Hitch-Hiker,” she’s driving west, cross-country, but no matter how fast she goes, she’s haunted by this omnipresent, bedraggled hitchhiker. But “The Hitch-Hiker” is really good, really creepy, and frequently listed among the series' very best. A quick look at our next episode, right after this. [Music]
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Coming up on Episode 4 of Real Time 1960s, Election 1960, part 2, as we examine the latter stages of that contest between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. We'll cover the great debates and the many ups and downs of one of the most dramatic elections in U.S. history. And we'll do it with David Pietrusza, author of an outstanding book called 1960: LBJ vs. JFK vs. Nixon: The Epic Campaign that Forged Three Presidencies. So that'll be a fascinating discussion.
Don’t forget to visit us at www.realtime1960s.com for our timeline, each and every podcast, links to social media, how to reach us directly, everything you need to know about this parallel universe of 60 years ago that we are creating. Thanks so much for joining us. Take care, and I'll see you soon.