20 June 2009

Twilight Zone: Long Live Walter Jameson

I’ve spent time discussing Richard Matheson, and now I turn the spotlight on another one of The Twilight Zone’s great scribes, Charles Beaumont.
Episode #24: Long Live Walter Jameson
Directed by Tony Leader. Written by Charles Beaumont. Starring Kevin McCarthy, Edgar Stehil, Estelle Winwood, Dody Heath.

“You’re looking at Act One, Scene One, of a nightmare, not restricted to witching hours or dark, rainswept nights. Professor Walter Jameson, popular beyond words, who talks of the past as if it were the present, who conjures up the dead as if they were alive.”

Charles Beaumont had already written two episodes for The Twilight Zone before “Long Live Walter Jameson” was broadcast: “Perchance to Dream” and “Elegy”. Good episodes, but neither among the great excursions into the fifth dimension. “Perchance to Dream” was actually the first Zone episode to air with a script from someone other than Rod Serling. Ahead of Beaumont were a number of other classic episodes: “The Howling Man,” “In His Image,” “Printer’s Devil,” “The Jungle,” and the beautiful “The Fugitive.” “Long Live Walter Jameson” is one of Beaumont’s best episodes—and unfortunately ended up reflecting his own life.

The aging Professor Samuel Kittridge—possibly a reference to famous Shakespeare scholar and Harvard Professor George Lyman Kittredge—has been friends with History Professor Walter Jameson for twelve years, and the younger professor is about to marry Kittridge’s attractive daughter Susanna. But Prof. Kittridge wants to get something off his chest regarding his future son-in-law. He’s noticed that Jameson seems to have aged not a single year during the last dozen. His history lectures sound as is he were describing scenes he actually witnessed. And there’s a Civil War photo that bears an uncanny resemblance to a man who claims he’s only forty-four years old.

Yes, Walter Jameson has achieved immortality. How long has he lived? He apparently palled around with Plato. But his immortality is a curse. Although all humans sometimes dream of living forever, and the idea weighs heavily on the mind of the elderly Professor Kittridge, anyone who spends any time thinking about the consequences of never aging will realize what a true horror eternity might turn into. “Long Live Walter Jameson” confronts this in an intelligent way that presages my favorite inspection of the immortality-paradox, Poul Anderson’s novel The Boat of a Million Years.

Kevin McCarthy gives a great performance as Jameson, seeming far older in his speech than he physically appears, even though Jameson claims that he has really grown no wiser in his millennia of existence. Edgar Stehil is excellent opposite him as Kittridge, a genuine aged man facing the reality of never dying sitting across the chessboard from him . . . and the possibility that he could hand over his daughter to a man who will break her heart as she ages and he doesn’t. The third ingredient in the acting recipe is Estelle Winwood (best known to TV viewers for her work on Bewitched) as the consequence slinking from the shadows of the past that finally catched up to Walter Jameson.

This marks the third time this season that the same MGM Studio “foyer with staircase” set has appeared on the show: the exterior of Walter Jameson’s college classroom is also the mansion foyer in “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine” and “Elegy.” Watching episodes so close together makes these minute continuity details clearer than they must have been back in 1960. I’ve also noticed the living room set in this episode making appearances in “Third from the Sun” and “People Are Alike All Over.”

Now the bleak irony of this episode: Charles Beaumont died young, age 38, from a mysterious illness that made him seem to age rapidly. His friend Walter Nolan remembers, “Like his character ‘Walter Jameson,’ Chuck just dusted away.”

Long live “Long Live Walter Jameson” and the memory of Charles Beaumont. They will achieve immortality along with the rest of The Twilight Zone.