05 September 2009

Twilight Zone: A World of His Own

This has been a bit delayed, but I’m finally closing out my First Season Twilight Zone tab with with a review of its last episode. It’s also the first time Rod Serling appeared on-screen within a story, sparking a tradition over the next four seasons.
Episode #36: A World of His Own
Directed by Ralph Nelson. Written by Richard Matheson. Starring Keenan Wynn, Phyllis Kirk, Mary La Roche.

“The home of Mr. Gregory West, one of America’s most noted playwrights. The office of Mr. Gregory West. Mr. Gregory West: shy, quiet, and at the moment, very happy. Mary: warm, affectionate. . . . And the final ingredient: Mrs. Gregory West.”

The Twilight Zone has an uneven history with purely humorous outings. Some of the classic episodes include a lot of humor (such as “Time Enough at Last”), but when the show went for comedy-through-and-through, it often came across as forced and uncomfortable. The only two episodes of the first season that are flops are comedic ones: “Mr. Bevis” and “The Mighty Casey.” To be fair, “The Mighty Casey” had problems aside from its script; most of the episode had to be re-shot (from Rod Serling’s own pocket) to replace the original star Paul Douglas with Jack Warden. Douglas was practically dying on screen during the shoot, and literally died a few days after filming completed. His footage was unusably grim because of this, requiring the hasty re-shoot. The results are simply uneven; Jack Warden, making his second appearance in the first season (he starred in “The Lonely”) makes the best of it, though.

Rod Serling wrote both those episodes, and perhaps it straight-up sitcom laughs simply weren’t something the great man could write well. But when Richard Matheson sat down to write a comedy episode to end the season, it ended up pretty damn good. And he has a laugh at Serling’s expense as well.

It seems obvious that “A World of His Own” was meant as a “bottle show,” a low budget episode that uses a small cast and only a few sets to save money (usually allocated to some potentially more expensive episodes). “Bottle show” is usually applied to series with running casts and locations, and means that the episode reamins on the pre-standing sets and doesn’t employ guest-stars. The Twilight Zone can’t have a “bottle show” in the normal sense because it’s an anthology program, although I did notice the same foyer set materialize in four different episodes, and a recurring staircase, so there was some degree of set re-cycling. But “A World of His Own” is a very inexpensive show, and was probably done because at the very end of the season the money was getting tight. The “Mighty Casey” re-shoot disaster didn’t help, I’m sure. The whole of this episode stays in one room, the study of famous playwright Gregory West (Matheson tipping his hat at Serling, I imagine), and features only three characters.

Mr. West has discovered the dream of any author: he’s developed such skill with crafting his characters that they come to life for him. But these ones literally come to life, as he described them into a voice-recorder. Matheson used the dictation technique so viewers could hear what Mr. West is describing; if this were a short story, more likely Mr. West would stick to using a typewriter to generate his real-world creations. He can keep his manifested characters around by saving the length of tape where he describes them, but if he destroys the tape, the character vanishes as well.

“A World of His Own” is definitely a masculinist fantasy. Gregory West has a vision of himself as a successful writer that means he deserves fawning female company, subservient and sweet, and has created “Mary” (Mary La Roche) to fill that job. But then his wife Victoria (Phyillis Kirk), a far more energetic and insistent woman, learns of Mary’s existence… and the conditions that created her. Most of the episode centers on the confrontation between Mr. and Mrs. West, and a revelation about how very extensively Gregory West had controlled his world, beyond what even Victoria imagines.

Matheson’s script is very funny, and I wonder how much of it is digs at writers he actually knew, such as Serling, and their fantasy images of what a world-renowned writer’s life must be. And what writer doesn’t imagine that his or her characters gain a life of their own, somehow slipping beyond control? However, none of this episode would work were it not for the perfect delivery from Keenan Wynn and the support from sharp-tongued and often hilarious Phyllis Kirk. The writing and performances make it easy to forget that Mr. West demonstrates very little of his amazing powers because the budget won’t let him. He summons an elephant to block the foyer at one time which looks like a process shot projected behind actress Phyllis Kirk.

The episode is most famous for it conclusion, where Rod Serling abruptly appears inside Gregory West’s study to do his wrap-up in person instead of a voiceover. Serling had, until this time in the show, only appeared on-screen during the teasers to introduction next week’s show, and this was the first time he showed up inside an episode. He doesn’t last long in Gregory West’s world, however; West pulls out the tape used to create Rod Serling and tosses it in the fire. “Well that’s the way it goes,” Serling says, and poof! Show host is gone. Matheson must have loved writing this. However, this planted the seed for the later seasons, when Serling would make full-bodied materialization to do his introductions and sometimes his prologues.

This concludes the first season of the The Twilight Zone, as well as my overview of some of its noteworthy episodes. October 2nd marks the actual fiftieth anniversay of the show—the premiere of the first episode, “Where is Everybody?”—so watch for a large Season One retrospective at Black Gate that week, probably on the Tuesday before.

If you wish to go over my other Twilight Zone Season One reviews here from earlier in this retrospective, they are:

#1 “Where Is Everybody?
#5 “Walking Distance”
#8 “Time Enough at Last”
#11 “And When the Sky Was Opened”
#13 “The Four of Us Are Dying”
#16 “The Hitch-Hiker”
#18 “The Last Flight”
#22 “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” (my favorite of the season)
#24 “Long Live Walter Jameson”
#27 “The Big Tall Wish”
#28 “Nightmare as a Child”
#30 “A Stop at Willoughby”
#34 “The After Hours”

Looking back over it, I think that “What You Need,” “The Execution,” and “The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine” also deserve full reviews. Maybe between now and October 2nd, although I make no promises.