Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Ida Lupino Blogathon: Ida’s in the Zone

This essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to the Ida Lupino Blogathon currently underway at (where else?) the Ida Lupino blog from August 1-2.  I will warn you right off the bat that I’m going to telegraph the endings of the two episodes discussed here…so if by some off chance you’ve not watched either of these two half-hours rush to your nearest DVD rental queue, get them under your belt, and then return here when you have the time.

Back in October 2009, I supplemented an essay I wrote for Edward Copeland on Film…and More on the 50th anniversary of The Twilight Zone (which premiered over CBS-TV on October 2, 1959) with a piece here at TDOY listing a few of my favorite TZ episodes.  I pointed out that they weren’t necessarily what I thought were the best of the classic Zone half-hours, just some of my personal favorites—and one of them on the list was the fourth episode of the series’ inaugural season, “The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine.”

In “Shrine,” former movie queen Barbara Jean Trenton (Ida Lupino) sequesters herself in the screening room inside her Hollywood manse and spends most of her copious free time watching her old movies over and over again—much to the concern of her housekeeper (Alice Frost) and agent, Danny Weiss (Martin Balsam), who fear that her reminisces into the past jeopardize how she copes with the real world.  Weiss—he is an agent, after all—has arranged an appointment for Barbara to see studio head Marty Sall (Ted de Corsia) about a small part in a picture.  The tactless Sall tells the vainglorious actress that he wants her to portray a mother…and when she recoils in disgust, he adds insult to injury by insulting her, labeling her “an aging broad with a scrapbook.”

Barbara Jean retreats back into her celluloid inner sanctum, and Weiss hits upon the idea of inviting one of her former leading men to pay her a visit since he’s in town on a business trip.  But Barbara is shocked to see that one-time matinee idol Jerry Hearndan (Jerome Cowan) is now an aged, bifocals-wearing grocery store chain manager and not at all as she remembers him.  With this shock to her system, she becomes even more depressed and goes back to her own little personal TCM (movies 24 hours a day).  When housekeeper Sally enters her screening room to find no trace of her employer, she sees something so frightening onscreen that she immediately calls Danny to rush right over.

Weiss arrives to find no sign of Barbara Jean—and in switching on the projector, he is flabbergasted to see the projected image of his client on a staircase, hobnobbing with all her former co-stars (some of whom have been dead for years) onscreen and inviting them to dinner by the pool.  He calls out to her and pleads for her to come back…prompting her to turn, smile, blow him a kiss and then toss her scarf at the bottom of the staircase.  When Weiss prepares to leave, he finds that same neckerchief by the stairs near the front door and wistfully says: “To wishes, Barbie…to the ones that come true.”

Because of my lifelong love and obsession with classic films, “The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine” has always been one of my favorite forays into The Twilight Zone.  It’s certainly not a perfect episode (written by creator Rod Serling); for example, how the housekeeper gets Weiss to come over to Barbara Jean’s after seeing her on the movie screen is never fully explained to my satisfaction (if somebody had told me over the telephone that a friend of mine was trapped in a movie screen I’d suspect they were a bit out of their tree).  But “Shrine” contains strong echoes of Sunset Boulevard (1950)—and it only seems fitting that Franz Waxman, the man responsible for scoring that movie (and winning the Academy Award for his work), composed and conducted the music for this episode as well.  (The twist ending of “Shrine” also foreshadows the plot of Woody Allen’s 1985 classic The Purple Rose of Cairo.)

Lupino’s performance as the prickly Barbara Jean (the description of the character at Twitch’s Exploring the Twilight Zone is “awesomely bitchy,” which I don’t particularly agree with) is one of my personal favorites; critics of this episode take the character to task because they consider her spoiled and self-centered but I would argue that the actress is more demanding than selfish…and that’s how a lot of the women in her profession achieved what they did and stayed that way.  There’s poignancy in Ida’s portrayal, which really comes out when she gets the cold water of reality thrown in her face at the moment of her reunion with former leading man Hearndan, now a schlubby pencil-pusher.  (Character actor Jerome Cowan, best remembered by movie buffs as the ill-fated partner of Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, does beautiful work with a small but important part.)

The fine performances in “Shrine” is another reason why it’s one of my faves; I’ve not seen everything Martin Balsam ever did in his career but if he ever gave a bad performance I’ve yet to come across it.  The remaining performers are two names familiar to old-time radio fans: Alice Frost is solid as the domestic Sally (Frost is probably best known as Pam North on radio’s long-running Mr. and Mrs. North) and Ted de Corsia is his usual distasteful and brylcreemed self as the callous studio head.  “Shrine” is also stylishly directed by the underrated Mitchell Leisen, who never received his due for many of his feature films (Easy Living, Midnight, Hold Back the Dawn) and who struggled to adapt his lyrical style to television (he would also helm TZ’s “Escape Clause” and “People are Alike All Over” in the first season).

As one of the few female directors working in Hollywood at the time, Ida Lupino had little difficulty adapting to TV—her impressive resume of boob tube credits includes such classic TDOY favorites as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Thriller, Have Gun – Will Travel, Gilligan's Island, The Untouchables and The Fugitive, to name but a few.  Lupino sort of fell into directing when a movie she was making for her and her husband Collier Young’s independent film company needed someone to take over for ailing director Elmer Clifton (who suffered a mild heart attack during Not Wanted [1949]).  She would go on to direct a number of films that have since received much critical acclaim, including the groundbreaking Outrage (1950), the 1953 noir classic The Hitch-Hiker and the underrated The Bigamist (also released in 1953).  I like to recycle the joke that Ida often referred to herself as “the poor man’s Bette Davis” any time I can but in referencing her talent behind the camera it was Peter Nellhaus who reminded me that Lupino considered herself “the poor man’s Don Siegel”…many years before the director of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Dirty Harry became an auteurs’ darling.

Ida Lupino later directed an episode of The Twilight Zone in 1964—making her the only person to both star in and direct an outing of that classic series…not to mention the only female to helm one as well.  Her effort was “The Masks,” an episode that has become a fan favorite (also penned by Serling) and is one of the better entries of the Zone’s fifth and final season, which was sadly running on fumes by that time.  Wealthy Jason Foster (Robert Keith) has his heirs join him on the eve of Mardi Gras—said family members being the whining, hypochrondrical Emily (Virginia Gregg) and her grasping, selfish husband Wilfred (Milton Seltzer)…along with their insufferable children, the narcissistic Paula (Brooke Hayward) and oafish Wilfred, Jr. (Alan Sues).  Foster is at Death’s door and the familial quartet have swooped down on him like vultures on carrion…to the thinly-disguised disgust of Foster’s physician, Dr. Samuel Thorne (Willis Bouchey).

Foster knows there’s no love lost between him and his despicable relatives—they’re there, as he colorfully puts it, “to put coins on my closed eyes and with your free hands start grabbing things from my shelves”—but because it is Mardi Gras, he plays the role of gracious host by treating them to a sumptuous dinner and then afterward announces that they will celebrate Fat Tuesday by donning masks prepared for him “by an old Cajun.”  Repulsed by their ugliness, the family objects to putting on the masks—but acquiesce when Foster informs them that failure to wear them until midnight will result in their being written out of his generous will.

As the minutes and hours tick by, Emily, Paula and Wilfred pere and fils find the masks they’re wearing suffocatingly uncomfortable and plead with Foster to allow them to remove their disguises.  At the stroke of midnight, old man Foster finally draws his rations—but in his final breath condemns his family for both their miserable cruelty to him and to each other.  “You're caricatures, all of you! Without your masks, you're caricatures!”  And truer words were never spoken—as each family member removes their respective facades, they learn to their horror that their facial features have been transformed into the very grotesque characteristics of the terrifying masks.

Before Alan Sues became a familiar face as the hippy-dippy sportscaster on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In (not to mention “Uncle Al, the Kiddie’s Pal”) he was making a name for himself as a young actor on both stage and in small roles in films and TV.  He remembered on an audio commentary for “The Masks” in the DVD collection The Twilight Zone: The Definitive Edition, Season 5 that director Lupino “scared the hell out of me...mainly because I would do something and she would go 'You're not going to do that, are you?'  I'd go 'Well, yeah...' 'Oh, no...we can't have that...'  He credits surviving the episode’s shooting to veteran character thespian Milton Selzer, “who said 'Just do it as an improv' and I was home free...”

The other thing about Ida Lupino that was funny--she had this guy who was kind of like a gofer, that ran after her and he had a terrible limp...and all of a sudden she'd snap her fingers and go “Cigarette!”  And he'd limp across the set and put a cigarette in her hand...and then she'd go “Drink!” and then he'd limp across the thing and get a drink.  And I noticed that it seemed like we wasted an awful lot of time from then on before we got any scenes done...

This convinces me that there’s more to the “poor man’s Bette Davis” joke than meets the eye.  But to stop here would do Lupino a disservice, for Sues also remembered:

...she was very, very smart.  Because what she did was...she said she never hung out in trailers while those guys fooled around with her...she always went to the editing room and watched the editors.  And the editors showed her what to do, so she edited the show as it went along...so a lot of times you'd be right in the middle of a scene and she'd go “Cut!” and you'd think “Oh my God, I'm terrible”...and she would never tell you she was editing, but that's what she was doing...

In watching “The Masks,” director Lupino clearly knows her apples—the direction is crisp, economical and no-nonsense, qualities that I’ve always believed describe the lady herself.  And the episode also benefits from a superlative cast of people well-honed in their craft, including OTR veterans Virginia Gregg and Bill Bouchey, dependable character greats like Selzer and Maidie Norman (who goes uncredited as the maid in the opening sequence but she was an unsung thespian who’s probably best known as the mother of the missing child in the 1951 cult fave The Well) and newcomers Sues and Brooke Hayward—the daughter of Leland Hayward and classic movie queen Margaret Sullavan.  In a season with out-and-out clunkers like “Spur of the Moment” and “The Bewitchin’ Pool,” “The Masks” can hold its own against any classic Twilight Zone episode from seasons previous…it is indeed a pity that Ida was never asked to tackle another.

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Stacia said...

Terrific post, Ivan! I've been looking forward to this one ever since you announced what you were going to be writing about.

"The Masks" is one of my favorite TZ episodes. It actually gets creepier on the second version when you know what's going to happen. The first viewing, I was overly concerned with wondering if I had guessed the Twilight Zone Twist (tm) correctly (I had), but on the second viewing, I started having mixed feelings about just who the villain was here. Certainly the dying man doesn't come across particularly well. Very creepy stuff -- and I shamefully admit I didn't know which episode Ida had directed until I looked it up after you told me what you were writing about.

I’ve not seen everything Martin Balsam ever did in his career but if he ever gave a bad performance I’ve yet to come across it.

You ain't lyin', brother. He's even good in Mitchell. But I've never seen Silence of the Hams so it's possible he stinks on ice in that one.

Dawn said...

The Twilight Zone, was one of my favorite shows growing up. I really liked how they used many different types of story lines. No television show then or now was more imaginative.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

but on the second viewing, I started having mixed feelings about just who the villain was here. Certainly the dying man doesn't come across particularly well.

You know, that's something that's always bothered me as well -- I mean, yeah, the family is crammed with unattractive people but the dying guy is no prize, either, coming across as a cantankerous old crankypants. I'll bet he was loadsa laughs when he was in better health.

Serling wrote some beautiful things for TV but I sometimes think he sacrificed character just for the sake of the twist ending. I mean, when you stop and think about the conclusion of "Time Enough at Last" it seems a terrible thing to do to a guy who just wants to be left alone with his books. (Of course, Serling adapted this from a short story but that certainly doesn't excuse the fact that he could have exercised a little poetic license and given the tale a less pessimistic wrap-up.)

Anonymous said...

This was such a marvelous post! These two Twilight Zone episodes have always been favorites of mine. Your post was really informative and well written.

I had never heard those stories about Ida directing the show before; those were funny!

Thank you for participating in the blogathon!

Cliff Aliperti said...

I don't know how many times I've seen a movie or a show use a funky face and find myself pointing at the TV saying, "just like The Masks!" Robert Keith has always worried me since I first saw this one.

I can't remember anything about The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine except the title. I know I've seen it, probably multiple times, but even with your filling in the details so well for me it's still not ringing any bells!

Loved your coverage, Ivan, like Stacia I'd really been looking forward to this one!

I can't believe I never saw an episode of The Twilight Zone until the mid-80's. They just, and this seems weird, didn't rerun them in New York. Finally one night, my guess about 1985, WPIX played 4 episodes during prime time and from there it hit rotation on the re-runs. Problem was they aired at 1 am and 4 am. I got so hooked on this show that I started missing a lot of class the next day because of staying up for that later airing! Heck, I think they came 2 episodes to a VHS tape back then for about $20 a pop. I probably would have done much better at my studies had I been smart enough to figure out the timer on the VCR.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Cliff: My introduction to The Twilight Zone was also in the 1980s (a few years earlier). WGN in Chicago ran Zone reruns on weeknights (right after The Honeymooners) in the summer of '81 due to the baseball strike (in lieu of the Cubs games). I'm just glad I didn't have to stay up as late you did...though back then I was usually prowling around at that hour.

And Jen (missidalupino) -- thanks for hosting the blogathon. (I'm my own worst critic when it comes to things I've written but I was really pleased with how my Ida piece turned out.)

hobbyfan said...

Leave us not forget that among Ida Lupino's credits was a guest shot, alongside hubby Howard Duff, on Batman during season 3.

My first exposure to Twilight Zone also came well after it'd signed off. Of course, I was but an infant when the series was in its final season, but with SyFy playing it relentlessly in marathons 2-3 times a year, you do get caught up. "Masks" is one of the better ones, one I've seen a few times, and seeing Alan Sues' name in the cast, I was shocked. This was pre-Laugh-In, as you noted, Ivan, but who'd think the guy could also do drama? Wow!

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

hob: I haven't seen anything official yet, but the word on the street is that MeTV is planning on adding both Batman and Star Trek to their regular lineup in the fall. So I can revisit that great Duff-Lupino episode!

KC said...

I've started working my way through the Twilight Zone and this is one of my favorite episodes from season 1. That's partly because movie star appearances are one of the major reasons I'm watching the show, but I also thought it was a great Lupino performance. I like the sympathy you showed her character. I agree with you; she did what she had to do!