“Passage On The Lady Anne” (season 4, episode 17; originally aired 5/9/1963)
In which the ghosts aren’t always dead
(Available on Hulu.)
“Passage On The Lady Anne” unquestionably works, but I’m not sure why it does. Like most of the episodes this season, it’s too long by at least 10 minutes, and it uses that extra length to make everything feel ever more dream-like with each passing moment. But the longer it ran, the more I really got into it. Something about the combination of great British actors having fun wrapping their mouths around the dialogue and the central idea that the tension here wasn’t over the fate of the world but, rather, one marriage just worked for me. Even better, I liked how the episode didn’t really come to a conclusion with a bang. It just ended, in surprisingly satisfying fashion. I remembered this one being a bit of a dud from my first watch of this season, but this time through, it struck me as at once spooky and sweet.
The premise here is a good one: The Lady Anne, once known as a beautiful ship for young lovebirds, is headed out on its last voyage. It’s decades past being the way anyone wants to cross the Atlantic on, but a young couple—married six years and starting to feel the strain of it all—books passage anyway. The wife, Eileen, figures that the two taking their sweet time across the ocean will give them time to rekindle the flame. The husband, Allan, just wants to do what she wants because he seems to have very little interest in this trip when he could potentially be working. When the two of them board what’s essentially a floating haunted house, the passengers are shocked. The Lady Anne hasn’t picked up a new passenger since 1948. Instead, it’s become an ever-dwindling collection of the elderly, reminiscing about both the ship’s and their own glory days and missing terribly loved ones that have gone on before.
The most remarkable thing about “Passage On The Lady Anne” is the ending, which somehow manages to be at once poignant and downright odd. Eileen and Allan are let off the ship on a lifeboat in the middle of the sea after the oldsters pull a gun on them and force them to do so. But somewhere in the middle of this, Eileen realizes she wasn’t wrong when she thought the other passengers liked her and her husband, loaded pistol to the contrary. They really do like Eileen and Allan. That’s why they’re letting them off in the middle of the North Atlantic, with promises of rescue to come soon. The Lady Anne is headed for a terrible end, and they don’t want the two to meet it.
If I have a complaint here, it’s that Rod Serling’s closing narration—normally the cherry on top of the sundae—tries a little too hard to put a button on all of this. Before he says that the Lady Anne never made port and that there is no trace of her anywhere, it’s sort of fun to wonder just what the boat is. A ghost ship with a dwindling group of specters who slowly realize their true state and head off to the great beyond? A suicide ship full of people who are going to join their dead loved ones by taking a boat where they spent so many good times out to the middle of the sea and sinking it? A bunch of old people who’ve realized the ship is destined to sink and think it might be a fun—or at least memorable—way to go out? The closing narration makes it slightly too clear for my tastes what’s happening here (it’s that second one), but the rest of the episode is ambiguous enough that it can’t cast a pall over everything else. The Twilight Zone is rarely the world’s most ambiguous show, but it’s always good at going for that ambiguity when it wants to. This is another great example of that.
I also love how small the stakes are here. The plight of the other passengers is secondary to what Eileen and Allan are going through, and the dissolution of this marriage is treated as something very serious. I like that it’s not as if one party is completely at fault, either. Allan has checked out of his marriage in favor of work, leaving Eileen feeling as if she’s not very close to him, sure, but it’s also easy to see how Eileen being rather high-strung would wear on him over time. The two simply aren’t very good at communication, at talking out what’s happening between them, and Charles Beaumont’s script displays that very starkly and with great economy. Indeed, there are long portions of this episode where the mysterious goings on with the Lady Anne and its other passengers are largely forgotten, in favor of watching the two argue and squabble, and it’s interesting to see the show skewing in favor of domestic drama.
The flaw here is also the biggest flaw in the episode, and that’s the performance of Joyce Van Patten as Eileen. She’s simply a little too flighty and argumentative in places, and it makes the strain between the spouses seem more one-sided than it probably needs to for the episode to work as well as it might. This is particularly in contrast to Lee Phillips as Allan, who turns in the typically stoic work required of a Twilight Zone hero, and in contrast to the many great, older British actors peopling the margins of the episode. In particular, Wilfrid Hyde-White and Gladys Cooper are so much fun as the McKenzies, who first vaguely threaten Allan and Eileen, then come to think of them as real friends. There’s a weight and fondness to the relationship between the two McKenzies, and the actors sketch it in with such alacrity and depth of feeling that it’s sad to see them go by the end. Eileen and Allan never take on that kind of weight, and the episode is the poorer for it.
Yet “Passage On The Lady Anne” overcomes that central flaw to hold its own as one of the better installments of this season. In particular, I’ll remember it as a series of eerie, ghostly images that coalesce into something larger than the whole—all of those older passengers glumly sitting on deck in life vests that hang around them like dying garlands; Allan frantically searching the boat for his wife; the old people standing to bid farewell as Allan and Eileen row off into the night. Mostly, though, I’ll remember how it sneakily earns the power of the moments after Allan finds Eileen—who mysteriously disappeared almost as if she were a ghost in a moment the episode never bothers explaining (to its credit). Anyone who’s been in a relationship in crisis that somehow healed itself will recognize that moment when the person you were so mad at, the person you maybe even hated, becomes the person you loved all over again. The fog lifts, and you can see their face, and all you want is to be near them, a feeling that fills in holes you didn’t realize were developing right under your feet. It’s a kind of magic, I suppose, and one that’s well-suited to The Twilight Zone.
What a twist!: The old passengers are sailing out on the Lady Anne to die, but rather than bring Eileen and Allan to the bottom with them, they leave the young couple out in a rowboat to await rescue.
- I bring up the images above without pointing out that they’re directed by the wonderful Lamont Johnson, who finds the proper balance between a small-scale domestic drama and what feels, for much of its running time, like a ghost story.
- Every time one of the old people gets visibly angry at the thought of the Lady Anne being decommissioned, it’s surprisingly moving. A lot of that is just the greatness of the actors, but much of it also stems from the themes of obsolescence and the fear of same running throughout the episode.
- The episode doesn’t clue you in that Eileen and Allan are taking this trip as a last-ditch effort to save their marriage for a while, but it’s easy to put together if you’re looking for little clues from the very first. It’s very deft writing.
“The Bard” (season 4, episode 18; originally aired 5/23/1963)
In which Shakespeare comes to town
(Available on Hulu.)
Usually, comedy and The Twilight Zone make an uneasy mixture. There have been some good, funny episodes of the show, but they’re rarely written by this episode’s author, Rod Serling, and they’re rarely funny in a goofy way. When The Twilight Zone gets funny, it tends to have the most success by going for a sort of dark humor laced with a side of social satire. When it goes for outright wackiness, it tends to end up with something like last season’s “Cavender Is Coming”: occasionally worth a smile in places but mostly just very strained and hard to take. “The Bard” is different, though. It’s legitimately, laugh out loud funny, and it does get very, very goofy in places. But there’s something holding all of this together that makes it work: This is Rod Serling’s “fuck you” to the medium of network television.
I have no idea if Serling had reason to fear another cancellation for The Twilight Zone at the end of season four like the one the show had sustained at the end of season three. (In addition, though “The Bard” aired last of the 18 episodes this season, it was produced in the first batch of 13 under the aegis of Herbert Hirschman, so Serling’s final episode written for the season was actually another, which Zack wrote about last week.) All of the research I’ve done suggests cancellation wasn’t really a concern of Serling’s and that he was more concerned that a prospective fifth season return to the half-hour format (a wish that was granted). But what I’m getting at is the “fuck you” episode—a long-time tradition from network TV hands who get burnt out on the medium’s exhausting pace—is often a sort of farewell to everything that went before, a bridge burned as the writer heads off into the sunset.
“The Bard” isn’t as mean-spirited as many fuck you episodes can be, but it’s got a fair amount of bile for the television industry and those who populate it. The premise is very simple: A fourth-rate hack is given a shot at writing a pilot about practitioners of black magic, and while researching, he accidentally conjures up William Shakespeare (played with acid wit by John Williams, who makes a meal out of a running gag of Shakespeare quoting his plays, then citing where to find said quotations, to whoever will listen). Naturally enough, when he turns in a teleplay called The Tragic Cycle written by the Bard, everyone’s amazed at how well-written it is. It’s so well-written, in fact, he becomes a minor celebrity overnight and appears on TV talk shows. Yet even if the play is written by the greatest writer in human history, it’s not going to escape the network notes process, and the sponsors just might have a little something to say about everything from whether turnips can be mentioned instead of onions to fiddling with the wording of some of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches.
My only complaint here is a plausibility issue that’s not really a big deal. It’s sort of hard for me to buy that our hack writer—his name is Julius Moomer, and he’s played with larger-than-life verve by Jack Weston—would be so acclaimed for writing a script that just about anyone would notice is a fairly bald-faced rip-off of Shakespeare. He says at one point that people say his writing is “like Shakespeare,” but in places, it literally just is Shakespeare, with a few things switched around here and there or a few words replaced with others. How he’s not written off as a different kind of hack and is, instead, celebrated is a mystery to me, and it’s fairly silly. But it’s a comedic episode, and it’s necessary to make Serling’s central point—even Shakespeare would be subject to all manner of ridiculousness from the television industry—so I’m willing to go with it.
It helps that Weston is so funny. He was more menacing back in “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street,” so I was surprised to find out that was the other episode of this show he appeared in. He’s a jerk here, of course, taking all the credit for things someone else is writing, but he never once seems all that malicious. He’s rather a sad sack, wishing desperately to be good at something he just can’t hack, and the show has so much fun with the interplay between the incompetent, flailing Moomer and the unflappable Shakespeare, who doesn’t even seem all that fazed by being conjured up out of nothingness. There’s a great moment when Julius lists some of the great duos in history and concludes it with “Moomer and Shakespeare,” his eyes obviously seeing the lights on the marquee on Broadway, and it sets the tone for the whole episode: light-hearted fun that nonetheless has a serious point about what it means to be a writer in an industry run by sponsors.
As Shakespeare, Williams is good, too, even if he has essentially one note to play. There’s very little in the way of fish out of water comedy, like one might expect in an episode like this. (I was imagining a version of this story written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel in the ‘80s, and it featured several shots of Shakespeare walking down Fifth Avenue in full period regalia and sunglasses, synthesizers bopping away on the soundtrack.) There’s really only one joke here—the sponsor gets squeamish about the content of the play reflecting well on the sponsor, while the network wonders if the audience at home will be able to follow it—but Serling finds a lot of different ways to express it. And just when it seems to be running out of gas, Shakespeare shows up to a rehearsal to hang out with Burt Reynolds as Rocky Rhodes, an obvious takeoff on the young Brando, and it’s fun to watch the two styles of theatre colliding. (Reynolds also gets a very funny bit where he and an oblivious TV director talk about what his character’s motivation will be.)
I said above that though this is a fuck you episode directed at weak-willed network television executives, it’s not especially mean-spirited. And even though the sponsor and the executives are the butt of the joke, I think the episode keeps from thoroughly isolating Serling from anyone he’d ever worked with because the ultimate gag here is against Julius Moomer. At the beginning of the episode, Serling says Julius is unlikely to sell a script to the program, but he can certainly appear on the show, which makes it seem as if Serling is merely making fun of a writer type anyone who’s dabbled in the form with some success will know—the guy who has one story and just keeps clothing it in different guises. And yet I can’t help but wonder how much of this joke is directed back at Serling himself. Anyone who’s dabbled at writing and wanted to do something at least a little bit good has had to realize that the true competition isn’t the other people writing alongside you at any given time. No, the true competition is always going to be Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Charles Dickens and Walt Whitman and, yes, William Shakespeare. A man like Rod Serling might have written some fantastic television, but even he must have looked at what Shakespeare accomplished and felt just a little bit like Julius Moomer. The race isn’t against the flavor of the moment; it’s against giants, and you are doomed to fall short.
What a twist!: Julius conjures up a bunch of historical figures to help him write a piece on American history after Shakespeare ditches him.
- Speaking of that ending, it doesn’t really make a lot of sense when you consider that Moomer needs more help with the writing than with the researching (he knows exactly where to find that used bookstore). It’s a nice visual gag, but it’s a bit weak as a final punchline for the episode.
- There are Shakespeare references aplenty in this episode—including the Bard forgetting how to complete his most famous quotation—but my favorite is that the name of the used bookstore is very close to “Polonius” (“Poldney’s,” I believe), and its owner emerges from behind a curtain. Heh.
- Speaking of the used bookstore, that clerk is a really fun little side character who appears in just the one scene. Comedy is often all about finding fun characters to exist in even the smallest of parts, and this is a good example of how that can work well.
Next month: Zack and I are going to take a break from The Twilight Zone for a while—having found it impossible to finish out season five before Christmas—in order to jump on to season eight of The X-Files, as promised. But we’ll be back sometime in 2014 to finish out the run of this show. We have to get to “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet,” after all. We will see all you X-Files fans on Oct. 5.