“Ninety Years Without Slumbering” (season 5, episode 13; originally aired 12/20/1963)
In which time sometimes is on your side…
How much can episode shy away from its premise and still be effective? At this point in the run of The Twilight Zone, the audience comes to the show with certain basic expectations. There’ll be a protagonist, and sometimes that protagonist will be a grasping creep, and sometimes he (or she) will be nice; and that protagonist will get involved in a situation that exists outside our understanding of the way the normal world works. The conflicts change, the settings change, the protagonists change, but the important bit is that there’s always something out of the ordinary either happening or about to happen, and the crux of the story is in how the hero deals with that event. There’s a sort of contract with the audience, then, that the strange, weird concept at the heart of the episode is something that matters. You can’t just shrug it off, dismiss it, or walk away. If you could, there wouldn’t be any reason to watch. “Oh no, the earth is spinning away from the sun! No, wait, it’s back. Everything’s fine.”
What, then, to make of “Ninety Years Without Slumbering,” an episode that sets up a premise with a lot of potential for tension but decides, in the end, that’s it’s not really such a big deal after all. Sam Forstmann (Ed Wynn, at his most adorable) is a 76 year-old man living in his granddaughter’s home; he’s friendly, comparatively healthy, and sane—except, perhaps, for one small detail. Sam has a grandfather clock in his bedroom, and he works on it obsessively. He hardly seems to sleep, and sometimes he sings a song while he works, the song that gives the episode its title. As we quickly learn, this isn’t just any grandfather clock. This clock is the mechanism that sustains Sam’s life. When it stops, he dies. And it hasn’t been running so smoothly these past few years.
As premises goes, this is strong. The stakes are immediate and clear, and the episode does a good job of reinforcing that clarity throughout. Lots of shots of the clock, and the clock’s slowly swinging pendulum; Bernard Herrmann’s score (his last for the series; according to Wikipedia, it’s variations on the song Sam sings at the beginning of the half-hour, “My Grandfather’s Clock”) is more whimsical than eerie, but it slows down appropriately when the clock’s machinery begins to unwind, and the few times the music stops altogether are appropriately striking. Wynn’s performance comes up to the edge of being saccharine without ever going over, and more importantly, he sincerely and unquestioningly believes in the power the clock has over him. He doesn’t spend much time trying to argue people into agreeing with him, but that just makes a stronger impression. He doesn’t need to argue. He knows what’s going on.
Just as important: this is The Twilight Zone, and because of that, we have assumptions. On another series, one that trafficked primarily in realistic scenarios, Sam and his clock would be a melancholy, if charming, portrait of a man dealing with his fear of the mortality by escaping to a fantasy world. But here, we have been trained to assume that any hint of the supernatural should be taken as incontrovertible fact. The focus isn’t “Is Sam crazy,” but “How long can Sam keep that clock running?” And, inevitably, “How will that clock stop at a surprising moment?” (Because if the episode was just “If this clock stops, I die,” twenty minutes of stalling, then “The clock stopped, I’m dead,” the end, it would almost certainly be a pretty lousy piece of storytelling.)
For a while, that seems to be where things are headed. Sam’s granddaughter, Marnie (Carolyn Kearney) has a husband (Doug, played by James T. Callahan) who starts the episode by insisting that Sam get his shit together. To be fair to the husband, there are reasons for this: Marine is pregnant, and once the baby is born, the household won’t have a lot of time to cater to an old man who spends most of his time futzing about with an old clock. Doug sends Sam to a psychiatrist (William Sargent), and the meeting goes about as well as it could’ve, without either party backing down on their essential positions. (To whit, Sam believes in the clock, and the psychiatrist can’t really go along with that.)
The situation becomes downright uncomfortable when Sam attempts a compromise, moving the clock downstairs and setting it in the front hall. He thinks he’s sharing an essential part of his life with the rest of his family; Doug thinks it’s an eyesore. (This would be where Doug’s dickishness really shines.) It’s hard to ignore the feeling that, whatever its magical powers, the clock is just as much a symbol as the psychiatrist suggested; only instead of representing life and death, it’s a stand in for Sam himself, a figure past its prime whose awkward presence only serves to embarrass the people he cares about.
Sam’s low point comes when, after offering the clock to one of Marnie’s friends in the neighborhood, he tries break into the friend’s house while she and her husband are away on vacation. The clock only stays wound for 48 hours at a time, and unless Sam can get to it, it’s going to stop before the neighbors get home from their trip. It’s unsettling and terribly sad to see Wynn in his night dress pounding on the front door of an empty house, and then finally, desperately, shattering a front window, just as the cops arrive to take him away. He’s faced with an impossible problem, and it’s easy to feel for him; at the same time, his desperation makes him a prime candidate for one of the show’s patented ironic conclusions.
Whatever the context, watching a neurotic old man get hauled away by the cops is a bleak sight, and it could be that the bleakness was just too much, as the episode immediately backs away from its darkest conclusion. The twist, when it happens, isn’t much of a twist at all. Instead of dying when the grandfather clock stops ticking, Sam gets into a debate with his inner spirit. The spirit (a translucent phantom, also played by Wynn, who rises up out of Sam’s body while he’s sleeping) says that, with the clock finished, it’s time for Sam to shuffle off the mortal coil and head to realms invisible. Sam says no. He’s decided to take the psychiatrist’s advice to heart. He doesn’t need the clock anymore. He’ll live and die on his own terms, thank you very much, and with his grandchild coming soon, he has a great deal to live for.
This is a weak sauce ending. It asks us to ignore all the build-up, all of Sam’s assertions about the hold the clock has over him, all the suspense director Roger Kay wrung out of those times when the clock’s pendulum slowed its swing. And it offers nothing in exchange for that narrative request. Sam’s transition from “desperate enough to do a little breaking and entering” to “accepting his death as an inevitability” makes sense. It’s a hit-bottom kind of moment, and those often inspire painful decisions. But going from “I accept death” to “screw you, I’ll be fine” is a harder sell, and the episode makes no serious effort to sell it. Wynn’s performance at the end has a Scrooge-on-Xmas-morning vibe, but while he’s convincing, it’s hard to connect his sudden happiness with everything that came before it. The ending turns the episode into a shaggy dog story, something that looks to be building to a climax before shrugging its shoulders and turning away.
Yet I can’t find it in myself to hate this conclusion, if only because it offers a rarity in the world of the series: a psychiatrist who’s actually good at his job. And there’s something pleasant in watching what looks like a tragedy turn out to be a comedy. It’s not enough to hold everything together, or to completely erase the sensation of being cheated out of a proper ending, but it’s unusual and kind and leaves me more willing to be tolerant of the compromised script. (On which more below.) You hope for a great story, or a good one, but when that doesn’t happen, you take what you can get. Sam living to fight another day in spite of all expectations is just unusual enough to make me feel like my time wasn’t completely wasted.
What a twist: The grandfather clock stops, but Sam decides he can live without it.
The episode was adapted by Richard de Roy from a teleplay by George Clayton Johnson; Johnson was so unhappy with Roy’s changes to his original script that he only took on-screen credit under the pen-name Johnson Smith. (For the record, I’m taking this from Mark Zicree’s The Twilight Zone Companion.) The ending of Johnson’s original version made more sense—Sam dies when the grandfather clock stops ticking, and then the clock starts up again when his grandchild is born, implying that the timepiece is now connected to the baby instead of the old man. That’s not a perfect conclusion, but it’s a more appropriate one. Not sure why they changed it. (Maybe Johnson’s script was otherwise terrible?)
“Ring-A-Ding Girl” (season 5, episode 14; originally aired 12/27/1963)
In which Bunny Blake receives a message...
What the hell is a ring-a-ding girl, anyway? Is that something that’s supposed to make inherent sense, even when removed from the context of this episode? A quick scan of the Internet suggests that the phrase (which came out of a Sinatra song) is slang for someone lively and young, and I guess that’s a fair description of Bunny Blake (Maggie McNamara), the movie star protagonist of this week’s second episode. She’s certainly lively enough, in that intense, somewhat brittle way that fits Serling’s style so well. (The script is by Earl Hamner, Jr., who also wrote “The Hunt” and “Jesse-Belle,” along with a number of other scripts this season; but it still has a bit of that Serling ripeness throughout.) Bunny calls herself the “ring-a-ding girl,” like it’s a nickname the press has given her for whatever reason; and this is used to explain why she collects so many rings; which in turn is used to justify the fact that Bunny’s home-town chipped in to buy her a new ring. Bunny puts that ring on just before she leaves to fly to Europe, and she starts getting messages on the ring from the people she used to know, begging her to come back home.
It’s a super trippy image that edges up on the border of camp, but the weirdness of it helps to sustain the episode for most of its running time. In fact, I’d say weirdness is the main factor “Ring-A-Ding Girl” brings to the table. The story offers a twist ending that mostly basically entirely kind of explains everything that happens, but your willingness to accept that ending will depend on how much you were able to enjoy everything that comes before it. As I went to great lengths to discuss above, most Twilight Zone episodes are fairly clear-cut in their main conflict; a twist ending works best when you don’t spend the entire half hour waiting for it to arrive. But here, everything is designed to keep us wondering what the hell is going on until the conclusion. That makes it hard to get attached to the characters, or get invested in what’s going on.
But then, this is only a half-hour, and sometimes that approach can work. It doesn’t make for the most memorable of episodes, but it can be satisfying to see a bunch of seemingly disparate elements come together in the end. Much of the weirdness in “Ring-A-Ding Girl” comes from not knowing who knows what. Because clearly, somebody knows more than they’re telling, and scanning every line and scene for double-meaning creates a persistent sort of floating eeriness. Everything’s supposed to be normal and familiar: hometown girl does good, comes back to share her triumph with her friends. But that’s not quite what’s going on, and in the space between what seems to be happening, and what’s actually happening, things get fairly interesting.
First we see Bunny getting ready for her trip; then comes the magic ring; and then we get Serling’s narration. Afterwards, we find ourselves already in Howardville, watching Bunny’s sister, Hildy (Mary Munday) and her son, Bud (David Macklin) doing standard small town mom-and-teenager things. Then Bunny shows up, all chipper and friendly. There’s a gap between when we see Bunny getting ready for her flight, and when we see Bunny coming in Hildy’s front door, and while Bunny ostensibly explains this (she decided to hold off her trip for a day just to come home), the explanation doesn’t ring (ha-ha) entirely true. As soon as Hildy’s face appeared in Bunny’s ring, everything goes a bit sideways, and that impression persists throughout.
The confusion, at least for me, comes from trying to figure out just who knows what. The fact that the whole town apparently got together to buy Bunny the plane ticket that brought her to Hollywood, and then decided to pool their money one more time to get her a special (even magical) ring could imply some kind of conspiracy. Maybe Bunny was a robot that needed maintenance or something. The fact that Bunny keeps getting messages through her ring even after she’s come home would seem to suggest some other force at work (Hildy doesn’t act like anything more suspicious than a loving sister and slightly harried mom). And Bunny herself seems to maybe know something, although it’s hard to tell—there’s almost a struggle in her against that knowledge, the reasons for which become obvious when the twist finally reveals itself.
Oh hell, this isn’t a narrative, I don’t need to hold off spilling the beans until the end: the twist is that Bunny’s plane crashes into Howardville, and it crashes right into the annual Founder’s Day picnic. Bunny’s arrival (which must be some sort of astral projection or something, although she doesn’t have any trouble touching people) gives her a chance to pay back the town that gave her so much by saving as many lives as she can; she announces she’ll be giving a performance of her one-woman show in the high school auditorium, thus diverting at least some of the crowd that would’ve been at the picnic away from the crash site.
That’s not bad, right? It manages to mostly justify itself, although just how Bunny managed to be both on the plane that crashes (she dies along with her assistant) and show up at home before the crash is never explained. I’m not sure it needs to be explained, exactly; the supernatural element here needs to be as mysterious and inexplicable as possible, because the more you start to poke at it, the less it holds up.
The problem is that this premise doesn’t allow for a lot of drama in the episode itself. Everything we see is built towards keeping us confused until the final reveal, and the tension comes from being sure that something bad is about to happen, not sure what that “something bad” will be. Bunny chats and gleams and makes her plans, but we don’t have any sense of what those plans mean (outside of sounding a bit egotistical—you come home and make everyone stay indoors to watch you do a play?). Bunny’s conversations with her sister and the town doctor don’t have much in the way of subtext to them, and the actress’s opacity robs of us of what’s arguably the most interesting part of the story. We don’t see her make the choice to come home, and we don’t really see her dealing with the knowledge that’s she’s already dead. There’s a lovely moment at the end, when Bunny finally accepts her fate and walks out into the rain (would’ve been a crappy picnic regardless, I guess), but up until then, we aren’t given enough of a sense of who she is to make her choices resonate.
Which means this is mostly just a curiosity. The plot isn’t intricate enough to hold one’s interest at anything more than a basic “Wait, the hell?” level, and the characters, while charming enough, never really get beyond surface-depth. There’s some charm in seeing Bunny bopping around town, and the whole thing is never as tedious as it could be, but when the end finally comes, it’s hard not to feel a little let-down.
What a twist: Bunny is on the plane that crashes into town, but she also has a chance to show up before the crash and convince at least some of the people who would’ve been killed to take shelter in the high school auditorium.
Between the plane crash and Bunny’s efforts to save others even though she herself is doomed, this one gave me a bit of a Donnie Darko vibe. I wonder if it was an influence.
Whatever force is sending Bunny the messages through her ring? Kind of a dick. “We’ll let you save the people of your hometown, but everybody on that plane is doomed.” There’s an implication that this is Bunny’s way of paying back the plane ticket that brought her to Hollywood in the first place, but that’s never really explored.
I grew up in a small town, and we never had a Founder’s Day Picnic. I’m a bit miffed about this.
Next week: We take the wheel with “You Drive,” and prepare ourselves for “The Long Morrow.”