“Queen Of The Nile” (season 5, episode 23; originally aired 3/6/1964)
In which beauty has her price...
Jordan Herrick (Lee Philips) is a cynic. We know he’s a cynic because Rod Serling helpfully mentions this fact while describing the character in the episode’s opening narration. As far as life-threatening conditions go, being a cynic in The Twilight Zone is about on par with being a gingerbread man in a nursery school. You hang around long enough, someone’s going to eat you alive. And that’s about what happens here. Jordan is on assignment to interview a beautiful movie actress (Ann Blyth). The actress, Pamela Morris, is gracious and charming, but there’s something off about her. Part of it is how relentlessly her charms drive the conversation away from anything of actual interest; and part of it is how her stories about her past never quite add up. So Jordan starts digging, and, well. You can probably guess how this is going to go.
The strange thing is that despite Serling’s commentary to the contrary, Jordan never comes across as particularly cynical. Oh, a slight smirk occasionally creeps up onto his face when he thinks he knows someone is trying to put one over on him, but he’s never openly rude or dismissive to anyone. He even humors Pamela’s aggressively concerned “mother.” Jordan isn’t a complete idiot or anything; he is, in fact, just smart enough to get himself into serious trouble. But he’s also not some sort of smug, skeptical asshole who stumbles across the very powers he’s spent a lifetime dismissing, only to suffer for his hubris. His biggest crime is in underestimating the lengths his subject will go to in order to maintain her youth and keep her secret from the outside world; and it wouldn’t be much of an episode if he didn’t do that.
Truth is, it’s not that much of an episode. It’s not actively terrible or painful to watch, and there are some moments, generally expository, when the story becomes more than just a slow march towards an unavoidable conclusion. Philips gives a low-key, competent performance, and Blyth manages to suggest some depth in her understandably opaque character; the actress perfectly captures the overly chummy, “Oh you” feel that’s expected from female celebrities, all that smiling and forced wit and just a slight hint of flirtatious neediness. The act is obvious, but the obviousness is a large part of its charm—with just a slight wink to her audience, as though it’s all just a big joke, but you’re both on it together so that’s all right.
Blyth isn’t scary, not even when the final scene makes its turn towards violence, but that’s fine. Monsters like her are more interesting when they’re slightly sympathetic, and while there’s no real effort to get you on Pamela’s side, she’s easily the most interesting character in the story, which is close enough. Aside from that “cynic” comment from Serling at the start, Jordan only really exists as a function of the narrative. We need someone who will both serve as a potential victim for Pamela’s charms (among other things), and we need someone who can dig into the actress’s backstory to explain why she’s such a mystery. So Jordan is a handsome reporter with a reputation for getting the truth, albeit one without much of a survival instinct. But that’s it. Like I said, Philips is competent, but there’s no edges on him at all, which both robs the episode of some much needed dramatic irony, and makes him more a place-holder than a human being.
Pamela’s daughter, Viola Draper (Celia Lovksy) is fine, and her relationship with her mother is easily the episode’s most interesting element. Viola knows who (what?) her mother is, and how she stays so young, and she doesn’t approve; in fact, she spends most of her time on screen trying to warn Jordan away. Yet she never gives Jordan a specific reason (ie, “Mom has an Egyptian scarab that will drain your life force out of your chest until you end up as a suit of clothes and a pile of dust on the carpet that I’ll have to clean up.”), and her warnings are too vague and too restrained to be of much use. She’s serving a narrative function, just like Jordan does—she’s Ms. Foreshadowing, who gives us enough hints to let us know we should be worried, without giving away the game and releasing the tension. But her presence in Pamela’s household raises questions that the episode never follows through on.
It’s not hard to fill in some of the blanks; as an elderly woman, it’s possible that Viola doesn’t have the means to take care of herself, so she doesn’t really have any other place to go. We don’t know how Pamela feels about having a child (it would seem a liability in the immortality game), but she doesn’t come across as being overly fond of her daughter. Which is understandable, given that Viola is trying, in a nervous and doomed-to-fail kind of way, to save her mother’s potential victims. Both women have very good reasons for wanting the other one out of her life, and yet they’re living together, and they do have a routine. The situation makes sense in the context of the story, but it makes just enough sense to suggest some other, potentially more fruitful direction the episode might have gone.
Admittedly, if Viola or Pamela had been the viewpoint characters, it would’ve been far more difficult to keep the Queen’s true nature a secret. But then, it’s not that much of a secret anyway. It’s obvious off the bat that Pamela’s youth is unnatural, and once you accept that, it’s not a big jump to assuming that she’s maintaining her longevity and beauty through unsavory means. There’s some suspense in waiting to see the other shoe drop on Jordan, but it’s largely perfunctory.
The only time the plot ever rises above the obvious is during Jordan’s phone conversation with his editor (Frank Ferguson) about Pamela’s working filmography. There are some plausibility issues about this (namely, if you’re want to live forever as a perfect beauty, maybe getting into movies isn’t the best way to maintain a low profile), but those are negligible; it’s fascinating to think how much more difficult it would be for “Pamela” to stay under the radar in modern times, what with our greater access to pop cultural information, but for the period, it works. Better, there’s something gratifyingly sensible about Jordan’s investigation and his editor’s help. We don’t learn anything revelatory, but the practical sense of what Pamela’s long life might mean, and how it might look from the outside, helps to ground the conceit. It’s one of the few times the episode doesn’t feel locked onto on obvious course—Jordan is actually investigating, instead of just falling for Pamela’s line.
But it all comes to naught. “Queen Of The Nile” isn’t dreadful, and the script (Charles Beaumont’s last credited work on the show, although it was written by Jerry Sohl) is competent. It’s just, there’s no real spark here, no surprises or deep feeling. The whole thing is like someone plugged variables into an equation, and this is the result. The math holds up, but who cares?
What a twist: Pamela Norris is actually much older than her appearance lets on, and she kills people to maintain her youth.
- I thought about mentioning how this episode could serve as a commentary on the way women are expected to maintain their beauty at all costs, especially in the film industry, but that’s never an issue in the context of the story. Pamela is a star because that’s what we expect an incredibly beautiful woman to be. (Also, I’m assuming there’s some ego involved.)
- A modern remake of this could have Jordan as a Buzzfeed reporter, and the article on Pamela could use one of those slider-thingies.
“What’s In The Box” (season 5, episode 24; originally aired 3/13/1964)
In which there’s nothing to see here...
“Queen Of The Nile” may not be inspired, but at least it wasn’t actively hateful. This one’s a slog, and what’s worst, it’s an intensely unpleasant slog about two unlikable people screaming at each other until one of them dies. The supernatural element is revealed quickly, and isn’t all that exciting: a magical TV that shows the past and the future, all of it ugly and miserable. There’s no moral and no catharsis. Even the trickster figure who gets everything started barely registers—he’s the best part of the episode, but he’s only around for two or three minutes, and we never get any sense of his personality or his motivation beyond “sinister” and “why the hell not?” In a better episode, that wouldn’t be a problem; in a better episode, that could even have been a strength. But as it stands, “What’s In The Box” could desperately use something, anything to keep us watching.
It’s not just that the story is boring, although it pretty much is. Joe (William Demarest) and Phyllis (Joan Blondell) Britt are an unhappy married couple. Think the Lockhorns, but with less overt affection. A creepy TV repairman (Sterling Holloway, the original voice of Winnie the Pooh) “fixes” the Britts’ television, but makes some adjustments of his own in the process; after he leaves, Joe finds a channel that shows him scenes from his own life. First the affair he’s been having, which he’s strenuously denied to his wife. Then a fight between him and his wife that gets physical, and ends with him shoving Phyllis out the window. As if that wasn’t enough, Joe then watches himself get convicted of the crime, and sent to the electric chair.
The concept has some potential (the occasional faked ads and shows are amusing), and there’s something bitterly funny about watching Joe watch his life get destroyed because of his temper and short-sighted behavior. For once, we have a nominally comic episode that doesn’t push too hard to make sure we get that these are jokes; there’s a sense that this is supposed to be at least moderately amusing, but not a lot of goofy music or overly broad slapstick. When the Britts start bashing into each other with the furniture, it’s a legitimate fight—the chaos is impressive, and even a little horrifying. That doesn’t make up for the smugness that pervades pretty much everything, as we aren’t encouraged to identify with or even particularly like the Britts. But hey, at least there are no wah-wah-waaaaaah sound cues.
There’s just nothing in the way of surprises at any point in the story. The twist happens early: Joe turns on the TV to channel 10, and watches himself talking with the woman he’s having an affair with (lucky lady, that), and that’s pretty much it. It’s a bit of a surprise when the TV starts showing the future, but not enough to add life to the proceedings. The TV offers up a narrative, and despite Joe’s efforts to the contrary (Phyllis never sees anything but static), that narrative holds true. There’s no real justification or reason for any of this, and there’s no novelty to it either.
That makes for painful viewing. “Queen Of The Nile” wasn’t a shocker by any stretch of the imagination, but it at least had an arc to it. “What’s In The Box” starts with two dumb, mean people sniping at each other; proceeds to watch them snipe some more; offers a minute or two in which it seems possible that they might reconcile; and then out the window Phyllis goes. Portraits of broken or dysfunctional relationships can make for great drama, but only if there’s some insight mixed in with the bickering. We have no idea why Joe and Phyllis are the way they are. They’re just resentment machines spewing hate at each other, and the few times when one of them actually, briefly, shows concern just makes everything else worse.
While it’s possible to tell stories with obvious conclusions, one of the big rules about writing is that it’s never a good idea to tell your audience where you’re headed, and then go there without any complications whatsoever. That’s exactly what happens here, and it’s excruciating—like being forced to watch a little boy burn ants alive with a magnifying glass. If Joe had been able to use what he saw on the television to change the course of his life, there at least would’ve been a point to all this. It might not have been great, but at least all there could’ve been some hope under all that ugliness. As is, it’s just a uncreative nightmare that ends exactly the way you think it will end. Richard L. Bare’s direction offers up a few nightmarishly striking shots, and the actors throw themselves into the work, but the result is just an exercise in narrative sadism.
What a twist: The TV shows the future. The future is not good.
- Holloway really is striking as the repairman. He doesn’t make any attempt to wink at the audience or explain himself; the episode could’ve used more of him.
Next week: We check out the Ida Lupino-directed “The Masks,” and get serious with “I Am The Night—Color Me Black.”