“Jess-Belle” (season 4, episode 7; originally aired 2/14/1963)
In which her name is “Jess-Belle” because it sounds like “Jezebel.”
Folk stories should be a natural fit for The Twilight Zone; they rely on simple, cleanly drawn heroes and villains, the mythology isn’t too complex, and the morality play aspect (in which cleverness, determination, and faith tend to beat out all comers) fits with the brighter parts of Rod Serling’s worldview. As folk stories go, “Jess-Belle” is pretty damn folky. There are barns, idyllic countrysides (well, sets made up to look like idyllic countrysides), and characters with names like Jess-Belle and Billy-Ben. There’s a witch, a love triangle that’s influenced by magic, and a lot of good old down home country wisdom. There’s even a folk singer reminding us of the (miniscule) plot between commercial breaks. The mood writer Earl Hamner, Jr. seems to be striving for is a warm, spooky mystery, a heartfelt tragedy about the cost of obsession, mixed with the uplifting optimism of the power of true love. But the story is simple to the point of tedium, and the characters’ woodsy sincerity never gets much past the surface. Probably because surface is all there is.
Rod Serling’s opening narration suggests the story of “Jess-Belle” is one that’s been around for ages, and he’s probably right; but that doesn’t necessarily make for great television. Ellwyn (Laura Devon) and Billy-Ben (James Best, aka Roscoe P. Coltrane from The Dukes Of Hazzard) are to be married—in fact, Billy-Ben proposes to her at the very start of the show. But Jess-Belle (Anne Francis), who used to shack up with Billy-Ben, isn’t happy, and when Billy-Ben rejects her advances, Jess-Belle makes the fatal error of turning to a witch for help. Even worse, Jess-Belle forgets to bring any money with her, so when the witch asks what she’s willing to pay, Jess-Belle says, “Anything.” Which, when dealing with witches, is a bad mistake. Jess-Belle gets her man, but she also gets a curse: At midnight every night, she transforms into leopard.
Which is okay for a set-up. Sure, “Billy-Ben” is really, really hard to take seriously; somehow, having folks repeat his name in tones of naked, pleading earnestness doesn’t help at all. (All the women in “Jess-Belle” really love them some Billy-Ben.) But this is a fable, and fables can be fun, especially when they’re set in such a distinctive culture and time. The space the characters inhabit has some of the same charms of Hamner’s earlier script, “The Hunt,” and it’s not hard at all to relate to the conflict at the story’s heart. Billy-Ben hooked up with Jess-Belle for a while, but then he decided she wasn’t the marrying kind, so to speak, and switched his troth-pledging over to the demure Ellwyn. There’s no explicit discussion of sex, but it’s entirely possible that BB and JB screwed like rabbits for a while before BB got tired of her and moved on. That sort of thing happens in the real world, and while the script lets Billy-Ben off a little too easy, it’s still not hard to feel sympathy for Jess-Belle’s position. They live together in small community, there’s probably not much chance to meet new people, and knowing that someone you were intensely close to is going to be happily married just over the hill has to be agonizing.
There’s also something unpleasant underneath the love triangle, an implied set of assumptions that may not work the way the author intends. Jess-Belle gets abandoned because Billy-Ben’s love for her is, well, different than how he feels about Ellwyn. With Ellwyn, it’s a quiet, more long-term kind of thing. At least, that’s how the groom-to-be puts it, and you’re more than welcome to take him at his word. But give Jess-Belle’s intensity, and given the conversation they have about their time together, it’s not hard to believe that Billy-Ben used Jess-Belle for his wild oats sowing, and then, when he decided to be “mature,” he ditched her for little miss goody two shoes. Some girls you marry, some girls you don’t, that sort of thing. The script has just enough sympathy for Jess-Belle that the conflict is more than just good girl vs. bad girl, but that is at the heart of this, which makes Jess-Belle’s plight far more interesting than anything around her. She’s the one with the real stakes in all of this; she’s the initial wounded party, and while her decision to go to a witch is misguided, to put it nicely, it’s one I imagine most of us have wished for ourselves at one time or another.
It doesn’t hurt that the witch in question turns out to be a surprisingly good-natured lady, even if she is definitely not to be trusted. As Granny Hart, Jeanette Nolan is the best thing about “Jess-Belle,” in part because she’s the only element that manages to be distinct in any meaningful way. Hart’s actions are, when boiled down to their essence, appropriately witch-like; she’s out for herself, and when Jess-Belle comes looking for help, Hart is more than willing to offer it without bothering to explain that the girl will lose her soul in the process. Later, when Billy-Ben visits to get advice on how to stop Jess-Belle from tormenting him and Ellwyn, Hart tries to get the best of him. She fails, because he’s clever enough to bring money in his pockets (all coins, which is a nice touch), but that’s not for lack of trying. Yet Nolan never plays the character as overtly evil. She’s wicked, but in a charming, sweet kind of way, a nutty older lady who gets a lot of pleasure out of her work, and does suffer much guilt over the results. In her way, she even seems to want Jess-Belle to get her heart’s desire, encouraging the girl to stay with Billy-Ben even after the were-leopard curse takes effect. Maybe that’s just her way of causing more mischief, but there’s a intriguing, and enjoyable, ambiguity about the lady.
It’s an ambiguity the rest of the episode could’ve used. Which is an odd thing to say about a story in which a lady turns into a feral cat, but apart from the occasional detail, the plot plays out much as you’d expect. You could see it working alright in the half hour format. Jess-Belle gets what she wants, only to find the frogurt was also cursed; she tries to hold onto Billy-Ben despite being a night leopard, but the townsfolk are so frightened by the wildcat that they organize a posse, tracking the beast down to a barn where Billy-Ben shoots it with his shotgun. This wouldn’t have been a classic. Jess-Belle’s horrified shock at finding herself transformed into an animal never quite jibes with the matter of factness of the transformation, which plays as less tragic than inconvenient. (Her worry about losing her soul is more interesting, but it never gets beyond the, “Oh no, I’ve lost my soul!” stage. Maybe if she’d walked into a few automatic doors.) Everyone’s worried about the cat, but the leopard never hurts anyone, and the shooting in the barn doesn’t have the ironic sting to it a story like this really needs to go over well. But the basic contours of a Twilight Zone episode are there. A few passes over the script, and this could’ve been something.
Only if it was a half-hour long, though. Stretch it out to the hour mark and this becomes belabored and dull. This is where the straightforwardness really kicks in: after she “dies,” Jess-Bell hangs around, because witches aren’t that easy to kill. Only now, she can take the form of any animal she wants to, so when Billy-Ben and Ellwyn finally tie the knot, Jess-Belle sets in to tormenting them by turning into a mouse and so forth. Her plans aren’t that great, but Ellwyn is terrified anyway, so Billy-Ben goes to get help from the witch, and the witch tells him what to do, and then he goes back home and does it. The end. Not every story needs a twist, but it’s generally bad form to tell an audience what’s going to happen right before it happens with no real change or suspense. Billy-Ben does have to get past Jess-Belle disguised as Ellwyn, but that’s not much of a challenge, and the emotional struggle at the heart of the story, the love triangle, is basically irrelevant.
The real problem is that for an episode called “Jess-Belle,” the second half of the story doesn’t have nearly enough Jess-Belle; while she’s not as interesting as Granny Hart, she’s the only main character with any emotional depth. Billy-Ben just isn’t very compelling, so his and Ellwyn’s struggles to be happy aren’t exciting to watch. (Ellwyn is hardly there at all.) Post-shooting Jess-Belle’s efforts to bother them aren’t particularly imaginative, either. Apart from rubbing in the fact that selling your soul to win the man of your dreams is not a good long-term investment (a fact that was made abundantly clear by earlier events), the last part of the story serves no real purpose. This would never have been a classic, but it could’ve been decent. As is, it starts okay, and ends up a drag.
What a twist: Billy-Ben kills the soulless Jess-Belle once and for all, and he and his wife live happily ever after. It’s not much of a twist.
- Nobody stops to wonder if maybe Billy-Ben could’ve handled his affairs better. Granny Hart should be the villain in all this, but she’s so charming it’s hard to hate her, and she doesn’t suffer for her actions in any way.
- There’s some padding in this, mostly in the form of characters repeating information or advice we already know. Jess-Belle’s struggles with whether or not she wants to hold on to Billy-Ben now that she’s a skinchanger are especially odd. If she doesn’t have a soul, why would she be worried about him?
“Miniature” (season 4, episode 8; originally aired 2/21/1963)
In which Charlie gets small, real small…
It’s supposed to be easy to get along with people. Well, not “easy,” exactly, but it’s supposed to be one of those basic skills everyone can grasp with enough practice; like learning the language by listening to your parents talk, only here, it’s picking up the skills of socialization through years of time in class, at recess, going to parties. There are some people who are very good at socialization, and more power to them for it. But I’m sure everyone’s had a moment or two in their lives (or more than one or two) when they felt out of place. When being in the company of others, and engaging and smiling and maintaining basic discourse, feels impossible. A few weeks ago, the people I work with at my day job held a retirement party for one of the librarians. My co-workers (most of whom are older than I am) are a friendly, good-natured bunch by and large, and the “party” was mainly just an excuse to sit around in someone’s home, eating a potluck lunch and chatting. I couldn’t stand it. I wasn’t just bored: I spent twenty minutes standing in a corner feeling exquisitely, agonizingly lost. It should’ve been easy for me, because I am, after all, a grown-ass adult, but it wasn’t. Sometimes, you just don’t fit right in the world.
“Miniature” is about a man who doesn’t fit in. Not just at parties, not just at work, not just at home; everywhere. Charlie (Robert Duvall) is odd. You notice it straight off in the first scene. At the office, everyone is getting ready to go to work, and Charlie keeps typing at something. His co-workers give him a look, and he stiffly ignores them, and there’s something just kind of… I don’t know. Unusual. “Miniature” has a story whose ultimate destination could’ve been mawkish, or come off as a cheat, but it doesn’t, and a large part of that is due to Duvall’s distinct performance. He goes right up to the edge of being a little creepy with Charlie, but he never goes over, and the impression one gets is of a man made acutely uncomfortable by nearly everything and everyone he encounters. He seems thoroughly unsuited to life, and when his boss tells him a few scenes in that he’s being let go, you almost sympathize with the boss. Charlie is the one you care about, and Charlie’s the one you want to find happiness, but he really doesn’t come across as a team player. He’s the sort whose awkwardness has the unfortunate effect of making the people around him feel awkward in turn. He’s unfailingly polite, but he’s a little sad, a little hesitant. There’s a fragility to Duvall’s work that gives the episode just enough edge to make it sing.
Not that he’s working alone. The episode is full of great supporting performances, and Charles Beaumont’s script does a fine job of making sure every actor has some material to play with. While the arc of the story is to enforce Charlie’s sense of isolation, and demonstrate that he truly is alone, none of the people around him are out and out monsters. The boss who fires him isn’t the great guy in the world, but he’s not mean about letting Charlie go. Charlie’s mom (Pert Kelton) is undoubtedly over-protective and smothering, but she’s also sweet, and clearly loves her son. The therapist who treats Charlie when he’s committed late in the episode (William Windom) ends up wrong, like psychiatrists in this kind of show tend to be, but he’s not mocking or cruel to his patient. Best of all, Charlie’s sister Myra (Barbara Barrie) is the best kind of sibling, supportive and caring and obviously sincere in her concern for her brother. Unfortunately she, like everyone else in the episode, doesn’t know how to deal with him. He’s strange in ways she isn’t prepared to accept, so she tries to get him a job he doesn’t want, and pushes him on a date with brassy, unlikable bachelorette. (Who’s probably the closest the episode comes to someone who’s just flat-out unpleasant.)
In order for the story to be effective, Charlie’s main problem—his isolation—needs to feel like something that can’t simply be waved away by a few nights out on the town. This is a person who is fundamentally unsuited to the only life he’s ever had to lead, and that’s not a situation that can be made better by average compassion. His relatives obviously care for him, but they’re just as obviously baffled by him. Myra’s decision to try and force him into the same life she and her husband are living isn’t a cruel one, even though the ultimate effect of it would be hurtful; to her, this is the only sensible way to approach life, and if Charlie is unhappy, then clearly, his unhappiness must stem from not having everything a red-blooded American is supposed to have.
And in a way, she’s right. Charlie really is profoundly lonely, but it’s a loneliness that’s not going to be solved by a date with his sister’s friend, or some therapy, or a new job. This is why Duvall’s gentle, eerie performance is so key: You need to believe that the only possibility of happiness for him is what he sees in the dollhouse at the museum. Just like I’m sure most everyone’s had times when they’ve felt out of sync with the people around them, I’m also sure most of us have, however briefly, fallen in love with someone from afar. Maybe a glimpse through a store window, maybe across a hallway. Maybe even someone who wasn’t real at all; an extra crossing the street in a romantic comedy, the hero of an adventure story, a painted face, a smile. In practical terms, these fleeting infatuations are never meant to become anything more than that—just a moment or two of wistful consideration about what might have been. If it gets more serious than that (and it can), it’s indicative of something lacking in your life, a need not being met that you look to a symbol to fulfill. But the fictional character, or the distant stranger, isn’t going to turn around and pull you into their world, so you have to move on. You have to figure out what’s lacking and try and address it as best you can without the help of actual magic.
This isn’t the case for Charlie, who ultimately gets what he wants, and for that to be effective, we need to be convinced that he really has no other choice. Because otherwise, there’s no real reason for any of this to happen. “Miniature” is, if anything, even more of a straight line than “Jess-Belle” (which does take a turn in the final act, however uninteresting that turn is). Charlie goes to the museum, and happens to peek into a dollhouse, where he sees a young woman in period dress going about her daily routine. No one else sees the woman, but Charlie is entranced, and starts spending more and more time watching her. He sees her playing the piano and struggling with a creep of a suitor, and he falls for her, hard; so hard, in fact, that he starts letting his other responsibilities (namely, the basic duty of pretending to be a normal human being—he gets more distant from his family and stops trying to find new work) slide, and finally, when the lady in the house’s suitor snaps and attacks her, Charlie can’t stand it and breaks the glass protecting the display. He gets locked up for a bit, meets with a psychiatrist, and finally pretends to be healthy just long enough to get released. But he’s still in love, and he’s still determined to see her again.
There’s no real second step to any of this. Once you understand what’s happening to Charlie, it never changes, and there’s no effort made to give a twist to the dollhouse, or explain why he’s seeing what he’s saying (apart from the doctor’s assurances that it’s a hallucination, which is what doctors always say in stories like this). There’s a plaque that explains a little about the dollhouse’s history, and tells how the doll Charlie’s so infatuated with is carved from the wood of the house the young woman depicted grew up in, but she gets no backstory beyond that. And to be honest, it wouldn’t be that hard to guess where this was going at the start. The “twist” is that Charlie ends up in the dollhouse with his love. Given that this is the Twilight Zone, that seems like something that happens all the time. If this whole episode was designed to shock us with its final shot, than it would be a failure.
But that’s not the design, not exactly. The sight of Robert Duvall sitting next to the pretty lady in the nice house is a lovely final image, and it’s a striking one; not because it’s wholly unexpected, but because it’s such a perfect, impossible dream. Carefully, patiently, the episode shows us how thoroughly Charlie is trapped, how the love and kindness of those around him can’t reach what he really needs, and how utterly unsuited he is for the world he’s supposed to live in. In real life, there would be no happy ending to this. At best, he could force himself into a loveless marriage and spend the rest of his life pretending to be someone he wasn’t, inevitably becoming more depressed and lonely as the years passed. In real life, for someone this out of place and breakable, there’d be no perfect fit. Those fleeting, fragmentary moments when we yearn for some ideal love, some place where we are exactly who we’re supposed to be, are illusory, even when they linger. It’s only in stories that someone like Charlie can be truly happy, and that’s what makes it beautiful.
What a twist: Charlie finally ends up where he belongs: inside the dollhouse.
- Duvall is just so great in this. He’s not just quiet, or shy, or polite. He’s so gentle it’s almost unnerving.
- The stylized performances inside the dollhouse are terrific. It’s like watching a silent movie.
- The shot of the “doll” in Charlie’s hand isn’t the greatest effect, but it’s still spooky.
- “Your world isn’t simple, is it? No world with people is.” -Charlie
Next week: Todd runs into our pal Burgess Meredith in “Printer’s Devil,” and does the time travel two-step in “No Time Like The Past.”