“The Dummy” (season 3, episode 33; originally aired 5/4/1962)
In which bad things happen to a man who throws his voice…
Jerry is a ventriloquist. Willie is his dummy. You can probably see where this is going.
Only clowns have greater distance between design intention and cultural perspective; there are contexts in which a guy with a talking doll on his lap isn’t instantly terrifying, but if there’s any reason for suspicion, your eyes turn to the doll first. Of course, the thing doesn’t actually talk. It’s all a gimmick, a ruse, a playful illusion. The human being with a hand up the dummy’s back and his lips twitching is the one calling the shots, and if you watch closely, listen closely, it’s not hard to spot the trick. As a kid, I spent one misbegotten summer trying to learn how to throw my voice, and could never get past the way you needed to slide over the harder consonants, making sure your eyes didn’t give away the game with some flat sheen of panic. It’s a difficult job, and these days, not exactly a necessary one, but there are people still trying to make it work. More power to them, I guess. But I’d still rather not be left alone in the with Mortimer Snerd or whatever grimacing monstrosity Jeff Dunham’s trying to pitch.
“The Dummy” is a simple episode. There are a handful of characters, a minimum of plot; most of the action takes place in a single, harrowing evening. Jerry, played by Cliff Robertson, is never really filled in beyond the actor’s performance; his agent, Frank (Frank Sutton), gives us some idea about the strain Jerry’s obsessions have put on him lately, but we don’t get any background to explain what started those obsessions, or what got him into this line of work in the first place. After all, if you’re going to go around convinced your dummy is alive and trying to destroy you, maybe ventriloquy isn’t the ideal career choice. And yet, there’s just enough sense to make the motivations basically irrelevant. Jerry is terrified because he thinks Willie, his wooden “partner,” the other half of his apparently successful double act, is coming for him. And while Frank, the only person who knows anything about this apart from our protagonist, assumes this is absurd, like any sane person would, we know different. There’s no real attempt to pretend otherwise. The goddamn doll starts moving off-camera as soon as it and Jerry are alone.
Of course, we don’t actually see Willie move, not at first, which is the horror of it. Terror is, to an extent, subjective, and I can’t speak to everyone as to what scares you and what doesn’t, but this is the most frightening Twilight Zone I’ve ever seen, because there really are no handholds for you to cling to. Within minutes, the doll is doing that “moving when you aren’t looking” crap, and that is just the worst; there’s no real subtlety to it, either. First Willie’s sitting one way, then he’s shifted, and the change is stark enough that sitting at home watching it, and knowing what has to come next, there’s no sense of that classic, “Maybe this is all in my head” build up. This shit hits you on the nerve-endings. It’s hard not to wonder how long this has been going on, and how much Jerry’s had to endure to get to this point. Cliff Robertson plays it with a kind of muted resignation that makes his gradual collapse all the more upsetting. It’s like the effort just to stay sane, to hold onto himself one more night, strips away nearly everything else. The shocking twist at the end makes sense in retrospect: this man is already hollow.
In other episodes, much of what happens in “The Dummy” could be marked down as killing time before the twist. After all, nothing really happens here. Jerry does his act, it goes down well, but he’s stressed, and his agent is haranguing him about being more reliable, maybe cutting back on the booze. You get the sense that Jerry is talented, but something has been holding him back from the big time; something to do with the fact that he’s missed over a hundred shows, and forced Frank to cover for him. Frank is about ready to call it quits, and Jerry’s at the end of his own rope, because Willie is pushing harder than usual. Over the next twenty minutes, Jerry tries to do his act with a different dummy, freaks out some more, hears Willie laughing at him, loses his agent, and finally, snaps completely. It’s more about mood than plot, but what might’ve come across as stalling instead plays as claustrophobic, the sort of nightmare where you know bad news is coming, and even worse, you know there’s nothing you can do to stop it.
There are the usual inadvertent period touches that make The Twilight Zone even more striking to modern eyes. Mostly in this case, it’s the idea of Jerry making a living touring the nightclub circuit, going up on stage in between the jazz acts and the chorus girls. I’m sure there are still ventriloquists around these days making a living, but they don’t seem quite as much a part of the landscape as they used to be. (Neither do chorus girls. And that stage didn’t seem big enough to support the group Jerry bumps into behind the curtain.) Jerry’s act is pretty old school too, the sort of groaners that’ve been making the rounds for going on a century now. That makes it a little harder to believe that he’s such a bright talent squandering his chance at the big leagues, but it’s not impossible to imagine a younger, fresher Jerry really slaying them, hitting his marks with more than just well-polished professionalism. Maybe the very energy that caught Frank’s attention in the first place is what doomed Jerry in the end. The only explanation we’re ever given for why Willie comes to life is that the act made it happen; Jerry’s vitality, his talent, turned Willie from a hunk of wood into something far more sinister.
Two-thirds of the way through the episode, Jerry tries to escape. You know it won’t work, because, again, nightmare—and besides, his plan is too easy. Switching dummies? Leaving Willie behind? That’s a temporary stopgap at best. But watching Robertson unravel out in the alley behind the club is desperately sad. For the first time in the half hour, his misery becomes completely clear, as he practically assaults a chorus girl on her way home, needing someone who can save him, probably realizing it’s a lost cause. The he gets sucked back in, tricked into destroying the nerdy back-up dummy (which seems like a kind of gratuitous cruelty by that point, but Willie isn’t a nice guy), and comes face to face with his doom. To be honest, the effect of watching Willie actually talk on camera without Jerry’s assistance is a little hokey, a little less than soul scarring, but it all leads up into that final, fuck you shot. Man, I can’t imagine seeing this for the first time, not knowing what was coming (I knew the ending beforehand), because it’s the sort of insane, baffling reversal that becomes all the more powerful for its absurdity. Jerry and Willie have switched places. Jerry is the ventriloquist; Willie is the dummy.
So I lied some when I said you can see where this was going. I can’t imagine anyone predicting this particular play. It works because it shouldn’t, and because it should be stupid, it becomes something hideous and haunting. Every once in a while, The Twilight Zone eschews all pretense of morality, of hope, of even anything but the tenuous dream logic. This can be ridiculous. In the “The Dummy,” it’s Hell.
What a twist: Jerry’s dummy Willie is alive, and in the end, he manages to swap their roles, turning himself human and Jerry into a wooden doll.
- Frank gets most of the Serling dialogue this week; I like the subtle bit of exposition when he references getting “10 percent of grief,” quickly establishing him as Jerry’s manager/agent.
- At first I thought Robertson’s performance was slightly stiff, but it grew on me. In retrospect, I wonder if that was just his subtle way of setting up that crazy ending; even before they swap places for good, Willie seems far more animated than his supposed master.
“Young Man’s Fancy” (season 3, episode 34; originally aired 5/11/1962)
In which you can go home again, but you can never leave…
Richard Matheson was never the most subtle of writers. I say this as a fan. Stephen King ate up a large chunk of my high school reading time, and when I wasn’t reading (and rereading) him, I was trying to track down authors he admired. Matheson was high on that list. So no, he’s not subtle, and there’s a kind of raw repetitiveness to his work that can be hard to read; he circles over the same ground over and over again, pawing at it until he draws blood. Sometimes he doesn’t, and the results are forgettable, even maddening. But when he locks onto an idea with some juice in it, he can create a kind of psycho-melodrama fever dream. The guy knew how to wring a story dry, and if his characters didn’t always behave entirely logically, well, that’s kind of the point. Or maybe it’s just the price you have to accept as a viewer to enjoy all the good stuff. In “Little Girl Lost,” did I believe Mom and Dad would call their physicist friend as soon as their daughter went missing? Nah. But once you get past that part, the rewards were more than worth the suspension.
Thankfully, “Young Man’s Fancy” doesn’t require that much effort. A queasy Freudian freakshow of an afternoon, the episode follows a pair of newlyweds as they return to the home where the groom spent his childhood. The house looks pleasant enough, but you can tell something is a little off with the couple right away: Alex and Virginia Walker (Alex Nicol and Phyillis Thaxter, respectively) seem like nice people, but they’re a little older than you’d expect for newlyweds, especially on TV in 1964. Still, that could mean anything. While even the smallest pieces of information are often clues laid down by an author to set the stage, it could just be that these were the best actors for the roles. They both give solid performances, after all.
Except in Serling’s opening spiel, he made it a point to stress how much the house seems a relic of the past, frozen in a segment of time like a fly in nostalgic amber. Serling also described Alex as a “perennial bachelor,” which could mean any number of things, but in this context, slowly comes to mean only one: he was a mama’s boy. A cosseted child who put his mother first, who treasured his childhood so much he falls back into old routines the second he comes in through the front door. There’s a trap here, laid with kindness and fudge and toys, and Virginia clearly recognizes it. Her hysteria is present, if tightly controlled, almost from the start. You get sense, from her increasingly strident pleas to her new husband that they’ve got a schedule to keep, that the man from the real estate office is coming, that they can decide what to keep and what to pack as soon as they put the house up for sell—you can tell how hard she’s had to work to hold onto him. How many phone calls from Mother, how many interminable dinners, how many days he’d go back to help the older woman move something, only to end up staying over because she was so lonely now, who else does she have to keep company? And now Virginia thinks she’s won, mainly because she didn’t realize who her enemy was.
This is, no question, a seriously messed up relationship. And what’s effective about the episode is that you don’t need to be rooting for Virginia to win Alex back for the story to work. There’s something cloying and pathetic about how easy the man retreats to his boyhood. The very idea of an adult woman fighting to win him away from his mother isn’t very healthy, and from what we see of Alex, he doesn’t come off as a keeper. Maybe he’s a saint under other conditions, but this is the kind of battle where if you try and engage with the enemy, you’ve basically lost the war. Yet it doesn’t ruin anything to imagine Virginia just as trapped in her way as her new husband is, fixated so intently on making him the key to her happiness that she keeps pushing away the signs. In an era when women often struggled to find validation on their own terms, this serves as a kind of cautionary tale. Both Henrietta and Virginia have devoted their lives to this unworthy individual, to the point where they’re willing to risk sanity and the laws of nature to keep him in their clutches.
Although that’s not quite true. The episode’s best twist, after a lot of well-deployed supernatural foreshadowing and temporal displacement, is that Alex’s mother isn’t the one dragging her son into the past: Alex’s doing it himself. The reversal, turning it from a seeming battle of wills between two women over a man, makes so much more sense. It’s possible, maybe even likely, that Henrietta was controlling and over-protective and clingy, but by putting the onus of the transition onto the living participant, and by making Alex’s desire as much about reliving his boyhood as it is about seeing his mum again, the script turns this into a story about a boy refusing to grow up. Suddenly, his “perennial bachelorhood” comes clear in a different light. When Alex steps through his bedroom door at the end, transformed into the child he once was and lost to the real world forever, it’s not exactly an unhappy ending. Virginia runs off screaming, but really, all things considered, she’s better off. She seems like a decent lady. Hopefully she kind find an adult to marry.
“Young Man’s Fancy” works best as a heady concoction of Freudian subtext and eerie implications. As fascinating as the climax is on a conceptual level, the ending doesn’t quite pop as loudly as it should, especially after all that build up; Virginia spends the middle section of the half hour a few inches away from shrieking, and the way the grandfather clock in the hall keeps ticking, the phone keeps changing into an older version of itself, and the cinema magazines keep piling up (Henrietta used to read them when Alex was a kid), are like mean-spirited jabs at her sanity. You can almost hear the snickers. When Henrietta finally makes her appearance, it feels like all that nervous energy just floats away; as conceptually interesting as it is to see Alex revert to a child, it’s hard to be scared anymore when the worst thing that happens is a nebbishy guy vanishes into some idealized vision of his past. Hell, there are plenty of characters on The Twilight Zone who would kill for this kind of fate. That contrast between the deeply freakish build-up, and the somewhat anti-climactic conclusion, keeps this one from being a complete classic. It’s still fascinating, though. Matheson grasp on psychology was never exactly subtle. But a sledgehammer can make one hell of a mark.
What a twist: For most of the episode, Virginia thinks Alex’s mother, Henrietta, is pulling her son to her from beyond the grave. But Alex is the one in control
- “He’s mine now. You’ll never get your claws on him again.” Wow, Virginia. Wow.
- Virginia waited twelve years to marry Alex. He must be one hell of a dancer.
Next week: Todd puts on his tap shoes as “I Sing The Body Electric,” and then takes to the streets because “Cavender Is Coming.”