Tales of Tomorrow – The Bitter Storm (12/26/52)

Professor Leland Russell is getting frustrated.  He is working on his new invention which is giving him static.  And, he lives with his sister Madeleine; who is also giving him static.  Leland took in Madeleine and his niece Pat after his brother-in-law died.  Pat is now married to Steve, but Madeleine still lives with Leland.

Leland bitterly toils away in this remote house to escape from the kinds of people who stole his ideas and profited from them.  Meanwhile, he lives in a cabin on an island he owns, which, frankly sounds pretty sweet to me.  Pat and Steve show up, having braved a hurricane.  Steve hangs up their coats, but they fall to the floor as he turns away.  This is not listed as a Goof on IMDb probably because I’m the only one dopey enough to watch this since 1952. [1]

When Leland steps off-camera to chew out his agent for getting him this gig, Steve turns on the device to see what it does.  OH MY GOD, IT’S A BOMB!  Oh, wait, it’s a radio which picks up conversations that took place earlier.  Leland returns and is furious at their snooping, and the reveal that he voted for Wendell Willkie.

Leland explains, “This is a machine that picks up and recaptures the sounds of the past.”  He demonstrates by turning on the machine again.  It picks up the ear-piercing sound of an opera.  Madeleine recognizes the singer as [unintelligible] who retired years ago.  Cynics might say it was just picking up a radio station.  But this was pre-PBS and no profit-seeking station in America would have broadcast this caterwauling.

He turns a few knobs and picks up Roosevelt’s “All we have to fear is fear itself” speech.  I get that they wanted to use a familiar speech and speaker, but they undermine the device’s power by using something that was so widely broadcast and replayed so often.  It would have been better to use something that everyone knew about, but was not recorded or broadcast.  Like when Thomas Jefferson said, “Hey, Hamilton, leave room for everyone else!”  Or when John Wilkes Booth said, “[BANG] Sic Semper Tyrannis . . . Ow, my f****ing knee!  Well, I’m done now.  They’d have to be complete idiots not to capture me before I even get off the stage.”

Leland starts getting static again.  The dial starts swinging wildly . . . back past the middle ages.  Madeleine begins to hear something through the interference.  She steps back in horror and shrieks, or maybe it is the opera fading back in.  She faints for approximately the length of a commercial break.  When she awakens, she says they were the most glorious sounds she ever heard. She heard and understood, and snottily tells Leland he should be asking himself why he didn’t understand.

Steve leaves to see if he can get the boat ready to take them back to the mainland.  Pat tries to get an explanation, but Madeleine says, “It is a message no one can escape, if they will only listen.”  She asks Pat to read the bible to her.  She opens it randomly to the “blessed are the peacemakers” chapter and reads aloud.  Madeleine asks Pat if she remembers any of the Aramaic that her father taught her.  She remembers only, “My God, my God, Why hast thou forsaken me?”

Steve returns and says they can escape by boat, Leland is touched that he risked his life to save them.  Leland doesn’t want to abandon his invention, though.  Like all sci-fi break-throughs, he has no plans, no back-ups, no prototypes, and it can never be duplicated.  He turns the device on again and is amazed that he can now hear through the interference.  He is overcome as he realizes that he is listening to the crowd sounds at the crucifixion.  Leland stares into the camera and describes the scene.  It would make sense if he were quoting the voices being transmitted, but the writer opted to have him quote the bible.  At length . . . this guy knows his bible.

Hey professor, was you born in a manger? Shut the freakin’ door !

The storm gets so bad, they decide to flee the island.  Leland is a changed man.  He says, “Those sounds meant nothing to me until I had faith in people.”  He takes a last look at the machine that provided his salvation, this priceless device that could lead the world to peace and love.  Then he walks out into the hurricane and doesn’t close the door.  The end.

I kind of like what they were going for even if the botched it in a few places.  Using the “fear itself” speech was the first mis-step.  It was also a mistake to have Pat remember a few words of Aramaic (and have her late father apparently be fluent).  This opens up the possibility that Madeleine understood the transmission because she picked up some of the lingo from her father.  That certainly was not the intent, so why muddy the narrative?

Madeleine was the first to understand because she was already woke enlightened to the goodness of people.  Leland began to understand when he witnessed Steve’s selfless act to help every one.  Maybe Steve was too busy saving the group to pay much attention to the transmission, but why didn’t Pat understand what was being said?  Is she an asshole?

I was suckered in because I didn’t realize this was a Christmas episode.  Normally I skip them because they are so sappy and mawkish.  This was OK, though.  Wait, I understand now!  I see the error of my ways!  My heart is no longer hard!  I’m going to go back and watch that Christmas episode of Night Gallery . . . naaaaah.

Other Stuff:

  • [1] At least 3 other people have seen it based on the Comments at IMDb.
  • Actually this is more a tale of yesterday than a titular tale of tomorrow — it aired the day after Christmas.
  • The first IMDb credit for Joanne Woodward.  Her husband Paul Newman had his 2nd IMDb credit on another ToT episode.

Tales of Tomorrow – The Fatal Flower (12/12/52)

Experimental Plant Station

Tropical Division

Brazil

. . . reads the sign on the door.  If you are standing in front of this door, do you really need to be told you are in Brazil?

Botanist Dr. Alden is feeding flies to a carnivorous plant as he rhapsodizes to his band of assistant Merriman about its superiority.  “While man fiddles around with his petty problems, the vegetable kingdom is silently on the march.”  If they are so smart, why don’t the march their asses to Taco Bell instead of being fed dead flies?

Merriman just arrived a month ago and can’t stand the Amazonian heat.  He is also bored to death as Dr. Alden is not much of a companion.  He spends all his time studying the plants.  His pride and joy is a hybrid carnivorous plant the size of Audrey II.  Merriman doesn’t see the point.  Alden asks, “Do you honestly say that you don’t realize the worth of such a discovery?”  Sadly, Alden does not clue Merriman or the viewer in to what that worth might be.

At breakfast the next morning, Merriman is still bored to death.  He mopes around whining like an eight year old.  No wonder Alden prefers the company of plants.  A batch of mail is delivered from a cargo ship, but Merriman has not been there long enough to receive any, and frankly, who would be writing to this loser?  He envies the stack of mail Alden receives.  Depressed and lonely, he offers Alden $10 for a random unopened letter he can call his own.  Alden eventually agrees and this seems to perk Merriman up.

The next day, Alden says he opened all of the mail he had expected.  He asks Merriman what was in the $10 letter?

A: Who was it from?

M: I hate to say this doctor, but it’s none of your business.

A: You must be joking.

M: I’m sorry doctor.  I’m not joking.  I paid $10 for that letter and I’m not going to share it with anybody.

Unfortunately, I find this premise much more interesting than the mopey Merriman and the carnivorous plant.  However, there is reason to hope the two threads will come together in an interesting way since this episode shares the same writer / director team from The Window.  The two men struggle, but Alden has a heart condition that impedes him.  He collapses into the lap of the giant plant.  It closes its branches around him.  He escapes but smiles.  Hmmmmm.

The next day, Alden slaps a lock on the lab.  He tells Merriman to be on the next cargo ship out and his insubordination means he will never mope in his chosen field again.  Merriman suddenly changes his attitude.

M: If I give you the letter back, will you forget about all this?

A: (Laughing) No, you keep the letter.  It’s yours. That letter is your property, not mine.  (Laughing) You paid for it.  It’s legally yours.

Alden continues feeding the carnivorous plant larger and larger meals.  Finally, it gets so big that he decides to name it.  He decides on Emily after his “beautiful, captivating, wantonly cruel” estranged wife.  Hey, maybe that’s who the letter is from.  Even better, maybe it contains some candid photographs.

Alden goes to Merriman and says he has decided to give him another chance.  Merriman senses he has the upper hand and tells the doctor that returning to the US sounds pretty good to him.  Alden demands the letter, bit Merriman reminds him of his earlier words.  Alden’s heart starts acting up gain.  He begs Merriman to at least tell him if the letter is from Emily.  Merriman claims to have not read the letter yet.  “Maybe tomorrow. It just takes patience.”  Alden walks away clutching his literal and figurative broken heart as Merriman laughs.

Well, you can kind of figure what happens even if you didn’t see it coming when the plant first groped Alden . . . or when you first saw the man-sized carnivorous plant . . . or when you saw the first, baby-sized carnivorous plant . . . or when you saw the title of the episode.

The team of director Don Medford and writer Frank De Felitta from last week again elevate the series.  The wacky premise of last week couldn’t be matched.  They do, however, inject more imagination into the episode than we usually see.  A typical Tales of Tomorrow script is single-minded, and barely that.  There is no room for nuance, misdirection, or twist endings.  I think in the hands of most of the ToT staff, the story would have ended with the plant eating Merriman.  This team had the wit to also bump off Alden.  That is not so extraordinary, but they also provide both a twist and a motive in the mystery letter.  Even the simple act of fore-shadowing Alden’s heart problem seems Shakespearean in this series.

Of course, it is still objectively terrible.  However, it is such an improvement over their usual productions, that I have to give it some credit.

Other Stuff:

  • Don Hanmer had some excruciating early scenes as Merriman.  He plays cockiness much more effectively than boredom.
  • Maybe he was just pissed that they misspelled his name in the credits.  But, really — Hanmer?
  • I wonder if his character’s name was ironic, because “he was not a Merry Man.”

Tales of Tomorrow – The Window (11/07/52)

  • Question:  How is this episode of Tales of Tomorrow like Mother!?
  • Answer:  I liked it, but will never watch it again and will never recommend it to anyone.

I applaud Tales of Tomorrow for some major fourth wall breakage.  It might be giving them too much credit to point out the irony of breaking the fourth wall with a window, but I was just so happy to genuinely enjoy an episode that I’m feeling generous.

Something seemed immediately amiss when the announcer said, “Starring William Coburn and Merle Albertson.”  IMDb also lists Rod Steiger and Frank Maxwell — two much bigger names at the time — for the episode.  Kudos to the producers for completely subverting the form.  The episode, unbeknownst to the audience, began before it began.

Otherwise, the episode begins pretty typically with a white man working at a desk in an office and an overwrought score.  He brings Martha in and tells her, “At this time tomorrow, the earth will be one flaming white inferno.”  So maybe the score was appropriately wrought.  I would like to think this was a meta-gag based on how often the series destroyed the world.

That’s not the shocker, though.  Our picture goes all staticky, then shows a window in an apartment building.  We overhear the director say, “What happened?  That’s not our show.  Where’s the picture coming from?”

Two men (Steiger and Maxwell) and a woman are sitting in a Kramdenesque apartment swilling beer.  Al is warning Hank not to get married because all dames are like his wife.  Dude, she’s sitting right there!  I can certainly understand why she’s drinking.  He is upset because he just got out of the hospital and she wasn’t there to pick him up.  I must agree, that is pretty lousy.

Our screen goes hinky again and resolves to a PLEASE STAND BY title card.  We hear a crew-member say, “We were cut off.  That picture in the window is going out in place of our show.”

The cameras then show what is happening behind the scenes in the TV studio.  The actual Tales of Tomorrow director tells the actual stage manager — among the many people credited as “himself” on IMDb — he needs to make an announcement to the audience.  Fearing the Announcers Local 306 more than the possible alien invasion, he stalls until he sees the program’s actual announcer.  All he gets out is the standard “Due to circumstances beyond our control” before the screen goes crazy again.

Dude, I was going to sit there!

The POV switch between the TV studio and the apartment happens several times, but it would be tedious to document each instance.  The fascinating thing is how much is going on in this hitherto dimwitted series.  The breaking of the fourth wall had to be almost unknown to a 1952 audience.  Sure, Orson Welles did something similar with War of the Worlds, but that was just on radio and I’ve always suspected the effect was vastly overblown.  Comedians like George Burns might address the camera, but TV was still basically vaudeville at that point.

This could easily have been a mere stunt but for the story-telling.  The brief scenes in the apartment are often individually innocuous, but build to an inevitable conclusion that the observers race to prevent.  In the studio scenes, there is believable chaos in trying to figure out how this is happening.  At the same time, they logically work on a way to locate the apartment and prevent the crime.  We see everyone getting involved: the actors, the sponsor, the network, the crew.

  • The engineer gives his scientific theory on the air.  When someone brings two chairs out for him and the announcer, the engineer puts his foot up on one.  The announcer looks at the chair like “what the hell, dude?”  Very minor, but it adds to a great sense of unscripted chaos.
  • The actors walk in front of the camera and are hustled away before they can say how much they don’t Like Ike (elected 3 days before this aired).
  • During one interval when the studio is being received, they do a live commercial.  Priorities, ya know.  Kudos to them for suddenly cutting it off a few seconds early to have the apartment take over the transmission again.

The ending is a little anti-climactic, but I’m not going to let that ruin a great experience.  In truth, there wasn’t anything Tomorrowy about the Tale.  It would have made a kick-ass Twilight Zone in a few years, though.  Maybe I was too harsh in the first two lines of this post.  I’m sure part of my appreciation of this episode is due to low expectations, but there is no denying this is something special for 1952 TV.

Great credit goes to writer Frank De Felitta, but greater credit goes to whoever approved this crazy script to air in 1952.   Easily the best of the series (sadly, I doubt I need to add “so far”).

Available on You Tube.

Other Stuff:

  • Both IMDb and the DVD case mention an alternate title of The Lost Planet.  I have no idea how that could possibly fit this episode.

Tales of Tomorrow – Many Happy Returns (10/24/52)

Andy is on the pipe and his son Jack is building a still.  Wait, upon closer examination, Andy is smoking a smooth black cherry blend of tobacco; and Jack is not building a condenser coil to make hooch, it is an electrical coil for a science project.  So I had this completely wrong.

Jack is hooking one of them electrocution switches up to the coil.  Andy says he is missing the power supply, but Jack disagrees.  He says Mr. White showed him how to build this powerless machine.

As June is preparing dinner, their friend Dr. Barnes stops by.  The two men are quite giddy about doing some moon-gazing that night.  Their interest baffles June, but Dr. Barnes says, “Astronomy is the oldest science known to man.”  Well other than metallurgy to produce the telescopes, optics to produce the lenses, mathematics to guide the planets and love to steer the stars; although I could be confusing it with the Age of Aquarius.  Yeah, people were looking at the stars long before that, but I think it was pronounced astrology then.

Andy wonders if his son’s mentor Mr. White might be Dr. Barnes’ handyman.  He asks Barnes, “Do you know the last name of your handyman?”  Barnes doesn’t, so I’m guessing he’s not paying any FICA or Medicare; and also I’m guessing his handyman’s last name isn’t White.

That night, Andy goes to the basement to get his telescope.  He takes a look at Jack’s project.  At dinner, Jack insisted that it was working despite having no power supply.  Andy throws the switch and places his hand on the coil.  He gets amps in his pants, a 50,000 watt handshake, does the juicy Watusi, i.e. is unable to release the coil.  June hears the screeching score — which, to be fair, is better than anything of the 1980s TZ scores — and runs down the stairs.  She throws the switch, cutting the power.  Andy collapses, but is alive.

Andy grills Jack about the mysterious Mr. White who taught him to make the machine.  Jack says he never met Mr. White; he just hears his voice in his head.  It seems to be coming from the moon.  The machine enables Mr. White to send things to Jack.  In fact he just received a picture from Mr. White.  He sent a picture of himself to the boy and it is surprisingly not a dick pic.  Mr. White turns out to be a hideous alien.  I am, however, pleased that Mr. White is wearing a Speedo . . . and how often do you get to say that?

Jack’s parents are relieved that he has been corresponding with a deadly alien rather than a congressman, but still send him up to his room.  Andy says to his wife, “This isn’t much of an anniversary for you, is it?”  Since the big day he had planned for her seems to consist of her cooking dinner, then him going out to look at the moon with another dude, she might be happy with the disruption.

Andy tries to get more information out of Jack, but Mr. White somehow takes away his voice.  That’s it!  Andy vows to stop Mr. White, or at least have him perform that voice trick on his wife.  When he learns that the device can also be used to send things to Mr. White on the moon, he comes up with an idea.  He sends a bomb.

More of the same, although this episode seemed even more prehistoric than many others.  That was largely due to the score and the performances, both of which could be called overwrought.  Andy was the most natural of the cast.  I guess we can give Jack a pass as he was just a kid.  His mother, however, has clearly been seeking the shelter of her mother’s little helper.  She is wound up like Sandy Koufax’s fastball. [1]  Dr. Barnes is also a wild man.

Other Stuff:

  • [1] Being unable to name a single active pitcher, I opted for someone of that era; although this episode aired 3 years before his pro career.
  • The episode has the alternate title Invaders from Ground Zero.  So the moon is ground zero?  Well, I guess Andy did send a bomb there.  It seems like pointless misdirection, but it still it has more pizzazz than the title used.  Actually, what does Many Happy Returns have to do with anything anyway?
  • It really felt like the father should be named Jack and the kid should be Andy.

Tales of Tomorrow – The Horn (10/10/52)

Shop Foreman Jake Lippitt wants to fire Max Martinson.  He arrived 6 months ago with big plans for new musical instruments, but has produced nothing.  Company President Heinkle wonders if Lippitt is afraid his daughter Evelyn might become interested in Martinson.

Heinkle calls Martinson into the office.  He says he needs only another 2 months to finish his new instrument.  It uses a new principle in the transmission of high frequency sound waves.  He says if it is properly used, “it will do more to heal the world’s wounds than any corp of diplomats.  Improperly used, it will be more destructive than the H-Bomb.” As I get older, I’m starting to wonder if he doesn’t have that backwards.

When Lippitt claims that 2 violins Martinson built were returned as defective (i.e. did not sound like cats f***ing), Evelyn leaps to his defense.  Further, she says her engagement to Lippitt is off.  Later she joins Martinson in the workshop.  She says Lippitt became bitter after he couldn’t hack it as a concert pianist.  She was just looking for an excuse to end the engagement.

Exactly 2 months later, Martinson brings in his new horn to demonstrate to Heinkle.  He blows the horn, but there is no sound. A few seconds later, however, there is a musical riff.  Whether it is a delayed reaction from the horn, or part of the score, I don’t know.  Old Mr. Heinkle gets up and says, “That’s funny, all of the sudden I feel excited!  I feel exhilarated and I don’t know why!  A moment ago I was dog tired!”

Evelyn eggs him on to blow the horn again.  Heinkle gets angry, “Stop it, stop it!  Put that horn down!”  Martinson explains that the horn communicates emotion, any kind, “whatever emotion the player is feeling.”  So Martinson was really bi-polar in the last 30 seconds.  Or blowing hot and cold, as they say.

I guess the musical cue was the score because Martinson explains the sound is ultra-sonic like dog whistles which can only be heard by dogs and MSNBC hosts.  Heinkle has a great idea.  He asks Evelyn to call in Lippitt which seems like a great idea if they can condition him from being such a dick.  Bizarrely, however, Martinson decides to instill the emotion [sic] of acrophobia in him.  Even more bizarrely, Heinkle goes along with this.

Lippitt comes in and sits down.  Hidden on the 6th floor balcony of Heinkle’s office — apparently the violin business used to be YUGE! — Martinson begins blowing his horn.  Lippitt gets very tense and anxious.  He croaks out, “I’m falling, I’m falling.”  Then he falls — sadly, to the floor, not the pavement 60 feet below.

Some time later, Evelyn and Martinson have gotten engaged.  There is a banquet that night to celebrate Martinson’s invention and the fact that he is donating it to a committee of scientists.  He believes physicists will research the nature of sound, doctors will research emotional disorders, military men will control the morale of thousands of troops.  His only stipulation is for it to be used for the benefit of all mankind.  More likely, the main tunes it will play will be “Must Buy Coke” and “Vote for ______ [insert corrupt politician name here]”

Martinson goes to the shop to get the horn and finds that Lippitt has broken into his locker and taken it.  Lippitt suggests that 2 enterprising men like them could make a fortune with it even if one of them was a parasitic jerk.  When Martinson disagrees, Lippitt brains him with a 4 X 4 and steals the horn.

He runs back into  Heinkle’s office since this factory only has 2 rooms.  Like all businessmen, Heinkle keeps a gun in the office.  He pulls it on Lippitt, but the punk knows the old man won’t shoot him as he descends on the fire escape — he might drop the horn and destroy it.

Lippitt looks over the balcony and says, “Look down there.  Thousands of people, all ready to be led.  And, believe me, I’m going to lead them.  Whether there’s one man or an army of men, with this, I can do anything I want!”  Except play the piano.

Martinson regains consciousness and comes in to see Lippitt holding the horn.  He threatens to drop it if Martinson comes any closer.  He blows the horn, transmitting the thought that Heinkle should shoot Martinson.  Martinson implores the old man to wake up from the trance.  For some bogus reason, Heinkle turns and approaches Lippitt standing on the parapet.  This is all is takes for Lippitt to fall backward to his death.

Evelyn assures him he can make another horn, and much more quickly this time.  Martinson thinks not, people just aren’t ready for it.  Kudos to them on one point:  Usually when a sci-fi prototype is destroyed, an invention is strangely unable to be duplicated.

A very simple premise, but the episode is not as egregious as most.

Other Stuff:

  • Franchot Tone (Martinson) was really the only one to give a solid performance here.  He would later be in a classic episode of The Twilight Zone.