A Brief Return to 'Cliffordville'by Michael Martin DeSapio
In its fourth season (1962-63), The Twilight Zone expanded its format from half-hour to hour-long episodes. The change yielded mixed results, with a good deal of material that seemed stretched out and padded to fit the longer format. Nevertheless, a handful of the hour-length episodes were gems. Rod Serling's "Of Late I Think of Cliffordville," first aired on April 12, 1963, is often overlooked— remembered, if at all, only for Julie Newmar's wonderful turn as a female devil, one of Serling's most brilliant inventions. Yet despite some flaws, "Cliffordville" is a substantive and sophisticated piece: a blend of Faust, Citizen Kane, and choice pieces of The Twilight Zone's past, filmed in high cinematic style. As trenchant a moral parable as Serling ever created, "Of Late I Think of Cliffordville" is overdue for a reappraisal.
Several of Serling's TZ episodes have been likened to famous movies: "The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine" to Sunset Boulevard, for example, and "A Passage for Trumpet" to It's a Wonderful Life. Similarly, "Of Late I Think of Cliffordville" could be considered Serling's take on Citizen Kane. Both movie and episode deal with an aging business tycoon reflecting back on his life; both revisit the tycoon's turn-of-the-century youth, and in so doing tap into the pervasive nostalgia for the post-Victorian era while commenting on the mid-twentieth century. Serling pays tribute to Citizen Kane in having his tycoon, William Feathersmith, court a young woman of questionable singing talents, as also happens with Charles Foster Kane. Both films are about the human thirst for power and success, and what is of true value in life.
"Cliffordville" is also a Faustian tale. A satanic pact had already been featured in the fourth-season TZ episode "Printer's Devil," and devil-like figures appear in several other TZ episodes. "Cliffordville" is heir to a rich heritage of folklore and literature dealing with satanic interventions, from Washington Irving's "The Devil and Tom Walker" to Stravinsky's opera "The Rake's Progress." Serling introduces a new twist in that what the devil demands here is not Mr. Feathersmith's soul (he forfeited this long ago), but money—the object being to ruin him financially.
William J. Feathersmith, the septegenarian president of a large corporation, is known for his cruel and ruthless business dealings; in the opening scene, we see him financially ruin his business rival, Mr. Deidrich, by buying out his company. Bored with success, Feathersmith wishes he could go back to his hometown of Cliffordville, Indiana, and start his career anew. Feathersmith talks to Mr. Hecate, the janitor of the building, who is also from Cliffordville and approximately his age ("Both from Cliffordville; we both put on our pants one leg at a time. And there the similarity ends"). After getting drunk, Feathersmith meets "Miss Devlin," who runs a travel agency on the 13th floor of his building. It soon becomes apparent that Miss Devlin is in league with the devil. Feathersmith makes a deal with Miss Devlin to return to the Cliffordville of his youth in order to re-experience the thrills of building a business career ("acquire, build, consolidate").
Feathersmith's experiences in 1910 Cliffordville are disillusioning. His attempt to cash in on an oil- filled plot of land backfires because the high-power drills needed to extract the oil have not been invented yet. His endeavors to enlist inventors to make a self-starter for automobiles are met with incomprehension and derision. He is unhappy in love, too: the banker's daughter whom he had remembered as a great beauty turns out to have actually been quite homely.
Feathersmith realizes to his dismay that Miss Devlin has changed only his outward appearance; inwardly he is still 75 years old and will thus not have the energy or the time to carry out his money- making plans. Miss Devlin gives him one more chance to return to the future; but in order to pay the "surcharge," he must sell the deed to his land. The person to whom he sells the deed is none other than Mr. Hecate. Transported back to 1963, Hecate is now the president of the corporation and Feathersmith is his janitor.
The fictional Cliffordville, Indiana is the setting for this tale about a self-made man and the mythical American small town at the turn of the century. It is, as Feathersmith says, a place where "a man could go up to the moon if he had a mind to, and the legs to carry him, and fingers to stretch out and grasp." Commonly conceived as an era of innocence and genteel manners, the pre-World I era in America was also a time in which capitalism, big business and industry grew—a time of ruthless businessmen and "robber barons" (a term applied to Feathersmith in Serling's opening narration). Thus Serling plays on the turn-of-the-century as "the old times," but also as the beginning of modernity.
The phrase "Of Late" in the episode's title suggests that this is the story of a man in late-life crisis. As Feathersmith tells Miss Devlin: "I'm rootless now. I have no purpose, no plans. I have no drive. Because there's no place to go." All his life Feathersmith has been animated by a single-minded compulsion toward worldly success: "I didn't have time to enjoy anything. I worked! I dug, I scratched, I pushed, I drove. I went up—up!" Later, he declares: "I never let pleasure interfere with business." For Feathersmith, even love and courtship are no more than a commodity to be pursued: "I know what I like and I ask for it, and I generally get it."
Yet Feathersmith is filled with unsatiated desire: "I've got everything there is to get. And I'm still hungry"; "The pleasure's not in the possessing, it's in the desperate struggle to possess"; "Getting it—that was the kick. Getting it—not having it." Alongside these timeless themes, we have the universal longing for second chances and renewal. The second chance is facilitated by Miss Devlin—a devil who is also a travel agent (time travel, to be exact).
Once arrived in Cliffordville, Feathersmith sets about applying his knowledge of the future to win new conquests in the business world. Thorns appear in his paradise immediately. The roads are unpaved, causing him to be splashed with mud by a passing carriage; and the town has an outbreak of typhoid, for which inoculation doesn't yet exist. Feathersmith sees these both as opportunities to be seized in order to make a profit.
Feathersmith strikes a deal with the banker Mr. Gibbons to buy a seemingly worthless plot of land, knowing that there is oil buried deep underground. When Gibbons attempts to "talk up" the land—"It's a Garden of Eden for a man with vision. And the potential is unlimited!"—Feathersmith retorts, "It's a swamp for mosquitoes, and the potential is malaria." Both Gibbons and Feathersmith are unscrupulous salesmen, selling inferior "products" (the plot of land, Gibbons' daughter Joanna) to unwary buyers. Yet Feathersmith is conspicuous in this florid world for his blunt candor—a man who always speaks his mind, who is at least honest in his dishonesty.
Feathersmith has two tragic flaws. One is thinking that he can control his own life, calculate all the coordinates and get a certain outcome. Happenstance and the intractability of the human will get in the way; as Miss Devlin tells him later, "Your trouble is that you leaped before you looked." His other flaw is a lack of the ability to create; his success in life is due only to shrewdness and double-dealing, not talent.
Critics have duly noted the flaws of "Cliffordville." The chronology doesn't quite work: Feathersmith should be 22 years of age in 1910, not 30. Script-padding—the bane of the hour-long episodes—is evident in the long-winded expository scene between Feathersmith and Deidrich (Serling might have trimmed this scene and added to the Cliffordville portions for better balance). The character of Joanna Gibbons is treated as a caricature, and the parlor scene lacks a certain taste and subtlety. In the final confrontation between Feathersmith and Miss Devlin by the railroad tracks, the latter inexplicably steps out of character to become Serling's moral mouthpiece: "[Y]ou, Mr. Feathersmith, are a wheeler and a dealer...[Y]ou are a taker instead of a builder, a conniver instead of a designer, a user instead of a bringer."
Despite all this, the episode succeeds on the strength of its ambitious themes, imaginative visual presentation, and well-rounded structure—giving coherent form to what might easily have become a sprawling narrative.
As in many an allegory, the character names are symbolic. "Devlin" speaks for itself. Given that a smith is someone who creates weighty iron objects, it would follow that a "Feathersmith" creates things of negligible value—or indeed, doesn't create at all. As for Feathermisth's rival, Mr. Deidrich ("died rich"), we are left with no doubt of his fate. "Hecate," significantly, was the Greek goddess associated with witchcraft, prosperity, and crossroads. It's noteworthy that Mr. Hecate is described not as a "janitor" but as a "custodian" ("custodian of the top three floors"), as if to imply that his occupation has great dignity. This blue-collar man shows himself surprisingly perceptive and erudite in applying a quotation about Alexander the Great to Feathersmith: "He cried because he had no more worlds to conquer."
Julie Newmar's slinky, seductive Miss Devlin is the centerpiece of the episode. In the short story upon which Serling based the episode (Malcolm Jameson's "Blind Alley"), there were two diabolical characters: a male business executive Satan and his female receptionist; Serling cleverly conflated the two characters into one she-devil.
When we first see Miss Devlin, she is checking herself in a hand-held mirror; her horns, which will be shockingly revealed a moment later, are hidden by her cloche hat (yet note how the horns are echoed and anticipated by the ornamental "horns" on the hat). Late in the episode, Miss Devlin reappears before Feathersmith in the guise of a coquettish turn-of-the-century lady, teasingly using the lingo of the period: "Why Mr. Feathersmith, dear boy! You look out of sorts. Flagging, peaked, drooping, and not at all well!" It could well be said that Newmar saves the episode from flagging and drooping, and that every moment she is onscreen is a delight.
Albert Salmi's turn as Feathersmith has elicited strong reactions from many TZ fans, for his vocal timbre is grating, his line delivery is at times odd, and he indulges in some over-the-top cackling and emoting. But in light of his subtle and textured work in two previous TZ episodes ("Execution" and "A Quality of Mercy"), there can be little doubt that there is method—as well as the Method—in Salmi's madness here. This is an eccentric but well-considered portrayal perfectly modulated between nastiness, comedy, pathos, and tragedy.
An oft-criticized feature of "Cliffordville" is the makeup on the male leads. In order to be most effective, the episode required the same youthful actors to play both the young and elderly versions of their characters. This was achieved by using heavy age makeup, and the results are not altogether convincing, to say the least. Wright King as Hecate fares best; but as Deidrich, John Anderson unfortunately decided to augment the illusion of age by delivering his lines in the manner of a talking mummy.
The episode has a number of striking visual sequences. After Feathersmith leaves Miss Devlin's office, he turns back only to discover that the office has disappeared—a nifty trick accomplished by using a sliding wall. Another visual standout is the time travel to 1910 Cliffordville. One minute, Feathersmith is sitting on a jet airliner in his '60s suit and homburg hat. When the camera cuts back to him a split second later, he is a young man in turn-of-the-century dress; his wristwatch has become a pocket watch, and the plane has become an old-fashioned train. (This breathtaking sequence evokes shades of "A Stop at Willoughby" and "Back There.") The atmosphere of the 1910 town is aptly recreated, not only through the sets and costumes but also through looks, manners, and speech cadences.
Best of all is the montage sequence as Feathersmith tries unsuccessfully to find financial backers for his self-starter. We hear a voice-over of Feathersmith's frustrated plea to two incredulous engineers from the previous scene, accompanied by Marius Constant's abrasive music cue. Tilted camera angles convey Feathersmith's descent into bewilderment and despair as he is met by indifference from the investors. The voice-over blends seamlessly with Feathersmith's fragmented internal monologue ("She didn't change me inside! That's why I've been so tired, why I can't function, why I can't operate!"). He stops to rest at the window of a ladies' shop, and the laughing and elaborately hatted head of Miss Devlin suddenly appears in the window. Feathersmith then runs terrified across the street, throwing away his constricting celluloid collar as it it were a shackle.
The final shot of the episode is of janitor Feathersmith dusting a map of the United States—the very map which had previously served as the backdrop to his arrogant speech to Deidrich about his vast business empire.
At episode's end, the social hierarchy has been overturned: Hecate is now an arrogant tycoon, Feathersmith a submissive janitor ("Here we wind up in the same building...each with his own particular function, eh?") Although similar to the plot of "Back There" in that altering the past has in turn altered the future, here there is even greater impact since an actual exchange of roles has taken place. Serling doesn't give us the ending we would like: a kindly Hecate showing Feathersmith the right and virtuous way to be a powerful businessman. Instead, Hecate is just as cruel as Feathersmith was, if not worse.
Hecate's transformation into an evil man is hard to take, but it conveys the message that nobody is immune from moral corruption; we could all be Feathersmith. The gold watch which Feathersmith was awarded for forty years of service as a janitor underlines the importance of time and the value of true, honest work. Hecate's response is even crueler than Feathersmith's had been in the earlier scene, and ends the episode on the note of turn-of-the century nostalgia: "Well, now, maybe for the next forty years, if you really apply yourself, Mr. Feathersmith, I'll buy you a fob."
We recall that Miss Devlin first appears on the scene after Feathersmith gets drunk. This suggests an alternate interpretation of the episode: namely, that everything after the drinking binge is merely a cautionary dream that Feathersmith is having. This possibility is hinted at when Miss Devlin talks of a file in her office detailing Feathersmith's "Subconscious Thoughts and Dreams."
Yet whatever interpretation we choose, "Of Late I Think of Cliffordville" remains an allegory of fortune, of the rise and fall of men—Serling's version of the biblical adage, "The last shall be first, and the first shall be last."
"Mr. William J. Feathersmith, tycoon, who tried the track one more time and found it muddier than he remembered, proving with at least a degree of conclusiveness that nice guys don't always finish last, and some people should quit while they're ahead. Tonight's tale of iron men and irony, delivered F.O.B. From the Twilight Zone."
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