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"Rod Serling's Damsels in Distress" - Essay #5

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Rod Serling's Damsels in Distress (Part 1)

by Michael Martin DeSapio

"Next week, I try and settle an argument to the effect that I'm not at my best when writing for women. Miss Vera Miles takes my side, in a most unusual and unique story we call 'Mirror Image'."


These words were spoken by Rod Serling after the original airing of the Twilight Zone episode "Elegy" on February 19, 1960 as the preview for the following week's episode. That Serling was a "masculine" writer, most of his fans would agree. Yet while it's true that Serling's stories are mostly dominated by men, this only serves to put in sharp relief his scripts with female protagonists. The first season alone featured five woman-led episodes by Serling, and (contrary to Serling's self-deprecating comment) each is outstanding: "The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine," "The Hitch-Hiker," "Mirror Image," "Nightmare as a Child," and "The After Hours." In this essay we will take a brief look at the first three. Serling brought his trademark human sympathy to bear in delineating the single, independent women that are at the center of these episodes. He used them to examine his favorite themes of identity, alienation, and facing fear; gave them all male "knights in shining armor" —of varying chivalric quality — to play off of; and in Barbara Jean Trenton, the heroine of "The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine," even created a female version of one of his favorite stock characters—the middle-aged man at the end of his rope.



"Picture of a woman looking at a picture...movie great of another time": this is how Serling, in his opening narration, describes Barbara Jean Trenton. Now past her prime in an industry that prizes youth and good looks, Barbie spends her days in the darkened "tomb" of a projection room watching her old films. She disparages the present-day (1959) world and longs for the 1930s, the decade of her youth, when she made her glamorous and romantic pictures; for her, those times were "carefree," full of "charm and romance." Barbie's "knight in shining armor" is her agent Danny Weiss, with whom Barbie in a moment of candor confesses to being "very much in love." Eager to bring Barbie back to reality, Danny gets Barbie an appointment with movie producer Marty Sall, but the headstrong Barbie refuses to take the "mother part" which Sall offers her. A subsequent attempt by Danny to have Barbie meet her beloved former leading man Jerry Hearndan only makes matters worse, for Jerry is now a graying, bespectacled creature of the modern world, a supermarket-chain owner. The blow to Barbie must be a hard one: in the ironic film-within-a-film which opened the episode, Jerry looked like a Clark Gable knockoff in a plumed hat and exchanged delirious romantic lines with Barbie in the guise of a nurse. One has the impression that Barbie's nostalgia for her past is less about the artistic qualities of her pictures than about a never-to-be romance with her leading man.

Barbie is a complex character. Fifty years on, we are apt to applaud Serling's portrayal of a strong-willed woman; yet the episode vividly portrays the downside of Barbie's personality. Her determination not to play the part of a mother—in the movies or in life—is telling, and shows that she is part and parcel of the very Hollywood culture that (she feels) discarded her. Barbie is a victim of her own image, of the "picture" of Barbara Jean Trenton created by the movie studios. Wrapped in a celluloid blanket, she is an elitist, out of touch with real life, as her comments about the 1930's suggest. Her uncompromising nature and lack of human sympathy harm herself more than anyone, cutting her off from a world in which there are people who genuinely care for her. Meanwhile, Barbie's housekeeper, Sally, is a more significant character than she may appear at first glance; a gracefully aged woman, she symbolizes what Barbie could become if she only graciously accepted her changed role in life.

Yet despite all of Barbie's failings, we sympathize with her. Her mourning for a crumbled past is a familiar sentiment, and her desire to flee the inadequate present-day world into a rarefied "shrine" of her own fashioning ("If I wish hard enough I can wish it all away!") is a fantasy we have all entertained at one time or another. Like many of us, Barbie romanticizes the past, conflating reality with the fictive world of art—for after all, her reality was a fiction. To her, the present era is crude, banal, lacking in romance—a time of "movies without sentiment, actors in undershirts, rock-n'-roll, juke boxes." (It is astonishing when we reflect that the 1950's have in turn become a focal point for nostalgia in our own day!) The machinations of the Twilight Zone provide Barbie with her escape, and allow her to reach—in a visually stunning apotheosis—her own kind of heaven.

Ida Lupino's portrayal of Barbie enhances the meta-theatrical feeling of the episode, the sense of being a film about film; for Lupino was successful in Hollywood not only as an actress but as a pioneering female director. She had a double Twilight Zone distinction as well: the only woman ever to direct an episode (Season 5's "The Masks") and the only person to serve both as a director and an on-screen performer. Her dominating presence helps make "The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine" the distinguished episode that it is.

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"The Hitch-Hiker" and "Mirror Image" make a pair since both episodes deal with young, single women traveling alone—an unusual situation in 1960, when these episodes were originally aired—who struggle to make sense of a horrific vision which only they can see. The heroine of "The Hitch-Hiker" is Nan Adams, aged twenty-seven. (Serling likely named her after his daughter Anne, nicknamed "Nan.") She is a buyer for a department store in New York and is driving across country to Los Angeles, apparently for pleasure. This is all we know about her; she has no back story, no past. At the beginning of the episode, Nan has apparently just emerged unscathed from a dangerous blowout ("Lady, you're on the side of the angels," says the mechanic who is changing her tire, a seeming assurance that Nan's final destination will be a blessed one.) Suddenly, the Hitch-Hiker—a dark, physically unprepossessing man in a shabby suit—appears, thumbing for a ride. The Hitch-Hiker will dog Nan for the rest of her journey, appearing wherever she goes. At the end of the episode, we (along with Nan) will learn the Hitch-Hiker's identity: he is a personification of Death beckoning Nan to come with him. Thus Nan, without knowing it, is in a limbo state between life and death; her journey across America is a journey towards self-understanding and peace, through the crucible of fear and panic prescribed by the Twilight Zone.

The object of Nan's fear could hardly be less menacing—just a "shabby, silly-looking scarecrow man"; yet it's his very "vagueness" that makes him so alarming. That vagueness soon dissipates: the episode's point of no return is the terrifying scene in which Nan's car stalls at a railroad crossing just as a train is about to pass. Nan narrowly escapes death as the Hitch-Hiker stands nearby. Now fully aware that the Hitch-Hiker desires her death, Nan feels "unspeakably, nightmarishly alone," and her journey is "not even a trip" but "a flight." It is a flight with biblical resonance: "three days and three nights" is how long Nan (in her running soliloquy, unique in the Twilight Zone canon) tells us she has been traveling after the railroad incident, while her frantic eleven-o'clock (literally) attempt to get a gas station proprietor out of bed recalls the Parable of the Friend at Night from St. Luke's Gospel. The whole of "The Hitch-Hiker," in fact, is a kind of parable of the lone individual on the road of life; it is a human, pathos-laden tale as well as an effective thriller. In one of the most moving moments, we see the loss of identity and the depths of dehumanization that Nan's secret fear has caused: when a character addresses her nonchalantly as "lady," Nan responds with aching vulnerability, "That's what I am—I'm a lady!"

The playful banter which Nan engages in with the mechanic at the start of the episode suggests that she is well-liked by the men in her life; yet she remains painfully alone, and the further encounters with men which dot her journey—the proprietor of a diner, a crossing guard, and the gas station owner, and finally a sailor on leave who agrees to ride with Nan—only augment her loneliness. The sailor embodies ambiguity almost as much as the Hitch-Hiker: is he Nan's "knight in shining armor," or a predator? We watch as he progresses from smarmy satisfaction at meeting a "lady who looks like a movie star" to terror at Nan's erratic behavior in the car. Pathetically, Nan is reduced to using feminine charm to get the sailor to stay; but, thoroughly spooked, the sailor abandons her. The Hitch-Hiker himself—a sort of modern-day grim reaper—completes the circle of men; but he is the man Nan should have embraced all along.

Nan realizes the truth about herself—and hence the identity of the Hitch-Hiker—by way of a phone call to her mother at a roadside phone booth; neon lights flash eerily, reminding us of the scene of an accident. A strange woman answers the phone—the only other female voice in the entire episode; in flat, emotionless tones she bears the news that Nan's mother had a nervous breakdown after the death of her daughter in a car accident in Pennsylvania. "The fear has left me now. I'm numb," Nan tells us; 'everything—emotion, feeling, fear—has drained out." Being freed from her fear allows Nan to experience the world around her more fully—"the vast night of Arizona," "the stars that look down from the darkness." Without any trepidation, Nan goes off to meet the Hitch-Hiker. The ending of the episode gives off a strangely comforting chill. In this account Death doesn't carry a scythe, doesn't threaten or impose himself; instead, he gently hitches a ride ("I believe you're going...my way?"). As the final shot of Nan dissolves into the Twilight Zone star-scape, a funereal chime in Bernard Herrmann's musical accompaniment puts the seal on the episode.

Serling adapted "The Hitch-Hiker" from a 1942 radio play by Lucille Fletcher on the series Suspense; in the radio version, the protagonist was male and was played by Orson Welles. It is difficult to overstate the effectiveness of switching "Ronald Adams" to "Nan Adams." While surely the Hitch-Hiker would alarm anyone, male or female, the menace latent in a young woman traveling alone at night generates a special tension. As Nan, Inger Stevens, who died under mysterious circumstances just like her character, garners instant sympathy, gracing the role with a tragic sadness.

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Like Nan Adams, twenty-five-year-old Millicent Barnes in "Mirror Image" is a young woman traveling alone. Uniquely among the three characters under consideration in this essay, Millicent is explicitly presented by Serling as a modern independent career woman: a "girl with a head on her shoulders." Indeed, Millicent exhibits from the start a forthright, take-charge attitude; an utterly feminine woman, she nonetheless shows herself no shrinking violet in her quest to unravel the strange goings-on around her. Like Nan's, Millicent's past is a mystery; all we know is that she is a private secretary who quit her job recently and is traveling to Buffalo to start a new one. Waiting at 2:00 AM (the "witching hour") in a quiet, almost deserted bus depot presided over by a grouchy ticket agent, Millicent has several experiences which assault her sense of reality and "put her sanity on a block"—experiences which suggest that there is a copy of herself in the depot imitating her actions. Eventually Millicent momentarily glimpses this exact double, first in a restroom mirror, and then sitting on the bus.

The doppelganger is a symbol of Millicent's identity; much like "The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine," "Mirror Image" is about a woman confronting a "picture of herself." In literature and folklore, doppelgangers often mock and torment their victims; Millicent's doppelganger, with its creepily cool Mona Lisa half-smile, seems to mock Millicent's image of herself as a dignified and self-possessed career woman. Then there is the symbolism of Millicent's suitcase, with its "broken handle," suggestive of emotional instability. Many tantalizing questions suggest themselves. Is Millicent experiencing a sense of revulsion at "seeing herself"? Is she actually fleeing something? Did she quit her job under scandalous circumstances? Could the double even be the sign of a "split personality" due to her sudden life change? These questions remain unanswered, adding to the atmosphere of mystery and ambiguity which is the essence of the episode.

In the midst of her nightmare, the lonely Millicent finds her "knight in shining armor" in the form of fellow traveler Paul Grinstead. Paul at first lends a willing ear to her troubles, and a genuine bond seems to develop between the pair; but after Millicent grows increasingly obsessive about the doppelganger (and makes Paul miss his bus), he calls the police to have her taken away for observation. Paul's call to the police is ambiguous: is he a betrayer (like the sailor in "The Hitch-Hiker"), or was he simply doing the right thing under the circumstances? In any case, Paul receives a Twilight Zone comeuppance: he is horrified to see his own double running outside in the street. And just as Millicent's double seemed to deride her self-image, so Paul's double is a parody of his own grinning, simple nature.

As a doppelganger episode, "Mirror Image" had a notable precursor: the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode "The Case of Mr. Pelham," aired on December 4, 1955. This centered on a mild-mannered accountant who comes to believe that he is being stalked by his double. As fine as the episode is, it doesn't match the sheer surreal power of "Mirror Image." To a great extent this is because the protagonist/victim of "Mirror Image" is a woman, and because of the particular woman who plays her. For in Vera Miles, no less than in Inger Stevens, The Twilight Zone found a blonde, "Hitchcockian" actress with a gift for delineating fear, paranoia, and tragedy. The portrayal reaches fever pitch late in the episode, when Millicent lies stretched out on a bench in the darkened depot: with her face photographed upside down in close-up (for her entire world has been upended), she talks about her theory of a double from a parallel world who is trying to "replace" her. Up until now the episode was from Millicent's perspective, so that we experienced her mounting confusion and anxiety along with her; now the perspective shifts to Paul: we watch with him as an erstwhile rational, businesslike woman drifts into madness. Whereas Nan Adams in "The Hitch-Hiker" reaches inner peace and, in a sense, her final destination, Millicent's journey is derailed, her plans thrown into chaos. The open ending invites us to write a sequel in our heads. Does Paul track Millicent down and vindicate her sanity, or does he end up in the madhouse too? Do the doppelgangers wreak further havoc, perhaps taking over the whole world? The richness of suggestion in "Mirror Image" is part of its timeless appeal.

Which brings us back to that February evening in 1960, the week before "Mirror Image" was aired to an audience already bewitched by several months of magic on the first season of The Twilight Zone. The words Rod Serling spoke on that evening suggest that he took his female leading roles seriously, much as he may have doubted his ability to write them. With the hindsight of half a century, we can confidently give him a grade "A" for his efforts. The leading characters in "The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine," "The Hitch-Hiker," and "Mirror Image" are fascinating, varied and three-dimensional, and there would be more such female roles to come.

READ PART 2




To contact Michael, send email to michaelmartind@gmail.com

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