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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Twilight Zone: “Kick The Can”/“A Piano In The House”

Illustration for article titled The Twilight Zone: “Kick The Can”/“A Piano In The House”
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“Kick The Can” (season 3, episode 21; originally aired 2/9/1962)
In which a tin can helps makes time travel possible…

(Available on Netflix, Amazon, and CBS.com)

I can remember most the games I played growing up: tag, manhunt, hide and seek, red light, badminton, that game where the other kids keep shoving you until you cry. (That’s thing, right?) But I never played Kick The Can, and before I sat down to review this week’s first episode, I did a quick scan of Wikipedia to get up to speed on the rules. The game sounds like fun, basically a sort of combination of hide and seek and tag. One kid is “it,” and the rest have to hide. “It” tracks them down one by one, and whenever someone is caught, they have to go to “jail.” But there’s a can set in the middle of the playing area, and if one of the kids whose still free can find it and kick it over, all the captured ones are released. Like the best kid games, the rules are simple, the concept easy to grasp, and the stakes very clear. Either you’re free and running, or you’re trapped and waiting to lose. Or that one thin thread of possibility: you’re being hunted, but you figure out how to turn the tables, and let everybody free. Kick the can isn’t just a way to win. It’s a way to set back the clock.

Which is probably why Charles Whitley (Ernest Truex), the hero of this episode, is so entranced by it. But reading the description got me to wondering, do kids even play games like this anymore? I don’t mean “Kick The Can” specifically. That one was gone before my time, even. But between the Internet and texting and, I dunno, robot controlled hula hoops, I wonder if there’s room for the old-fashioned kind of play. Surely kids can spend all of recess surfing the web, right? Some of these rituals must stay around. But the older you get, the more alien they look, all chaos and shrieking and scabbed over knees. Memories and old photos become souvenirs of some other, more magical place, and going back to your youth becomes less a question of time travel, and more a matter of relocation. Part of relocation is learning new customs, finding ways to blend in. So maybe we grow old not because of time or entropy, but because we get lost on the way, and forget the life we once had; but if we’re lucky, those childhood games might be our ticket home.

That’s the theory, anyway. I’m not sure I buy it, but this is the Twilight Zone, and “Kick The Can” wouldn’t be much of an episode if Charles hadn’t stumbled upon some great and magical truth. The idea that old age is a state of mind—that youth is more about a willingness to take risks and a sense of adventure than strong bones and smooth skin—is the sort of reliable warhorse of a concept that gets trotted out on television (and film) regularly. This is partly because it’s an upbeat notion that makes people feel good about one of the more terrifying aspects of being alive, and partly because there’s some truth to it. Getting older means having a better grasp on all the crappy things that will probably happen to you, and that means closing yourself off, shutting down, reducing the opportunities for injury. Which is sensible as far as it goes, but at a certain point, it becomes tough to tell why you’re working so hard to stay alive.

That’s the dilemma facing Charles and his friends at Sunnyvale Rest, Home For The Aged. George Clayton Johnson sketches the scene quickly, and efficiently. Dressed in what you have to assume is his best suit, Charles is packing a suitcase, and telling everyone that his son is coming to take him away. It’s not hard to see where this is going: Charles is so excited he’s bordering on manic, but the nursing home staff shrug their shoulders at him, like they neither understand nor care what’s got him so worked up. It’s almost a surprise when the son actually arrives on time, but hopes are dashed quickly enough. So right away, you know what the conflict is: Charles is unhappy at the home, and he desperately wants out, but he’s a time in his life that offers no obvious exits. You can’t blame his son for not wanting to take him in, but without being able to support himself, Charles is stuck, just like all the others are stuck, sitting in rocking chairs, complaining about the noise, and waiting to die.

But our hero refuses to accept this, so he decides, sort of randomly, that the real reason he’s old is because he stopped playing the games he played growing up. (There’s a group of kids running around the home playing kick-the-can, and Charles, despondent after his son leaves him behind, ups and steals their can from them.) He’s ultimately proven right, because this pretty much a one beat story, so we can’t see his theory in action until the very end of the episode. Up until then, Charles bops around doing silly kid stuff like playing in sprinklers. It’s a little embarrassing to watch, which may be intentional; there’s something cringe-worthy about adults refusing to act their age, and Charles’s attempts at recapturing his youth drive home his desperation. It also sets him at odds with Ben Conroy (Russell Collins), his best friend. Ben is a grouch, and the sight of Charles running around like a fool clearly horrifies him. He demands Charles start behaving like an adult, and when Charles keeps on pushing with his plan, Ben reports him to the authorities—in this case, the head of the nursing home, who spouts a lot sensible stuff about old people turning senile and needing care for their own protection.


This is as reliable a pitch as “you’re only as old as you feel”: in this case, it’s the rebel dreamer set against the more practical minded figures of authority. Charles’ belief has to be strong enough to motivate him and get him past the less imaginative folks who would bar his escape. That gives us enough story to fill most of the half hour, but most of the tension the episode generates comes from an unexpected place. Ostensibly, the conflict comes from Charles deciding to lead his friends at the nursing home out into the night to play games. First he has to convince his friends to follow him, and then the whole group has to avoid the nurses and the authorities who would try and keep them in their beds. (To the script and the actors credit, the authorities in this case never come across as Big Nurse type villains; they’re all well-meaning, if a little condescending.) But Charles’ pitch to his friends goes off pretty easy. Truex’s passion for his message is hard to deny, but even more important is the impression that all of the people he’s talking to really, really want to believe in what he’s saying. It’s a ridiculous idea, to think that playing a kid’s game would somehow de-age you and set you free, but it’s also a ridiculously tempting idea, the sort of notion that most of us would grab on to with even the slightest encouragement. And besides, what are they risking by trying? Maybe a chill, maybe a few sprains and bruises. Worth the risk for a whole new life.

Once Charles wins over the group, it’s just a matter of getting everyone outside without getting caught, an operation that goes off without a hitch. Mr. Cox (John Marley), the home superintendent, tries to chase after them, but he never has much hope in succeeding. And yet the last few minutes of “Kick the Can” are painfully suspenseful, not because you think Charles might fail, but that you know he’ll succeed; and you don’t know if Ben, the old man intent on being an old man, will be able to follow. Charles comes to his friend one last time before he leaves, and Ben refuses to listen. Because it’s scary to grow up, and it hurts to lose all the magic you thought you had as a kid. Better to go back to bed, take things slow, make sure you have a blanket and always stay in the sun. Better to play it safe than risk humiliation, defeat, and losing the one small hope you have left.


This leads to the final confrontation, when Ben sees a young boy out in the street and decides it has to be Charlie. There’s no official confirmation of this; I wouldn’t call the ending ambiguous, but there’s no transitional shot of the old people becoming young, and when Ben confronts the boy, the boy acts confused, and can’t seem to explain what’s going on. That’s really the only way this twist would’ve worked without being painfully maudlin—to make it eerie and strange and somehow alien, to prevent us from wondering about where all those newly young people are going to run to. The other reason the ending works, and what keeps this whole story from being too weightless and simple, is Ben’s devastation at realizing he’s been left behind. Up until then, it was easy to see him as the enemy; not a bad guy at all, but definitely the outsider, the man to be resisted, the one holding us back. But as he pleads for the boy to take him along, and as he realizes he missed his one chance to escape, he becomes us. Maybe being bitter and afraid and skeptical isn’t all that hard for relate to. For most people, the magic never comes.

What a twist: Charles and the others use a game of kick-the-can to become children, and they run off into the night, leaving Ben behind.


Grade: A-

Stray observations:

  • I’d never seen this episode before, but I had seen the Spielberg take from Twilight Zone: The Movie. It’s super mawkish, and purports to teach a valuable lesson about how everyone should just be happier where they are. While that has more practical value than “Wouldn’t it be neat if you could play yourself young?”, I prefer the TV version.
  • This whole thing has a very Ray Bradbury feel.

“A Piano In The House” (season 3 episode 22; originally aired 2/16/1962)
In which no one wants to listen to the music…


First off, I want to clear up any confusion you might have. This episode is about a theater critic, and while I, myself, have never had the delight of reviewing a dramatical production, I can assure you straight off the bat that Fitzgerald Fortune (marvellous name) is pretty much exactly what all critics are like. All of them. No exception whatsoever. To a man and woman, we are arrogant, cynical, mocking creeps, determined to hold the world at a distance created by our own impossible to achieve standards. We all have hot younger wives/husbands who married us because they were in awe of our confidence and achievements, only to discover we are incapable of providing them with the love they need. We all walk around openly critiquing literally everything we see, like this sentence here, which starts off nice but they gets a bit runny by the end. And we are all just fucking crazy about magic player pianos that force people to reveal their innermost selves. Seriously, can’t get enough of them.

“A Piano In The House” is an oddity; the central concept is too simplistic, and too fundamentally easy to track, for the episode to work as a whole, but the acting and direction are strong enough to make for some fascinating pieces, provided you’re willing to accept the canard that critics are selfish monsters overcompensating to cover for their frightened inner child. To be fair, that’s not too big of a stretch. Critics make an easy target for storytellers, but while I wouldn’t put Fitzgerald up as a particularly believable model of the form, I would say he’s distinct enough that the character doesn’t come across as an ad hoc attack against reviewers in general. Like “One More Pallbearer” before it, this episode benefits/suffers from having a mesmerizing performance from its leading man; Barry Morse gives his contempt such a charismatic edge that his actual profession doesn’t matter much. (Nor does it ever really come up in the story. Everyone who comes to his party knows he’s a powerful critic, but when they finally abandon him, it has nothing to do with his bad reviews.) Really, you can just read this as a bully getting his comeuppance, which isn’t a new idea for the show.


That familiarity isn’t exactly a benefit. There’s an issue that comes up when you regularly tell stories about villains getting their just desserts: the more we come to expect the turn of the heel, the more that heel starts to come across as a kind of underdog, and it’s hard not to root for the underdog. Fitzgerald compensates for being utterly in command if his surroundings, which helps create some suspense as to how in the hell someone so self-aware and arrogant could be brought down. Unfortunately, it also makes him much more interesting than nearly every character around him. There’s none of the forced moralizing that made “One More Pallbearer” a chore, but the ending catharsis, when Fitzgerald’s wife Esther (Joan Hackett) tricks him into using the piano on himself, doesn’t really satisfy. Morse plays the hell out of it, but you end up feeling more sorry for the lonely, terrified bastard than you do glad to see him lose. It exposes one of the problems with the the show’s often simplistic approach to morality: we’re all monsters and victims at once at some time in our lives, and trying to boil things down to an Aesop’s Fable level of crime and punishment makes for less interesting storytelling.

Still, there’s something here that works, and stays with you, even if the structure can’t support itself. The episode is full of odd, offbeat moments, at once creepy and oddly moving, and it hits the ground running, with Fitzgerald popping into an antique store to buy a player piano for his wife. (Proof that Fitzgerald is a dick: his wife said she wants to learn how to play the piano, so he figured, she’d be terrible at it, better get her one that does the playing itself.) The clerk is pissy and bored, Fitzgerald is delighted by the rudeness, and neither of them really talk the way people normally talk. I don’t even mean in the overly-poetic Rod Serling sense. Earl Hammer Jr.’s script is full of overheated monologues and characters talking across each other, and it creates a sense of unreality that pervades the episode as a whole. Fitzgerald comes home, complains to his wife about their mopey butler (Cyril Delevanti), and then runs the piano to watch the butler hop about with laughter. In description, this sounds like a pretty normal Twilight Zone: a magical device changes’ people’s behavior. But in practice, it’s intense and striking in ways that I wasn’t expecting.


This culminates during Esther’s birthday party, when Fitzgerald busts out a roll for the piano to use on his friend Marge (Muriel Landers). Marge is the Fat One, and so given the era the show was produced (and given the tendency of television in general), it’s logical to assume her secret self will bemoan her weight. But when the music starts, she talks like a little girl, and dances around the room. It’s haunting and lovely and unexpected, a way to take “fat = unhappy” and make it something more personal and intimate, which makes it all the more shocking when the party erupts into laughter. Not everyone, but enough to break the spell. The intention is obvious—Fitzgerald is humiliating his “friends” by forcing them to expose their secrets in public—but the disparity between that intention and the actual effect throws the whole episode out of whack. Every secret face is so mesmerizing (even the more obvious ones) that they take over the story. This is a good thing, given that the story is pretty weak sauce on its own, but creates these weird moments when it seems like no one involved realizes the depth of what they’ve created.

In the end, Esther swaps the piano rolls so Fitzgerald is forced to confess his own inner truths. He freaks out, tells everyone that he’s terrified of them, and then they abandon him to his fears. What’s funny is, the people who leave come off as worse than the supposedly villainous critic. Punishing a character for cruelty and selfishness only really works if we believe that character is responsible for his actions, that he or she chose to be hateful to the world. In revealing the motivations behind his actions, Fitzgerald makes himself human again, and the others who abandon him, particularly Esther and Gregory (Don Durant), a playwright and Esther’s secret lover, come across as cold and hateful when they pass judgement. Theoretically this could be some comment on the way human beings alienate each other when they most need love and protection, but there’s not enough depth here to make that theme really connect. Instead, the whole thing just seems sadistic, and misjudged; yet still somehow fascinating and hard to look away from.


What a twist: The player piano makes people reveal secrets about themselves; Fitzgerald tries to use this power to amuse himself, but ends up showing more than he would’ve wished.

Grade: B+

Stray observations:

  • I’m not sure I’d be comfortable having a manservant at any age, but I do have to agree with Fitzgerald; that butler seems like a bummer.
  • Late in the episode, Fitzgerald says he’s going to use the piano to call forth the Devil. Esther switches out the rolls (and Fitzgerald’s comment becomes ironic when he himself is forced to dance to the piano’s tune), but I wonder what kind of Devil might have shown up.
  • Speaking of, it’s interesting how each tune only works on one person at a time, and that Fitzgerald is able to find those rolls with pinpoint accuracy.
  • “I’m afraid of you all. I’m afraid of people.” -Fitzgerald.

Next week: Todd attends “The Last Rites Of Jeff Myrtlebank,” and meets some aliens whose only desire is “To Serve Man.”