“The Last Night Of A Jockey” (season 5, episode 5; originally aired 10/25/1963)
In which a little man hits the big time
Well, would you look at this: a miserable man in a miserable room. And this particular man (Grady, a jockey recently suspended on horse-doping charges after a long and storied career of cheating and lying and doing whatever it takes to win) isn’t miserable because of bad weather or the blues. He’s miserable because he’s angry: angry about the way the world’s treated him, angry at how he never gets a fair shake, angry at this cheap, ugly little room with the dirty walls and the newspapers scattered on the carpet, reminding him of his sins. Mostly, he’s angry with himself, if he just had the wit to realize it. He blames everyone else, but deep down, on a level so small it’s practically sub-atomic, he realizes, he has to realize, that this is all in the end his fault. That genetics may have made him a short, but he’s the one who keeps holding himself down. But if he does realize it, it just makes him angrier. And more desperate. And more miserable. And so on.
If this all sounds a little familiar, that’s no surprise. The details keep changing, but The Twilight Zone has seen this face before: twisted into a snarl, screaming at shadows, and rushing headlong in a comeuppance you can see from Cleveland. In fact, we’ve already had at least one episode of the show that featured a roughly similar set-up: “Nervous Man In A Four-Dollar Room” had another weaselly, crummy guy in a crappy room arguing with himself in the mirror (and losing). The self-loathing bastard, the guy willing to sell his soul for a taste of the big-time, is a Rod Serling staple, and even when the episode around them isn’t all that great, the character itself always shines through. It’s a meaty part for an actor, and Serling just seems to understand this kind of man (and I think it’s always a man, at least on this show) intuitively. Every new iteration just seems like the same soul with a slightly different face. Maybe that’s the ultimate Twilight Zone twist: no one escapes, not even in death. You just keep coming back as someone slightly sweatier.
In this case, the face and sweat belong to Mickey Rooney, a man so perfectly cast to the episode’s leading (and only) role that Rod Serling actually wrote the script for him. Er, that’s confusing: the point is, this part was intended for Rooney and Rooney alone, and he makes the most of it. Two parts, actually: there’s Grady the cheating creep; and there’s the never-named voice inside Grady’s head, a voice which introduces itself as Grady’s conscience, but turns out to have certain wish-granting powers which are never exactly explained. Which is okay, generally. Magic doesn’t need to be explained. But as with “In Praise Of Pip,” there’s a definite feeling of not-quite-thereness that holds the half-hour back from being a classic.
The voice in the head gag (we occasionally see an image of that voice reflected in the mirror in Grady’s room: the Voice is a well-dressed version of Grady’s crummy self) is fine as far as it goes, but giving it the capacity to grant ironic wishes without any real justification makes things hazy. Like, I don’t need science or anything here, but “when you are at your lowest point, you make a wish and can have this one thing” isn’t quite enough. That concept serves as the subtext of plenty of Twilight Zone episodes, but it works better as the underlying reason, not the out-and-out explanation. Too many stories like this, and the magic starts to chip away. It feels lazy. If you want us to care, you need to at least pretend you’re trying to fool us.
If the episode works, it does so largely due to Rooney’s fevered, raging performance. By 1962, Rooney was already well into the dregs of a once-storied career; having made his name as a child actor (well, mostly a teen actor), adult work was hard to come by for a man who stood 5’2”. Rooney never entirely went away, but the arc of his life shows a man perpetually struggling to get back the fame he’d known in his youth, most likely with the full knowledge that this was never going to happen. It’s not the biggest tragedy in the world, but there is something deeply sad about being constantly reminded your best years are behind you. (Most famous years, anyway.)
At least it made for one hell of a guest spot on the Twilight Zone. While the episode’s magical powers riff leaves something to be desired, there’s subtext aplenty in Rooney’s turn as a jockey who really only dreams of being a “big man.” Rooney’s truncated stature is part of what kept him away from leading man roles (having a kind of bowling-ball-meets-baby face probably didn’t help either), and Serling hits this point again and again throughout the half-hour. Grady’s inner voice is constantly mocking his size, Grady himself is perpetually aware of it, and the twist of the story relies on it. He wishes he was big, and he gets big; but when he’s offered another chance as a jockey, he realizes he’s now too tall to do the job anymore.
As twists go, this is not one of the best. For one thing, it assumes that being a jockey is the greatest dream of Grady’s life, and that’s a hard sell that the episode doesn’t entirely manage. Serling pushes the greatness of horse-racing in his opening monologue, but Grady himself seems more invested in doing whatever he can to overcome his height and be a star—becoming a jockey in his case sounds more like the choice of a man with limited options than it does a dream that can be painfully lost. Like a lot of Twilight Zone twists, this one relies on the audience being so shocked at the outcome that we don’t bother thinking through what happens next. That can work; if the gut-punch of the twist is strong enough, it doesn’t matter if it’s something that can theoretically be undone. Here, though, the idea that Grady can’t be a jockey again just doesn’t matter enough. There’s no poignancy to it, and the irony is so basic and under-developed that it plays out like a shrug.
Still, “The Last Night Of A Jockey” (oh, it’s right there in the title even) has its pleasures. Rooney really is very good throughout, and the rawness of his frustration and rage are utterly convincing. He spends most of his time arguing with “himself,” but that offers a certain fascination; the whole thing is so brutal and merciless that it creates an unsettling, nervy impression of intimacy. While I doubt Rooney ever struggled with magic personae who were able to grant him a one-time-only wish, the unflinching directness of his monologues at least suggests the idea that we’re seeing a man break down in real time. As ever, Serling’s dialogue is pure pleasure for the ears. Rooney digs into it with relish, and while the episode never gets past second gear, that gear is a pretty entertaining one.
There’s also the inadvertent sympathy factor, something which both works for and against stories like this. Serling goes to great lengths to convince us that Grady is a creep: he has a long history of bad on the job behavior (and he hurt horses, which is hard to get past), he’s either sucking up to or threatening everyone he talks to, and he’s not very bright. But the thing is, given how long the show has been on the air, and given that we know he’s going to pay for his sins, it’s hard to feel much fear and loathing for the putz.
Apart from yelling over the telephone, we aren’t there to see Grady sin. We watch the punishment, not the crime, and no matter how many times we’re told he deserves what he gets, there’s a curious undercurrent of sadism to the whole thing, to seeing someone get mocked and lectured and utterly dismantled for thirty minutes. Very Old Testament stuff. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe the real subtext here, intentional or not, is to remind us that even bastards can be pitied, that even assholes can feel pain. Maybe the real tragedy of all these desperate men is that there is, somewhere inside them, a possibility of happiness. But it’s so small they keep missing it.
What a twist: Grady wishes to be a big man. This comes true literally, but it means he can’t be a jockey anymore.
- As practical effects go, “making everything in the room smaller to make Mickey Rooney look bigger” is simple and works quite nicely.
- “I’m the fate every man makes for himself” is a solid tagline for the show.
“Living Doll” (season 5, episode 6; originally aired 11/1/1963)
In which my name is Talky Tina, and you’ll be sorry…
Toys can be scary. Really, most anything can be scary, but toys—at least old school toys, not one of your modern glow-up plastic doohickey talking boxes—are freighted with a complex tapestry of innocence and intent, a reminder of the childhoods we left behind and an unignorable symbol of our own rapidly encroaching mortality. And toys that look like people? Even freakier. Maybe it’s an uncanny valley thing. You look at a doll, and you understand on a conscious level that the thing isn’t alive; that it was designed and molded and painted and dressed in a factory, that it’s guts are stuffing, it’s eyes cheap and unseeing. But a doll has nearly all the signifiers of life. It has a body, it has limbs, and it has a face. Faces suggest personality. Faces suggest a soul. So you start to read into it, just a little; you fill the blankness with your own assumptions. But the blankness itself never goes away, and you wonder what might be going on in there. You know it’s ridiculous. But you wonder.
God help you if the damn thing starts to talk.
“Living Doll” is one of the scariest half hours the Twilight Zone ever produced, and one of the reasons it’s so scary is that the situation escalates so damn quickly. Most stories about dolls with minds of their own work slow; first there are just a few hints that something is off, then the doll startss ending up in places it shouldn’t be, and it’s not until the final act that the face turns towards you and the rubber lips curl up in a smile. When Erich (Telly Savalas) meets Talky Tina, the doll’s first words to him are, “My name is Talky Tina, and I don’t think I like you.” This is the nicest thing the doll says to him, and it happens in the first five minutes. Everything goes downhill from there.
Jerry Sohl wrote the script (though credit went to Charles Beaumont), and it’s a well-constructed piece of writing: events play out over the course of a day and an evening, and that immediacy makes Erich’s situation all the more unsettling. There’s no time to adjust or adapt. At first he writes the whole thing off as a gag, but his wife Annabelle (Mary LaRoche) denies any involvement; besides, a “gag” is a pretty thin explanation. Nowadays we have microchips and what not, but in the sixties, it’s not like everyone was walking around with the ability to record their voice, hide the recording, and make sure that recording plays back only when one specific person is around to hear it. (Actually, that would still be a neat trick today.) You get the impression that Erich reacts the way he reacts because there’s really no other way to deal with what’s happening. Either you pretend your wife is trying to gaslight in the most complicated, unorthodox way imaginable, or you… what? Believe that the doll is alive somehow?
Another point in the episode’s favor is that whatever he believes, Erich doesn’t spend much time telling himself that what he’s seeing is impossible. “Living Doll” doesn’t waste scenes on characters denying reality, or needing to get the same information multiple times before they accept it’s true. Sure, Erich lobs accusations at his wife, but those are just as important to establish his character as they are in trying to find a rational response to the irrational. Before the end of the episode, Erich has stuck Talky Tina’s head in a vise; has attempted to torture the doll with a blowtorch; and has further attempted to cut the doll’s head off with a table-saw. You could argue that he’s just doing this to try and figure out how the damn thing works, but it doesn’t play that way on screen. The episode makes great use of shadows, and it’s deeply creepy watching Savalas loom over the doll, blowtorch in hand. There’s something personal in his rage. It’s less that Erich refuses to accept what’s happening, and more that he doesn’t know the right way to handle it. And even when he does, it’s too little, too late.
Erich is a subtle monster. So subtle, in fact, that I wonder if “monster” is going a bit far. The episode manages the neat trick of making him unpleasant and off-putting, while still allowing just enough humanity to slip through to make you want him to figure things out. As is so often the case on this show, Erich is a jerk who runs into something much worse than himself; but unlike, say, “The Last Night Of A Jockey,” we’re given ample opportunity to see him in action before and during his suffering. This avoids that feeling of sadism I mentioned before.
It’s possible to have sympathy for Erich, while at the same time acknowledging that he sort of brings his troubles down on himself. There’s a brief discussion about how he’ll never be able to have his own children with Annabelle, and while that doesn’t justify his meanness, it at least offers a source more understandable than “evil stepfather.” (An idea Erich himself mocks.) Like so many of the show’s doomed leads, Erich can’t see past his own frustration and pain to grasp the suffering he causes others. And his temper makes him a perfect victim; he’s hectoring and paranoid even before Tina starts messing with his mind, which means that he has no allies in the house. You get the sense that this marriage was on the rocks even before the murder doll arrived.
Thankfully, though, the episode never tries to mollify or soften the fundamental horror of Talky Tina. The doll is a nightmare. While Erich deserves a reckoning for his selfish, bullying behavior, the punishment outweighs the crime. The two seem barely connected. Tina isn’t interested in justice or balancing the scales. There’s no mercy here. It’s like a legal system where the only punishment to any crime is immediate execution.
Another factor that makes “Living Doll” such a great half hour: it’s funny in a way that never offers the audience any kind of relief. The premise is ridiculous, but Sohl’s script doesn’t shy away from the absurdity. There aren’t any overt jokes about it, but every conversation Erich has with the doll is a canny mixture of hilarity and horror. “My name is Talky Tina, and I don’t think I like you,” is a threat of sorts, but there’s something arch about it, mocking. As Tina, the wonderful June Foray sounds innocuous with just a hint of something more, and the resulting effect manages to address concerns over self-parody head on. Talky Tina is a threatening talking doll, and that’s hilarious, right, except that she sounds really sincere about those threats, and she’s not going away. That makes it worse—to laugh at something, and then realize it’s laughing with you, and also, it has a knife. Or a staircase.
The final punchline moment of “Living Doll” isn’t really a twist, per se. Erich, after trying (and failing) to mollify Tina, trips over the doll, falls down the stairs and ends up dead. Annabelle finds him, and finds Tina lying next to him; and when she picks up the doll, Tina looks at her. “My name is Talky Tina,” the thing says, “and you’d better be nice to me.”
So, again: a punchline. But I think it’s more than that. Intentionally or not, Tina’s final line (the last line of the episode, outside of Serling’s narration) is an indication of the real terror here. Toys can be scary, sure. There’s a lot there. But kids can be scary too, and while Christie (Tracy Stratford) is entirely sweet and unthreatening throughout, you have to wonder why she’s been wanting this doll for as long as she has. Kids have intense imaginations; kids believe in things in a way that most adults (well, most sane adults) struggle with. And that belief can be charming and endearing. It can even be funny. But there’s something dangerous about it as well. You don’t know where it comes from or what powers it, and you can’t reason with it. There’s no explanation given for why Talky Tina is the way she is. It could just be a random coincidence, or that her switch was flipped to “Evil.” Or it could be that Christie doesn’t much like her new stepfather, and that she’s been looking for some way to get rid of him. Not in a conscious way, but if you wanted to really speculate, imagine Tina as some kind of malevolent spirit that latches onto children and makes their wishes come true in the worst possible; or else imagine this as a variant on “It’s a Good Life,” albeit it with less far-reaching consequences.
Really, though, this works best when you don’t think about it. Not because it doesn’t hold up to thought (it does, it does), but because the real power of an episode like this lies on the nerve-endings. Tina doesn’t need any justification beyond herself. Itself. Look, the doll is whatever the doll wants to be. Let’s leave it at at that. Seems safer.
What a twist: Tina kills Erich by tripping him on the stairs, then warns Annabelle to be “nice.”
- Telly Savalas is quite good in this. He’s threatening, but there’s just enough humanity in there that you could understand why Annabelle would marry him in the first place.
- I alluded to it in the review, but it’s interesting to watch this episode now, after having grown up watching a Talking Krusty the Clown doll trying to kill Homer Simpson in “Treehouse Of Horror III.” Someone on Twitter mentioned that they wished they could’ve seen the Twilight Zone episode first, because the funnier version made the original less scary to them. I didn’t have that problem, largely because, as I said in the review, “Living Doll” is already well aware of how silly it could look. Laugh all you want; Talky Tina will still have her revenge. (And, if we’re being completely honest, I found “Clown Without Pity” kind of creepy in its own right. At least until the ending.)
- “My name is Talky Tina, and I don’t forgive you.” How brutal is that? Time and again we’ve seen protagonists on this show offered a chance to save themselves, and time and again, we’ve watched them ignore or waste that chance. But here, Erich at least tries to do the right thing. It’s too little, too late, and he’s basically forced into it, but still, it changes the whole nature of the threat. Talky Tina isn’t some avenging force of nature, working to restore balance to the universe. She holds grudges, and she does not forget.
Next week: For his final Twilight Zone review (sob), Todd visits James Coburn and “The Old Man In The Cave,” and then deals with the robot in “Uncle Simon.”