“The Prime Mover” (season 2, episode 21; originally aired 3/24/1961)
In which here’s a little story about a man named Jimbo
Goodwill can go a long way, and that goes doubly true for fiction. Well, not “goodwill” alone. Todd and I have both criticized The Twilight Zone for its lapses into excessive sentiment, lapses that are inevitable, given Rod Serling’s swing-for-the-fences approach. But warm feeling in a context when I’m not expecting it? A happy ending when everything else is screaming bad news? That helps cover up a lot of flaws, and it’s one of the reasons I have a fair bit of fondness for “The Prime Mover,” despite the way it doesn’t quite hold together. This is a so-so script that works largely on the strength of its performances and, yes, its goodwill. The ideas are familiar, and the arc—hungry, greedy guy finally gets a lucky break, pushes it for all its worth, only to have it blow up in his face—holds few surprises. But it left me with something like a smile on my face, because for once, Fate wasn’t in the hands of a capricious god or vengeful spirit, but a nice gentleman who wanted to do right by his friend, and realized the best way to do that was to let the guy lose.
The nice gentleman here is Jimbo Cobb, played the great Buddy Ebsen. Ebsen was still a year or so away from his signature role as Jed Clampett, patriarch of The Beverly Hillbillies, but he’d been working as a character actor for years in film and television by the time he came into the Zone, and he has a comfortable, low-key presence that helps sell this episode’s goofier aspects. Ebsen doesn’t have as many lines as the story’s nominal protagonist, Ace Larsen (Dane Clark), and he spends most of the half hour hanging back or standing to the side, either grimacing as he uses his magical ability to move objects with his mind, or wincing with concern over his pal Ace’s behavior. But he’s the prime example of that goodwill I mentioned, and Ebsen’s likability and warmth make “The Prime Mover” watchable, even when it isn’t particularly gripping. It’s not too hard to know where this is headed from the moment Ace finds out Jimbo has special abilities; hell, the very first scene of the episode has Ace pleading with a slot machine to finally give him that lucky break he’s been aching for. If you ever wanted to come up with a list of Twilight Zone red-flags, pleading for a lucky break is the equivalent of calling your brand new luxury liner “unsinkable.” But as Jimbo, Ebsen gives events a gratifyingly benevolent spin. Ace needs to be taught a lesson, sure, but it’s nice, in the end, that the lesson doesn’t have hurt that much.
Except, well, maybe “nice” isn’t something we really want in our stories. “The Prime Mover” is by and large a pleasant viewing experience. Ace’s antics grate as time wears on, and there’s some uncomfortable tension between his needs and the very good advice he gets from his friends, but nothing here is as dark or grim as the show can get. Hell, the closest thing to a heavy we see is a mobster who acts like he just stepped out of a cartoon, all suggested menace with no actual follow-through. The rise and fall of Ace’s lucky streak is a neat, consequences free bubble; he learns what Jimbo can do, convinces his friend that they’ve got to hit Vegas, pulls in a bundle at the roulette wheel, and then loses it all to the aforementioned mobster (Phil Nolan, a big gambler who comes with his own thug entourage so you know he’s a hard case) when Jimbo’s powers wink out. That’s it. The worst Ace endures is a bit of embarrassment and the knowledge that if he’d quit while he was ahead, he would’ve come out with a respectable bundle of cash. But that’s the thing about guys like Ace, especially when they show up on The Twilight Zone. They can’t ever quit before they’ve gone too far, because they’re driven as much by anger and despair as they are by greed.
Ace isn’t quite as awful as Fred from “What You Need,” and that’s why he gets off as easy as he does here; he’s selfish and a jerk to his friends, but he’s not actively homicidal. He’s just in the grip of a gambling addiction, and if that makes him a creep for roughly 75 percent of the running time, it doesn’t preclude the possibility that he could be reformed. A pure bastard would’ve most likely wrecked his friendship with Jimbo long ago, and I’d like to think he never would’ve had a shot with Kitty, the pretty waitress, if he didn’t have at least a few redeeming qualities. Hell, at the very least Ace does rush out to the road at the start of the episode, to help the folks in the car wreck that first introduces Jimbo’s powers. (Jimbo uses his whammy to move some wires. He didn’t cause the car wreck… THAT WE KNOW OF.) He’s got the basic equipment to be a decent man; he just needs a little help to use it.
What keeps “Prime Mover” from being a classic, for me, is that Jimbo’s attempt to teach Ace a lesson doesn’t go far enough. I dig the friendly tone here, really I do, and I get that Ace isn’t a creep, despite forcing his closest friend to do things that cause that friend significant pain, and despite alienating himself from his long suffering girlfriend and immediately hiring the nearest floozy to help him ease his pain. But those are pretty big “despites” to get over, and when a man has succumbed as much to his addiction as Ace does here, he needs more than just one big loss—of money that he barely had time to get used to—to teach him his lesson. To put it another way, there’s a reason you get four ghosts in A Christmas Carol. If it had just been one, Scrooge would have passed the whole thing off as a dream; just two or three, and I’m sure Ebenezer would’ve tried to reform, would have even sincerely wanted to be a better person, but after a few months of dealing with Bob Cratchit’s incompetence and Tiny Tim’s saintly whining and all those charity creeps who kept coming by with their hands out for just a little bit more, he’d be back to his regular “Bah! Humbug” ways. Change is hard; in fact, unless we find ourselves in the right time and circumstance, it can be downright impossible. So Scrooge needed that last ghost, the darkest timeline as it were, because mourning the past and wanting to help others for their sake wasn’t quite enough—he needed to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that if he didn’t shape up immediately, everything was going to take a turn for the absolute worst, and that “worst” included him dead on a slab while people stole his bed clothes and laughed.
Ace doesn’t get that last ghost. He gets, and I’m being charitable here, as far as Christmas Present, and while I’m glad that nobody had to lose a leg to make him see the error of his ways (I was half-convinced that Kitty would get in another car accident, and need Jimbo to move something to save, but Jimbo would be all tapped out because of Ace’s demands), it makes his redemption ring hollow. Knowing Jimbo made a choice to try and help his friend without making a big deal out of it is a sweet notion, and it fits in with what we know about ol’ Jim; he’s not big on confrontations, but he knows what’s right and what’s wrong, and he wants the people he cares about to be happy. It’s just too bad that I can’t shake the feeling Ace will be eying the bright lights of Vegas sometime in the near future. Not because he’s a bad man, really, but because, well, he didn't get his legs broken last time. He got spooked, but he didn't get scared. A story like “Prime Mover” works well enough because it’s so friendly, but friendly only gets you so far.
What a twist!: Jimbo’s ability to shift dice goes haywire right after his friend Ace makes the biggest bet of his life—but it turns out, Jimbo was just faking it to teach his pal a lesson.
- “Well, well-enough isn’t good enough for me.” -Ace, summing it up.
- There are a few good laughs here; I especially liked Phil’s casual, “They don’t eat,” when Ace offers the flunkies food.
- So, I guess cigarette girls are just preliminary prostitutes?
“Long Distance Call” (season 2, episode 22; originally aired 3/31/1961)
In which you shouldn’t always answer
This is an episode of television in which a boy’s dead grandmother repeatedly tells him to kill himself. Not because she hates him or because she’s evil, but because she’s lonely on the other side, and she misses her favorite grandson. That is profoundly fucked up. It’s so fucked up, in fact, that I’m kind of amazed this made it on air. This is an episode that has a little boy turning suicidal, first throwing himself in front of a car and then, when that doesn’t work, doing his level best to drown himself. Everyone knows you aren’t supposed to threaten kids on TV, and this goes beyond threat. This is some serious psychological trauma, and, apart from the presence of that one toy phone, there’s little here to separate Billy’s actions from real world behavior. Kids react to death in strange ways, and it’s not hard at all to believe that a little boy, after losing someone he’s close to, would decide to follow in her footsteps. And as if all this wasn’t bad enough, Billy isn’t making this decision on his own. He’s being led toward it by the voice of someone he’s been given every reason to trust. This isn’t an evil spirit mimicking Grandma’s voice to trick a child, and it’s not even that Grandma has been changed on her way to the great beyond. Dying probably altered her perspective, but she was plenty clingy before she left, and now she’s determined to never lose the last good thing in her life.
That is unsettling. Oh sure, there’s a metaphor for the grieving process buried (ha!) in there somewhere, about how our memories of the dead hold onto us long after we’d be better served by moving forward, and how sometimes those memories can freeze us in place, which is bad, or even worse, pull us back towards a time we miss, but can never have again. I mean, a toy telephone that talks to dead people. I don’t have to draw a map here, right? “Long Distance Call” is wonderfully horrifying, and part of why it’s so wonderful is that it has resonance beyond its plot. While grief and mourning are necessary and healthy, they also raise a certain basic, impossible to solve problem: You can’t have a happy ending. You can’t bring Grandma or Old Yeller or Mr. and Mrs. Wayne back, even though bringing them back is the only way you know of to feel whole again. It’s like the dark side of all those impossible crushes you get when you’re growing up, when you want to be with someone so badly you feel like your need is strong enough to alter the nature of reality. It isn’t, and wanting the body in the coffin to suddenly pop up and smile and say “SURPRISE!” doesn’t make it so. (This is probably for the best.) But if that’s the case, any reasonable person would start searching for other solutions, and the next one you’re going to come across is almost certainly going to be, “Well, if they’re dead, and I’m not, and I want to see them, maybe…?” Billy has supernatural reasons for all those suicide attempts, but his behavior is still understandable, even when you take out the magic phone. If you wanted to, you could just view this as one big metaphor for a child’s struggle with his first real encounter with death.
But “Long Distance Call” isn’t just an allegory; it’s a damn creepy half hour of TV, and while I appreciate all those deeper bits are there, it’s easy to be satisfied with what’s on the screen. Maybe it’s the fact that the story, which started with a script from first time Zone writer William Idelson (he and Charles Beaumont would eventually get together and rewrite the original until it turned into what we see on screen), doesn’t feel quite like a normal TZ episode. It’s shot on video, and while that’s not a first for the show, the video is still unusual enough to set the episode slightly apart. And then there’s the family we met, little Billy (Billy Mumy, in his first great TZ turn), and his loving mother and father, and Grandma. Yeah, Grandma is something. She seems so sweet and kind and good, but, while I don’t want to be a jerk about this or anything, it’s hard not to notice that Grandma doesn’t look so hot. Lili Darvas was only in her 50s when she appeared on the show, but there’s something about her face that makes you think of coffins and skulls and crows on gray days. She’s unhealthy, and beyond the casting, the episode makes sure we know she’s on her last legs. Which makes her attachment to Billy seem as awful as it is sweet. She’s not just admiring her beloved grandson; she’s clinging to him, clinging to him with all the desperate, shaky power of age.
Then it’s time to open Billy’s presents (it’s his birthday), and Grandma has a stroke. Or a heart attack. Or whatever convenient, sudden illness you want, but it all comes down to this: She’s not long for this world, and we’re just counting down the seconds until she’s gone. They bustle her upstairs to hide her in a dark bedroom, and the doctor comes by to tell them what they already know. Grandma is going fast, and there’s time for one more chat between her and Billy, at least on this side of the grave. She’s so far gone that she doesn’t recognize her own son anymore, or his wife. Billy, she thinks, is hers. And she wants him forever.
It’s hard to decide what’s spookier here, the image of a near-dead woman grasping at a little boy (who clearly has no idea what’s going on, but doesn’t like it), or the idea that Grandma’s need doesn’t change after she’s dead. If anything, it gets worse, and how is that for awful, folks? One of the most fundamental assumptions of the afterlife, if there is one, is that once you die, you figure out what you couldn’t understand before. All your worst impulses and vices are clarified, and you can see life for what it is, and move on to whatever is next. (Or, if you like, you go to Heaven or Hell. The clarity remains, although not always for the better.) In “Long Distance Call,” though, Grandma doesn’t seem all that wiser in death. If anything, she’s even worse, as though dying has somehow driven her insane, stripped her of her sense of fairness and compassion, and made her hungry and cold and jealous. Sure, Dad is able to talk her around in the end, with a well-acted, well-shot monologue about how much he wants his son to grow up and have his own life, but it’s hard to reconcile the off-putting but still recognizable human woman from earlier in the story with this unseen, unheard creature who needs to be convinced that not driving Billy to suicide is a good idea.
The truth, we don’t really know who’s on that other line, and that might be the episode’s smartest artistic choice. Were it not for his parents horrified reactions, all of this could’ve just been Billy’s over-wrought attempt to process a shattering event, and even though Mom and Dad both get their turns on the phone, we never do. There’s no voice-over narration of Grandma begging or haranguing; really, there’s no overt evidence of the supernatural at all. Which makes it all the more affecting, because imagining Grandma’s beyond-the-grave voice (which, in my head is sweet and kind, but with just a hint of dirt in it) is always going to get under our skins more easily than any narration. “Long Distance Call” is very frightening, and for once, I think the video adds to the effect, rather than distracting. At first, it’s like we’re watching some kind of happy-go-lucky sitcom, with everyone sitting down for cake, but then the cracks start to show, and the dying starts. The story has as happy an ending as it could: Dad pleads with Grandma to let Billy go, and Billy survives his close encounter with a duck pond, presumably free to ruin the rest of his life on his own terms. But no happy ending can wipe away Grandma’s rictus grin, or the sad image of a woman floating in darkness, longing for a friendly voice.
What a twist!: No one wants to die alone, but we do anyway.
- Maybe it’s just the different standards of the time, but the guy who waits at Bayles' house for two hours after nearly running Billy over with his car, waits just so he can yell at Billy's parents, seems like kind of a dick. (I almost wish we could’ve seen the wait, if only to get scenes of what must have been an incredibly awkward conversation between the driver and the babysitter.)
- Still the Jerk of the Episode award has to go the paramedic who tells a grieving Chris Bayles that Billy’s chances aren’t “so good. If we’d got him a few minutes earlier…” Why would you tell the parents this while their son is dying in the other room? “Y’know, in case this ever comes up again, make sure to rescue your drowning son a little faster next time.”
- “I wish you could go with Grandma, Billy.” Have I mentioned Grandma’s last scene on Earth is freaky as hell?
- “Funerals stink.” -Chris Bayles, laying down hard truths
Next week: Todd takes a trip “A Hundred Yards Over The Rim,” and takes a nap before embarking on “The Rip Van Winkle Caper.”