Rod Serling: Night Gallery | Kino Lorber (2021) | featured image

Rod Serling Undermines the American Dream with the Stories in ‘Night Gallery’

Existential fear about post-war American masculinity is dragged into disturbing light in Rod Serling’s dark tales of the American Dream, Night Gallery.

Night Gallery
Rod Serling
Kino Lorber
23 November 2021

Racism, Marriage, and Other Hells

I believe an even better, more open-ended accomplishment by Serling is “The House”, based on a story by Andr√© Maurois. On one level, it’s simply about how great Joanna Pettet looks while driving an open convertible in slow motion. Director John Astin conveys much of the segment in a gorgeous slow-motion haze as Pettet’s character relates her recurring dream of finding a house. She finds it, and it’s said to be haunted. The delicate twist, more intellectual than narrative, doesn’t end the segment with its revelation but goes a step or two further. This is one of the stories that linger, all the more so for remaining inexplicable and untidy.

Two other strong Serling scripts adapt other writers’ stories, and one of these is the episode companion to “The House”, making the strongest one-two punch of Season One. Directed by Jeff Corey and based on a tale by Mary E. Wilkins-Freeman, “Certain Shadows on the Wall” is a claustrophobic ghost story that pivots on sexual and family politics.

Its bedridden woman (Agnes Moorehead) is both physically powerless and economically powerful since she owns the estate on which her siblings live. Louis Hayward, Grayson Hall, and Rachel Roberts play the siblings. The presence in the same story of grande dames Moorehead, most famous for Bewitched (1964-72), and Hall, best known for Dark Shadows (1966-71), is enough to make us giddy, though they have no scenes together. Still, it seems natural that they’re sisters.

This two-fer episode is graced with two commentaries, one by film writer Tim Lucas and one by TV movie specialist Amanda Reyes. Reyes discusses the social roles of women and makes connections with classic episodes of The Twilight Zone about women doppelgangers. Lucas and Reyes both discuss an Oscar-nominated short film by Astin that would have made a fabulous extra and seems to be very hard to get hold of.

Serling’s “The Little Black Bag” stars Burgess Meredith and Chill Wills as alcoholic bums who stumble on a miraculous medical bag from the future. Its rather weak ending, which requires cross-time simultaneity, is preserved intact from C.M. Kornbluth’s classic science fiction story, so we can’t blame Serling for that twist. Meredith tears into his role with the finesse he applied to his multiple roles on The Twilight Zone, and it feels like Old Home Week. Director Jeannot Szwarc is best known for the exquisitely handled time travel of “Somewhere in Time” (1980).

Serling teamed with Spielberg again for “Make Me Laugh”, starring Godfrey Cambridge (always a pleasure) as a lousy stand-up comic who meets a turbaned guru played with deadpan absurdity by Jackie Vernon. Their dialogues are well-staged and funny, and Serling seems to have had a ball writing them. As with many Serling ideas, however, it’s all concept with nowhere to go until the random ending. Tom Bosley shows up again. The commentary by filmmaker Constantine Nasr says that Bosley replaced another actor and his scenes are reshoots by Szwarc, who stated that he simply reshot Spielberg’s footage shot for shot.

While the main character’s race doesn’t factor into that story, Serling makes a statement about an overbearing racist blowhard of a hunter (Raymond Massey) and his supposedly loyal African servant (Herbert Jefferson Jr.) in “Clean Kills and Other Trophies”, the companion segment directed with flair by Walter Doniger. Jefferson’s role recalls Ossie Davis as the butler with something up his sleeve in the pilot. When leaning on contemporary topics, Serling was hit or miss. For publisher Taylor L. White, who provides commentary, this one’s a hit. It’s mostly loud, unpleasant arguments.

Another turbaned figure (Henry Darrow) shows up in a Serling script about the legacy of British colonialism in India, “The Doll”, directed by Rudi Dorn. The star, British actor John Williams, had been seen frequently on Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-65), where Hitchcock practically used him as a mascot. Shani Wallis appears as the nanny who dislikes the title object, for this is one of a thousand “creepy doll” tales. Algernon Blackwood‘s original 1946 story is more effective on the page than this semi-fumbled attempt. In their commentary, British writers Kim Newman and Stephen Jones explain why they like it best of its episode’s three segments.

“Lone Survivor”, directed by Gene Levitt, is all about John Colicos chewing the scenery. He’s alleged as a survivor of the Titanic, which makes no sense in terms of the title, since there were many survivors. This may remind viewers of a karmic Twilight Zone episode called “Judgment Night”. That wasn’t about the Titanic but Serling works another variation here.

Serling’s two dumbest scripts this season are mercifully the shortest. One is a comic vignette with Phyllis Diller and John Astin, directed by Richard Benedict. Even sillier is the story, directed by Allen Reisner, starring Joseph Campanella and a menace on the moon.

Serling’s sign-off for the season, in the same episode with “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar”, is “The Last Laurel”, a dire anecdote from a Davis Grubb story, directed by Darryl Duke and starring Jack Cassidy, Martine Beswick and Martin E. Brooks. It’s part of the recurring bourgeois theme of “marriage is hell” stories, most of which are about cuckolded husbands, and two of which have bedridden males. Such stories partake of postwar masculine panic at changing gender roles and the ascension of women.

The better of these bedridden male tales is “Room with a View”, adapted by Hal Dresner from his own short story. The neat brevity stars Joseph Wiseman, Diane Keaton and Angel Tompkins. Jerrold Freedman directs.

Another pretty good “marriage is hell” comedy is “The Housekeeper”, a tongue-in-cheek tale with Larry Hagman, Jeanette Nolan and Suzy Parker, as directed by John Meredyth Lucas. The script about transmigration of souls is credited to one Matthew Howard, but don’t you believe it. That’s a pseudonym of Douglas Heyes, who wrote and directed the same episode’s other segment, “The Dead Man”, from a Fritz Leiber story. Heyes was a crime novelist who developed a good line in writing and directing for TV, including The Twilight Zone and Thriller (1960-62). In fact, he was among the medium’s few consistent writer-directors during that period.

“The Dead Man” is yet another story about a jealous husband and faithless wife, this time handled seriously and with a well-handled shocker ending. Carl Betz, Jeff Corey, Louise Sorel and Michael Blodgett are the stars. This was the season premiere, so the series started with evidence that Serling needn’t be the only writer who could turn out a good story.

Fact-filled commentary for Heyes’ segments and one other episode are provided by Jim Benson and Scott Skelton, the team that literally wrote the book on this series. Two books, in fact: Rod Serling’s Night Gallery: An After-Hours Tour (Syracuse University Press, 1998) and Rod Serling’s Night Gallery: The Art of Darkness (Creature Features, 2021), which reproduces the paintings.

A valuable and informative bonus is Beam’s one-hour segment on how Universal treated this series badly in syndication by butchering episodes into half-hours and re-arranging them. He even names the executive responsible. The least offensive harm involved padding some segments by restoring material that had been been cut for time, and it would be interesting to see that material.

However, even when episodes feel padded, chopping them for syndication is disrespectful to its artisans and fans and really to everybody. It’s one reason a show’s reputation suffers. Beam’s segment, specific to this season, includes the complete cut-down version of “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar” for comparison. They tore it down all right. Beam promises to do the same analysis of the next two seasons on future Blu-rays.

On this remastered Blu-ray, two segments of one episode reverse the order from their original broadcast, but at least we’re free to switch them if we like. As for the 2K remastering from interpositive prints, the results look gorgeous, and this respect is liable to convert a lot of wafflers. This is how to handle our television legacy properly.

Despite his creative frustration, Serling continued to write worthy episodes in the next two seasons, and so did several other writers. We look forward to them.

RATING 8 / 10