Friday, April 15, 2016

The Twilight Zone: The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine (1959)

Season 1 Episode 4
Director: Mitchell Leisen
Writer: Rod Serling
Stars: Rod Serling, Ida Lupino, Martin Balsam
Music by: Franz Waxman

Barbara Jean Trenton (Ida Lupino) is an aging actress who spends all her time in her darkened home theater, watching her old movies and longing to return to the glorious 1930s. Her agent, Danny Weiss (Martin Balsam), thinks she needs to get out in the Beverly Hills sunshine and live in the real 1950s world of actors in undershirts, jukeboxes and rock 'n' roll. She is thrilled when Danny tries to hook her up with an acting job, but is dismayed to be offered a small part as a mother in her forties, which she rejects. After receiving a tongue lashing from the head of the studio, she returns to the comfort of her projection room and finds that by wishing hard enough, she is able to go back in time and rejoin her acting friends on screen.

I have always been extremely fond of The Twilight Zone and its cosmic genius, Rod Serling. Here is how he opens this episode:

Picture of a woman looking at a picture.
Movie great of another time,
once brilliant star in a firmament
no longer a part of the sky,
eclipsed by the movement of earth and time.
Barbara Jean Trenton,
whose world is a projection room,
whose dreams are made out of celluloid.
Barbara Jean Trenton,
struck down by hit and run years
and lying on the unhappy pavement,
trying desperately to get the license number
of fleeting fame.

I have been watching The Twilight Zone since I was a little girl and have many favorite episodes I've watched over and over, but this one was not among them. Growing older has allowed me to appreciate this episode more, and although it has some of my favorite themes of time travel and wish granting, it also has some thought-provoking aspects about movies to consider. 

I find it fascinating that while we are looking at a picture of a woman looking at a picture, it is like looking into a mirror. As we watch Barbie immerse herself in her past on film, we viewers are also losing ourselves in the past. This episode speaks to how movies transport us and, much like it is for Barbara, it can be a blissful escape. One thing that is so enjoyable about classic movies is the ability to get a glimpse of what life was like before our time. When watching a movie made during our own lifetime, we may have special memories attached to it of who we saw it with, what was happening in our personal lives, and what was going on in the world, that take us right back to that place and time. Movies are a product of their time and can provide a pleasurable nostalgic indulgence, just as they do for our protagonist. 

It is also interesting to think about how this episode addresses the plight of early film stars, many of whom were in their late 40s and 50s when this episode aired. Aging actresses were often relegated to small parts or confined to the small TV screen, if they were considered for parts at all. When Barbara is excited about the chance to act again, thinking she may get to be in a love story or a musical, Danny gently tries to let her know that the same opportunities won't be available to her. It is likely that she is so lost in her past that she doesn't recognize that she has grown older, rather than that she believes her talent should allow her the same options, despite her advancing age. She gets a reality check when Marty Sall brutally tells her, "Alright Miss...Miss Prima Donna. You I got news for. You may think you're still the number one lady on the top of the heap, but you got it wrong. You're just an aging broad with a scrapbook, and any part you get at this studio won't have to go through an agent. We can set it up through the community chest, because it'll be charity!" What is so harsh about his attack is that it lays bare the devaluing of older women working in Hollywood.

When Barbara tells Danny, "If I wish hard enough I can wish it all away. As of this moment, right now, Danny, these are the 1930s again with all the charm and romance, all the gaiety. That was a carefree world, Danny, and I'm gonna make it that way again," he responds that she is wishing for things that are dead. At the end, we are left to assume that wishing herself into the past on screen means that she has died, but since she got her wish and is having magnificent dinner parties by the pool, it feels like a happy ending. On the other hand, we may be led to believe that she has not died, but that the magic of film allows movie stars to achieve a certain immortality. "The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine" has drawn comparisons to Sunset Boulevard (1950), which also ended with an actress descending a staircase, and whose music was also composed by Franz Waxman.
Too bad there weren't quality restorations available to wish herself into back in 1959.

Ida Lupino, who also acted in movies in the 1930s, seems to be ideally cast. Ida surely understood what Barbara Jean Trenton was going through, but rather than give up acting and retreat to a glorified past, Lupino found a way to create opportunities for herself and use her talents and strengths to continue working in film. She was quite an amazing lady and became the only woman to direct, as well as star in episodes of The Twilight Zone, and the only woman director and producer in 1950s Hollywood
There is something uniquely solitary about watching a movie, which is what I think of when I see the image of Barbara Jean watching her films. Even when watching it with others in a crowded theater, each person alone is experiencing the movie with his or her own distinct background, perspective, and set of eyes, which is what can make it so enjoyable to discuss movies. It's wonderful to share well loved films, and to discover details others have noticed about a film or show that might have been missed or interpreted differently. This is the reason I have decided to add my voice to the many already out there who are celebrating classic film and TV.

I leave you with Mr. Serling's delightful closing:

To the wishes that come true.
To the strange mystic strength of the human animal,
who can take a wishful dream and give it a dimension if its own. 
To Barbara Jean Trenton,
movie queen of another era,
who has changed the blank tomb of an empty projection screen
into a private world.
It can happen
in the Twilight Zone.


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