Rare Serling

September 7, 2012

The ambitious Rod Serling program mounted by the UCLA Film and Television Archive is still going on at the Hammer Museum (which is actually not on the UCLA campus, but just below it on Wilshire Boulevard).  I’ve been remiss in not mentioning this series earlier, but it has four programs left to go and if you’re in Los Angeles, you should catch some or all of what remains.

The reason the UCLA program, curated by Mark Quigley and Shannon Kelley, is so valuable is that it focuses on the Serling teleplays (and screenplays) that you probably haven’t seen, or even heard about.  Instead of cycling through the most famous Twilight Zones and Night Gallerys, Quigley and Kelley have given us a plethora of obscure anthology segments, features, unsold pilots, and other odds and ends.  There’s a slight emphasis on mid-to-late period Serling, which is also a good idea.  Serling’s legendary post-Twilight Zone burnout was no joke, but because of it the final decade of his career has probably been too much neglected.  There are some gems in those ten years – chiefly his 1965 western series The Loner, which regrettably is not represented here, but also some other Serling-scripted projects which are.

If you’re a Serling aficionado, then you probably know Serling wrote an odd Christmas special in 1964 called “Carol For Another Christmas”; it was shown on ABC but paid for by the United Nations, which is why it has a bunch of movie stars in the cast (Peter Sellers, Eva Marie Saint, Sterling Hayden) who weren’t otherwise doing TV at the time.  But did you know that Serling also wrote another public-service type thing that year for the U.S. Information Agency, called Let Us Continue, with E. G. Marshall?  And let’s say you remember “A Storm in Summer,” a 1970 Hallmark Hall of Fame that remains much too hard to see.  Did you know that two years later Serling turned the premise into a series pilot for CBS called We Two, featuring Herschel Bernardi in the Peter Ustinov role?

Even the Twilight Zones and Night Gallerys chosen for the series aren’t the usual suspects.  “The Shelter” and “Mr. Denton on Doomsday” aren’t among my favorites (are they among anyone’s?) but they’re not bad, and I get the reasons why they’re here – “The Shelter” represents Serling’s connection to the post-nuke genre I wrote about last month, and “Mr. Denton” screens alongside Serling’s only western screenplay (Saddle the Wind).  The films here stick a little more closely to the canon, but they’re all showing on 35 millimeter and there is one double feature of true obscurities, Buzz Kulik’s The Yellow Canary (still very hard to come by) and the caper movie Assault on a Queen.

Of particular interest among what hasn’t screened yet are the pilot for The New People – the 1969 Aaron Spelling series, which is supposedly terrible (Serling bailed after the pilot) but has also gotten some attention in recent years due to the similarities between its premise and that of Lost – and a 1960 Desilu Playhouse called “The Man in the Funny Suit.”  That’s a show about the making of “Requiem For a Heavyweight” (screening the same night), the live Playhouse 90 that almost didn’t go on as planned because Ed Wynn couldn’t remember his lines.  (Without telling Wynn, they had actor Ned Glass in the wings, ready to go on in his place.)

Although the docudrama had become a minor staple of the late anthology period (“A Night to Remember” and “The Night America Trembled” are perhaps the most famous examples), it was unusual for television to attempt so self-reflexive a project so early: a television episode about a television episode, with many of the principals (Serling, Wynn, his son Keenan Wynn, and director Ralph Nelson, among others) playing themselves.  Unlike “Requiem,” which is now a Criterion DVD, “The Man in the Funny Suit” has never been in circulation (not even among collectors, as far as I know), and I’m eager to see it someday.  I hope it’s as interesting as it sounds.

Some impressive guest speakers are part of the mix as well, and while you’ve already missed Marc Scott Zicree, Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, and Mickey Rooney (perhaps fortunately, in the latter case), you can still catch Jim Benson (co-author of the excellent Night Gallery companion book) tomorrow night and Yellow Canary star Pat Boone (ask him if he’s voting for Obama) on September 14.

If you go to any of the remaining screenings, tell’em the Classic History Blog sent you and you’ll get a . . . well, just a funny look, of course.  But check out some of these Serling rarities anyway.

And while we’re on the subject, what Serling ephemera would you have included in a series like this?

The New People (I can’t identify everyone, but the blonde, second from top right, is the ravishing Tiffany Bolling).

Correction (9/7/12): Initially this piece indicated that the pilot We Two had a laugh track.  In fact, it didn’t, but the network’s desire to add one over Serling’s and the producers’ objections may have been a reason why it didn’t go to series.

3 Responses to “Rare Serling”

  1. Larry Granberry Says:

    For some reason I’ve never been able to catch “The Doomsday Flight.” A Playhouse 90 of Serling’s I’d love to catch is “A Town Has Turned to Dust,” which supposedly was based on the infamous Emmitt Till case, and was unfortunately altered beyond anything potent when it finally did air.

  2. I am a Serling fan – now with lots more to look for. Good post – Thanks

  3. Toby O'B Says:

    The Man in the Funny Suit is available for viewing at the Paley Center. I saw it there and found it an interesting look behind the scenes. Many of the crew plus Keenan Wynn from Requiem played themselves (although “Palance” was never really seen.) I thought Ed Wynn was a good sport about not only having his story told but that he took part in it. Red Skelton played himself as well. I’m not sure if he really did show up to give Ed Wynn a pep talk before the show……

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