THE FIFTH DIMENSION: "Mr. Denton on Doomsday" & "The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine"


Episodes 3 and 4 of the inaugural season saw Serling tackling classic Hollywood: "Mr. Denton on Doomsday" challenges the moral codes of Hollywood westerns and "The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine" examines the short shelf-life of classic starlets, not to mention giving Serling's own sentimentalist take on Wilder's caustic Sunset Boulevard.




Season 1, Episode 3 - MR. DENTON ON DOOMSDAY
Originally aired on October 16, 1959

s1e3Written by: Rod Serling
Directed by: Allen Reisner

"Mr. Henry Fate, dealer in utensils and pots and pans, liniments and potions. A fanciful little man in a black frock coat who can help a man climbing out of a pit—or another man from falling into one. Because, you see, Fate can work that way...in the Twilight Zone."

For the third entry into the series, Serling looks back to the old west and one of its memorable faces from the 1950s, Dan Duryea. Here, Duryea plays a middle-aged drunkard who we first meet stumbling out of a saloon at the amusement of everyone else, particularly Martin Landau’s slimy town bully. Duryea is a spineless sap, the opening moments culminating in a pathetic display of his sucking down a broken bottle of liquor and collapsing drunk in the middle of the street. He wakes up to find a gun next to him, not his but he’ll take it anyway despite his complete unwillingness to use it. He gets into another argument with Landau, this one ends with him making a blind shot, knocking the gun out of Landau’s hand and later making an impossible shot causing a chandelier to fall on Landau, stopping him from shooting Duryea. Every shot appears manipulated by a mysterious peddler who is revealed to be Mr. Fate (Serling always did love a literal name). Duryea’s reputation magically travels mere minutes following his shooting display and he is challenged by a man shortly riding into town. The peddler gives Duryea a potion to give him pinpoint accuracy for a duration of 10 seconds. The climactic showdown arrives, and Duryea soon realizes the peddler, fate itself, has other plans and the results of the standoff leave both men wounded and scarred but in that Duryea sees the release from the oppression of the gun.

Serling gives us an interesting bit of pacifist utopia in the enlightened and relieved expression on Duryea’s face as he looks forward to his life away from the confines of the gun. Much like the season 3 episode, “A Game of Pool,” Serling here shows that being the best at something carries with it a heavy price and an eternity of having to constantly “prove yourself.” The moral codes of the old west, particularly as epitomized by Hollywood, are intrinsically linked to the gun (over the next decade, Leone would make the construct of the standoff its own piece of performance art) and Serling plays this idea on its head. He has the peddler take the broken man and prop him up with the use of the newfound gun, giving him a new sense of power and sobriety. Then, Serling does the humane thing: he takes that power away, leaving in its wake the sobriety and courage but without the need or ability to shoot another man and allow anger and thrill run his life. Serling can’t fully escape the hokiness of the message nor can he avoid a common problem in westerns: the female. Jeanne Cooper’s character is very useless to the overall arc and ultimately seems to just blindly fall into place as needed with no individuality. It was indeed a man’s world Serling was painting, deflating the legend of the gunslinger as yet another Hollywood-perpetrated myth.


Originally aired on October 23, 1959

s1e4Written by: Rod Serling
Directed by: Mitchell Leisen

"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 of 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."

The first outright disappointing episode of the series, this is a rather poor Serling-esque take on Billy Wilder’s vastly superior Sunset Boulevard. Ida Lupino takes the place of Gloria Swanson as an aging screen queen, 20 years past her expiration date as a viable, and vibrant, leading lady but still convinced as ever she is worthy of the same roles she was getting back then. Martin Balsam is the levity to Lupino’s pipe dreams, the realist agent who tries throughout to apply some tough love to snap her out of her delusions which mainly include sitting Howard Hughes-like in a dark room watching old film reels. His attempts include a disastrous meeting with a studio executive hated by Lupino and a visit from a former co-star and leading man who now wears his age even worse than Lupino. The latter is an effective instrument used by Serling to cement Lupino’s delusions as she is so far gone into her celluloid paradise she is repulsed by the sight of an older man standing where in her mind the young man of her earlier films should be. The final twist, or resolution, is rather comical in its strange perverseness of wish-fulfillment, not to mention that unlike many of the great episodes it lacks much in the way of catharsis or any constructive point beyond simply cementing those from another era to that specific era. Lupino is returned to her celluloid dreamland without much ado and her departure apparently leaves its effect on Balsam’s character who bids her a tender farewell.

The episode is pitched mainly on the strength of its two central performances and in particular Lupino who, unlike Gloria Swanson, isn't out to create a garish, self-absorbed monster but an epathetic and withering figure of the bygone days of her career. Yet, Wilder understood the disturbing nature and ghoulishness of such intense focus of the past and ultimately to only yourself. Lupino is nothing if not unreasonable and selfish, but Serling’s empathy outweighs his more discerning mind. In the Twilight Zone, icons are forever planted in the firmament of that space and time and only use space in the hereafter and naturally the only humane thing is to return them to their era to forever live in blissful ignorance of the actual difficulties of life. Sweet thinking, but disappointingly narrow-minded and rather dull.

The Fifth Dimension is a weekly feature chronicling guest blogger Phil Ward\'s voyage in watching every episode of the original Twilight Zone series in chronological order, exclusively on JustPressPlay.

Phil Ward • Contributor


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