4.19.2016

The Twilight Zone: The After Hours


"Just how normal are we? 
Just who are the people we nod our hellos to as we pass on the street? A rather good question to ask, particularly in The Twilight Zone."

Ask someone what The Twilight Zone's most iconic episode is, and the first ones you'll likely hear are "To Serve Man" or "Time Enough At Last." (Maybe not by name but by "The cookbook one" or "the one with the broken glasses.") But "The After Hours," season one's thirty-fourth episode ("the one about the mannequin. No, not that one, the old Twilight Zone one")  is probably somewhere close after those

The Plot: Marsha (Anne Francis) is shopping for a gold thimble in a department store. 

While waiting for an elevator, she's called into a private one ("an express to the ninth floor"), with this Bing-Crosby-looking fellow as the attendant.

The ninth floor is practically deserted except one mysterious, somewhat snappish, saleslady.

The only item she has for sale is the gold thimble Marsha's looking for.

When Marsha calls attention to how weird all of this is, the saleslady addresses by her name, despite Marsha's not having introduced herself, and asks her if she's "happy." This does little to alleviate Marsha's sense of weirdness.  

"All right, Miss White, suit yourself - it's none of my business." 

The elevator re-appears almost on cue.

Marsha notices the thimble is scratched and tries to return it, but when she tells the floor and store managers where she got it, she's informed they have no ninth floor. She sees the saleslady across the floor and hails her. 

But achtung.

She faints and is put in the backroom to rest. Everyone becomes busy, though, and she is forgotten and left there after the store closes. When she wakes up she discovers she's locked inside, and, like some Hans Richter film run amok, the mannequins admonish her in whispers and rapidly erode her sanity. 

She falls (somewhat conveniently) back into the elevator, whereupon she's taken to the ninth floor again.
Marsha is slowly coaxed back to the truth: she is a mannequin who has exceeded her thirty day furlough into the outside world.

"When you're on the outside, everything seems so normal. As if..."
"As if what, Marsha?"
"As if we were like the others. Like the outsiders. Like the real people."

It's the saleswoman's turn, hence her irritation with Marsha, and off she goes.

The Bing Crosby guy comes over and asks Marsha if she enjoyed herself. She says she did, then adds, sorrowfully, "ever so much fun." 

She re-assumes her mannequin-posture, and the episode ends with the floor manager almost recognizing her as the lady who'd been complaining about the ninth floor thimble the day before.

"The After Hours" has two moments that mildly strain credibility: 1) Marsha accepts the Bing Crosby guy's explanation that the elevator is an "express" to the ninth floor, but  neither she nor he knew that that was the floor she needed to get to when he called her over. This makes sense from his point of view - he's trying to deceive her, after all - but not necessarily from hers. And 2) after the floor manager produces the store manager so Marsha can re-tell her tale of paying cash for the thimble on the ninth floor, he asks for her receipt. It's an efficient way of moving the script along to its next beat (seeing the saleslady-mannequin), but it seems silly that the management's interaction with Marsha would have progressed to this point without the receipt coming up already.

The Twilight Zone must adhere only to its own inner logic, of course, and neither of these things unravel proceedings to any meaningful degree.

The Cast: Anne Francis plays the lead. In addition to roles in Bad Day at Black Rock and Forbidden Planet, she was in two other episodes of The Twilight Zone (both of which I'll likely cover sooner or later) and played the title character in Honey West. She was in way more than that, of course; here's her wiki.

It's possible at least one person reading this knows the name "Anne Francis" only from that one line in Reservoir Dogs.

Elizabeth Allen plays the saleslady with something of a regal bearing. According to her wiki, she was briefly married to German royalty (Baron Karl von Vietinghoff-Scheel), so perhaps observations of her former in-laws informed her take on the character.

Bing Crosby guy was played by TZ semi-regular (18 episodes) John Conwell.
And John Milhollin (well-employed character actor of the era) plays the floor manager, whose breaking the fourth wall ends the pisode.

"The After Hours" is likely just a story about mannequins who take one-month vacations in the so-called "real world." But like so much of the media of its era, it sure is tempting and even makes a certain degree of sense to read into it more deeply. As readers of some of my Star Trek posts (like "The Man Trap") know, I'm not averse to such readings and interpretations, so long as they a) make sense, and b) rely on what's in the episode itself.

One such reading can be found here: "Many of the themes that Serling and his collaborators examine through ("The After Hours" and some other early episodes) - the increasing mobility and independence of women in post-war America; women seeing their own, anxious images in mirrors, doppelgangers, and filmed selves; a pervasive sense of loneliness - many of these themes are wrapped up here in the image of the Barbie-mannequin come to life." 


"They are accompanied by other themes that we now think of as integral to an understanding of the 1950s: consumerism, the understanding of Americans primarily as customers, purchasers, consumers, and the blossoming of advertising and marketing to encourage such an understanding."


Serling was a new father in 1960, and it's possible that as he was buying Barbies and attending to other accoutrements of raising daughters in immediate-post-Eisenhower America, he began to critically examine certain aspects of the above. It's more likely a contemporary mindset projecting itself unto media of another age, but that's not to say it's not an intelligent read on the material. (And it also makes the alternate opening credits of the first season somewhat more ominous.)

Some of these suggestions are somewhat over-cultivated nowadays - 


"Marsha White, in this episode, is the desirable image, the advertisement, brought to life.  She is, in a way, her own doppelganger, her own uncanny second self. This episode is ahead of its time in the way in which it points out how often such images encourage women to pursue an impossible body, an impossible image of perfection."

Who do you think you're fooling, Marsha?
You know who you are.
Climb off it.
Come on, dear.
 

"The smearing and blurring of the perfect image through this bubbled glass is powerful (...)  It’s a view through a non-window of one who begins to realize, or believe, or remember, that she is a non-person."


- but I do kind of like the idea. Sometimes things achieve a meaning they weren't intended to, simply due to larger context(s). 

Serling was accused of plagiarizing a script by Frank Gruber that had been sent to Cayuga Productions. Serling denied doing it, but Gruber repeated the story at one too many parties or to one too many mutual friend, and eventually Serling had to fight back against the charge. It was an easy accusation to make back then - perhaps even easier than plagiarizing unpublished work sent in confidence. (Serling was almost-certainly innocent; from what I understand, Gruber's story and "The After Hours" have dozens of points of departure.) But the ease at which these sorts of accusations could spread and the actionable position in which it put the studios led to the rules in place now which forbid unsolicited scripts from even being opened by a production company. 

A TV classic. The 80s remake with Jadzia Dax is pretty good, as well. 

Until next time.

~

7 comments:

  1. The first impression one can have to an episode like this is strictly visceral, I think. The creep out factor is what will always get people hooked.

    That Women in Danger angle is a very interesting way of looking at it, and it raises two related thoughts in my mind.

    The first can be stated from this Bonnie Tyler clip:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eBaPL5bviaw

    While that clip is pretty good at expressing the anxiety of Women in Danger, I think it also serves to broaden the perspective a bit. While that post about the show is valid as far as it goes, I think it helps to remember that phenomenon in the show (for lack of a better name) is a lot more gender-neutral than the analysis is aware of.

    I'll admit, the theme of women being discriminated against is there, but so, in an interesting twist, is that of emasculation in a way in as neither has much choice in the matter.

    Finally, the Lang/Tyler clip introduces the perspective that I think helps widen out into a more generalized reading.

    There's a kind of body-snatcher vide about the episode. The only thing missing is any pod-people to carry it out. The irony is that the phenomenon doesn't seem to require any aliens to be effective. It's almost like a loss of power and individuality is going on of it's own accord like some subtle cultural shift.

    In this sense, I think a bigger way of looking at "The After Hours" is as a commentary on the loss and commercialization of identity, along with the crisis of who or what to trust as real.

    A good essay on this subject can be found here:

    http://voegelinview.com/secret-cinema-gnostic-film-pt-1/

    Finally, you had to go and mention that 80s film? Very well, in your own heads may it be stuck. Take it away Gracie!:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3wxyN3z9PL4

    ChrisC

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    1. "I think a bigger way of looking at "The After Hours" is as a commentary on the loss and commercialization of identity, along with the crisis of who or what to trust as real."

      Agreed.

      And man, that song... if you were a kid with MTV in 87 or whenever it was (or even just a radio) you heard that song somewhere around 144,000 times an hour.

      Such a prototypical 80s film, though, as much as "One Crazy Summer" or "The Breakfast Club" or "Wargames."

      If I knew I'd be talking, writing, and thinking about the 80s as much as I do in 2016, I'd have kept all my cassettes (video and audio) and a working boom box/ VCR.

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    2. For me it was always Glenn Frey's "The Heat is On", for some reason.

      Even without listening to the radio as a kid, they used it as commercial jingle for things like Spearmint gum, soft drinks, and the like.

      ChrisC

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  2. I'd totally forgotten that line from Reservoir Dogs. I always think of "Anne Francis stars in . . . Forbidden Planet!" from Rocky Horror Picture Show when her name comes up. And, naturally, of Forbidden Planet itself, which I adore.

    I think you and I are mostly on the same page when it comes to deeper-meaning readings of things like this: I certainly agree that it's easy to take them too far, but I also certainly agree that sometimes the meanings are there.

    It's a fascinating topic in and of itself, of course. At what point does the reader's ("viewer's," here, of course) interpretation and analysis cross over from being insight to being invention on his/her own part? Once that line is crossed, does it automatically mean that the reading is invalid, or can the work under analysis still be said to be responsible merely for having suggested this invention?

    Not having seen this episode yet, I'm a bit resistant to the notion of it being a parable about how women of the era felt about Barbies. (A crude reduction on my part, but hopefully you'll accept it as a shorthand summary.) My rationale for that is that I don't think there's a need to extrapolate to that place: wouldn't women of that era -- and most others -- feel a sort of existential horror from being around actual mannequins? I don't know that's there's a need to cast mannequins as stand-ins for Barbies and other such dolls; they're enough of their own thing that that seems a reading too far, for me at least.

    But is SOMETHING going on there? Seems likely, and as such, seems like fair game to me.

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    1. Oh man - Forbidden Planet is so good. It somehow gets better every time I see it, and, like "Metropolis," seems more and more ahead of its time (and even ahead of our own) the more it ages. Just a classic in every sense.

      " I don't know that's there's a need to cast mannequins as stand-ins for Barbies and other such dolls; they're enough of their own thing that that seems a reading too far, for me at least."

      yeah that's a good point. The whole reading I quoted is almost definitely a contemporary mindset projecting back in time on this episode rather than discovering some hidden oil that was there was there all along. It is interesting, though, and I think, really, an artist working in Serling's medium/ era (and this goes for the Genes over at TOS as well) was free to suggest things for only mood/ atmosphere, or approach shadows, as it were, without saying "this is what I meant them to represent." Times were changing so rapidly in the 50s and 60s, and I think symbolism in storytelling was still pretty fluid/ unformed.

      It reminds me of something I kicked around when I covered "Dune" in these pages, the idea that works of art in one era can be reproduced 100% verbatim in another but elicit 180-degree reactions/ interpretations. Equally valid, of course - interpretation is, as always, a co-authored business between artist and audience.

      The free play of signs and signifiers and other things that go bump in the night...

      (Professor McMolo really has to stop hitting the bong before class.)

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    2. "Professor McMolo really has to stop hitting the bong before class." -- I wouldn't recommend it, given the news these days. You wouldn't want to be accused of inadvertently not providing your students with trigger warnings, or some such horsecrap.

      Based on my incredibly-underinformed-as-yet read of TZ and Serling's style, I'd say it would indeed be a mistake to insist on this episode -- and I'm intepreting somebody's intepretation of somebody else's interpretation here (which is ridiculous) -- having any sort of super-specific symbolic/metaphorical meaning. As Serling intended it, I mean. I suspect it's more likely that he used all of this as a means of exploring a certain type of fear, and the emotions that go along with it when you extend them into the realm of impossibility created by his scenario.

      Does that mean that readings like the ones we're discussing are irrelevant? Certainly not. I just want, for my own part, to always be careful to be cognizant of where the line between Rod Serling and, say, Bryant Burnette is.

      That's obviously your method, too, and I salute you for it.

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