Tuesday, January 24, 2017

"The Hunt"

Hyder Simpson (Arthur Hunnicutt) and his faithful hound dog, Rip,
resting at the end of a very strange day.

“The Hunt”
Season Three, Episode 84
Original Air Date: January 26, 1962

Cast:
Hyder Simpson: Arthur Hunnicutt
Rachel Simpson: Jeanette Nolan
Gatekeeper: Robert Faulk
Wesley Miller: Titus Moede
Tillman Miller: Orville Sherman:
Reverend Wood: Charles Seel
Angel: Dexter DuPont
Pallbearer: Robert McCord

Crew:
Writer: Earl Hamner (original teleplay)
Director: Harold Schuster
Producer: Buck Houghton
Production Manager: Ralph W Nelson
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Art Direction: George W. Davis, Phil Barber
Set Direction: H. Web Arrowsmith
Assistant Director: E. Darrell Hollenbeck
Casting: Stalmaster-Lister
Editor: Bill Mosher
Story Consultant: Robert McDonagh
Sound: Franklin Milton, Bill Edmonson
Music: Robert Drasnin

And Now, Mr. Serling:
“Perhaps no character, in or out of fiction, has had as much notoriety or publicity as the so-called Grim Reaper. Next week on the Twilight Zone, through the good offices of Mr. Earl Hamner, we present a unique story called ‘The Hunt.’ It concerns the demise of an old hunter and his dog…and this one we rather urgently recommend to people who have lost their senses of humor and who’d like to recover same.

“As one of my kids says, ‘there’s a trillion, trillion ways of telling a story.’ But there’s only one way to tell the Chesterfield story and that’s simply to say that great tobaccos make a wonderful smoke. Try Chesterfields. They satisfy.”

Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:
“An old man and a hound named Rip, off for an evening’s pleasure in quest of raccoon. Usually, these evenings end with one tired old man, one battle-scarred hound dog, and one or more extremely dead raccoons. But as you may suspect that will not be the case tonight. These hunters won’t be coming home from the hill. They’re headed for the backwoods…of the Twilight Zone.”

Summary:
            Hyder Simpson, now in his twilight years, has lived a quiet life with his wife Rachel in the same peaceful mountain community in which they were born. Simpson adores his wife and the two of them are happy here. At dinner one evening Hyder tells his wife that he intends to take his dog, Rip, raccoon hunting after he eats. Rachel, highly religious and a bit impressionable, tells him that she has recently witnessed several omens and is afraid that something bad is going to happen to him. She asks him not to go hunting. He goes anyway.
While chasing a raccoon, Rip falls into a ravine. When he does not resurface Hyder jumps in to rescue him.
The next morning Hyder wakes up under a tree, having apparently fallen asleep in the night. As he and Rip make their way home Hyder spots his neighbors digging a hole on his property. He attempts conversation but gets no response. He sees that they are digging a grave, presumably for a beloved pet, and he leaves them to their task. When he arrives home he finds Rachel dressed entirely in black. Reverend Wood is also there. He attempts to speak to them but again gets no response. He sees what appears to be a funeral procession exiting his living room. Rachel begins to sob. Hyder follows the procession to the graveyard near his house but a fence, unfamiliar to him, blocks his path. He follows it to see if he can find a way around it.
            After walking for what seems like an eternity, Hyder and Rip reach a driveway with a gatekeeper at the end of it. The gatekeeper tells them that they have died and that this is the afterlife. Not a religious man, Hyder is skeptical of the situation. The gatekeeper tells Hyder that he must leave Rip as dogs are sent to their own afterlife. Hyder refuses and he and Rip keep walking.
          Later, while resting in the shade, Hyder and Rip are approached by a man who says he is looking for them. He claims to be from Heaven. When Hyder tells him about the gatekeeper and his “no dog” policy, the man informs him that they were actually at the gates of Hell. Dogs, highly perceptive animals, are not allowed to enter Hell for fear that they will sense danger. The man says that all creatures are welcome in Heaven. He also informs Hyder that Rachel will be arriving shortly. Feeling at peace, Hyder and Rip follow the stranger to the Great Hereafter to reap their rewards.


Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
“Travelers to unknown regions would be well advised to take along the family dog. He could just save you from entering the wrong gate. At least, it happened that way, once, in a mountainous area…of the Twilight Zone.”

Commentary:
            “The Hunt” marks writer Earl Hamner’s arrival to The Twilight Zone where he would remain a regular contributor until the end of the series. Hamner wrote eight original teleplays for the show making him the fourth major contributor after Matheson (14), Beaumont (22), and Serling (92). A native of rural Virginia, Hamner brought a sensibility to the show that was uniquely his own. Episodes like “The Hunt” and season four’s “Jess-Belle” depict a culture that was rarely seen on television at the time. The Andy Griffith Show, one of the first programs set in the rural south, premiered on CBS in October of 1960, sparking a trend that would continue throughout the decade with shows like The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, and Green Acres. While situational comedies like these often exploited the eccentric behavior of their characters—as is the purpose of such a show—Hamner was writing about a culture which was important to him and he did so with great affection. Unfortunately, as his first teleplay for The Twilight Zone demonstrates, his vision and the show’s vision were not always compatible.
Earl Hamner, Jr.
(1923 - 2016)
Hamner was born in 1923 and grew up in a small village on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains called Schuyler, Virginia. Hamner’s family made their living from tobacco farming and mining soapstone. He grew up during the Great Depression and his humble upbringing and close-knit sense of family—he was the oldest of eight children—would have an enormous impact upon his writing. His Baptist roots would also hold a significant influence on his writing as several of his Twilight Zone scripts would demonstrate. Hamner realized that he wanted to pursue writing professionally while serving in the Army in France during World War II. He began to submit short stories to literary magazines but soon amassed a large collection of rejection letters.
In 1949, while working as a writer on Cincinnati radio station WLW, Hamner won a scriptwriting contest for Dr. Christian, a nationally syndicated radio show on CBS starring Jean Hersholt which ran from 1937 to 1954. The show was famous for accepting unsolicited manuscripts and proclaimed that it was the only show scripted by its audience. Each year the show held a contest for best script with a grand prize of $2,000 and several subsequent prizes. Hamner’s script, “All Things Come Home,” was one of several winners and he flew to New York to receive his prize money. At the ceremony Hamner met another aspiring writer named Rod Serling whose script, “To Live a Dream,” had also won. The two talked at length about writing and the publishing industry. When Hamner left WLW a few years later to pursue writing full time, Serling, who had recently graduated from Antioch College in nearby Yellow Springs, was hired as his replacement.
James Dean and John Carradine
"The Hound of Heaven" (1953)
In 1952 Hamner moved to New York City where he got a job as a staff writer at NBC. His first major job in television was writing freelance pieces for The Today Show. In 1953 Random House published Hamner’s first novel, Fifty Roads to Town. That same year Hamner sold a short dramatic skit called “The Hound of Heaven” to The Kate Smith Hour, a daytime variety show which ran on NBC from 1950 to 1954. This short three-person play is actually an early version of “The Hunt” and features John Carradine as Hyder Simpson with Edgar Staley as the Gatekeeper and James Dean as the messenger. Aside from a difference in running time—“The Hound of Heaven” clocks in at around twelve minutes—this early version appears to be very similar to its later counterpart.* The scene in which Simpson meets the heavenly messenger, played by an unknown James Dean dressed in white overalls with enormous feathered wings strapped to his back, is almost identical to the same scene in “The Hunt” right down to the dialogue. Dean gives a great performance although his absurd costume prevents us from taking him seriously. Veteran actor John Carradine, who would later appear in Charles Beaumont’s “The Howling Man,” gives Hyder Simpson a mildly incoherent personality which is actually sort of compelling.
            As the 1950’s drew to a close, live television was becoming a fading art form. Radio’s popularity had become more or less irrelevant. Television was now looking to film as the way of the future. It looked better, it was cheaper, and the technological possibilities seemed endless. So the television industry left New York and headed for Hollywood. And Earl Hamner, Jr. left with it. He arrived in Los Angeles in 1961. Having never written for film, he found himself almost starting from scratch. For many months he lived in a cheap hotel with virtually no income. By this time Hamner had a wife and two children to support as well. Finally, following the advice of his literary agent, Don Congdon, who also happened to be literary agent to Ray Bradbury and Charles Beaumont, Hamner called the two for advice. Until then he hadn’t considered submitting his material to The Twilight Zone because it was a fantasy program. Upon Bradbury and Beaumont’s recommendations, however, he submitted two ideas to Serling, fully expecting them to be rejected. To his amazement Buck Houghton wrote back just a few weeks later informing him that they wanted to purchase both of them. The two ideas eventually became “The Hunt” and “A Piano in the House.” After a decade of working in television Hamner had finally launched his career as a screenwriter.
            Hamner would write six more scripts for the show including the hour-long “Jess-Belle,” for the fourth season and five teleplays for the fifth season. In 1961 Dial Press published his second novel Spencer’s Mountain which was made into a successful film in 1963 starring Henry Fonda. When Random House published his novel The Homecoming in 1970 Hamner was approached by CBS to adapt it into a feature-length Christmas special. The special did well and Hamner was then asked to expand his novel into a series. So he created The Waltons. It ran for nine seasons and became one of the most celebrated television shows of all time, winning thirteen Emmy Awards. Hamner had finally found an audience for his unique brand of wholesome folklore. The Waltons offered a welcome escape from a decade marked by war and political corruption and an alternative to the increasing cynicism of American television. Similar to Serling’s involvement on The Twilight Zone, Hamner acted as executive producer, head writer, and host of the program, providing the opening and closing narration to each episode. The show ended in 1981 but several television specials aired in the subsequent years. After The Waltons, Hamner created Falcon Crest, a soap-opera style series about the California wine industry starring Jane Wyman. This show was also an enormous success and ran for nine seasons, although Hamner left after the fifth season. He also found success on the big screen scripting the films Palms Springs Weekend (1963), Where the Lilies Bloom (1974), and an adaptation of Charlotte’s Web in 1973 for which author E.B. White chose him personally.
            In an interview with Marc Scott Zicree, Hamner says that Hyder and Rachel were actually early versions of Grandma and Grandpa Walton. Around the time that he wrote the episode he was also writing a series of short stories called “The Old Man and the Old Woman” and he decided to use the two main characters, who were fully-developed already, as the main characters of "The Hunt." He continued to write stories featuring the elderly couple and they eventually ended up in The Waltons.
Although Hamner is remembered mostly for his tales of rural life in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the majority of his Twilight Zone episodes feature urban settings and characters that bear little resemblance to the Walton family. “The Hunt” and “Jess-Belle,” and to a lesser extent “The Bewitchin' Pool,” are his only forays into the backwoods utopia found in his novels. The rest of his episodes possess an overtly modern atmosphere. As a writer largely unfamiliar with fantasy and science fiction, Hamner relied on imitating the style and formula that had been carefully established on the program during the first two seasons. The result is a mixed bag of episodes which range from mildly clever to totally abysmal. The best of these episodes, and the two which feel the most like a typical episode of The Twilight Zone, are probably “A Piano in the House” and season five’s “Stopover in a Quiet Town.” The rest of his urban episodes feel as if they would be more at home on a different show.
This was only further evidence that Hamner was at his best when writing about what he knew. Unfortunately, not everyone on the show seemed to understand what he was trying to explore with his writing. “The Hunt” has good intentions but the finished product is an incredibly flawed episode. The pacing is slow, the direction tiresome, and the premise derivative. Arthur Hunnicutt, a brilliant actor who was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1952 for his role in the Howard Hawks film The Big Sky, delivers a performance that is both unconvincing and culturally insensitive. Hamner’s dialogue is also hokey at times particularly during the scene in which Simpson stumbles upon his neighbors burying Rip and in the final scene with Simpson and the angel.
Hunnicutt was a prolific character actor known primarily for his roles in westerns. His film credits include Broken Arrow (1950), The Red Badge of Courage (1951), and Cat Ballou (1965). A native of rural Arkansas, Hunnicutt would have been at least vaguely familiar with southern dialect. His delivery, however, is too simple. He comes across wooden and unsympathetic. Hamner later said that he was unhappy with the performance and suggested that Hunnicutt should have had fun with the character and played him more upbeat.
Jeanette Nolan, however, gives a brief but terrific performance as Rachel. Her pleasant demeanor is so infectious it even excuses her character’s religious idiosyncrasies which could have easily become cartoonish in the hands of a lesser performer. A theatrically trained actress, she made her screen debut as Lady Macbeth in 1948, opposite director Orson Welles. She also appeared in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat in 1953, John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), and Robert Redford’s The Horse Whisperer (1998). A prolific radio performer, she possessed a talent for accents and peculiar voices. In 1960 she was the voice of Norma Bates in Psycho and later provided the voices to many animated children's films including Disney's The Rescuers (1977) and The Fox and the Hound (1981). Nolan would return to The Twilight Zone the following season to play a witch in Hamner’s “Jess-Belle.”
Another saving grace of this episode is Robert Drasnin’s soft and subdued musical score. Most of the episode features a simple melody played on a single harmonica. It manages to be both somber and warm and it captures the mood of the episode perfectly. Drasnin worked primarily in film and television but recorded his own albums as well. This was his only appearance on The Twilight Zone.
            Despite its flaws, “The Hunt” remains a well-known episode which continues to divide fans of the show. Its critics usually cite many of the same shortcomings mentioned above: casting errors, uninspired direction, stilted dialogue. However, many fans have warm memories of this episode. One such admirer was fellow Twilight Zone writer George Clayton Johnson who regards it as one of his favorite episodes. “With this story, Earl brings a southern country sensibility to The Twilight Zone that is American to the core,” Johnson said in an interview, “which assures us that being simple is not being stupid…The story has such a classic feeling that one is tempted to believe that Hamner may not have made the story up but instead borrowed it from some ancient book of folk tales…It has stuck in my mind like fishhooks.”
            Johnson hits upon the two likely reasons for this episode’s dedicated fan base. The first is Hamner’s affection for “the little man,” a seemingly insignificant protagonist who outsmarts a force much greater than himself. It comes as no surprise that Johnson, who penned episodes like “Kick the Can” and “A Game of Pool,” would feel a connection to a character like Hyder Simpson. He also brings to light the influence of traditional American folklore. Hamner’s arrival to The Twilight Zone happened to come at a time when Serling and Houghton seemed interested in exploring different areas of American literature with folklore being the next logical step. Relying on folklore as inspiration also meant exploring the rural areas in which much of this type of fiction originated including the Midwest and the American South. The third season had already featured Serling’s “Still Valley,” an adaptation of Manly Wade Wellman’s Civil War story “And the Valley Was Still” about a confederate soldier who struggles with the decision to use black magic to assure a victory for the south. Wellman was a highly regarded folklorist and historian who set a great deal of his fiction in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Serling also adapted the free-spirited, fable-like “Hocus-Pocus and Frisby,” from an unpublished story by Frederic Louis Fox about a lovable country braggart who learns the consequences of lying after being abducted by aliens from his sleepy midwestern town. Montgomery Pittman also made his Twilight Zone writing debut during the third season. Like Hamner, he was a native southerner and a student of folklore. His western episode “The Grave” was based on an English folk tale that has had dozens of variations over the years. His final teleplay “The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank” is about a young man who miraculously returns to life after being declared dead. The episode, which relies heavily on folkloric themes, explores the quirks of small-town life in the midwest at the turn of the twentieth century.
            While “The Hunt” takes its influence from folklore it is not based on an actual folk tale. Hamner says he got the idea from a childhood memory of his father searching for days for his beloved hunting dog which he had accidently shot. His father’s guilt over shooting the animal and his devotion to finding it had a profound effect on young Hamner and he eventually turned the incident into an episode of The Twilight Zone.
            “The Hunt” has some serious flaws but in Hamner’s defense his original script, while far from being a masterpiece, is still more enjoyable than the finished product. Time is one factor. The story has a wholesome quality that has not aged well. The bits of uplifting humor, like the famous line in the final scene in which the angel remarks that “even the Devil can’t fool a dog,” feel dated. But the main reason why this episode is not of the quality that it should be is simply because a lot of the major contributors didn’t seem to understand the culture Hamner was writing about. Fortunately, he had better luck the following season with his hour-long episode “Jess-Belle,” a dark, atmospheric folk tale about witchcraft and superstition. It stars Anne Francis and James Best and was directed by the great Buzz Kulik. This episode is a far better example of Hamner’s ability as a writer than “The Hunt.” It’s a highlight of the fourth season and, without question, Hamner’s crowning achievement on the show.
            “The Hunt” will likely continue to be a topic of debate among Twilight Zone fans for years to come. There are certainly positive things to be said about it. It launched the career of an Emmy and Peabody Award-winning writer and producer and laid the foundation for a much-beloved television program. It also cast a light on a culture many Americans knew little about. And, for some, it became a warm and familiar story to revisit on a crummy day, a factor which gives it an unquestionable validity. So because this is a hit-or-miss episode depending on the viewer, my review is admittedly biased. I have seen this episode numerous times and I have never developed an attachment to it. Hamner was a remarkably talented writer but this is certainly not his best work on the show. Harold Schuster’s direction is slow and uninspired, which makes watching this twenty-three minute episode completely exhausting. Hunnicutt, as I’ve stated several times by now, is wrong for the part and his performance is the fatal flaw of the episode. While not everything about this episode is bad, the few enjoyable elements are outnumbered and overshadowed by the much less enjoyable ones rendering it almost unwatchable. “The Hunt,” unfortunately, does not come recommended.


Grade: D


*I found very little information about this early version. I was unable to locate the full performance anywhere online, only a short clip (which you can check out on our Facebook page), but it was included in a DVD box set called James Dean: The Lost Television Legacy available from Turner Classic Movies. If you've seen it comment below or email us and let us know what you thought!


Grateful acknowledgement is made to the following:


The Twilight Zone Scripts of Earl Hamner by Earl Hamner and Tony Albarella (Cumberland House Publishing, 2003)

Archive of American Television
--interview with Earl Hamner, Jr. conducted by Jennifer Howard (September, 2003)

Earl Hamner: From Walton’s Mountain to Tomorrow by James E. Person, Jr. (Cumberland House Publishing, 2005)

Earl Hamner Official Website

The Twilight Zone Companion by Marc Scott Zicree (Second Edition, 1989)

moviemagg.blogspot.com “Kate Smith Hour: ‘The Hound of Heaven’ (NBC, 1/15/53)” by Mark Gabrish Conlan. (July 1, 2016). 


Notes:
--Earl Hamner, Jr. wrote eight episodes of the show including season three’s “A Piano in the House,” season four’s “Jess-Belle,” and the season five episodes “You Drive,” “Black Leather Jackets,” “Ring-a-ding Girl,” “Stopover in a Quiet Town,” and the final episode of the series, “The Bewitchin' Pool.” His story "The Art of the Miniature" appeared in Carol Serling's anthology Twilight Zone: 19 Original Stories on the 50th Anniversary (2009, Tor).
--Jeanette Nolan also appeared in the season four episode “Jess-Belle,” written by Earl Hamner, Jr. She later appeared in the Night Gallery segments “The Housekeeper” (season one) and “Since Aunt Ada Came to Stay” (season two).
--Charles Seel appeared in season four’s “He’s Alive.” He also appeared with Jeanette Nolan in “Since Aunt Ada Came to Stay.”
--This episode features yet another appearance from regular Twilight Zone extra Robert McCord, who appeared in dozens of episodes. Here he plays one of the pallbearers.
--As mentioned, “The Hunt” was adapted from an earlier teleplay by Earl Hamner called “The Hound of Heaven” which first appeared on The Kate Smith Hour in 1953.
--Listen to the Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring original series veteran Shelley Berman and Karen Black.
--One of Rod Serling's early scripts, "A Long Time til Dawn," was also brought to life by James Dean. It featured on Kraft Television Theatre for November 11, 1953. 

--Brian

4 comments:

  1. I'm one of those people who always liked this episode. Thanks for the detailed review with some information I don't recall reading before!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I hear you, Jack. I find people are hit-or-miss with this episode. You either get it or you don't. I never seemed to warm up to it. Reviewing this one did convince me to give Jess-Belle" another chance though, and I loved it. Probably one of the best of the hour-long episodes. Thanks for the comment!

    ReplyDelete
  3. I agree that Jess-Belle is Hamner's finest contribution. I think the following for The Hunt is among dog lovers, mainly. Despite its flaws, the devotion between Hyder and Rip resonates. Given the story, though, it may be a little too cute to name the dog R-I-P though. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's true, Hal. I like dogs but I've never been a dog owner so I can't really appreciate this episode the way dog enthusiasts might. I know a lot of fans have a soft spot for this one so I hope I wasn't too harsh on it. It has a lot of heart but overall I think it falls short in a lot of places. It never dawned on me that the dog's name is R-I-P. Not sure if it was intentional but it sounds like something Hamner would have done. Thanks for pointing that out. And thanks for the comment!

      Delete