Thursday, March 9, 2017

"A Piano in the House"

Joan Hackett and Barry Morse
"A Piano in the House"
Season Three, Episode 87
Original Air Date: February 16, 1962

Cast:
Fitzgerald Fortune: Barry Morse
Esther Fortune: Joan Hackett
Gregory Walker: Don Durant
Marge Moore: Muriel Landers
Throckmorton: Philip Coolidge
Marvin: Cyril Delevanti

Crew:
Writer: Earl Hamner, Jr. (original teleplay)
Director: David Greene
Producer: Buck Houghton
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Art Direction: George W. Davis and Phil Barber
Set Decoration: H. Web Arrowsmith
Assistant Director: E. Darrell Hallenbeck
Casting: Stalmaster-Lister
Editor: Bill Mosher
Story Consultant: Richard McDonagh
Sound: Franklin Milton and Bill Edmondson
Music: stock

Player Piano Selections: "I'm In the Mood for Love" (music by Jimmy McHugh); "Smiles" (music by Lee Roberts); "Sabre Dance" (music by Aram Khachaturian); "These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)" (music by Jack Strachey); "Clair de Lune" (music by Claude Debussy); "Lullaby and Goodnight" (music by Johannes Brahms)

And Now, Mr. Serling:
"Next week on The Twilight Zone we roll in a musical instrument purchased in this store. Now, there are pianos and pianos but this one was manufactured in our own very strange, unpredictable factory. It comes to you via the typewriter of Mr. Earl Hamner, and it boasts a collection of oddities and odd-ball doings. Next week you can roll up the rug as we bring you 'A Piano in the House.'"

Rod Serling's Opening Narration: 

"Mr. Fitzgerald Fortune, theater critic and cynic at-large, on his way to a birthday party. If he knew what is in store for him he probably wouldn't go, because before this evening is over that cranky old piano is going to play "Those Piano Roll Blues" with some effects that could happen only in The Twilight Zone."

Summary:
            Fitzgerald Fortune is a theater critic and intellectual snob who enjoys bullying his wife, Esther, deriding his servant, and embarrassing Esther's friends. He goes to a junk store to purchase an old player piano for Esther's birthday. Esther has aspirations to play music but Fortune does not think she has the talent to do so, thus he insensitively selects an instrument that plays itself. Fortune asks for a demonstration that the piano works and notices the strange effect of the music on the store owner. The store owner is a rude man who becomes sentimental when a love song is played. His behavior reverts back to its original state when the song ends.
            Once the piano is delivered to his home, Fortune begins to try it out on those around him. His dour servant, Marvin, becomes imbued with happy energy when an upbeat selection is played. A brooding composition reveals Esther's intense hatred of Fortune. Fortune plays a melancholy love song for their friend, Greg Walker, who reveals not only his deep love for Esther but that they are having an affair.
            As guest arrive for Esther's birthday party, Fortune continues his experiments with the piano. He selects Marge Moore from among the guests as his first victim. Marge is an overweight, gregarious woman who reveals a quiet inner self filled with longing and sadness once Fortune plays a melancholy piece on the piano. Fortune's next idea is to play a selection from Faust which will reveal any devils among the guests. Esther, however, switches the music roll to play a cradle song instead. It is Fortune who succumbs to the music, revealing himself to be nothing more than a frightened child who lashes out at those that frighten him, or those he envies.
            The guests abandon him as he throws a temper tantrum. Esther leaves with Greg and Fortune is left alone with the ruins of his life.           

Rod Serling's Closing Narration: 
"Mr. Fitzgerald Fortune, a man who went searching for concealed persons and found himself in The Twilight Zone."

Commentary:
            When Earl Hamner, Jr. arrived in California from New York in the early 1960’s, he found himself unable to get a freelance writing assignment in the film and television industry on the West Coast. Hamner was by this time a published novelist and a writer with hours of live television drama to his resume. But he had not yet written for film and found himself victim of the conundrum of needing film writing experience to get film writing assignments. Hamner labored for many months without selling his writing to the television industry but soon discovered he had a way into the industry through his past associations with the creator of The Twilight Zone.
Hamner crossed the professional path of Rod Serling before their time on the series, dating all the way back to the beginning of both men’s professional careers. Like Serling, Hamner also won a contest writing for the Dr. Christian radio show and the two writers met briefly for the occasion in 1948. In 1951, Hamner left station WLW in Cincinnati and was replaced by Rod Serling. Hamner later enjoyed telling the story that Rod Serling often (jokingly) introduced him to people as “the man who gave me my first job in the business.” It was while working at WLW and writing material for radio that Serling cut his teeth writing for dramatic television, but he did so for rival station WKRC-TV, where Serling developed the local dramatic series The Storm. Hamner steadily observed Serling’s meteoric rise in the television industry and by late 1961 decided to reach out to the writer in an attempt to secure freelance work on The Twilight Zone.
            Hamner’s strategy was to contact Serling with story ideas which Hamner felt would work for The Twilight Zone. Serling sent back the message that the story ideas would be submitted to the production team on the series. Producer Buck Houghton soon got in contact with Hamner’s agent with the news that the series was interested in buying Hamner’s stories. Houghton was wary of Hamner’s lack of film writing experience, however, and asked Hamner if he wanted to write the stories as plays instead. Hamner was determined to craft teleplays and did so ultimately to Houghton’s and Serling’s satisfaction.
            The interesting aspect of this first breakthrough for Hamner on The Twilight Zone was that it perfectly represented the dichotomy which would characterize his entire output on the series. Hamner was fundamentally concerned with crafting stories which examined the characteristics of rural life and the religious and spiritual nature of such life. He was also fascinated with the wealthy upper class. This dichotomy would also characterize his largest creative successes, the long running series The Waltons and Falcon Crest. For his first offering to The Twilight Zone, Hamner presented a humorous rural tale which was a rewrite of material he had written for a live television anthology nearly a decade before. For his second offering, written at the same time, he would craft an entirely different tale, one which was equal parts Hamner’s fascination with the wealthy class and his deliberate attempt to craft a story which was clearly in line with what the series had done before. If “A Piano in the House” feels a bit like a Rod Serling written episode, it is most assuredly by design.
            Hamner wrote “The Hunt” and “A Piano in the House” at the same time. Yet, in interviews taken with the writer over the years since the broadcast of the two episodes, Hamner recalls “The Hunt” in great detail while largely being unable to recall the inspiration for “A Piano in the House.” What Hamner did recall was that he had never moved in the circle of people depicted in “A Piano in the House” and that much of the characterization was of a purely imaginative sort, naturally leading to the broad characterizations presented in the episode, particularly in the case of the character of Fitzgerald Fortune. Hamner was also doing his best to imitate the type of stories being produced on the series. With "A Piano in the House," Hamner was particularly imitating aspects of Rod Serling’s scripts for the series in an attempt to secure acceptance of his story. An astute viewer can clearly see Bartlett Finchley (from “A Thing About Machines”) in the character of Fitzgerald Fortune, as well as the idea of supernatural machinery, something explored multiple times on the series. The tale of the enchanted object was one of the most frequently examined story types on the series, and one approached by nearly every writer on the series. Another previous Rod Serling episode, “The Whole Truth,” also shares much in common with “A Piano in the House.” In fact, “A Piano in the House” functions quite well as a combination of “A Thing About Machines” and “The Whole Truth,” even to the reasonable balance of comedy and drama with comes with combining the deadly serious former episode and the buffoonish latter offering. Not to mention the fact that Hamner’s story begins in a curio shop, hardly a novel idea when crafting a tale of fantasy and one which the show utilized a number of times.
            Despite the largely derivative nature of the episode, Hamner’s script contains a number of interesting elements. The characterizations are broad but versatile enough for the excellent cast to push the characterizations in interesting directions. Of course, the four principle actors are forced to essentially play two characters and all excel at the challenge.
        
    Barry Morse (1918-2008) relishes the role of the sadistic theater critic Fitzgerald Fortune and plays it to the hilt. Despite a broad role which any competent actor could reasonably bring off, Morse is still magnetic on screen, a perfectly uncomplicated villain. Uncomplicated that is, until his inner self is revealed at the episode’s end. Hamner’s dialogue in particular shines through in Morse’s interpretation of the character. Like most actors of his generation, the English Morse honed his skills on the stage, moving into film work in the 1940’s. Morse is remembered today for his long running role as Detective Philip Gerard, who pursued David Janssen in The Fugitive. Science fiction fans will remember Morse from the whacky first season Outer Limits episode “Controlled Experiment,” in which he played a Martian alongside Carroll O’Connor. Morse also featured in one of the more memorable episodes of the largely forgotten anthology series ‘Way Out, which was a companion series of sorts for The Twilight Zone during the Zone’s second season. Lasting only 14 episodes, ‘Way Out was a fantasy anthology series developed by David Susskind and hosted by Roald Dahl, with a hosting style very much in the manner of Rod Serling. Despite the generally high quality of the episodes, it was not renewed. Morse featured in an episode titled “Soft Focus” about a photographer who discovers a chemical that can alter the appearance of a person in a photograph while also effecting the same alteration in real life. That episode also shows Morse’s character battling his wife to his ultimate defeat. In this case, half of Morse’s face is removed when his wife splashes the effective chemical across his photograph. Half of Morse’s face was removed in a very memorable makeup effect from Academy Award-winning artist Dick Smith, who functioned for ‘Way Out much in the same capacity as William Tuttle for The Twilight Zone. Morse also has credits on Suspense, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, The Invaders, The Starlost, Space: 1999, The Martian Chronicles, The Ray Bradbury Theatre, Dracula: the Series, and in “The Weird Tailor” segment of the 1972 horror anthology film Asylum, scripted by Robert Bloch.*
            Playing the soft spoken and subservient wife Esther is actress Joan Hackett (1934-1983). Hackett brings an essential quiet rage to the role which perfectly suits the inner fire and passion illuminated when the player piano reveals her secret self. Hackett began her career in television and largely remained there throughout her life, with intermittent stage and film work. Fantasy fans will likely remember Hackett as the mother who attempts to bring her son back from the dead with horrifying results in the “Bobby” segment of the 1977 film, Dead of Night. That film was one of a number of collaborations between Twilight Zone writer Richard Matheson and producer/director Dan Curtis, a collaboration which yielded the films The Night Stalker (1972) and Trilogy of Terror (1975). Hackett also appeared in episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and Tales of the Unexpected. Known for being a perfectionist in her craft, and therefore often considered difficult to work with**, Hackett brings an assuredness to the character of Esther and a subtle complexity to her transition by episode’s end. Hackett passed away from cancer at the young age of 49 in 1983.
            Despite the strong appearances of Morse and Hackett, the standout performance clearly belongs to Muriel Landers as Marge Moore. Landers (1921-1977) is simply heartbreaking in her characterization of an overweight woman whose gregarious nature provides shelter against her insecurities; insecurities which are revealed in a singularly arresting scene that sees the talented Landers hypnotized by the lulling melody of an ode to moonlight. Landers was a highly talented actress who was also an accomplished singer and dancer, skills which were frequently utilized when she found success in comedic work. One of Landers's earliest credits is in an episode of the suspense anthology series The Clock ("Rumble in Manhattan"), and she began her film career in 1952 with the comedy Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, which sees Lugosi alongside the unfunny duo of Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo, who perform in imitation of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Landers soon found her niche in television variety programs and in short comedy subjects, such as the well-regarded Three Stooges short, Sweet and Hot (1958). Landers found roles in the romantic comedy Pillow Talk (1959) and with Jerry Lewis in The Disorderly Orderly (1964). On television, she appeared on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In and on Hogan’s Heroes. Despite her long career in comedy, Landers clearly possessed a talent that worked well in a dramatic context. Her performance is not only the most memorable aspect of “A Piano in the House” but is quite likely one of the most memorable from the entire series.
            Rounding out the main cast is Don Durant (1932-2005), a Californian who worked as a singer and actor in advertising before establishing himself on television in the short-lived CBS western Johnny Ringo. Durant acquits himself well in the episode as the sensitive, love-struck writer with the masculine exterior. Veteran character actors Cyril Delevanti (1889-1975) and Philip Coolidge (1908-1967) also make appearances. English actor Delevanti is in the rarefied company of those who have performed in four episodes of The Twilight Zone. Delevanti looked much older than his actual age and it secured him a number of roles as a quiet, elderly man. Delevanti worked in films since the early sound era and his genre credits include episodes of Science Fiction Theatre, Suspicion, Alcoa Presents: One Step Beyond, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Thriller, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and Rod Serling’s Night Gallery. Here, Delevanti is tasked with the most abrupt change in character as the morose servant turned jubilant. Philip Coolidge has a similar challenge as the gruff store owner turned into a man with a secret sentimental side. Coolidge frequently worked in genre programs, including a memorable episode of ‘Way Out, "Hush-Hush," in which he plays a husband who attempts to silence his talkative wife with devastating results. Coolidge also appeared in episodes of Suspense, The Clock, Lights Out, Climax!, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.
            Director David Greene (1921-2003) was at the helm for only this single episode of the series but his approach to the subject is superb. One of the advantages of film (as opposed to the static camera setup for videotape) is the fluidity of camera movement allotted a director. This allowed a number of the show’s directors, particularly those instinctively in line with the show’s subject matter (John Brahm, Douglas Heyes, James Sheldon, Lamont Johnson, etc.) to use the camera in a style which reflected the individuality of each episode. Despite the confined setting of the story, Greene’s camera never seems to stand still, and he works an effective combination of extreme close-ups, wide angle views, and subjective character shots with a sweeping, energetic style. His filming of the dance performed by Muriel Landers is poignant and compelling, but perhaps his most effective shot is that which exposes Fitzgerald Fortune’s secret self. Greene moves the camera in a sweeping back and forth shot which mirrors the turning heads of the party guests. Greene honed his skills in the early days of anthology programs, including two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion, and later became a noted director of television miniseries, winning Emmy Awards for his direction of Rich Man, Poor Man (1976) and Roots (part one, 1977). 
            Though the episode uses stock music cues, it is greatly enhanced by a number of musical selections for the reproducing piano which are expertly chosen and work to reveal a concealed inner self in each of the characters. The selection which reveals a sentimental side to the gruff store owner is “I’m in the Mood for Love,” with music by Jimmy McHugh. The song was first heard in 1935 in the film Every Night at Eight, with lyrics by Dorothy Fields. The song which moves the dour butler to happy energy is “Smiles,” with music by Lee Roberts. The song was first heard on Broadway for The Passing Show of 1918, with lyrics by J. Will Callahan. The familiar song which reveals Esther’s inner rage is “Sabre Dance” by Aram Khachaturian, from his 1942 ballet, Gayane. The energetic piece is surely one of the most recognizable pieces of music in the western canon. Greg is compelled to reveal his love for Esther with “These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You),” with music by Jack Strachey. The music was written for lyrics by Eric Maschwitz (Holt Marvell), and the most famous version was recorded by Billie Holiday, who performed it with Teddy Wilson’s Orchestra in 1936. Muriel Landers’s memorable dance and poetic soliloquy is brought on by Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” (or “Moonlight”). Inspired by a poem from Paul Verlaine, Debussy composed the song for the musical suite bergamasque. Finally, the song which ruins Fitzgerald Fortune by revealing his frightened inner child is the classic cradle song “Lullaby and Good Night” from Johannes Brahms. Inspired by German folklore and first performed in 1869, Brahms's lullaby has assisted parents in putting their children to bed for generations. It is interesting to note here that Fitzgerald Fortune wanted to play a selection titled “Faust,” which is likely “The Damnation of Faust” from French composer Hector Berlioz, whose darkly melodic work was first heard in Paris in 1846. 
            For his second offering to the series, Hamner presented a character-rich morality play which examined the secret inner lives each of us harbor within and the danger of seeking out concealed persons among friends and acquaintances. Filled with solid characterizations, a capable cast, a standout performance from Muriel Landers, great music, and David Greene’s innovative use of the camera within the closed confines of the setting mark “A Piano in the House” an episode with enough interesting and unusual aspects to mark it a cut above the show’s average offering.               

Grade: B

Grateful acknowledgement is made to the following for information contained in the commentary:

-The Twilight Zone Scripts of Earl Hamner by Earl Hamner (with commentary by Tony Albarella) (Cumberland House, 2003)

-The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic by Martin Grams, Jr. (OTR, 2008)

-The Billboard Encyclopedia of Classical Music, general editor: Stanley Sadie (Billboard Books, 2004)

-Marc Scott Zicree interview with producer Buck Houghton (included as a commentary track on “A Piano in the House” from the Definitive Edition DVD of the series).

-“Earl Hamner Discusses Writing for The Twilight Zone,” interview segment with Earl Hamner, Jr. from the Archive of American Television (TV Legends).

*Asylum was one of a number of excellent horror anthology films from Amicus Productions in the 1960's and 1970's. The Amicus films were heavily inspired by the excellent and influential 1945 anthology film Dead of Night  from Ealing Studios. Other Amicus anthology films include Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965), Torture Garden (1967, scripted by Robert Bloch), The House that Dripped Blood (scripted by Bloch), Tales from the Crypt (1972, based on the famous EC Comics), The Vault of Horror (1973, EC Comics), and From Beyond the Grave (1973). "The Weird Tailor" segment in which Morse appears was previously adapted by Robert Bloch for Boris Karloff's Thriller. Though Bloch never wrote for The Twilight Zone, he later adapted the screenplay for 1983's Twilight Zone: The Movie into prose. 

**Although producer Buck Houghton does not remember Hackett being difficult to work with he did recall to author Marc Scott Zicree that the actress was very anxious during the filming of "A Piano in the House." 

Notes:
-Earl Hamner came to enjoy the creative freedom offered by the series and created a diverse body of 8 episodes consisting of “The Hunt,” “Jess-Belle,” “Ring-a-Ding Girl,” “You Drive,” “Black Leather Jackets,” “Stopover in a Quiet Town,” and the final broadcast episode, “The Bewitchin’ Pool.”
-Barry Morse also appeared in an episode of the first revival Twilight Zone series titled “Dream Me a Life,” from the third season.
-Joan Hackett also appeared in the 1977 film Dead of Night, in the memorable final segment, “Bobby,” which was based on a script by Richard Matheson.
-Cyril Delevanti appears in three additional episodes of The Twilight Zone: “A Penny for Your Thoughts” and “The Silence” from season two, and “Passage on the Lady Anne” from season four. He also appeared in an episode of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery titled “The Sins of the Fathers.”
-“A Piano in the House” appears in The Twilight Zone Scripts of Earl Hamner, with commentary by Tony Albarella (Cumberland House, 2003).
-“A Piano in the House” was adapted as a Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Michael York.
-Earl Hamner originally submitted this story under the title “Won’t You Play a Simple Melody?”
-The piano used in the episode is an Ampico Reproducing Piano. Ampico is a shortening of the name of the American Piano Company from East Rochester, NY. The company began manufacturing reproducing pianos in 1913. Visit here for more information about the reproducing piano. 

-JP

5 comments:

  1. I have not seen this episode in a long time. Your article makes me want to seek it out and watch it again!

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    Replies
    1. It's worth a second look, but I think it's an episode a viewer will either like or dislike. I don't see much middle ground for this one. Watching it again, I found the writing to be stronger than I remembered and I really love the cast in this one.

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  2. A great review. A "B" is a fair assessment. No surprise that we just covered it, too!

    http://galacticjourney.org/march-12-1962-what-goes-up-the-twilight-zone-season-3-episodes-21-24/

    By the way, may I suggest that you put spaces between your paragraphs and split the longer ones? That format will accentuate your excellent writing. :)

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    Replies
    1. Thanks. Glad to see you enjoyed the episode as well. It's one that doesn't get a ton of attention but I find very interesting.

      Sorry the formatting made reading tough. I compose in Word as opposed to the Blogger field and some of the formatting gets lost in translation. Thanks for the suggestion. I'll see about making it easier on the eyes in subsequent posts.

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    2. My pleasure! You also might up the contrast a smidge (black on gray is a little murky).

      Figuring out presentation is an iterative process. Lord knows I'm still working out the kinks!

      Thanks for running a great column.

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