Credit for the genius of the original series of The Twilight Zone is routinely attributed to its droll, visionary chain-smoking architect Rod Serling – a 1950s equivalent of today’s Social Justice Warrior, who saw television fantasy as a vehicle for social commentary – and a select few of its hired fantasist scribes, among them Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont. However, some credit is also due to the show’s neglected roster of directors. While the direction of The Twilight Zone episodes is typically rote, with none of the flash or overt stylisation that would later become synonymous with dark television fantasy (for example, Twin Peaks), it is precisely this professional execution, this mechanised colouring within the contours of the rich scripts and television’s ‘house’ style, that eases viewers into the outlandish premises and subversive mind-bombs lobbed by the scriptwriters, into the “land of both shadows and substance, of things and ideas” promised by Serling’s opening credit narration.
In addition to providing the perfect medium for Serling and company’s barbed morality plays, the flourishing television medium also provided a second wind for many female stars of the 1930s and ’40s, too old to carry movie vehicles for sexist Hollywood but familiar enough to headline variety shows, sitcoms and self-contained episodes of anthology shows and playhouse dramas, simultaneously bestowing some of the residual glamour of the silver screen onto television. The most famous of these second winds was Lucille Ball’s, but former starlets like Gloria Swanson, Loretta Young, Mary Astor and Ida Lupino also reaped the benefits of the medium.1 In Lupino’s case, this second wind was both before and behind the camera. As a film star, Lupino had commanded the screen in the likes of They Drive by Night (Raoul Walsh, 1940), High Sierra (Walsh, 1941) and The Sea Wolf (Michael Curtiz, 1941); and as a film director, she had helmed a series of pulpy women’s dramas in the early 1950s. As her film career waned, a television career beckoned. Lupino headlined episodes of Four Star Playhouse and the sitcom Mr. Adams and Eve in the 1950s, and guested on multiple shows, ranging from Bonanza to Charlie’s Angels, over the remainder of her career. Behind the camera, she found steady employment helming episodes of programs as diverse as Have Gun – Will Travel, The Donna Reed Show, 77 Sunset Strip, The Untouchables, The Fugitive, Bewitched, Gilligan’s Island and The Twilight Zone’s cousins Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Thriller from the mid-1950s through to the late 1960s.
Lupino worked on The Twilight Zone in both creative capacities: as an actress, she starred in the first-season episode “The Sixteen-Millimetre Shrine”, playing an ageing film star obsessed with watching her old work; and as a director (the only woman to direct on the show), she helmed the fifth-season episode “The Masks”, a “bizarre story of men, masquerades and masks” that Serling promised “will send you at least to a mirror … if it doesn’t send you to a psychiatrist”. This New Orleans-set chamber piece scripted by Serling centres on “Mr Jason Foster: a tired ancient who on this particular Mardi Gras evening will leave the Earth. But before departing he has some things to do; some services to perform; some debts to pay; and some justice to mete out.” That justice is meted out to Foster’s (Robert Keith) parasitic family – daughter Emily (Virginia Gregg); her husband, Wilfred (Milton Selzer); and their children, Paula (Brooke Hayward) and Wilfred Jnr. (Alan Sues) – who swoop to his deathbed like vultures catching the whiff of inheritance. Foster agrees to bequeath them his fortune on one condition: that they each wear a mask for the duration of Mardi Gras eve. These masks are no garden variety cardboard party masks, but monstrous visages selected to reflect the toxic interiors of their wearers: Wilfred’s mask shows his “greed, avarice, cruelty”; Emily’s reveals her as a “self-centred coward, a gutless flab”; the preening Paula’s exposes her “insolent hauteur [and] skin-deep vanity”; and Wilfred Jnr.’s is the “face of a dull, stupid clown”.
While the denouement of the episode will be predictable to modern audiences weaned on anthology shows with ‘gotcha’ endings in The Twilight Zone tradition – not to mention movies predicated on twist endings, from the work of M. Night Shyamalan to Saw (James Wan, 2004) – there’s still much pleasure to be derived from Serling’s Gothic morality play. The word “play” deserves some emphasis here, both for the show’s playfulness and its innate theatricality. Many of the finest episodes of The Twilight Zone are, at their core, half-hour pieces of filmed theatre: soundstage-bound dramas with ripe, verbose scripts, a touch creaky and a smidgen arch. “The Masks” is consistent with this aesthetic, and while this style and the passage of time age the episode somewhat – as does the casting of the clearly middle-aged Alan Sues as high school whippersnapper Wilfred Jnr. – it also gives the show a certain timelessness that more overtly stylised or visually ‘of the moment’ television lacks. Given the story is ultimately a parable – albeit a vindictive one, with each line of dialogue dripping with finely honed venom – that timeless quality is fitting. Having said that, Serling as screenwriter is guilty of laying on Foster’s cruel remarks about his family so thickly and didactically that, at times, one almost sympathises with the cutthroat clan.
It is noteworthy that both of the episodes of The Twilight Zone that Lupino participated in converge around the theme of projected selves versus true selves. In “The Sixteen-Millimetre Shrine”, Lupino’s senior starlet Barbara Trenton longs for the self literally projected via celluloid; she obsessively watches her younger self on film, hankering for her former stardom and eventually crossing over into the celluloid realm. In “The Masks”, the assembled family project false personas, wearing metaphorical masks before donning literal ones that expose and embody their true toxicity. While it is unlikely that these were exercises in memoirist auteurism – Lupino was essentially a jobbing actor and/or director-for-hire at this juncture in her career – the fact remains that few would know the construction of false identities, the manufacturing of personas or the machinations of the mercenary better than a former Hollywood starlet. This gives both episodes an autobiographical imprint – even if entirely paratextual – atypical of The Twilight Zone’s stars and directors.
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The Twilight Zone: “The Masks” (1964 USA 25 mins)
Prod: Bert Granet Dir: Ida Lupino Scr: Rod Serling Phot: George T. Clemens Ed: Richard V. Heermance Mus: Marius Constant
Cast: Robert Keith, Virginia Gregg, Milton Selzer, Brooke Hayward, Alan Sues
- Mary R. Desjardins, Recycled Stars: Female Film Stardom in the Age of Television and Video (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015). ↩