Thursday, July 7, 2016

Tales of Tomorrow: “The Enemy Within” (ABC-TV, May 1, 1953)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I got out the disc I’d recently burned of the seven episodes of the fascinating early-1950’s TV series Tales of Tomorrow that are available on and ran “The Enemy Within,” originally aired May 1, 1953 and one of at least two extant TV shows featuring James Dean that aren’t in the supposedly “complete” TCM boxed set of Dean’s TV appearances. Ironically, the show features two men who became legendary movie stars and had backgrounds in Method acting — Dean and Rod Steiger — but the top-billed performer is Margaret Phillips, an actress with a discernible British accent (she was born July 6, 1923 in Cwmgwrach, South Wales — that name is one of the many deplorable things Welsh people do to English, though sometimes they get some things right, like Carol Williams pronouncing the “t” in “often”) who has by far the juiciest part of the three. It’s basically a weird domestic offspring of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in which scientist Peter (Rod Steiger) — if the script by David E. Durston and Manya Starr gave a last name for him, I missed it — has, after three years and with his grant funding about to run out, finally perfected a serum that can unleash the evil inside of an animal, or (presumably) a human, who takes it. Only he runs out of space in his lab refrigerator to store the latest and most efficacious sample, and so he takes home a rack of test tubes and puts it in his own refrigerator, then hastens back to the lab and his assistant Ralph (James Dean) but forgets the notebook containing the formula for the successful serum. Now that he’s developed the serum Peter is excited about working on the antidote and hopefully developing another drug that will bring out the good inside a person, but in the meantime one of his test tubes leaks onto a pie in their refrigerator and Peter’s wife Annie (Margaret Phillips) eats a slice of the contaminated pie. The serum takes effect on her and turns her into a coquettish bitch who lets out all her frustrations over the years Peter has ignored her because he’s been so obsessed with his work; she tears out the last two pages of his notebook and burns them, then takes the rack of test tubes with the serum and pours them down their kitchen sink. When Ralph calls from the lab with an important message about the formula Peter asked his wife to take down for him, Annie first vocally flirts with him and then hangs up.

The story is essentially a piece of sexist propaganda — it seems to be saying that if your wife starts interfering with your career and actually demands relationship equality, it can only be because she’s under the influence of some sinister force and you should ignore it and wait for her to snap out of it and revert to good little wifehood again. We only get to see James Dean in one scene — he’s in the lab and Peter returns, and the two try in vain to reconstruct the formula Annie has destroyed — though it’s an interesting Dean credit in that it’s one of the few times he actually got to act wearing glasses. Dean was incredibly near-sighted and wore glasses almost all the time off-screen, and when he made his movies he would rehearse with his glasses on so he could learn his blocking and he’d only take the glasses off for actual takes. Here, since he’s playing the classic nerdy scientist’s assistant, he gets to keep his glasses on virtually throughout the show — and though he isn’t seen again we do get to hear his phone voice at the end, as he calls Peter to tell him the effect of the serum is only temporary and it will wear off on its own. So the finale features Peter watching Annie threaten to kill herself with a kitchen knife — her ultimate revenge on him for ignoring her all those years — and hoping she’ll snap out of it and the serum will wear off before she does anything nasty either to herself or him. This episode is an effectively written and directed (by Don Medford) live show — it even contains an insert shot of the serum dripping onto the pie in the refrigerator, a tough effect to do with the crude early TV cameras in real time (and clearly the insert is part of the live show, not filmed separately and spliced in) — part of a series that if it had been done on film instead of live, would probably have a similar reputation to The Twilight Zone and be as rerun to death as The Twilight Zone has been. I first discovered Tales of Tomorrow — as well as NBC’s TV version of the radio series Lights Out — when the Sci-Fi Channel (well before it was rechristened with its current ridiculous name “Syfy”) started re-running them in the early 1990’s, and Charles and I watched a few of them together and were quite impressed.