|Beyond the Zone
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Tony Albaralla reviews
“Noon on Doomsday” is one of the most infamous – if seldom-seen – arrows in Rod Serling’s quiver. A proper review of this show (and its kissing cousin, the 1958 Playhouse 90 episode “A Town Has Turned to Dust,” which we’ll examine next time out) demands context: a summary of the Emmett Till case, one of the most egregious examples of racial violence and injustice in this country, followed by a peek into the politics of Fifties television. So please bear with this seemingly overlong introduction. The story of “Noon on Doomsday” extends far beyond a single, hour-long teleplay.
In 1955, a 14-year-old African-American boy named Emmett Till made the trip from Chicago to Mississippi to visit relatives. While staying with his uncle in Mississippi, Till and his cousin, Curtis Jones, stopped in to buy candy at Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market, a store owned by a white couple, Roy and Carolyn Bryant. Reports differ, but the young Till allegedly found Mrs. Bryant attractive and either talked to or whistled at her. For this crime, he would be savagely beaten, tortured and killed.
Three days after Till’s visit to the store, Roy Bryant and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, went to the house where Emmett was staying and kidnapped him. They took the boy to a shed on Milam’s property and mercilessly pistol-whipped him with a handgun. They then dragged Till to the Tallahatchie River, where they forced him to undress before shooting him in the head. Bryant and Milam tied a steel cotton gin fan around Till’s neck with wire, dumped him in the river, and burned his clothes.
Emmett’s uncle reported the kidnapping, and Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam were arrested. Till’s body was discovered three days later and shipped back to his mother in Chicago. She decided to hold an open-casket funeral so the world could see the extent of the cruelty that had been inflicted upon her son. An estimated fifty thousand people attended the funeral.
LOOK magazine ran photos of the mutilated corpse and brought international attention to Emmett Till’s story. This publicity pulled the subject of racial prejudice out of the shadows and would go on to galvanize the country, becoming one of the seminal moments in the Civil Rights Movement. As this was going on, whites in the community where the murder took place began to rally around Bryant and Milam and raise money to support their defense.
Bryant and Milam were tried in September of 1955. The jury consisted entirely of white men from the defendants’ home county. In closing arguments, the defense attorney warned the jury not to convict because if they did, “Your ancestors will turn over in their graves, and I'm sure every last Anglo-Saxon one of you has the courage to free these men.”
The jury deliberated for only 67 minutes before acquitting Bryant and Milam. One jury member said that deliberations lasted that long only because they stopped to drink soda pop. Not only were Bryant and Milam freed, but they were treated as local heroes.
In January of 1956, LOOK magazine paid Bryant and Milam $4,000 for the rights to publish their story. The men openly confessed to the murder, claiming they intended only to beat Till but later decided he had to die so they could make an example of him. They also claimed the murder was justified because Till had claimed he was as good as them and he had been with white women before.
“I’m no bully,” J.W. Milam said in the article. “I never hurt a nigger in my life. I like niggers – in their place – I know how to work ’em. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, niggers are gonna stay in their place. Niggers ain’t gonna vote where I live. If they did, they’d control the government. They ain’t gonna go to school with my kids. And when a nigger gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he’s tired o’ livin’. I’m likely to kill him. Me and my folks fought for this country and we got some rights. I stood there in that shed and listened to that nigger throw that poison at me, and I just made up my mind. ‘Chicago boy,’ I said, ‘I’m tired of ’em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. Goddamn you, I’m going to make an example of you – just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.’”
The men, of course, had already had their day in court, and were never again charged with any crime related to Till’s death. Like millions of people around the country, Rod Serling was appalled by this miscarriage of justice, and decided to tackle a dramatic version of it for television.
Contrary to popular assumption, Serling never intended to dramatize the racial aspect of the story for television; intimate experience with sponsors and censors taught the writer that a teleplay featuring racial and regional upheaval would be laughed out of the network boardroom. Instead, his teleplay was to focus on a small-town murder trial and the moral and ethical obligations of the defense lawyer and the entire community. The murder victim was to be a Jewish owner of a pawnshop, and the killer, “…a neurotic malcontent who lashed out at something or someone who might be materially and physically the scapegoat for his own unhappy, purposeless, miserable existence.”
“It struck me at the time that the entire trial and its aftermath was simply ‘They’re bastards, but they’re our bastards,’” Serling wrote in 1957. “So I wrote a play in which my antagonist was not just a killer but a regional idea. It was the story of a little town banding together to protect its own against outside condemnation. At no point in the conception of my story was there a black-white issue.”
Serling made the mistake of mentioning the plot to a reporter, who suggested that it sounded like the Till case. “If the shoe fits…,” the writer replied, and the news services began to label Serling’s upcoming play as “The story of the Till case.” As a result, the White Citizens Councils in the South threatened boycott, and the network caved, fearing a public relations nightmare. The backlash was swift and irrevocable.
“The script was gone over with a fine-toothed comb by thirty different people, and I attended at least two meetings a day for over a week, taking down notes as to what had to be changed,” Serling explained. “My victim could no longer be anyone as specific as an old Jew. He was to be called an unnamed foreigner, and even this was a concession to me, since the agency felt that there should not really be a suggestion of a minority at all; this was too close to the Till case. Further, it was suggested that the killer in the case was not a psychopathic malcontent – just a good, decent, American boy momentarily gone wrong.
“It was a Pier 6 brawl to stop this alteration of character. The script was then dissected and combed so that every word of dialogue that might remotely be ‘Southern’ in context could be deleted or altered. At no point in the script could the word ‘lynch’ be used. No social event, institution, way of life or simple diet could be indicated that might be ‘Southern’ in origin…and to carry the above step even further, a geographical change was made in the script so that instead of being a little town of undesignated location, it was shoved as far north as possible, making it a New England town…this was to be a total surrender, and there would be no concessions made even to logic.”
That significant alterations were made to “Noon on Doomsday” is the stuff of Serling lore; the incident is one of the more high-profile examples of the kind of censorship that drove the writer to create the fantasy realm of The Twilight Zone. But since the episode has never been released commercially in any format, few people have seen it, and questions remain. Did all the backstage drama doom “Noon on Doomsday” to mediocrity? Is the final product any good at all?
Yes, and yes.
The teleplay begins with the acquittal of John Kattell, a bully who murdered an old man in a fit of drunken rage. His lawyer, Rodney “Rod” Grinstead, is a young, recognition-hungry man desperate to climb out of the shadow of his father, Frank, a retired judge. Lanier, a righteous New York reporter covering the trial, is seen by the town as a meddling outsider. Tension builds as Grinstead works up to a confrontation with his father, and Lanier (whose self-confidence is weakened by a physical handicap, a clubfoot that causes him to limp noticeably) teams with Felicia Chinik, the victim’s daughter, to expose Kattell and win a moral victory where the legal battle had failed.
This is prime Serling territory, and even though much of his original script’s relevance was stripped away prior to production, the play retains those moments of raw descriptive power that are Serling’s hallmark. Consider these dialogue exchanges, which contain two very different descriptions of the man Kattell murdered:
As in most of his work, Serling added dimensionality to his characters to create relatable human beings. Rod Grinstead rationalizes his actions as the price to pay for establishing a career, but knows his exploitation of the case is wrong. Lanier is the conscience of the piece but is mired in cowardice and self-pity. Kattell, a self-loathing bully and murderer, is not entirely beyond shame or introspection, as evidenced by this drunken rant:
The drama is still there, but, as Serling himself noted, it is sound and fury that signifies very little. “What destroyed it as a piece of writing was the fact that when it was ultimately produced, its thesis had been diluted, and my characters had mounted a soap box to shout something that had become too vague to warrant any shouting. The incident of violence that the play talked about should have been representative and symbolic of a social evil. It should have been treated as if a specific incident was symptomatic of a more general problem. But by the time ‘Noon on Doomsday’ went in front of a camera, the only problem recognizable was that of a TV writer having to succumb to the ritual of track covering so characteristic of the medium he wrote for.”
Serling’s criticism should be digested along with recognition of the era during which he wrote it: a year after the airing of the play itself, and a time when live dramatic television was reaching its qualitative zenith. When contrasted against other examples from the Golden Age, the many chinks in the armor of “Doomsday” become obvious. And yet, armed with lowered expectations courtesy of the teleplay’s infamous history, and with my senses dulled by today’s dearth of old-school television drama, I enjoyed the show on its own merits, perhaps a bit more than I had anticipated.
The acting is fine, all around, but that’s no surprise – the cast is staffed with seasoned professionals (and some faces very familiar to fans of Fifties and Sixties television). Albert Salmi (later to appear in Twilight Zone’s “Execution,” “A Quality of Mercy,” and “Of Late I Think of Cliffordville”) is perfectly cast as the brutish Kattell, for he excelled at playing this type of heavy; the salt-of-the-earth, rough, animalistic, uneducated Alpha Male. Philip Abbott (“Long Distance Call,” “The Parallel”) easily handles his role as ethically-challenged lawyer Rodney Grinstead. And Everett Sloane (“The Fever,” “Patterns”) shines in a part seemingly custom-tailored for him, that of the play’s moral compass: the grumpy and cynical Frank Grinstead, who tries to lead his son, and his entire town, out of the darkness into which they have wandered.
My only quibble is with the casting of Jack Warden (“The Lonely,” “The Mighty Casey”) as Lanier. Not because the actor is not up to the role – Warden delivers one of his typically passionate, blue-collar everyman performances. Lanier, however, is both physically and psychologically impaired by his handicap; he spends all but the last act feeling inept and unable to rise to Kattell’s taunts and challenges. The part demanded a bit more subtlety than Warden gave it.
The production does have a stagey quality, more so than many other live dramas of the era, and would have benefitted from a larger budget. The script called for several outdoor scenes that came off as anything but convincing. Lighting and sound issues abound, although the quality of the kinescoped recording is likely at least partially responsible for this. Such are the quirks of live television, and to fans of the medium, the theater-like environment of the plays actually lends them a distinct charm.
“‘Noon on Doomsday’ was, in the final analysis, an overwritten play,” Serling declared. “It was often tractlike, much too direct, and had a habit of overstatement… it was the impossible task of allegorically striking out at a social evil with a feather duster because the available symbols for allegory were too few, too far between, and too totally dissimilar to what was actually needed…this track covering takes many forms in television. It is rarely if ever successful, and carries with it an innate transparency that shows it up for what it is.”
My amendment to that 53-year-old analysis offers the following: “Noon on Doomsday” should be considered no more and no less than a standard live television production. It isn’t Serling’s best script, and certainly isn’t as good as it could have been, sans interference – but it isn’t as bad as Serling’s comments would indicate. Despite the show’s mediocrity, a future commercial release is highly recommended. Serling fans could appreciate it for the writer’s telltale dialogue and characterization, and scholars and live TV fans would welcome the preservation of a teleplay that played a role of its own…in the annals of television history.