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The Twilight Zone (Episode #116): “Of Late I Think of Cliffordville” (airdate 4/11/63)
The Plot: A rich old bastard takes joy in acquiring businesses that have fallen on hard times and destroying the lives of those who originally created them. His only real want left is the chance to return to his hometown and do it all over again. Cue a certain Miss Devlin and an offer he can’t refuse…
The Goods: Mr. William Feathersmith is a brilliant businessman but a bad man. We first meet him as he very intentionally and cruelly destroys another old man’s business empire right before his eyes. Laughing as the poor guy makes his walk of shame to the elevator, Feathersmith’s happiness and satisfaction knows no bounds. Well, maybe one.
“Getting it was the kick,” he says. “Not having it.” The real thrill he’s found is in the maneuvering required to take things from others and profit off of them. After the fact, once he’s ostensibly won the thing in question, the joy and excitement dwindles.
So what do you do when you already have everything?
“Witness a murder. The killer is Mr. William Feathersmith, a robber baron whose body composition is made up of a refrigeration plant covered by thick skin…”
When Mr. Hecate, the “custodian of the top three floors”, reminds Feathersmith (Albert Salmi) of the small town where they both grew up, the old CEO openly longs for a chance to start over so he can enjoy getting rich and powerful all over again. He leaves for the night, and when the elevator stops on the wrong floor he discovers that he just may get his wish.
Well, do you really ever get your wish when the devil’s concerned?
Miss Devlin (a deliriously great Julie Newmar) offers Feathersmith the opportunity to live his life all over again and even accepts the hard bargain the weathered businessman drives… he wants to look exactly as he did when he was thirty, he wants to remember everything that has happened since with the intent of profiting on various inventions and market swings in the past half century, he wants the town to be the same as it was, and he wants it to happen as soon as possible.
He thinks he’s got it all covered, but he’s never met a business opponent like the devil before, and he soon learns just how bad of a deal this really is for him. He wagers all of his cash at hand on a plot of land he knows to contain oil, but when he gloats to the men he believes he just scammed he’s reminded that the technology does not exits yet to reach the deeply buried black gold. When he tries to profit on inventions that have yet to be invented he discovers that he has no knowledge of how these things actually work or how to build them.
He’s a taker, not a creator. His skill set consists simply of manipulation and cruelty, and he has no idea how to actually create or develop something on his own.
“Of Late I Think of Cliffordville” is reminiscent of “A Stop at Willoughby” both because of the title as well as the nature of the story. But where that older episode featured a bored and kindly businessman wiling away his daily train ride this one has a mean old bastard who’s nostalgic for a completely different and self centered reason. It’s actually a solid episode with a strong moral lesson common to the Twilight Zone. Greed will be the ultimate undoing of all who enter.
Along with that standard we also get another reminder that you really shouldn’t play with the devil. You will almost always lose my friend. Satan wins on a couple of technicalities, as is his/her wont, but the real killer here is Feathersmith’s hubris. He thinks his knowledge is enough, but he discovers the importance of actually being creative and of doing the hard work needed to make something real and worthwhile.
The only real criticisms here are minor ones. There’s an obvious fat suit and bald cap on the older Feathersmith and Salmi seems to exaggerate his voice as the older version a bit too much. But any issue there is immediately forgotten when Newmar is onscreen. Not only is she beautiful but she brings the devil to glorious life with wit and a sharply forked tongue. Elizabeth Hurley could have learned from her before doing that sad Bedazzled remake.
This is probably the best of episode of the fourth season as it never grows tired in its hour-long format and remains engaging to the very end. We know Feathersmith is headed for a fall, but the specifics are smartly written and performed. And while there’s no real twist at the end, we still get one final albeit light punch. You’d expect young Hecate, who benefitted from Feathersmith’s misjudgement, to have become a more beneficent millionaire. But it’s not to be, and instead we’re reminded that even the seemingly innocent can be corrupted by easy money.
What do you think?
The Trivia: The devil makes many appearances throughout the run of The Twilight Zone, but this marks the only time a woman has played Big Red.
On the Next Episode: “A toy designer nostalgic for his youth returns to the neighborhood he grew up in.”
Catch-Up: Episodes covered by Twitch / Episodes covered by FSR
We’re running through all 156 of the original Twilight Zone episodes over the next several weeks, and we won’t be doing it alone! Our friends at Twitch will be entering the Zone as well on alternating weeks. So definitely tune in over at Twitch and feel free to also follow along on our Twitter accounts @twitchfilm and @rejectnation.