Today is the birthday of Rod Serling (1924-1975). He is one of my favorite American dramatists. If his media were radio, television and film rather than the legitimate stage, what of it? I still vastly prefer his writing to the over-rated Arthur Miller, whom Serling clearly idolized, even if his own was the greater talent. “How can you say that?” I know you ask. Miller was a craftsman second to none. We should all strive to match his discipline and his command of the playwright’s tools. But note that I said “talent”. Miller put in the sweat equity, but he lacked imagination, poeticism, any kind of distinctive fire. His characters and the things they say seem mediocre to me. Not just mediocre creations, but the product of a mediocre mind. Serling on the other hand is more like Odets (whom I’ll undoubtedly write more about here as well). Romantic, undisciplined, a turner of memorable phrases, a conjurer of amazing events. I think of Serling’s masterpiece Requiem for a Heavyweight (1956) as a kind of mash-up of Miller and Odets…The Death of a Salesman meets Golden Boy. But it’s not a copy. Nothing in Serling’s musical, bebop-inflected voice could be.
The fact that he came up in radio must have helped that remarkable ear. The fact that he saw combat in the South Pacific in World War 2 adds a life-or-death passion to his work that you never get with Miller. Miller has patches on the elbows of his tweed jacket; Serling had scars on his knees from the Battle of Manilla. The self-righteousness could grate sometimes, though. C and I saw a 1964 Christmas special that he wrote on TCM the other night, a didactic piece of anti-nuclear, anti-hunger claptrap he wrote for the U.N. called A Carol for Another Christmas. It lacks charm or even entertainment value (except perhaps when Peter Sellers shows up in the third act as a post-apocalyptic Napoleon named “The Imperial Me”). The show is just preachment from beginning to end. But as he himself reported he was “written out” by that point. He had written scores, maybe hundred of tv and radio scripts for the show biz factory by then.
So today, let’s remember him at the top of his game, his multi-directional shadow-casting love-child The Twilight Zone (1959-1964). In my view, no latter-day American writer worth his (her) salt lives outside its influence. In honor of the season, here’s a scene from the Christmas episode “Night of the Meek”, with Art Carney. Merry Christmas!
For more on show business history, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And don’t miss my new book Chainof Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc