[Trigger warning: suicide theme discussed.] Growing up in the 70s and 80s meant you couldn’t see Jack Klugman without seeing Oscar Madison. I wasn’t even a big fan of The Odd Couple, but seeing Klugman conjured only that one character: a grouchy, slovenly sports reporter who made life miserable for his roommate, Felix Unger. To see him as Joey Crown is hard to wrap your head around. He’s a sad, fragile man who feels like a failure. This is a drastic change from Oscar Madison and really shows that an actor is far more than the characters they play. Unfortunately, it made me hesitant to like Joey, because I can’t help but see Oscar and I never liked him. But when he begs for a job, swearing he hasn’t been drinking, only for a bottle to fall and shatter on the ground, I realized I felt for Joey; I wanted Joey to get a break. Joey is an alcoholic with very few prospects, and not even “a girl” of his own, so he steps in front of a truck… and finds himself in the Twilight Zone.
I wonder how often the idea of suicide crossed Rod Serling’s mind. I don’t mean from the point of view of him being suicidal – I don’t know if he ever was that – but how many times he felt there was an idea worth mining in suicide. At the very least, he toys with the ideas of suicide and death frequently enough. I was reminded of One for the Angels with this when Klugman wakes up from his suicide attempt and finds himself in a street scene at night, with the ground wet as if from a pleasant summer rain. The suicide idea was also examined with A Stop at Willoughby when a depressed man seemingly throws himself from a moving train. This might be the kindest of the stories to feature the idea so far since Crown is able to get up and walk away, realizing that life is worth living. It takes a brief chat with an “expert on trumpets” to make him realize it, but he gets there in the end and the moment he starts to appreciate life, things begin working out for him.
I don’t think this episode belongs in The Twilight Zone, but I do think it has an important message. It’s that age old massage of stopping to smell the roses, to look at what we have and realize that we are all able to do great things. They don’t have to be historic; making someone happy through playing a trumpet could be all the magic one needs. I am very grateful that I never had suicidal thoughts, even in my angsty teen years, but I feel for those who do. I remember the 1972 series MASH with its opening song, Suicide is Painless. “The game of life is hard to play. I’m gonna lose it anyway. The losing card I’ll someday lay.” Joey Crown isn’t good at the game of life, but once he speaks to the angel Gabriel, that “expert on trumpets”, he realizes he just needs to accept himself. And once he does, as he sits on a rooftop playing idly for himself, he meets someone; a young lady who is new in town and wants to see more of it. The joy in Joey’s face is palpable and it looks like things might just work out for him. In the fictional land he occupies, I really hope he succeeds and finds happiness. I hope he realizes he has a place in the world and finds so much to explore with his new friend as they go to Central Park, and Madison Avenue. Sometimes there is hope to be found in the strangest places including rooftops of Manhattan apartment buildings, even the ones that border on The Twilight Zone. ML
The view from across the pond:
We are 32 episodes into the first season of The Twilight Zone, and we are already getting an idea of some of the themes Rod Serling liked to write about. In this episode, he combines what has probably been the most-used theme, the examination of the nature of death and what lies beyond, with another favourite theme, men whose lives have gone off the rails. We might uncharitably call them losers.
Joey Crown is a drunkard who has hit rock bottom. The only thing going for him is his musical talent, and now he has made himself unemployable and can’t hit the high notes that he used to either. Serling seems to have a strong understanding of what motivates people to drink. It’s not just the depressing poverty of “dirty walls” and “cracked pipes”, it’s the heightened emotions of the drunkard that allow Joey to experience the euphoria of what feels like a beautiful performance when the booze dulls (or in his mind heightens) his critical faculties. The problem with that fake “beauty” is that it goes away again, and demands to be constantly fed, so Joey eventually has to trade in the instrument of that beauty for his next drink. Then he has nothing, and he ends it all, to the sound of a screamer who has one thing to do in this episode and is going to make damn sure we notice her.
What follows initially feels like padding, with Joey gradually (and slowly) realising his predicament, helped by a rather unnecessary and inconsistent plot device of the lack of his shadow (the director should really have staged the jukebox scene a bit differently). This part of the episode is frustrating, labouring the point and creating a huge lapse of logic as Joey is able to move objects, causing the viewer to wonder why the barman has no peripheral vision. From his perspective, a bottle is floating up in the air and pouring a drink all by itself. A later conversation between Joey and the mysterious Gabe makes sense of it all, in an early twist that’s actually very clever indeed. Everyone else is dead, and Joey is in limbo, not the real world. The barman doesn’t notice anything, because he’s just a lost spirit reliving his humdrum life. Nothing Joey does really matters in this strange between-world.
Serling, a man of strong beliefs, is once again keen to validate the concept of an afterlife here, and I found the identity of Gabe almost instantly guessable, having been signposted earlier in Joey’s monologue, but that might have been a fluke and I can’t really judge whether that was an effective twist or not. What I can say is that John Anderson’s performance as Gabe is spot on. He’s softly spoken, cheery and friendly. Although he is, by his very nature, otherworldly, Anderson is careful never to make him seem threatening. He also delivers an important message: “you take what you get and you live with it.” That might be a hard lesson to learn, but as Joey says, “somewhere along the line I just forgot all the good things”. Basically, the moral here is to count your blessings. Many a person who has been driven to the bottle would probably claim not to have any, but that’s certainly not the case for Joey. Before his affair with the bottle, he might have had those dirty walls and cracked pipes, but he also had some really good friends and a natural talent that many would envy. His life had joy and beauty, but he couldn’t see it. With Gabe’s help, now he does. The icing on the cake is the beginning of a relationship for Joey at the end, one more blessing he is going to be able to count. This is the story of a man learning that life isn’t so bad after all. It is also a much needed reversal of the troublingly pro-suicide A Stop at Willoughby, just two weeks before. In contrast, A Passage for Trumpet shows that you never know what’s just round the corner in life. There might be a beautiful light at the end of the dark tunnel you are travelling through, but dammit you’ve got to stay on the train. RP
If you are affected by any of the issues mentioned in this article, help is only a mouse click away. For readers in the UK, a good place to start is https://www.samaritans.org. In the US, there is a National Suicide Prevention hotline, that can be reached at 1-800-273-8255.
Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: Mr. Bevis