There’s a problem with The Man in the Bottle that occurs moments after you realize what the story is about: you can’t help comparing it to other similar works. Serling, usually a master storyteller, takes a trope we’ve seen dozens of times before and does nothing new with it. Arthur Castle owns an antique shop which straight away signaled to me that this was a story about a genie. (I had originally wondered if this was going to be a look at alcoholism in the way The Fever looked at gambling.) The problem is that W.W. Jacobs wrote a much better version of the same story and has yet to be beaten in The Monkey’s Paw. I’d be hard pressed to see anyone do a better job, and unfortunately, that includes Rod Serling. That story was read to me when I was a kid and it sticks with you. It admonishes the wisher with the idea of being content with what we have because things could be much worse, and Arthur Castle is about to learn that very clearly.
What helps with this story is that Serling does make Castle a likeable figure. When a woman comes in begging for money, even though he is on the brink of bankruptcy, he still gives her a dollar for an old bottle. He’s rewarded with a genie and 4 wishes that will open his eyes to the idea that we should be grateful for what we have. I guess 4 wishes makes sense so that the genie can establish his credentials. It’s a freebie to get Castle to buy into the story that a genie has actually appeared in his shop. That first wish is a repaired display case which was shattered. He then asks for a million dollars, which he then invites people into his shop to hand them wads of money. He and his wife give away nearly $60,000 dollars just out of kindness. While this further illustrates his kindness it also is exceptionally unbelievable in a way that The Monkey’s Paw wasn’t. Needless to say, something goes wrong and the tax collector appears and says Castle owes the government $942,000 of the money. This is idiotic as even the US government doesn’t tax 90% of a person’s income, but it also illustrated how ignorant Arthur and his wife had been. There was no logical reason to give away money without thinking through the consequences – the very thing the genie told him to do. Repeatedly.
His third wish sets him up as the ruler of a foreign country. It was clear instantly that he was going to Nazi Germany. The only thing that made this surprising to me is that this episode was written in 1960, which makes it 15 years since the end of World War II. Think about that: it’s a longer time between where we are now (at the time of writing this, it’s 2022) and the events of 9/11. That gave it a sense of bravery, but not enough to make the episode feel fresh. Maybe at the time it could have, but then it didn’t stand the test of time as so many of Serling’s other works have.
Like The Monkey’s Paw, Castle makes his final wish that things go back to the way they were before it all started. He appears in his shop, shatters the bottle and tosses it in the bin outside… where it reforms for its next owner. I think the real wish has to be for contentment. If we are content with who we are and what we have, we don’t have to long for things we don’t. I’d say that’s likely true both in the real world and in The Twilight Zone. ML
The view from across the pond:
Every child knows the story of the genie in the bottle, and these kinds of children’s story’s are ideal material for adaptation to sci-fi or fantasy, given a twist to make it interesting for the viewers. For most of this episode it seems like we are going to get nothing more than a simple retelling of the story, which would have been fairly pointless. Arthur Castle is down on his luck, and is granted four wishes (isn’t it normally three?). Predictably he squanders the first two, one on a silly little request to test out the genie’s powers, and another on a huge amount of money that nearly all goes in taxes. Was the rate of taxation for high earnings really over 94% at the time in the USA? Who was the president, Dick Turpin?
I think Rod Serling misses a trick at that point, and didn’t realise that he had stumbled upon a better moral to the story than the one he ended up with. Over 94% taxation still leaves nearly $60,000, and the first and second wishes are never reversed like the third. That means Arthur’s gifts to his neighbourhood are still in those people’s hands. We saw how desperate Mrs Gumley was at the start, but there is never an acknowledgement of the lasting good he has done to so many people’s lives, and doubtless at least some of them would want to help him out when he finds himself struggling to pay his own bills once again. I’m sure Mrs Gumley would, for a start. Perhaps this would have been the “modicum of happiness” the genie suggests that some people achieve from their wishes. Note that he doesn’t say that his wishes never make anyone happy and they are not tricks. So the moral should have been that generosity pays but self-enrichment does not, or something of that nature, rather than the relatively uninspiring lesson we get instead: be careful what you wish for.
Serling also can only make his script work by including huge lapses in logic. Once again, he has to make his lead character an idiot for his story to function. The third wish is absurd, and clearly far more likely to have serious unintended consequences than wishing for more money (which would have given him $60,000 to keep with a simple repeat of the second wish). However, it does lead to the one moment that justifies the existence of the whole episode, and is horrifying to watch: Arthur literally becomes Hitler, at the moment of his defeat, faced only with a bottle of poison. The scene is accompanied by an insistent drum beat and is brilliantly acted by Luther Adler, a veteran in bringing Hitler to the screen. I don’t quite understand why the genie didn’t appear in that scene, perhaps dressed in a Nazi uniform, which would have put the finishing touches on an amazing sequence. We needed to see the look on the genie’s face at that moment.
Joseph Ruskin is superb as the genie, elevating the early part of the episode to something much more special than it could have been, considering it is simply going through the motions of the usual genie in a bottle story, with a foolish protagonist. His performance is sinister and charming. Everything he says and every look he shoots in Arthur’s direction just oozes menace.
In the end, Arthur learns to be happy with his lot in life: “maybe we’ll stop wishing for a while”. One wonders how long they will be laughing for, once the debt collectors come knocking at their door. Perhaps we should take another message from this episode: when life gives you an opportunity, don’t mess it up. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: Nervous Man in a Four Dollar Room