I was coming to the conclusion that only Rod Serling presented us with that most unconscionable of requests: to somehow sympathize with the unsympathetic. Alas, Charles Beaumont makes this same request of us with The Prime Mover. Disappointing especially coming off his last episode!
Ace is a gambler who hopes to get rich, not through hard work but through luck. He throws his money into the slot machine – that one-armed bandit that resides in his little diner – rather than saving to get married to the beautiful Kitty, who has been working for him without pay for 3 months. Jimbo Cobb is his right hand, willing to give his own money to help Ace, but Ace is one of those guys who just doesn’t know a good thing when it’s biting him on the backside. And that’s just the start of it…
When Ace sees Jimbo use telekinesis to save people in a car accident, Ace’s first thought is to make money on gambling. Sure, why not? The problem is that it’s at this moment that he loses what little vestiges of sympathy I had. I didn’t have much to begin with, what with all his “Why I oughtta…” comments and kicking doors. There’s a reason we don’t see that humor anymore – it wasn’t funny then and it’s still not funny now. We come closest to appreciating it with Ralph Kramden’s “Bang, zoom to the moon, Alice” in The Honeymooners, but even that is uncomfortable by today’s standards as it implies that a man will hit his wife. (The fact that it’s “to the moon” gives it just enough un-reality to accept it as hyperbole, but only just!) Ace doesn’t fare much better kicking doors, pretending to punch things and biting his knuckles, so when he learns how to exploit his all-too-kind friend, he does exactly that.
Jimbo explains that his telekinesis causes terrible headaches, but like my 5-year-old niece with her very adorable “more, more, more”, Ace doesn’t know when to quit and is willing to hurt his friend in the process. Believe me, on a 5-year-old, it’s cute; on an adult, it’s sickening. The bulk of the episode does what so many of The Twilight Zone episodes do: it goes to great pains to show us the same thing over and over again as we watch Ace winning, winning, winning, winning… All the while, the acting is abysmal as Jimbo is seen on camera just tilting his head and raising an eyebrow ad nauseum! Still, there’s one small twist in the story that I did appreciate. When Kitty leaves Ace because he clearly doesn’t know when enough is enough, Ace basically hires a new girl to be his sweetheart. (Yup, that’s what I’m giving it…) When Jimbo sees the new girl who has replaced Kitty, he suddenly “loses his powers”. Jimbo is the moral compass in this story. He was willing to play the game to help his friend, but not when he sees his friend throw away his true love. It’s proven at the end when we see Jimbo lift a broom without reaching for it; he never actually lost his powers, he was just not willing to help Ace become the monster he was rapidly becoming. It seems it’s a story Serling likes to give us frequently and Charles Beaumont is following in his footsteps.
I think Beaumont does a better job than Serling typically does because there is an outcome that made a difference in this story. Life lessons should make a difference and too often the protagonist of The Twilight Zone either has a bad fate, or just never learns. That fact that Ace does, makes this episode better than many others. Ace does learn but it takes losing everything to make that connection. There’s a point where a man needs to learn contentment and Ace is an all or nothing kind of guy. Still, he goes back and asks Kitty to marry him. Kitty might be a fool for accepting, but he doesn’t seem bitter about his loss, and he gets rid of the slot machine in his diner, hopefully proving that he’s a changed man. It’s a shame it took 25 minutes of repetition to get us to that point, but at least we see a man who has grown from his ordeal and the 3 characters get a happy ending after all (even if one of them really deserved to be shot by the gangster). Happy endings may not be very realistic, but I still appreciate them, even in The Twilight Zone. ML
The view from across the pond:
Gambling is bad, I tell you! Gambling is bad! We’ve had that message delivered before in The Twilight Zone, loud and clear, and now it’s time for a reminder. Last time a possessed slot machine was the means by which the anti-gambling message was delivered. In The Prime Mover the exact same slot machine is back, but showing no signs of supernatural powers. Instead it’s a human being who is manipulating the luck.
Jimbo Cobb is the gifted fellow in question, who can make things move with the power of his mind. His friend and bar co-owner Ace Larson finds this out when Jimbo moves a crashed car to save the people inside. It’s a stunningly well-executed sequence, with an alarmingly convincing car crash, with the car trapped among electric cables and then lifted away from them by Jimbo’s telekinesis.
Jimbo and Ace are both absolutely fascinating characters, and unusually likeable for people who get things wrong in the Twilight Zone and are the bad example set for our moral message. The Twilight Zone often delights in punishing its characters severely, but here we are allowed to like the characters and enjoy seeing their happy ending. It’s a lovely, positive episode, and full of fun.
Ace is superficially a typical gambling addict. He feeds the slot machine compulsively, until somebody else comes along and wins the jackpot. When he is on a winning streak, he doesn’t know when to quit. He gets things out of proportion, refusing to call it quits even when his girlfriend points out to him that he has enough money to last him the rest of his life, and his best friend is clearly in a lot of pain. He even forgets all about his girlfriend and picks up another girl, throwing money around to impress people. In the hands of a lesser writer and a lesser actor he would be an utterly hateful character, but two things make the difference: his infectious enthusiasm, and the way he handles defeat. His laughter, and the way he so easily picks himself back up, stops gambling, and makes a future for himself with his girlfriend and best friend, makes him a person we can’t help but root for in the end, and when it really matters he gets a lucky coin toss that changes his life, and isn’t about money.
That brings us to Jimbo, who is uncomfortable with the idea of using his powers to gain money by cheating. He’s even more of a cleverly written and acted character, because he initially comes across as a bit of a dope, who says things that seem silly, like how he thought everyone had telekinetic powers, and how he gave it up because of headaches, although turning over a coin seems to have a minimal impact on him. He also allows himself to be bossed around by his friend, used as a tool in Ace’s gambling game even when he is in pain. But by the end of the episode we realise that there’s more to Jimbo than meets the eye, and he is the one who understands what matters in life. By being so passive and allowing matters to run their course, he allows his best friend to learn the error of his ways and they both find happiness. It’s perhaps slightly muddled because it’s never entirely clear how much of this Jimbo plans and how much is luck. Does he really want his friend to lose all that money in the end, knowing it is never going to buy him happiness? Whilst it’s tempting to credit Jimbo with that kind of wisdom, behind his dopey exterior, his attempts to warn Ace that he had “blown a fuse” suggest otherwise. So maybe Ace can’t entirely thank Jimbo for his happy ending. Sometimes Lady Luck plays her hand, and knows exactly what she is doing, but she won’t be cheated. RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Twilight Zone: Long Distance Call
Telekinetic power has often in sci-fi had dire or dramatically difficult consequences. For two leads in a Twilight Zone episode with the acting distinctions of Buddy Ebsen and Dane Clark, we can certainly appreciate the kind of story that’s given a happy ending, even if its realism can be questionable. At least The Prime Mover wasn’t anything like Stephen King’s Carrie. Thank you both for your reviews.
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