Thursday, February 16, 2017

Hidden Faces

"I've always believed that we have two faces, one that we wear and the other that we keep hidden. The problem has always been to find some method to make people reveal their hidden faces."

Fitzgerald Fortune (Barry Morse)

Have you ever wished that merely by being near a commonplace item a person could be compelled to reveal what was really lurking in his/her heart and mind?

Wouldn't it be nice to know what makes the people around you tick?

Well, I guess it would be nice — sometimes. But sometimes I could see where it wouldn't be so nice.

In the episode of Twilight Zone that first aired on this night in 1962, "A Piano in the House," Barry Morse played a cruel, bullying theater critic who came across a player piano while searching for a birthday gift for his much younger wife (played by Joan Hackett). His wife had been showing an interest in learning to play the piano, and Morse's character had concluded — for his own reasons — that the ideal gift would be a piano that played itself.

He thought she had no musical talent and later explained to her how thoughtful he had been, saving her the time and effort of taking lessons only to learn that she had no talent for that — or any other — instrument.

(A short lesson in the history of player pianos is in order at this point. Player pianos were quite popular in the early 20th century, but production waned in the 1920s with the advent of the radio and the development of recorded music. The stock market crash nearly wiped out the industry, but the interest of collectors during the 1950s sparked a revival and production resumed in the 1960s — so player pianos made a rather timely topic for Twilight Zone in 1962.

(Personally my experience with player pianos is limited to one that was a fixture of a popular pizza joint in Little Rock when I was a boy. I loved to go there — but I must confess it had little if anything to do with the player piano and just about everything to do with the thin crust pizza that was served there. On the other hand, I can't hear a player piano today without thinking of that pizza joint.)

The proprietor of the store was a rather grumpy old man — until he and Morse tried to operate the player piano, and it began playing a sentimental piece. Immediately, the store owner's demeanor changed. He became a sentimental softie, even giving Morse a discount on the price of the piano because it was a gift.

But when the music stopped, he became his old grouchy self. When Morse asked him if he got sentimental about anything other than birthdays, he sniffed, "Birthdays? They're a stupid waste of time and money."

Morse began to suspect that there was something unusual about this player piano, but he had to be sure. After the piano was delivered to the house, he began playing another roll of music — and it transformed his rather glum butler (Cyril Delevanti, who appeared in two other Twilight Zone episodes) into a cheery, laughing sort who claimed he wasn't bothered by his employer's abusive behavior. To the contrary, he said, he could hardly keep from laughing out loud when Morse flew into a rage — "one of your tantrums," he called it (an appropriate word, given how the rest of the episode played out).

Again, when the music stopped, he abruptly returned to normal.

Morse's final test was on his wife. For her, he chose a frantic sounding piece that elicited her confession that she hated him. "I was a stupid child when I married you," she said. "I thought you were a great man. But you aren't. You're just a sadistic fiend."

Morse was ready to use the player piano on the unsuspecting guests who were coming over for his wife's birthday party.

The first guest to arrive was an actor (Don Durant) who had been having an affair with Morse's wife. Morse got him to confess to that thanks to the music roll he selected. When the music stopped, the actor apologized if he had been indiscreet, but Esther insisted that it was all right, that she had never been comfortable with deceiving her husband, who in turn insisted that she was incapable of deceiving him, that he had known she was having an affair but didn't know the details until that moment.

When the guests were assembled, Morse turned the player piano on them, starting with Marge, a character played by Muriel Landers who was only 5–foot–2 and weighed 200 pounds. She made a career for herself in comedy, largely poking fun at her size. In her 40s at the time this episode was made, she died of a stroke almost exactly 15 years after it first aired.

For Marge, Morse played a music roll of Claude Debussy's "Clair de lune," and she told him that her name was not Marge but Tina and that she was a little girl who loved to dance. After persuading her to demonstrate her dancing abilities, Morse coerced her into revealing her innermost desire — to be a tiny snowflake melting in the hand of a man who loved her. The song ended with the guests laughing, and Marge sat down, humiliated.

Things turned on Morse then.

His wife put in a roll that played a tune that evoked thoughts of childhood, of childish (not childlike, which is a different thing) behavior. And Morse confessed to behaving badly to everyone in the room. He was jealous of their talent because he had none. They all made their way out of the house as Morse yelled that he didn't want them to leave.

In the end the final insult came when the butler returned to the room and a chastened Morse told him, "Don't laugh at me."

"I'm not laughing," the butler replied. "You're not funny anymore."

I thought it was a good, albeit flawed, episode. The party guests, including Esther and her secret lover, came off as worse than the villain of the episode — at least as far as I was concerned — when they abandoned him upon learning of the inner child he had tried to restrain but ultimately was powerless against.

Until that was revealed, Morse could be seen as cruel and selfish, an abuser, and it is generally seen as defensible to punish a character like that because such a character is responsible for his/her actions. Such a character chose to behave as he/she did.

But by revealing his powerlessness to restrain his inner child, Morse became human again in the eyes of the viewer, and the ones who abandoned him became judgmental and hateful — not the sympathetic victims they had been.

It seems to me there was a comment to be made about human nature. If Twilight Zone tried to make that case 55 years ago tonight, though, it failed.

Oh, well, I suppose there really is only so much that can be said in 30 minutes.