Thursday, May 25, 2017

Earning Your Wings

"What's the signal for 'I'm sorry'?"

Agnes (Carol Burnett)

I really like Twilight Zone. There aren't many episodes I won't watch. In fact I have seen most of them multiple times.

I like Carol Burnett, too. There aren't many things that she has done in her career that I won't watch.

But you can't combine the two — although the powers that be tried to do that very thing 55 years ago tonight in an episode called "Cavender Is Coming." Such a combination is definitely an acquired taste, much like Richard Nixon's favorite food (cottage cheese with ketchup).

For my money it was the worst of the Twilight Zone episodes. It just wasn't a comedy series — although it did have its amusing moments. "Cavender Is Coming" always struck me as a slapstick kind of episode, not really a typical Twilight Zone episode.

It wasn't an isolated case, either. There were a few other Twilight Zone episodes that were silly and slapstick in nature as well, but "Cavender Is Coming" didn't straddle the line the way the others did. It went well past it.

In my mind, that is probably Twilight Zone's greatest shortcoming. From time to time, Twilight Zone's writers felt compelled to veer into comedy — and always fell flat on their faces in the attempt, too.

Anyway ...

I presume, gentle reader, that you have seen "It's a Wonderful Life," the Christmas classic starring Jimmy Stewart. Well, "Cavender Is Coming" followed a similar premise. An angel named Cavender — played by Jesse White, who was probably better known to people of my generation as the Maytag repairman even though he had a rather extensive career in movies and TV programs before he started making TV commercials — was trying to earn his wings. His assignment was to help a clumsy woman (Burnett) improve her life in 24 hours. The thing was that, while her life wasn't perfect, she wasn't unhappy.

Cavender had had other opportunities to earn his wings, but he had failed to do so, and it was taking longer with him than it had with any other angel. Consequently, failure to achieve this objective would result in demotion.

But a good performance would cause his superiors (one of whom was John Fiedler, who always played mousy parts but nevertheless was in several of the best movies of his time, including "12 Angry Men," "True Grit" and "The Odd Couple") to reconsider his case.

As you can probably imagine, this put Cavender under some pressure. Things weren't helped by Burnett's response, which was (to put it mildly) skeptical.

But he persuaded her that he was the real deal through a few "miracles" that were predicated on the belief that wealth equals happiness. That was an easy assumption to make, given that Burnett was unemployed and behind on her rent when he was given his assignment.

Burnett disabused him of that after he had transformed her into a wealthy socialite living in a mansion. He arranged for her to have a big party with lots of debutantes and celebrities — all the things he thought should make her happy.

One of the guests at the party was future Beverly Hillbillies star Donna Douglas, who was making her second appearance on Twilight Zone. She had a bit part as a debutante in this episode; she was the star (although someone else spoke her lines) in "The Eye of the Beholder" in the previous season.

Douglas spoke her own lines in "Cavender Is Coming," but she only had a couple of them.

It is a shame, really, that Twilight Zone made the episode so slapstick because it had a pretty good message about happiness that kind of got lost.

The bewildered and exasperated Cavender, desperate to get his wings, demanded, "Don't you want to be happy?" after Burnett told him she didn't want to live in the mansion and throw parties for debutantes.

"You don't understand me," she replied. "I was happy. I want it the way it was."

Cavender couldn't understand that. "The way it was? Unstable, unresolved and unemployed?"

Burnett smiled and nodded. "Disconnected, discombooberated and behind in my rent. But that's for me."

In other words, the happiest people aren't the richest people. They're just happy with what they have — and that makes them rich, as Cavender conceded near the end of the episode.

"You are the richest woman I know," Cavender told her. "You have an abundance of wealth. And it seems that I've had to travel a very long distance to find out that cash and contentment aren't necessarily synonymous."

That is probably true although it may also be true that, as Mrs. Howell once said on Gilligan's Island, "Whoever says money can't buy happiness doesn't know where to shop."