Wednesday, June 8, 2011
Playhouse 90: "A Town Has Turned to Dust" - a toupological analysis.
"A Town Has Turned to Dust" is an episode of the 1950s television anthology series Playhouse 90 that aired on aired on June 19th 1958. Once again, William Shatner finds himself among illustrious company: legendary director John Frankenheimer is behind the camera for this installment, while The Twilight Zone's Rod Serling serves as its writer.
Hannify (James Gregory - a future guest-star in Star Trek), a reporter from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, is in the small fictional southwest US border town of Dempseyville doing a story about life in the area. But instead, he finds himself at the center of a lynching. Dempseyville is gripped by an eternal drought and economic hardships; the community is a simmering cauldron of resentments - easy fodder for bitterness and demagogues like store-owner Jerry Paul (William Shatner).
Paul claims that a nineteen-year-old Mexican lad tried to violently rob his hardware store. The accused has been arrested, but the town sheriff (Rod Steiger) all but gives up his prisoner to the angry citizens of the town - a lynching mob - determined to carry out a far simpler and swifter form of justice.
The boy is then publicly hanged.
Celebrations, led by Paul, consume the town. For a while, Dempseyville's pent-up frustrations have been relieved - but only for a while.
Hannify refuses to toast the killing, informing the mob that he intends to write about the "whole thing". The cries of a small boy traumatized by witnessing the hanging ring through the bar. And that isn't all: the sheriff is in no mood to celebrate either, slowly consumed by the guilt of surrendering his prisoner.
He spills out his real feelings about the killing to the reporter: "We didn't know he was guilty - we just strung him up to satisfy the mood."
The sheriff's regrets explode in full public view as he further quashes the celebrations by recalling a previous and thoroughly brutal lynching that took place in the town sixteen years ago - that of an elderly migrant worker. Twenty men with hoods came and put him into a gunny sack, tied it to a horse-wagon and tortured the man to death.
As the funeral for the young victim takes place, Jerry Paul pretends to play nice with the Mexican community, but the dividing lines have been drawn.
The family of the lynched boy are distraught. There is a festering atmosphere in this place; a powder-keg of conflict and emotions.
Back with his wife, Jerry Paul reveals himself to be a tyrant at home too.
But there's more - a humiliating secret. The lynched Mexican was actually innocent of the crime of which he was accused. Instead, the contorted charges were retribution for Paul's frustrated, unloved wife having an affair with the man (see miscegenation).
Like the archetypal overcompensating villain, Paul then makes a show of proving that his store is friendly to the Mexican community.
But when they reject his superficial advances (he offers a boy some candy), he turns on them, publicly releasing a torrent of racist abuse and celebrating the segregation that keeps "muchachos" out of white bars.
The abuse leads to violence as Paul violently clashes with the lynched boy's bereaved brother.
Paul, brandishing a whip, ends up being beaten up by the man, who is then arrested.
Now, it seems, the brother is set to be lynched too...
But the sheriff has developed not just a conscience, but an inquisitive mind that threatens to unravel Paul's lies.
And he is also determined that under his watch, real justice will be done - and if the mob doesn't understand that, then they will be the ones in the firing line...
And that's where we'll leave the story...
So what to make of all this? Regular readers of this site and general Bill Shatner fans alike may no doubt think to themselves that all of this sounds awfully familiar. The echoes of Bill Shatner's infamous racist rabble-rouser Adam Cramer in The Intruder made just three year's later are unmistakable. As to which character, Cramer or Paul, is the bigger bastard, we'll leave that to you!
"A Town Has Turned to Dust" is precisely what it was intended to be: a powerful, hard-hitting drama. It's more atmosphere and tone than anything else (probably best watched more than once). The plot is simple, perhaps even a little ponderous, but the story of justice and moral force overcoming the mob mentality as told through the various characters is both powerful and involving.
What's most remarkable is that it pulls no punches in its condemnation of racism as the result of scapegoats and straw-men and also economic hardships that lead to easy resentments of a comfortable "other". Complex stuff for TV.
Today, such a project would barely raise an eyebrow, but this was 1958, still six years before racial segregation, thanks to the Civil Rights Act, was to come to an end in the American South (Hispanics, though not treated the same way as blacks, were still considered "colored"). That this subject made its way into mainstream TV of the time is remarkable in and of itself.
A glowing contemporary New York Times review of the broadcast notes that Rod Serling "...made his point that hate for a fellow being leads only to the ultimate self-destruction of the bigoted. It was a theme that hardly can be restated amply enough and last night Mr. Serling expressed it with inspiration and fine determination."
Other superlatives in the review include "excellent" and "effective", while a young Bill Shatner also gets a mention too: "Mr. Shatner gave one of the best TV performances of his career. As the town bully and ringleader of the lynching party, he was the embodiment of hate and blind physical passion. Mr. Shatner's attention to detail in putting together the picture of an ignorant and evil social force was remarkable."
There are, we felt, some echoes in the story with Star Trek's "The Devil in the Dark" - the sheriff's 180 degree shift - towards the defense of the perceived aggressor - is rather reminiscent of Kirk's similar "The first man that fires is dead" ultimate defense of the Horta.
TV.com's entry for this broadcast notes that Rod Serling was disappointed and angered by the way his script was re-written prior to broadcast: "By the time the censors had gotten to it, my script had turned to dust. We're developing a new citizenry, one that will be very selective about cereals and automobiles, but won't be able to think." Nonetheless, despite whatever mollification of the material may have been undertaken by the censors, the punch is undoubtedly still there.
If there is one weak point, then it is an aspect of the cinematography. The short (wide-angle) lenses of the TV cameras used for this production mean that close-ups could only be attained by having performers literally centimeters away from the lenses (close enough to bump into them!).
At times, the framing and lighting forced upon the production by these lenses (and the necessities of a live production) leads to awkward results. Had the same actors, the same sets, the same director been given the time and opportunity of recording this project on film, with better lenses, some of this visual clunkiness could have been avoided. But it is a minor gripe...John Frankenheimer certainly does a fine job framing and staging the action.
Let's move swiftly to the hair...
Before our toupologists set about properly watching this episode, a number of them had previously seen a few snippets. Most were convinced that what they were seeing was an early, often shaggy-looking, toupee.
Upon further inspection, however, we believe that those initial impressions were dead wrong! "A Town Has Turned to Dust" is, we now strongly believe, a toup-less performance - one of the last. Let's try to explain. The aforementioned lens issue, means that we get some rather unusual close-ups of Bill Shatner's head:
What emerges, we believe, is a picture of a very carefully grown, combed and sprayed (lots and lots of hairspray) hairstyle, designed to create a thicker shell than would appear naturally.
At the rear, the unmistakable smooth arch of the "Jim Kirk lace" is absent.
Instead, we have careful combing concealing a bald patch at the rear. Occasionally, this bald patch peaks through just a little:
Sometimes the "shell" is disrupted, revealing its fragility:
While the "surely this is a rug" scenes (pictured below) are, we think, the result of flattening down hair that is absolutely loaded with hairspray, creating a kind of sticky, sweaty helmet:
Bill Shatner's hair is noticeably "unnatural-looking" in this episode, likely the result of this increasingly intricate procedure designed to bulk up his thinning locks. But when properly combed, it's remarkable how much the hairstyle resembles the "Jim Kirk lace" which at this period the actor was about to turn to full-time.
See here for a similar 1958 "shell" and here for a very early 1958 "Jim Kirk lace".
Asides from the above toupology, twice in this episode Bill Shatner picks up someone by the hair (underscoring the savagery of Paul's character). It's always remarkable to see Bill Shatner interacting with hair in any way - especially when one considers that pretty soon after this, the mechanics of his own toupee-wearing would have made a reverse scene (with someone pulling at Bill Shatner's "hair") all but impossible. Remarkable stuff, indeed...
And there you have it. A powerful piece of early TV - one well-worth watching. "A Town Has Turned to Dust" isn't available on DVD, but can be found online.