Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Child's Play: Season 1 Episode 2

First telecast: 9/20/60
Starring Frank Overton, Bethel Leslie, Tommy Nolan.
Written by Robert Dozier.
Directed by Arthur Hiller.

Young Hank (Nolan) has quite an imagination. He believes he's being pursued by Black Bart while vacationing at a cabin with his parents. Dad (Overton) is a journalist (named Bart) who needs to finish some articles, while Mom (Leslie) needs some peace and quiet - but they both seem to spend all of their time arguing. While left to his own devices, young Hank runs around firing a rifle, terrorizing a local fisherman. Is young Hank just in need of a little parental love, or is he a homicidal maniac in training?

JS: Things get off to a promising start with some nice location footage of our boy Hank running around firing his rifle and threatening a fisherman he identifies as Black Bart. As you don't yet know if he's just playing, or perhaps crazy, it makes for an interesting opening. Once we get to the cabin, it would seem Hiller was intent on punctuating every other line of the Divorce Court transcripts with BANG! - intercut to another gunshot. I have to wonder if the episode was scripted this way, or if this was an editor's attempt to make something interesting with very little to work with.

PE: I detect the presence of a thriller here but it’s buried deep and often interrupted by a very long conversation between Bart and his wife about their doomed marriage. I can’t figure out which of the two I dislike more. Bart’s not a good dad, he’s a lousy husband, and Gale makes it abundantly clear he’s D. B. Cooper in the sack (“I can’t remember the last time you…touched me”). Gale has hidden a very important incident from Bart concerning their son, another kid, an apple and a gun (“Just a silly stunt” is Gale’s excuse). Bart needles his wife so much that if this were Tales From the Crypt, Gale would bury a hammer in her husband’s head and string his entrails across his typewriter.

JS: And what a welcome relief that would have been! Speaking of the candid relationship banter, my wife (who sat in on the first few episodes with promises from me that there really are some good ones coming up) was quick to point out that the conversations seemed to be pretty progressive for the time.

PE: Your wife is very intuitive. Or is it just that she's so happy to be watching a movie with you that has grown-ups in it? There is one nice moment in this otherwise deadly dull saga: when Bart discovers that Hank has snuck the spare rifle, he takes down his own rifle and heads for the door until he’s stopped by the steely gaze of Gale. He sheepishly places the weapon back in its rack.

JS: Yeah - I actually thought they were setting up a big showdown between Hank and the 'real' Black Bart. Now that would have been interesting.

PE: I hate to keep bringing up Alfred Hitchcock Presents, but the master himself would direct essentially the same story the following year (“Bang, You’re Dead” with Billy Mumy as the precocious pre-teen) and a whole hell of a lot better, I hasten to add.

JS: Sure, and Tim Lucas hates to bring up references to Mario Bava. We're still quite a ways away from "A Hitchcock a Day," so try to temper your enthusiasm to write about other shows and focus on the Thriller at hand.

PE: Your interruptions are Bava-esque, filled with nonsense and bright colors, young man, and if they don't halt, you'll be sent back to your room in your Stormtrooper jammies. Now, where was I? Ah yes, have I mentioned that director Hiller never met a close-up he didn’t like? For you trivia buffs out there, Overton later starred on the TV version of “Twelve O’Clock High.”

We plan to rate each episode on a scale of 0 to 4 Karloffs, with the occasional half-Karloff as necessary. We're just warning you in advance so you don't freak out.


  1. Thanks for the welcome! Here's what I said about "Child's Play" in 2007:

    A lonely, mixed-up, and obviously mentally unstable boy, on vacation
    at a cabin in the woods with his battling parents, wanders off with
    Dad's loaded rifle and takes himself a hostage...

    This was episode 2 of the series, and I think if I'd been watching
    back in 1960, I'd have seriously considered not tuning in again. It's
    unbelievably slow, talky, and ponderous. The dad is such a
    self-centered ass that it's impossible to have any sympathy for him,
    and the boy - well, I wonder if they really meant him to be this
    much of a junior sociopath. He lives in a complete fantasy world and
    seems unable to reconcile himself to reality. If he'd been say, five
    or six, he might have seemed just a little mixed-up - this kid is
    twelve or thirteen and it's impossible to think he isn't in need of
    serious psychiatric care.

    Of course, "Alfred Hitchcock" did the classic kid-with-a-gun episode
    with Billy Mumy around this time (give or take a year or so). A very
    disappointing episode, and to air it so early - no wonder network
    execs were pissed!

    2 out of a possible 5. And I'm being generous.

  2. Keep 'em coming, Aycorn! So far it sounds like we're on the same page about these first few crime episodes.

  3. Ehh...

    I thought it was OK. And the relationship talk *was* actually pretty insightful and progressive. I just got fixated on the child actor with his weird face and deep voice. Then I decided he looked just like a young Lee Harvey Oswald and that's all I could think about from then on.

  4. Tommy Nolan and Parley Baer were both excellent actors, and here they deliver fine performances in their scenes together. I also like the cool outdoor scenery surrounding them. However, the OTHER half of this show--- the unfolding of the parents' increasingly edgy, neurotic psycho-drama--almost made me scream. For Pete's sake, I watch shows like this to ESCAPE from that kind of crap in the real world!

    HALF-KARLOFF ONLY! (due to extreme annoyance factor)


  5. By the end of this episode I was banging my head against the wall. The husband and wife were annoying but the kid was really a pain! After his crazy actions, it has to be off to a mental hospital or the reform school. Without the kid maybe the husband and wife can get it together. I agree with your low rating.

  6. This episode could have been salvaged at the end if young Hank offed everyone (including the fly fisherman) and than ate the barrel himself.

    I have to admit I found the dialogue between husband and wife to be pretty damn interesting. Plenty of subtext suggesting a complicated relationship for 1960, especially the commentary about the strenuous "life of the mind" Bart endures at the expense of his wife and child. Probably better suited for a Jonathan Franzen novel, however.

  7. This one plodded. And plodded. A fifteen minute episode padded out to an hour.

    I didn't like the way they opened with the fisherman scene. I found it a bit disorienting and it kind of ruined the (l-o-o-o-n-g) buildup. I will say, as have others, that the psychological foundation of the story's relationships seems pretty sound and modern for the day. But it wasn't exactly riveting entertainment.

    A side-note: Made me sad to remember what a robust American economy was like where a journalist could afford to own a vacation home. Ah, those were the days.

  8. >>Made me sad to remember what a robust American economy was like where a journalist could afford to own a vacation home.
    I have one in London and all I do is this blog all day.
    You do touch on something that hasn't been mentioned much though--that "coming attractions" opening. I've got a rotten memory but isn't that the only one they had in the run? Someone come to my rescue here.

  9. This one was not very good. I found the dad almost unbearable. No wife would stick with him nowadays. And it cracked me up how long it took mom and dad to figure out that "Bart" was "Black Bart." I have a theory about the closeups. I suspect that TV reception was not the greatest in those early years and TVs were small, so directors used lots of closeups to make sure the viewers could tell what was going on. Watch a few Twilight Zones and you'll see a similar focus on closeups.

  10. Plodding is a good description. I think instead of Child's Play this one should have been titled 'Constant Array of Trivial Domestic Considerations.'
    There were some good pieces, tho. The production values are very very solid. The acting is quite good for a kitchen table tv drama, and direction rises above the unthriller-like story -- did robert dozier save his best stuff for batman?
    The subtext is forboding, in the way that he comes across as the stereotypical self-involved 1950s white collar worker who's Hemingway-esque impotence leaves his eager-for-the-60s to begin young wife with starched undergarments.

    When she says, 'if i only knew if you wanted me in other ways...' the perfect thriller response would have been 'I want you, but this machine has consumed my soul![pointing to the evil typewriter]'
    And while Parley Baer and Nolan are in their minor duel in the sun (with the bothersome shifting shadows on Baer's head), I expected 'Mayor Stoner' to tell Hank 'Wait til I tell Sheriff Taylor, you rascal!'

    And what happened to the terrific reviews from Aycorn?

  11. John and I were just discussing the disappearance of Aycorn. We don't have personal e-mails so we can't inquire but hopefully s/he will be back. I'd like to have running commentaries from as many people out there as possible. I mean, what else do people who watch Thriller have to do anyway?

  12. The adult talk is the most interesting element in this, which originally bored the daylights of me 15 years ago. With a new print, it's not much better. Those dialogues can be the most fascinating elements for psychological examples of dysfunctional relationships. There is a professor called John Gottman who can walk into pretty much any situation and after watching a couple chatting for between 5 to 15 minutes give a verdict on their chances of a healthy and successful relationship with a 90% rate of calling it right (through follow-ups, for more on this read 'Blink' .... http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Gottman).
    The only reason I found this interesting, nay fascinating, was because I was looking at a text book classic example of a failing relationship; the attempts of the wife to mend fences and the husband failing to follow suit, her being emotional and him utterly logical, her begging to be pinned against the wall and him hopelessly impotent. A completely emotionally illiterate male.
    For anyone else, forget it.
    Overton has always been a bit too starchy (even in the brilliant TZ, 'Walking Distance' and ST's 'This Side of Paradise'), he really can't carry through a performance on acting or star charisma at all. Hence, what should be electrifying ends up mildly diverting. Leslie is better but she's acting against a brick wall.
    The most natural performances are the fishermen. At least it's not as bland as the ones to come!

  13. How come nobody mentioned the "how to catch an alligator" story in here? Very clever...!

  14. This was painful to watch. I was initially drawn into the premise of wondering if little Hank (he ain't no CHILD'S PLAY Chucky) was a weirdo kid or weirdo sniper. Ends up it really didn't matter since just about everyone in this episode is annoyingly. Frank Overton's acting and over-acting is particulary bad.

    I did like the intercutting edits of the "Divorce Court" discussions and the gunshots of Psycho Hank's rifle. I was just hoping that two of those bullets would make it all the way back to the cabin and put his parents out of their misery. And then I would be out of my misery.

    If I was viewer back in 1960, I'd be pretty hesitant to tune in the following week.

    I'd give CHILD'S PLAY a "1/2 Karloff" only because we get to see Boris in the beginning.

  15. "A Thiller" is not what I would call Child's Play. Episode number 2 is more in line with one of those moralistic after school specials. Viewing it on it's own terms, and not as a supposed Thriller, Child's Play does offer a few items that make it worth viewing.

    It was pretty evident from early on, that this episode wasn't going to be delving into any supernatural or horrific subject manner. Despite the relative normality of the events I enjoyed the following bits from Child's Play:

    The outdoor locations. I'm an outdoor guy and the various outdoor locations placed me in a tranquil mood while watching this episode.

    The 'serious' adult dialog. The talkative aspects probably bogged down this already bland episode into mind numbing tedium for most viewers, but for me I found it fascinating to hear a breakdown in relationship being discussed in such a frank manner, which I haven't seen in any 60s sitcom. Career demands, spousal boredom, child problems, bedroom frustrations, etc. You didn't see this stuff on Leave it to Beaver or the Andy Griffith Show. I was shocked that not only did Mom complain about "The last time I touched you", but continued with a request to "Make love to you". This type of dialog was allowed when Ike and Mamie were residing on Pennsylvania Avenue? I could understand an allowance once Jack moved in. So yeah, most viewers were probably dozing off, but these bits of soap opera scenery kept me awake, even it was only because of their context within a staid time era.

    Lastly, I really enjoyed Tommy Nolan's ability to convey damaged goods as the product of parental neglect. Tommy had me convinced that he was in his own world of Black Bart. It wasn't until the predictable end, that the spell started to fracture and things concluded to their predictable, happy moral ending. As well as Tommy did during his 'spell' period, he cheesed out at the end with an unbelievable crying breakdown. One thing about Hank that caught me early on when his psychological scars were established was the eerie character and physical resemblance to a child version of Lee Harvey Oswald. Another review also spotted this.

    These points make me rate it a bit higher then most viewers, but still at only one and a half Karloffs...

  16. This story seemed a real mismatch with the series. The domestic drama might have played better on a straight dramatic series. As an episode of Thriller it seemed absurdly tame. Like many, I was intrigued by the marital discord, but also maddened by some of the strange writing. Why did she keep the past incident a secret? My guess, to allow for a shocking revelation in the episode. The most interesting parts echoed A Doll's House ("I think you're fond of me in a general way.")

    Also a problem is Frank Overton, a lox of an actor lacking the resources to make anything of the one-dimensional part. By contrast, Bethel Leslie, a former protegee of Helen Hayes', acts her butt off, adding layers to the script that make her so interesting I couldn't understand why she hadn't taken the kid and walked off years earlier. Parley Baer was good as ever, and the child actor was a fascinating choice.

    Ultimately, the script seemed to be saying, "Nothing can add some zip to a failing marriage like a mentally ill kid." Yeah, sure.

  17. This is really a 1/2 Hitchock episode (doesn't it resemble a Hitchcok episode with Billy Mummy and a gun which he doesn't know is loaded?) padded out to an hour, you really want them to cut from the stupid marital squabble and get to the kid with the gun- that part is pretty well done, I thought the actor playing the fisherman was very good. So 1 1/2 Karloffs is right, #49 out of 67 on my list.

  18. The kid (Tommy Nolan) has absolutely no charisma whatsoever, and I just wanted to SMACK Bether Leslie halfway through the episode, just to shut her up! Personally, I'd rather watch that Hitchcock episode over and over...at least, Billy Mumy was enjoyable.

  19. I thought the episode was quite touching and the bot's projection of Black Bart was way ahead of its time for TV. 3/4.

  20. 3/4. The projection storyline is ahead of its time


  22. Spoiler (needless to say): the kid, holding the fisherman at rifle-point, forces him to put an apple on his head so that he can play a kind of reverse William Tell game with him. Fortunately, mom and dad turn up. Dad puts the apple on his head, tells his son to shoot the apple off his head. The kid breaks down and cries. Finis.

    This has to be the worst Thriller I've ever seeen, and I'm a huge fan of the show. The writing was decent but it was wrong for a suspense-horror series such as Thriller, felt out of place; even more so in the rustic setting. The idea behind the ep wasn't bad, either--the old evil and/or dangerous kid tale, inspired perhaps by The Bad Seed, which were common on early 60s television--but they couldn't come up with a good story for the sick boy. Good idea, lousy execution (so to speak).

    The actors were decent, with Bethel Leslie and Tommy Nolan particularly good. I like Frank Overton, but in this one his solemn manner and voice didn't fit the character. It's like he was auditioning to play Abraham Lincoln. Besides, this kind of melodrama didn't really suit his ultra-serious style of acting. The guy was a very serious actor, the way E.G. Marshall was a serious actor. Neither was well suited to genre material.

    Egads! I'm going to have to wade through more Thrillers like this till I finally get to the better episodes, can hardly wait till they get to the really good stuff like The Big Blackout and The Fatal Impulse. Thriller was a serious that at times truly demanded patience in even its most loyal viewers. Even when the bang was worth the buck it often took a lot of time to get to the bang.

    1. Overton was a fine actor. You should check out his performance in FAIL-SAFE.

  23. Yes, it was padded. Yes, the dime store psychology of having Hank "act out" because of his parents' bad marriage was too on the nose. The only suspense was about whether the kid would commit manslaughter and go to reform school, or snap out of it and simply get sent to bed without his supper.

    But add me to the numbers here that found the marital talk here between Overton and Leslie to be of interest. And in the context of 1959-60 this was a VERY subversive episode.

    Bart was no Jim Anderson or Ward Cleaver. He was tired, distracted and very much a domestic tyrant, while Mom (does her character have a name? -- I can't remember) is evasive, twittery and frustrated. Guys, this was on TV two years before Betty Friedan's THE FEMININE MYSTIQUE came out, diagramming the kind of sexual dichotomy acted out so well here. The lives of husbands and wives had become so separate and unequal that it was driving women and men crazy. And this episode illustrates that thesis several years before it became fashionable to do so.

    In that respect, Overton's inexpressive presence is perfect -- he is the eternal Dad, the eternal punishing, unemotional "masculine," and very much a contrast to Leslie's "feminine" emotional communicator. This certainly disappointed as a thriller, but as an early harbinger of the late '60s, it is utterly fascinating.

    (By the way, Me-TV is doing a marathon of THRILLER episodes from the very first, so expect a few other stray cats to wind up here.)

  24. I'm sorry, but I must disagree with your low rating of this episode. I found it to be one of my favorite episodes, a little reminiscent of the Hitchcock TV episode BAG YOU'RE DEAD. The story of a child playing with firearms is a touchy subject and not to be taken lightly. In this episode, the matter is compounded by the fact that the boy may not be fully in touch with reality. His shooting of the rifle he took could be heard as the parents talk back at the house and don't connect the two is astounding. It isn't until the father goes over to the rifle rack that they realize what is happening. This episode really grabbed me an kept me on the edge of my seat. FOUR KARLOFS!

  25. I don't really know this episode, but it and BANG! - YOU'RE DEAD are examples of something that always interests me, and that's that with any subject that "People never used to talk about," you can just about always find a decent number of examples. I'm sure that when the "kids and guns" topic became so big in - I don't know - the mid or late ' 80s, many people were certain that TV had never TOUCHED the subject before, even though there was an episode of a famous show like AHP showing that it did!
    The same is true of the "sexual politics" everyone here mentions about this episode.
    So if I saw the episode, it would surprise me but NOT surprise me at the same time.

  26. I caught some of the later scenes on this morning's airing, was struck by Bethel Leslie's performance,--as in very good--and wondered why she didn't have a better career. In looks, she reminded me of Lee Remick; in disposition maybe too solemn to be much fun in the hay, but more interesting as a person to be with otherwise. There was an intelligence and professionalism to work in every scene she was in. She was one of the very good actresses who got caught up in the TV grind; and once that happened it seems that the pecking order of the Hollywood of the day was such that she was never going to get a big break. Steady work, yes, but not stardom.