Saturday, August 27, 2022

The Man in the Funny Suit (1960).

Rod Serling is still a lucky man, as of this writing.  He's still remembered as one of the most important artistic pioneers in more than just one field.  On the one hand, he's regarded as one of a handful of legendary creators and showrunners who managed to revolutionize, and even bring a decent level of sophistication to the content of the TV shows that were brought into the American living rooms of the 1950s and revolutionary 60s.  Before he became really famous, Serling made a name for himself by penning a lot of well done teleplays for a revolving series of television anthology programs.  These were sparse, taught productions whose level of quality sometimes matched that of a live theater performance.  There were numerous shows that specialized in various types of drama that would tackle all kinds of controversial subject matter, most of it having to do with the question of morality in general, or civil rights in particular.  Considering that Rod got his start at the beginning of the Eisenhower 50s, this was a very hot button topic to deal with.  It was also an issue that everybody in live television felt the need to discuss.  The script writers and show producers who were willing to take on this and other famous subject matter has now become a list of half familiar names, such as Paddy Chayefsky, Reginald Rose, Arthur Miller, Fielder Cook, Norman Lear, and John Frankenheimer.

This was the milieu in which Serling made a name for himself.  If I had to find a few words that best describe his output in these early years, then a good way to put it might be to say that his breakout material has this cozy, streetwise familiarity to it.  Most first time viewers to this new-old material, if they are willing to give it a chance, will soon discover that Serling didn't just break new ground, he also might have acted as a harbinger for the kind of work done by another famous artist a decade or so down the timeline.  Put another way, if the Fifth Dimension had never come along, then Serling might still have had a decent career writing and producing the same type of artistic material that Martin Scorsese would later make famous.  Much like Uncle Marty's later known best work, Serling's live television plays often focused in on main characters who find themselves caught out in a moral dilemma, the kind of thing that takes a heavy toll on not just the protagonist's conscience, yet sometimes even their very sanity.  Maybe its a corporate executive learning just how low he's willing to sink, as in 1955's Patterns.

Often times, Serling's main characters would turn out to be soldiers who were either combat vets haunted by the mistakes they've made in the past, or else fresh-faced officers with too many chips on their shoulders.  You know, it's the sort of mental handicap you that's usually a big no-no in military circles.  Whatever else may happen on the field of battle, you never send a basket case out to the front, where he's libel to cause more damage to his own side than the enemy's.  Still, that sort of thing does happens, every now and then.  And it was a topic that Serling appears to have experienced first hand.  Hence, his writing of stories like Bomber's Moon, or Forbidden Area were he attempts to try and educate the public on the costs of war.  The same type of creative strategy as that found in the work of J.R.R. Tolkien.  Though even this wasn't the end of Serling's early efforts in the field of live television.

There was this one script he did which contains a lot of the same storytelling elements that Scorsese would later put to his own iconic use.  In fact, I almost want to say that the Serling script I'm thinking of now could almost act as both a prequel and a coda to a film like Raging Bull.  It's called Requiem for a Heavyweight (1956), and like the later De Niro picture, it details the fallout of what happens the minute a former (or near) champion boxer has reached the end of his career, and what, if anything, comes after it.  Anyone who is familiar with the Scorsese picture will have a rough idea of what's going on in Serling's Heavyweight script from just a bare synopsis.  It's where this down on his luck schlub is told to his face that the next time he steps into a ring will kill him.  His physical condition has deteriorated to the point where boxing is not a viable option for him.  Only trouble is, he's never really known much of anything else his whole life, and he's not what you'd call a sophisticated sort, either.  So, very much like Jake LaMotta, there's a lot of bitterness and anger to go around, and get worked through.  In fact, it's kinda eerie how close Serling and Scorsese's works mirror each other here.

Whatever the case, that turned out to be one of Serling's great early successes. It's the kind of screenplay that gets a guy noticed in a lot of the important showbiz circles.  In fact, it might technically have been an ironic contributing factor that led to Rod being able to make his greatest achievement, and leave his biggest imprint on the pop cultural imagination behind.  It's no secret that The Twilight Zone is still a household name, or that it remains Serling's major landmark.  It's what allowed him to leave a footprint in all the major popular genres, such as Horror, Fantasy, and Science Fiction.  As a result, he is placed up their alongside such genre ground breakers like Gene Roddenberry.  I think it's a title that's well earned, nor am I about to dispute it.  I just think we ought to take a brief detour here, and pay a brief article of acknowledgement to those live, hungry years, when Rod was still just a maverick in the business.  In particular, I think a special kind of attention is owed to the Heavyweight script.  Perhaps it will help us to gain a better sense of perspective.  Just as Walt Disney once admonished us to remember that it "all started with a mouse", so it could be said that the Zone owes its existence to that Requiem.

In fact, there's kind of a funny, behind-the-scenes story to be told about the making of that teleplay.  It's now looked back on as the script that made Rod Serling, and that's all very true.  So is the fact that it almost wasn't.  Believe it or not, there were a few moments during the making of Heavyweight, when it almost looked as if the script, and Serling's entire future along with it, were close to circling the drain.  The reason for this all hinged on the fact that one of the actors kept proving to be something of a nuisance.  The kind of problem that could very well get out of hand and bring the curtain down.  Not in a good way, either.  It's issues like these that need to get sorted out quick before the final showtime call rolls around.  It's an interesting element of added drama to what should have been an otherwise straight forward series of rehearsals before the big broadcast day.  In fact, the whole affair was so harrowing, amusing, frustrating, and fascinating, that the making of Requiem for a Heavyweight was later on turned into a screenplay of its own.  It became an episode of the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse

It was titled The Man in the Funny Suit, and Rod Serling played himself for the recreation of an important, near awkward turning point in his whole career.  I managed to catch this episode not too long ago, and thought it worth talking about.  It makes for an interesting look into the way that art gets made, and the way that sometimes what happens off camera can determine what happens in front of it.  More important than all of this is the way it helps the viewer to make a series of new and familiar discoveries.

The Behind the Scenes Drama.

I've already given a fair outline of Serling and Requiem for a Heavyweight.  Now its time to shift the focus a bit, in order to meet the remaining two, main cast members of our story.  In order to introduce them, we need a bit more context into the subject at the heart of tonight's play.  He's an actor named Ed Wynn, the titular man in the funny suit.  If the name has a vague sense of familiarity to it, then perhaps that's no surprise.  If Rod Serling still counts as a familiar household name, then an actor like Ed Wynn is probably somewhere close behind.  He's maybe not as well recognized as other figures from pop culture.  I think guys like Roddenberry, or Bill Murray outrank him by several degree of renown.  Yet Wynn's name still keeps hanging around, like the faint traces of some nagging memory that you'll swear was real, and you just can't place it.  There are probably a number of good reasons for that.  Part of it is the shifting nature of celebrity.  Right now, the biggest names out there belong to the likes of Chris Pratt, Idris Elba, and Ryan Reynolds.  The punchline for all of them is that I'm sort of waiting to see if any of them meet the same fate as Wynn, where they become names on the tip of the tongue.

Now the immediate reaction to a sentiment like that is to go on the defensive.  There's no way it can happen.  They're great actors who deserve to be remembered.  For the record, I agree, and I hope their legacies can survive the fickle recall of pop culture memory.  By the way, who was Katherine Hepburn?  Is Raymond Douglas Bradbury the name of an actual person, or did I just make that up?  Who is Keenan Wynn?  That guy I was just talking about, right?  Well, for the record, I was talking about Ed Wynn.  Keenan is just the actor's son.  See, that's where the whole trick comes in.  If we're not careful, sometimes even the greatest, unsung talents can wind up a victim of the memory hole.  Something that shines bright for a moment, and then it's as if they never existed.  I happen to think that's a cruel fate for not just actors, but also authors, and above all stories.  Hence the reason for this blog.  The final punchline is the way that memory can play tricks with your own expectations.

Here we are, for instance, just hoping that actors like Elba and Reynolds will be remembered as Great Names.  Their fates still undecided.  Meanwhile, Ed Wynn somehow manages to stick around, like an old acquaintance who at least sounds familiar.  It's just that sometimes you can't place the face.  I think part of the reason for the longevity of Wynn's name has to do with several wise choices he made over the course of his career.  He's this old character actor, the kind of Hollywood Golden Age product who got his start in big time showbiz via the usual route.  He gets his first job in vaudeville, graduates from there to the classic Broadway stage, then gets picked in New York by talent scouts who escort him into California's vaunted Tinseltown.  From that point on, the smart moves that Wynn made included agreeing to play the part of the Mad Hatter in Walt Disney's 1951 adaptation of Alice in Wonderland.  

In other words, now you know why Wynn's name might have stuck in your memory for so long.  Turns
out he's that character.  Nor is that all he's done.  In addition to what became something of a star making turn for him, Wynn also went on to use this newfound fame to his advantage.  While for most audiences Wynn will forever be the Hatter, he also managed a few other roles that perhaps don't get as much credit as they should.  For instance, he played one of the friends of the main character in The Diary of Anne Frank.  It's a performance that gets too much overlooked.  Beyond this, however, Wynn remains famous for all the appearances he's made in various Disney films over the years.  These include character notes in Babes in Toyland, The Absent-Minded Professor, and That Darn Cat.  Perhaps his other most famous role, aside from Wonderland is that of the free-floating Uncle Albert in Mary Poppins.  What  many others notice is that Wynn also gave two notable performances in episodes of Serling's Twilight Zone.

Turns out the reason Rod was willing to be so generous to Ed was because of his one other breakout performance that tends to get overshadowed by all his Mouse House work.  You see, as it turns out, Ed Wynn wound up giving his second breakout performance in the live TV broadcast of Requiem for a Heavyweight.  That is a basic summary of the history in the nutshell.  It's the kind of abbreviated soundbite useful for classrooms and retrospective broadcasts, the type of random piece of information which can be stated once, in passing, and then forgotten about forever.  No offense, yet that always struck me as a real shitty way to either teach, or learn history.  As with just about every fact recorded in an encyclopedic account of the past, its accurate so far as it goes.  It also doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of things.  This goes double for a lot of the historical events that we were taught to memorize (and then forget) as school students.  As is always the case, when it comes to understanding anything about history, there is always a story to tell.  That's true in the case of Wynn and Serling. 

This is technically where the "events" of The Man in the Funny Suit begin.  It also introduces us to final player in the drama, both in real life, and on the stage.  That'd be the historical figure of Keenan Wynn, son of Ed.  I think the best way to describe this last guy is that he's sort of just another part of a general showbiz trend.  Keenan Wynn is not the last time a famous Hollywood actor has managed to sire an offspring that proved to be just as gifted in the artistic department as their own dads.  A few notable examples of this trend include Donald and Kiefer Sutherland, Roddy and Malcolm McDowell, Robert and Alan Alda, and of course, Henry and Peter Fonda.  Edward and Keenan Wynn are just another piece of the overall pattern.  In fact, they even share another, occasional facet of fathers and sons in the arts.  This isn't something that happens as a rule.  It doesn't seem to have been true in the case of the Sutherlands, McDowells, or Alda families.  It was true enough between Henry Fonda and his boy Pete, to an extent.  It's also possible that at least a hint of this issue crept up between Keenan and Ed Wynn.  The best way to describe it is as a rivalry, or conflict that can arise between father and son.

I think one of Serling's literary heirs, Horror writer Joe Hill, can provide the best overview of the problem I'm talking about.  This is something he brings up in the introduction to his 2019 short story collection, Full Throttle.  It's there that Hill makes what in retrospect is a pretty wise observation:

"Most sons fall into one of two groups.  There's the boy who looks upon his father and thinks, I hate that son of a bitch, and I swear to God I'm never going to be anything like him.  Then there's the boy who aspires to be like his father: to be as free, and as kind, and as comfortable in his own skin.  A kid like that isn't afraid he's going to resemble his dad in word and action.  He's afraid he won't measure up.  It seems to me that the first kind of son is the one most truly lost in his father's shadow.  On the surface that probably seems counterintuitive.  After all, here's a dude who looked at Papa and decided to run as far and as fast as he could in the other direction.  How much distance do you have to put between yourself and your old man before you're finally free?

"And yet at every crossroads in his life, our guy finds his father standing right beside him: on the first date, at the wedding, on the job interview.  Every choice must be weighed against Dad's example, so our guy knows to do the opposite...and in this way a bad relationship goes on and on, even if father and son haven't spoken in years.  All that running and the guy never gets anywhere.

"The second kid, he hears that John Donne quote - We're scarce our fathers' shadows cast at noon - and nods and thinks, Ah, shit, ain't that the truth?  He's been lucky - terribly, unfairly, stupidly lucky.  He's free to be his own man, because his father was.  The father, in truth, doesn't throw a shadow at all.  He becomes instead a source of illumination, a means to see the territory ahead a little more clearly and find one's own particular path.  I try to remember how lucky I've been (2-3)".

I think Hill has done us a number of favors here.  To start with, he's kind of summed up the whole conflict at the heart of tonight's story.  In the second place, without ever meaning to, Hill has more or less described just about every, single film that Steven Spielberg ever made or produced, in one form or another.  To say that guys like him are interested in Father/Son Conflicts is about as simplistic as calling Muhammad Ali a mere boxer.  It's been Spielberg's obsession, right even before he got his first major start in the business.  It's also something we might have to circle back to later on, for clarity's sake.  Right now, it's best to keep focus by noting the single irony at the heart of Hill's statement.  What he says in the Full Throttle intro is true enough, so far as it goes.  What the history between Ed and Keenan Wynn, reveals, however, is that it turns out it's possible for there to be a third option available, one that doesn't ever seemed to have occurred to Hill.  This third kid is the sort who seems caught up somewhere in the middle between the two poles described above.  He might not hate, or otherwise harbor any kind of genuine ill will toward his father.  At the same time, he is haunted by a different kind of shadow.  It's one that he's anxious to get out from, yet it's not a shadow born of hate or malice.

I think the best word to describe the emotions and thoughts of this third kid is as a heady mixture of loving affection mixed in with a "healthy" dose of embarrassment, combined with a nagging question.  "Who am I"?  This third kid doesn't seem to fit in neatly with either of the two poles Hill describes above.  This is the shady middle ground between the two opposing sides of the street.  That's where Keenan Wynn seemed to find himself in relation to his father back in 1956, when he was starting to be an up and coming talent.  His Dad, meanwhile, had long since passed into being a showbiz legend, and had received an interesting recognition as such.  He never received any honorary Oscars, or something like that.  Instead, from what I'm told, old Ed was just given a venue for his routines by his friends in the Friars Club.  Keenan was there, as well.  Along with a lot of family friends, and entertainment acquaintances.  The show seemed to go off without a hitch, everybody laughed and applauded in all the right places.  They did no more than what they were expected to do.  In other words, it was an open question to Keenan Wynn if his father was even all that entertaining during the show that night.

Keenan was told not to worry.  That "they were all professionals here tonight".  It might have been true, though it sort of misses the point.  That studied "professionalism" is why the son was so damned anxious for the father up on the stage.  "They all know the jokes before he tells them", is how Keenan explained it.  Someone else in the audience was overheard to say that the evening "was more like a wake.  Ed Wynn hasn't been able to buy a job for the last two years, and everyone knows it".  Or as Keenan himself expressed the sentiment of the whole event, "He's dying up there".  That's the worst thing that can happen to any comic on a live stage.  A lot of it had to do with the times, and the changing of the guard.  The truth is that Edward Wynn was the product of the sawdust strewn Vaudeville stage.  It's a moment of artistic history that is so old by now that it's practically become a figure of myth in its own right.  It's become so jumbled in my own mind by this point that I can't tell anymore whether the burlesque show was a feature of the Vaudeville stage, or if it was its own, separate thing.  All I know for sure is that the term conjures up this Looney Tunes  image of an old, rickety theater in which all kinds of slapstick is allowed to run wild before a crowd whose tastes amounted to a whole other world different to the one we know now.  

To be fair, it is possible to judge too harshly.After all, acts like Bob Hope, the Marx Brothers, Milton Berle, even Sammy freakin' Davis Jr. got their start in Vaudeville.  And that last guy just so happens to be one of the key architects of the music movement that would later become modern R n' B Hip-Hop.  So it's not like it was never a place that could ever produce talent, or that some of the entertainment from that old stage is no longer with us today.  If that were the case, a comic like Groucho Marx would have been consigned to history's dust bin a long time ago.  Instead, he's still cited (and rightly so) as one of the great, satirical wits.  I think the real issue for Keenan was that his father's style soon became a bit too gentile for the shifting tastes of the groundlings.  Whereas someone like Groucho kept refining and updating the elements of his comedy (his sense of technique, timing, delivery, innuendo, and subject matter) Wynn Senior somehow never thought to allow his act to keep up with the times.  As a result, is it any wonder that Keenan felt a real sense of chagrin when he was yanked up on stage in order to do a routine with his old man?  He loved his Pop like only a son could, yet might have also understood the old Pete Townshend line that goes, "While I don't wanna hurt 'em, mine can't be there way".  It was doubly true in his sense.

Keenan Wynn was, at one point, believe it or not, part of the then up and coming fresh faces in the Post War Art scene.  Whereas his father seemed content to always play the same, comfortable note, over and again, the minute young Keenan got bit by the showbiz bug, he began to apply his own natural talent for acting into a multitude of roles, fast becoming a growing name, one of those long working actors who are able to appear and work with just about everything and everyone.  He was able to make it count, too.  Going on to make a series of memorable turns in films like Orson Welles's Touch of Evil, Dr. Strangelove, and Once Upon a Time in the West.  It's all something to be proud of, if you're an actor.  The punchline is that it was all very much at variance with Ed Wynn.  It wasn't a case of a son rebelling against his own father.  Ed never discouraged him from trying to land any roles his son thought were good.  In another sense, though, it almost kinda was just that.  Take the night of that honorary salute from the Friar's Club.  Someone pointed at Keenan and told those gathered around, "That's Ed Wynn's son".

The poor kid must have not managed to build a name for himself yet.  Because Wynn the Younger was left smarting at the idea that to most people he was just a celebrity child, and probably nothing more.  In 1956, both Stanley Kubrick and Sergio Leone were still a good ways into the future, and a lot of the pressure on Keenan was the desire to find the right way to define himself in distinction to a sawdust has-been.  Pretty shitty way to think of your own dad, yet in his darkest moments, Wynn Jr. sometimes wondered if that was the case.  It's told that he even let it get to him one night.  All that happened was that Ed proposed that his own son team up with him on stage in a double act.  Keenan must have been in some kind of a mood when that happened.  Because that's when he snapped and made the usual scene.  "He was his own man".  "He didn't want to get bogged down in "the old routine".  "The jokes were never funny to begin with".  "I don't want to just be Ed Wynn's son", etc.  To his credit, Pop seemed to take it all very well.  The Mad Hatter had a surprising capacity to take a blow like that.  He was so good at it, that the row weighed a lot more on Col. Bat Guano than it did Uncle Albert.

Whatever the case, while Keenan was busy guilt tripping himself, the household received a phone call.  It came from a fella named Martin Manulis.  He was a TV producer on shows like Studio One.  He was trying to reach the Wynn residence in order to discuss a new project in the works.  Since Keenan was away, filming on location at the time, it was Ed who picked up the receiver.  According to the participants involved in that little chat, the whole exchange went something like this:

"Ed: Hello?

Phone Operator: Mr. Wynn?

Ed: Yes?

Operator: One moment, please.  Mr. Martin Manulis of Playhouse 90 is calling.

Ed: Oh, I suppose you want to speak to my son, Keenan.

Operator: I have Mr.Wynn on line 31, Mr. Manulis.

Manulis: Put him on.

Operator: Go ahead, please.

Manulis: I'll get right to the point.  We have a new script for Playhouse 90 by Rod Serling.  It's called Requiem for a Heavyweight.  Now there's the wonderful part of a fight manager, and Rod has specifically asked for you.

Ed: ...But, uh...

Manulis: Ralph Nelson's going to direct, and we'd all like very much to have you in the play.  Would you do it?

Ed: Oh, I guess you want my son, Keenan.  This is Ed Wynn.  

Manulis: Oh I'm sorry Mr. Wynn.  Is Keenan there?

Ed: No.  He's in Japan, finishing a picture.  Hell be back in a week, though.

Manulis (brief, considering pause): ...Mr. Wynn, would you be interesting in playing a dramatic part?

Ed: Me?  You want me?

Manulis: Well, I just had an idea.  There's the part of a great, old trainer. It'd be a natural for you.  His name is Army.  Would you be interested?

Ed: Well, now, I've never said a straight line in my life?

Manulis: I think you'd be wonderful in that part.  And Keenan and you together would make great publicity.

Ed: Oh, I don't know that Keenan would want to.

Manulis: Mr. Wynn, I'd like to send you the script to read.  To see what you think, and if you'd like to play it.  And, uh, where can I reach Keenan in Japan"?

And that, apparently, was how it all got started.  Wynn's son got the call from Manulis about Serling's script sometime not long afterwards.  He must have got the information just in time, to, because soon as he reached American Terra-firma again, he knew all about Serling's script and was jazzed to read his copy.  It sounded real good, too.  In his own words, Keenan described it as a "blockbuster".  His ebullient mood lasted right up until the minute the phone rang again, and the next conversation took things into the following, ironic turn:

"Keenan: Yo?

Ed: Hello?

Keenan: Hey, Pop!  How are ya?

Ed: I got to talk to ya, Keenan.  We go into rehearsal tomorrow.

Keenan: Rehearsal?

Ed: Well aren't you in Requiem?

Keenan (hesitant, nervous): ...Sure?

Ed (nods): I'm in it too.

Keenan (blank disbelief): ...What part, Pop?

Ed: Army.  That's what concerns me.  I need your opinion.

Keenan: ...Well sure, Pop, uh...Come on over, we'll talk about it".

As the old saying goes, "That's showbiz".  Whether it's also the stupidest damned thing anyone's ever heard or said, I leave up to the judgment of others.  Either way, you're probably right on that score.

Conclusion: Rod Serling Presents: Steven Spielberg.

The interesting thing to keep in mind about The Man in the Funny suit is that it is based off of real life events.  What makes this simple, stand alone episode in a television show somewhat unique from other attempts like it is the active, and willing participation of the real life subjects involved in the original historical event.  Ed and Keenan Wynn both play their actual selves.  The same goes for the aforementioned Martin Manulis, and even extends to none other than Rod Serling himself.  To give an idea of how distinctive this type of situation is, ask what it would be like to watch a movie like Tombstone if it featured the actual Earp Brothers, the Clantons, and everybody who participated in the OK Corral Incident.  The very surreality of a real life figure trying to recreate his or her own history tends to lend this odd twist effect to our perceptions.  It's been done so little, that every time it does happen, there may always be this sense of esoteric oddity about any such endeavors.  In addition, the general surreality of real people dramatizing themselves can also raise some fairly logical questions.

The most important, of course, is whether or not they are telling the exact truth?  Do the events of the dramatization match up well enough with the historical facts?  Or have things been shifted, or altered, in order to suit the requirements and demands of a more dramatic (i.e. fictional) storytelling format?  Granted, this is sort of the loaded dice question when it comes to all the biopics in existence, or that ever will be.  It probably also doesn't help that the answer will always tend to vary from one picture to the next.  Films like Tombstone appear to go for a break-even approach, splitting the difference between the facts, legends, and dramatic necessities of a figure like Wyatt Earp.  On the other hand, you've got films like Selma, or The Crossing.  Where the filmmakers are under pressure to put as much emphases as possible on the real facts of history, while also scrambling to find a way to keep their audience entertained.  The irony is it can be argued that both Martin Luther King and George Washington are a lot easier to deal with on a dramatic level, simply because each of their lives were so full of incident.  It's almost as if the makers can just sit back and relax a bit, and let the drama of real life tell itself.

This winds up being particularly the case in films like the King biopic, where the confrontations at the Pettus Bridge offers audiences a brilliant standout example of how history provides all the emotional impact needed to win over an audience.  For instance, while most of us know about the event from history books, we are often giving a truncated version of what really happened.  The result is that you are the edge of your seat when the full story gets told, and are even left hanging for one dreadful moment, when you're not at all sure just what is going to happen next.  And then the film proceeds to recount the bits of history we were never told, and the result kind of floors you with its unexpected twists and turns.  It remains, perhaps the masterclass example on how to present the actual "art" of real life.  In the case of films like The Man in Funny Suit, however, there may always be a few questions left lingering after the final credits, especially regarding the question of, "Did it really happen like the way it is depicted"?  In this case, I think the best rule of thumb is to apply a maxim set up long ago by none other than that great, American ironist, Mark Twain.  In the preface to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain has his protagonist describe the book in the following manner: "He told the truth...mostly".  That seems to be the case here, as well.

It's an indisputable fact that Ed Wynn's fortunes were nearing a creative slump stage when he got a call from Playhouse 90 asking him to take part in filming Serling's script.  The crucial piece of history that remains intact throughout its recreation in the episode is the fact that Ed Wynn was giving Serling and his son a lot of grief by constantly flubbing, or having trouble remembering his lines.  It got so bad that the showrunners tried rushing in an understudy at the last minute, in case things went wrong.  All this is verifiable fact.  The questions begin when it comes to figuring out just what parts dramatized in the episode were also real, and which are the pure invention for the sake of artistic effect.  The funny thing is just how difficult it is to answer a question as simple is that.  This could be a case of the critic slacking on the job.  I won't be at all surprised if anyone tries to claim that the whole episode is little more than an hour long stretching of the truth.  I'll have to at least admit that counts as a possibility 

The trouble is it all happened so long ago, is the problem.  If the Wynns or Serling were still alive, we could always grill them on the exact nature of the events leading to the Requiem broadcast.  However, since the passage of time couldn't be bothered to wait, all we have to go on is the merest guesswork.  For instance, what are we to make of an early scene in the show were Ed Wynn confronts his son over the nature of Serling's script?  He claims to have read it "a half dozen times".  That's why he wants Keenan's opinion.  It counts as a definite departure from the kind of material he's used to dealing with.  Ed also thinks the part might be too small.  "Why, Army isn't even in some of the scenes.  I don't have much to say".  Keenan insists it isn't how much a character has to say, yet rather what is said.  It's a good bit of advice, in retrospect.  All any story has to go on is words, in the final analysis.  That's why making sure the right words get set down on paper in as correct an order as possible remains the inescapable, vital component in any literary undertaking, whether on page or screen.  It's a high wire act that Serling wound up being particularly good at, more often than not.  Still, Ed insists, "I don't even have one laugh in the entire piece".  He even insists that he could put "a real belly laugh in there".

I said earlier ago that Serling was a writer of two equal, coexisting parts, the Bradburyan fantasist, and the Scorseseian dramatist.  It's rare to find an artist capable of writing in two dynamic opposite styles, or genres at once.  Rod just seems to have been one of the lucky few who were able to pull it off somehow.  Guess he must have always had a greater, more expansive and generous imagination than most of his peers.  That could have initially been true in Ed Wynn's case.  At first, he insists, "If I consent to play in this, they must realize that the audience expects Ed Wynn to make them laugh.  I'll have to tell jokes and, maybe once or twice, put on a funny hat.  You know, things like that.  Don't tell me, I know what the audience wants from me".  The best response to the scene is to break even, and go with the idea that it was "something like it".  There probably was a meeting between Wynn and his son, and Ed most likely did propose trying to "liven" Serling's script up with humor.  The real life difference is that rather than mandating anything, Ed just probably offered it all as a suggestion.  One that Keenan was probably quick to shut down.  I think that's how the rest of it has to be viewed as; a heady mixture of the real life truth intercut with just enough fictional elements so as to make it difficult for even the astute viewer to tell the two apart.  It might also be the best testament to the quality of this episode.

The ultimate heart of the story comes from those moments where father and son are in rehearsal for the Heavyweight show.  And it is in these crucial scenes that I think Ed Wynn might have just given us the best example of why he shouldn't be underrated as a good actor.  To start with, even before the main conflict kicks into high gear, we're shown Wynn's ability to switch ably, back and forth, from the serious to the comedic.  He puts on his well-known showbiz persona when on stage, and then becomes this almost quiet, respectable patriarch when surrounded by just his family.  At the drop of a hat, Wynn can turn himself from this outrageous goofball, to just this average, working schlub.  Someone who's probably never been much of anything else in his life, and that level of nervous self-awareness has left him with the constant desire to be liked for at least something.  In that sense, you maybe begin to grasp that for the Mad Hatter, being the class clown will always be a hell of a lot better than nothing.  That's what he can't stand.

It's one of those character notes that translate into a shocking bit of revelation.  What makes this one so unique is that it is also something that applied to the actor off-screen, in real life.  I can't say I was expecting to go into this simple TV drama and recieve as close to a crucial understanding of who Ed Wynn was, at his core, and yet apparently this is what I've come away with.  When any story can do that, regardless of format, it has to be considered one of those special successes.  We're given the picture of an actual artist as a man whose insecurities gnaw at him to the point where he can't manage to say his lines straight.  It gets so bad that at one point he just keeps bursting out laughing at the sort of straightforward, non-comedic dialogue you would expect to hear in films like Mean Streets, or Stallone's Rocky.  In all of this Wynn, Ed Wynn goes the extra mile.  In doing so, he lays his soul bare.

It's the essential character note that helps to not just propel the drama forward.  It's also what gives the story its central heart.  It's also what helps the viewer understand the exact nature of The Man in the Funny Suit, and the truth of the lie couldn't be more ironic, or appropriate.  A while back, I think I name dropped Spielberg somewhere in here.  What makes that so funny is because as the Desilu episode played out, I realized that the director of E.T. sort of helps provide the final missing piece of the puzzle.  It really is like watching a Steven Spielberg movie.  One that is made with the help of none other than Rod Serling.  This gets even more hilarious when you stop and realize that Steven got his start in the business by working on an episode of Night Gallery, which was another famous Serling project.  So the fact tat Rod would wind up starring in an earlier story which neatly matches the kind of films Spielberg would make perhaps just goes to add the capping bit of remarkable serendipity.  It's incredible, really.

It's not at all the sort of thing any modern audience would expect to find in a discarded installment of an old, forgotten television anthology.  So here it is, apparently, and it's one that could have been in danger of falling through the cracks of time forever, unless someone was willing to come along and let others know it's there.  The whole thing has been like having the dumb luck to stumble upon a buried treasure chest.  Nor is the comparison with E.T. director all that misplaced.  If you stop and think it over, you'll find that the major plot point at the center of The Man in the Funny Suit is also pretty much the driving force behind every film Spielberg has ever done.  At the center of just about every one of his film lies the ongoing theme of the conflict between father and son.  It seems like a topic the director never chose to focus on.  It's just that personal circumstances turned it into his underlying obsession as an artist; one that he's spent his entire career pretty much trying to work through, with each film he's ever made.  It's placed Spielberg right at the heart of the same dichotomy that Joe Hill outlined above.  It's also a theme that Serling, along with Ed and Keenan Wynn just so happen to tap neatly into during their joint efforts.

The result is a fascinating, curious mixture of three elements.  The kind of plot points that you don't expect to be able to fuse together into one seamless whole, and yet that's just they do.  First off, there's the Spielberg element.  This is the one that comes through in the main action revolving around Keenan and his dad, as they both spend the majority of the show trying to come to grips with one another.  This first element is then sort of heightened with the addition of Serling's own contribution.  It's a pleasure to report that he does well on camera, and never gets in the way of the story.  The best part for most readers will be to know that he also never tarnishes his most lasting public image.  You'll be able to recognize him as the "voice" of The Twilight Zone, while also being able let the story tell itself, without ever letting his reputation get in the way.  Instead, the addition of Serling allows his reputation to heighten the Spielberg elements in the story.  It's another bit of welcome serendipity, as Serling and Spielberg can be said to have both plied their courses in in perhaps the exact same office space.

This lends a level of smooth narrative transition between the private conflict between Ed and his son, and into the public sphere of a live television broadcast.  This is where the final thread of the story takes place.  What's remarkable about it is just how well it meshes with all of the other two elements mentioned above.  We can sort of expect the proto-Spielbergian aspects of the story to mesh well with the inherent sense of fabulism that Serling brings to the play.  What I don't think anyone would count on is for all the points that make up a Serling/Spielberg plot to collaborate well with those found in a work by Martin Scorsese.  I've said that there were two aspects, even two differing phases of Serling's career.  The first is the one that took place in live television shows, such Playhouse 90, or Studio One.  The predominant note of this era was the kind of gritty social drama that nowadays seems relegated to anything Scorsese decides to turn his hand to.  What's interesting to discover is that it was writers like Serling who might have to stand as representative prototypes for concepts Scorsese would explore through films like Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, The King of Comedy, and Silence.

What makes the presence of these Scorsesian seed elements so unique in the mind of Rod Serling is that it's almost like the author had the ability to then turn right around, and switch identities.  It's like at the flick of some unseen, mental switch, Scorsese somehow becomes Spielberg at the drop of a hat.  I just find it so amusing, not just because of the obvious contrast in style and content.  It's got to be a talent unique to Serling himself.  Because, I'll swear, I've seen very few filmmakers who can pull off that kind of set switch with any constant amount of success.  Spielberg might be one example of an artist whose career can consist of paralleling paths, with the Indiana Jones films on one hand, and a straightforward drama like The Post on the other.  Scorsese himself showed us he was capable of the same thing exactly once, when he took time out of his gritty schedule to make a film like Hugo, and even then I think it's telling he did that just once in his career.

As time went on, Serling found himself at greater ease in the Spielberg role, more than he was as a Scorsese.  It's a statement provable by the simple fact that he is now and forever the creator of the Zone, and all its fantastical qualities.  Hell, even back in the live TV days, you could still catch this other side of him showing up in a finished product.  A good example of the later phase artist we all know now is the production of a script called Nightmare at Ground Zero.  It concerns a doll maker losing his mind in the middle of an A-Bomb testing site, while all the while being surrounded by his creations, which are dead ringers for the kind of mannequins that would later go on to terrify Zone fans everywhere, with a later installment episode known simply as, The After Hours.  Now this sounds more like the Serling we're all familiar with.  It's got to be the first time that the later fantastic note makes its appearance in his work.  Over time it was also this note that determined the rest of Serling's entire career, and legacy.

By the time The Man in the Funny Suit aired on April 15th, 1960, Rod had already launched the Zone just the year before, and was well on his way to becoming a household name.  His appearance here, alongside Ed and Keenan Wynn seems like it was a chance for him to take stock of his career up to now.  From the way the episode itself plays out, he considers himself pretty lucky, and is willing to look back in fondness on where he's been, with a hopeful outlook on where he could go next.  The result is an interesting, and most important of all, an entertaining hybrid.  It's a story that sees the Scorsese-Spielbergian elements of Serling's talents being able to meet up as one, and all in the space of a single TV show program.  I got to confess, this was never something I was ever expecting to see play out before my eyes.  What's even more remarkable is just how good it all meshes and works together to form a seamless whole.  Part of what makes the Wynns job so easy is that they've been given a perfect forum in which to stretch their legs.  It's a secondary space involving both history and fantasy.  It's a middle ground where both elements in Serling's talent meet up for what might have been the last time.

The result is the very familiar Spielbergian conflict between a father and son, with all of it being allowed to play out in a quasi-Scorsesian setting.  It's one that somehow manages to allow enough room for the Spielberg elements to take center stage in a way that never gets overtaken by any clashing aspects that would ruin the picture.  Instead, what the viewer is left with has got to be one of the most surprising, heart-warming slices of life ever committed to film.  In many ways, this is very much the sort of thing you might expect to here from Serling himself in one of his lighter moments.  It's less concerned with his usual fair, and is more focused on questions of character, change, and reconciliation.  It should be noted that none of this is alien to Rod's own work.  Considering that he once helped adapt "Pickman's Model" for a later Night Gallery episode, it's safe to say that Serling was no stranger to the darker channels of creative talent.  However, as a strange sort of rule, his best work tend to operate in an aspect of the Gothic/Sci-Fi that is qualitatively different from that of writers such as Lovecraft.  Rod has a lot more in common with Ray Bradbury than any other fantasist out there.In fact, if you stop and think it over, it soon become apparent that it's this same Bradburyan paradigm that gave us not only Serling and his quasi-haunted modern American landscapes.  

It's probably also the source for the enchanted suburbia that Spielberg seems to have deliberately borrowed from both of the two earlier artists.  Perhaps its this retrospective sense of shared literary practices that makes this little excursion so easy to like and review.  The whole thing plays out as this slow burn revelation of the familiar in the new.  The brilliant irony of it gets doubled when you realize this whole scenario was made when young Steven was probably still just trying to survive through high school.  If you want, it's possible to speculate that he might have caught this episode on the tube late one night, and has been remaking it ever since.  That, however, sounds like taking the cause-effect bridge a bit too far.  The truth is that The Man in the Funny Suit is a heartwarming story about the bonds and talents that can be found in, and shared with family.  It just happens to contain a lot of the seeds that at least one other artist would later make famous.  Taken on its own terms, this single show is a quiet tour de force.

Everybody is hitting all the right marks, and sometimes this gives off results that are funny, touching, and eye-opening by turns.  Like I said before, there may be moments where the actual history is stretched, here and there.  Yet I'm willing to argue that it never reaches the same levels of speculation as that found in, say, Milos Foreman's Amadeus.  The showrunners here may bend a minor detail for the sake of the necessary amount of drama.  Yet the truth seems to be never warped out of shape.  Just a brief tweak, here and there, then its back to the historical record.  What the record tells is how sometimes fathers and sons can grow apart from each other.  As well as the ways in which these gaps can be healed and reconciled in the most surprising of ways.  The final outcome would have left Serling, Frank Capra, or Spielberg proud.  In fact, the biggest criticism I have to level at the show is a minor one.  The closing shot features Rod congratulating Ed and Keenan on a job well done.  Then each of them goes their respective, separate ways.  In hindsight, I'm sure most would have preferred that all three film legends walk off together.  And yet, this is little more than a nitpick.  The Man in the Funny Suit was like discovering an unjustly forgotten bit of treasure tucked away in a corner of pop culture memory.  It's the sort of thing that deserves a second chance, and is a tribute to a lot of great talents.     

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