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The Twilight Zone (Episode #87): “A Piano In The House” (airdate 2/16/62)
The Plot: A theater critic by the name of Fitzgerald Fortune buys one of those creepy player pianos and soon discovers it plays more than music. It strums the ethereal chords of the human soul!
The Goods: Fitzgerald Fortune (Barry Morse) is not a nice man. He’s a theater critic known for excoriating artists’ efforts with wit and derision, but it’s not a facet of his personality he saves only for his day job. Everyone from his wife Esther (Joan Hackett) to his housekeeper Marvin (Cyril Delevanti) have felt the sting of his words. Fitz buys a player piano for his wife since she’s spoken of a desire to learn to play but “hasn’t a trace of talent.” He’s delighted to discover that certain tunes have a mysterious effect on certain listeners… the truth within them comes out uncontrollably. As his wife’s friends gather for her birthday party he sets out to have a little musical fun at their expense.
“Oh Marvin. If you’re going to wait at the party tonight do you think you could manage to do something about your face?”
Nobody likes a critic. Take it from someone who was blasted by the screenwriter of Balls Out: Gary the Tennis Coach for not “getting” the film’s finer comedic moments. And it’s an understandable reaction too as critics at their best are nothing more than people with informed and articulate opinions. But those who enjoy tearing works of art to shreds with their words are in the minority, and few of them are as deliciously prickish as Mr. Fortune.
After telling his wife to fire Marvin due to his “lugubrious expression” he plays a song on the piano that brings out the butler’s joy. Fitz realizes the instrument is a way to reveal a person’s two faces, the one they wear and the one they keep hidden, and while most people would find this fascinating or dangerous Fitz finds it endlessly entertaining. Next he targets his wife and discovers she regrets marrying him. A male friend of hers reveals he’s in love with her. The evening’s most emotional revelation comes when a portly woman describes how she often dreams of being small, lithe, and loved by a wonderful man. Reactions differ amongst the guests, but Fitz is giddy at the possibilities and laughs.
Earl Hamner Jr. wrote eight episodes of the show, and this is a fairly solid example of his abilities. It’s a bit predictable in that anyone who’s seen more than a few episodes of the show knows exactly where it’ll end up, especially the ones involving a mysterious item with mystical powers. We also know who the last one to react to the piano’s tunes will be, but the dialogue is sharp and the performances are strong enough to carry us through that predictability.
It’s quite good, but far from perfect. The story as a whole works fine, but there are some serious unanswered gaps. Most obviously missing is any explanation as to how the piano works. Not the magic behind it, that’s something explained solely by its presence in The Twilight Zone. But how does Fitz know which song rolls will affect which listeners? He’s clearly picking specific tunes for each victim, but there’s no explanation as to how exactly he knows. And speaking of Fitz, why isn’t he the least bit surprised by the piano’s ability? He’s amused clearly, but he seems to take it all in his stride a bit too easily.
Still, this is a solid entry in the series that finds its appeal through acting and writing as opposed to a zinger of an ending. We all know Fortune will get his in the end, and we even have a good idea what his inner truth will be, but Morse and company keep us engaged through performances that more often than not find a short but true emotional core. Best of all, Marvin gets the last laugh by not laughing at all.
What do you think?
The Trivia: Barry Morse also starred in an episode of The Twilight Zone revival series in the eighties.
On the Next Episode: “A young man wakes up at his own funeral and wants to know what is going on. The townfolk are glad to see him back, but they begin to wonder if he’s a man or something else.”
Catch-Up: Episodes covered by Twitch / Episodes covered by FSR
We’re running through all 156 of the original Twilight Zone episodes over the next several weeks, and we won’t be doing it alone! Our friends at Twitch will be entering the Zone as well on alternating weeks. So definitely tune in over at Twitch and feel free to also follow along on our Twitter accounts @twitchfilm and @rejectnation.