A great many silent era stars, directors and other personnel enjoyed long careers after the talkies arrived, a fair number stuck around long enough to be television stars. Due to its anthology format, a new cast every week, The Twilight Zone was an unusually rich showcase for silent talent. (I have already discussed Joseph Schildkraut’s appearances on the show.)
Today’s featured star is Ernest Truex, you might have seen his character work in the talkies or heard of his stage performances. But the diminutive performer was an honest-to-goodness name-above-the-titles star in the silent era. He played the title character in A Good Little Devil on stage and screen and Mary Pickford was his leading lady.
As usual, I will examine one of the Twilight Zone episodes that starred Truex and then dig a little bit into his silent career. I warn you, though, it’s not going to be a very happy story because I can’t find a record of a single one of Truex’s pictures being made available to the modern public.
I will be going full spoiler because, well, the show is sixty years old and available to stream just about everywhere. Plus, the episodes are less than half and hour each. I don’t see much of a need to be coy.
What You Need (1959)
In my opinion, What You Need is one of the highlights of The Twilight Zone’s first season. It’s a quiet, sweet little fairy tale that turns darker and darker without ever overplaying its hand or winking an obvious “Aren’t we gruesome???” to the audience. (Not the biggest fan of the “Shouty One-Man Show” episodes.) I think it’s underrated as well. Lots of people like it but it isn’t referenced the way bigger, more iconic episodes are.
And a big part of its success can be attributed to the seasoned talents of Ernest Truex. Truex plays Pedott, a shabby peddler of matches and bits and bobs… and sometimes a bit of magic. He has a power, you see, and can glimpse into the future, see a possibility and sell people that one item that will prove to be “what you need.”
A down and out athlete needs a bus ticket. A young lady in the bar needs a bit of cleaning fluid to start a romance. (She’s played by Arlene Martel, by the way, and Trekkies will recognize her immediately as Spock’s cunning fiancée.) And Fred Renard (Steve Cochran) needs a pair of scissors to cut his scarf when it catches in the elevator.
But Renard is a crook and wants to use Pedott’s unique abilities to line his own pockets. Pedott indulges him once with a pen that will pick out the winning horse but when Renard wants more, Pedott cuts him off. Renard rummages through Pedott’s case of merchandise and decides that a pair of shoes are what he needs. When nothing seems to be happening, he chases after Pedott intending to kill him.
The shoes do indeed prove to be the key. They have slick soles and when a speeding car runs down Renard, he can’t run out of the way and is killed. And then Pedott delivers the episode’s poison sting: the shoes were not what Renard needed. They were what Pedott needed. He knew Renard would kill him and so he took steps to make sure that Renard would die in the attempt. And with that, Mr. Pedott returns to his kindly, small, helpful ways, giving a bystander a comb so he will not have messy hair for a newspaper photo.
The first season of The Twilight Zone, while full of gems, did have a lot of overtly dark material and dudes running around shrieking and so the sneaky creepiness of What You Need is a most welcome change of pace. The gentle superman who is happy to use his powers for small happiness rather than big wins would be revisited in the season two episode The Prime Mover but that episode was more of a straight up comedy and morality play. Charming, especially with the performance of Buddy Ebsen as a gentle telekinetic, but missing that zap at the end of What You Need.
One wonders how many mobsters and ne’er-do-wells had attempted to shake Pedott down and how many of them exited the scene feet first. Never by any means so coarse as a gun. Just a pair of leather shoes that are a bit too slick. This dark aspect of the character is sometimes listed as a flaw in the episode but I think it’s the best part; a potentially twee character showing deadly teeth is always going to be interesting.
The original story adapted for The Twilight Zone was credited to Lewis Padgett, the joint pseudonym of Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore. And before Rod Serling adapted it, it had been shot as an episode of the sci-fi anthology show Tales of Tomorrow. The evolution of the plot and two main characters makes for an interesting detour.
The original story is not about a peddler and a mobster but a Park Avenue shopkeeper and a pushy reporter whose bosses always want a new story. Customers enter the shop, buy bundles of oddities from heatproof gloves to a single egg and pay a small fortune for the privilege. Finally, the shopkeeper confesses that he has invented a probability machine that allows him to predict the future with alarming accuracy. This seems like an odd confession to a reporter but the shopkeeper has used his machine on him and knows that in ten years, the reporter will murder him to steal the machine. He preempts that crime a decade in advance with a slick pair of shoes. He is playing god but he signed on for it, has done it before and will do it again.
Dark stuff, to be sure, but perhaps a bit too dark for the emerging television market. Also, such legitimate institutions as the press and Park Avenue shops engaging in such behavior? Why, the very idea! And so for the 1952 episode of Tales of Tomorrow, the business is a homey variety shop, the reporter is a pushy freelancer and the shop owner has a wife to keep him on the straight and narrow. But the results are the same as the novel: covetousness leads to murder and to preempt it, a pair of slick shoes are needed. The main difference is that this was the result of drink and not a long-term crumbling of moral failsafes.
The major departure from the story is that the television writers, likely working under similar pressure that forced the makers of The Day the Earth Stood Still to add an embarrassing “aliens totally go to church on Sunday” speech, included the shopkeeper’s regret and horror at what he has done. He smashes the machine in despair. This may have satisfied prudes worried about little Johnnie making a probability machine on the sabbath or something but it does rather weaken the character as the shopkeeper’s naivete is an important addition and deserves deeper examination.
And now we come to The Twilight Zone. The characters’ circumstances are reduced yet again to peddler and mobster, the latter likely because fewer people would worry about a career criminal’s death by slick shoes. But since in all versions, the shopkeeper/peddler kills for a crime not yet committed, I really don’t see how it makes a difference beyond superficial classism. In any case, the evolution of Pedott more than makes up for that.
I liked the removal of the probability machine and the ambiguity about Pedott’s abilities. Is he telepathic? Does he have a machine hidden in his apartment? Is he an alien? An elf? We don’t know and as a result, we can focus on the psychology of the character and his embrace of simplicity and small good deeds instead of worrying about the hows.
Unlike the other versions of the character, Pedott often gives away his items and services for free and he has no set client list. He likes to work the local bar but nobody has put together that good things happen in his wake. This would seem to be the best way to prevent power hungry people from bother him but, as we see, there are always Renards.
And the finale is far more chilling than Tales of Tomorrow with Pedott’s simple description of the shoes: “They happen to be what I need.” Truex plays the scene beautifully. A scintilla of regret, a whole lot of defiance and sorrow. This isn’t Pedott’s first rodeo. And then he returns to his simple life of giving people what they need. Until the next creep comes along.
One of the things I really noticed about Truex’s performance is that he has that special something with his eyes that you only see in veterans of silent film. They have this way of commanding the camera with just an expression and there is a depth of feeling that they bring to any scene in which they appear. For a great example of this, watch Richard Barthelmess in Only Angels Have Wings with the sound off.
Truex also starred in Kick the Can, one of many Twilight Zone episodes to examine both aging and mind over matter. It featured Truex’s son, Barry.
But now it’s time to move on to a more obscure corner of Ernest Truex’s career, his work in silent film.
Ernest Truex in the Silent Era
Ernest Truex was already a veteran of the stage when he was cast in the role that would send him to the movies. Mary Pickford had left the stage for the screen and after stints at Biograph and IMP and Biograph again. By 1912, she was in a position to leverage her screen stardom into drawing power on the legitimate stage once again. The stage was still consider far superior to vulgar movies but the performers and impresarios were starting to come around and would soon flood motion pictures. (Most washed out. Turns out movies weren’t as easy as they looked.)
Pickford was cast in David Belasco’s production of A Good Little Devil and the diminutive Ernest Truex was the devil of the title. It was a fairy story, a little tooth-achingly sweet but quite popular and it brought Adolph Zukor into the story. His Famous Players in Famous Plays brand would become part of what is now Paramount but at the time, he was still signing talent and plays. His plan was to bring A Good Little Devil over to the movies lock, stock and barrel.
To that end, David Belasco filmed an introduction to the picture and apparently took such an eager interest in the proceedings that Famous Players jokingly issued him a check for services rendered. I don’t know who was to blame but the picture took its stage origins too literally with the actors mouthing their actual lines and generally being stiff as anything instead of relying on skilled pantomime. Mary Pickford described it as “deadly” but she tended to be hardest on herself. Unfortunately, we cannot judge for ourselves because most of the picture is missing and presumed lost. (You can read more details of the production in Pickford: The Woman Who Made Hollywood by Eileen Whitfield.)
Zukor sat on the film for a year before releasing it, which does not speak to its quality, but it was already off to the races for Pickford. And Ernest Truex. While Pickford had enjoyed top billing, Truex had received good enough notices to build a career for himself on the screen and establish the pattern he would follow throughout his career: a few movies, a few plays and back again.
Truex’s small stature and flair for comedy meant that he would eventually end up in character parts but he seemed to have held on as a leading man for a decent amount of time, being paired with the equally tiny Shirley Mason on several occasions. He made propaganda pictures and sports comedies too. In short, exactly what you would expect silent era comedy star to make.
I am very much shooting in the dark here because for all intents and purposes, Ernest Truex’s career begins with the 1933 version of Whistling in the Dark, the earliest complete surviving film I know of and certainly the earliest available on home video. But his talkie career is already pretty well-covered.
Loving and watching silent films sometimes means dealing with big, gaping holes in the historical record. Ernest Truex wasn’t a superstar like Theda Bara but the possible loss of his career stings all the same. It’s easy to be academic and claim that loss is inevitable and that he wasn’t that big a star but that’s rather on par with going to a funeral and proclaiming that everyone dies eventually so it’s not such a big loss. We have permission to weep over this sad loss to film history.
If you have any information on the survival status of Truex’s silent films, I would love to hear it! I am quietly hoping for some good news. Hopefulness in the face of overwhelming odds is essential for silent film fans.
Header Image: Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library. Ernest TruexRetrieved from http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47df-5cae-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99