I’m sort of having trouble figuring out how to look at this episode. It’s hard to see it as anything other than a bit of a Sunset Boulevard knock-off with a science-fiction twist and yet I think this is one of the best episodes so far. Maybe that’s because it’s about an evergreen subject, one more relevant than ever, Hollywood sexism.
See, Barbara Jean Trenton is a former star of the screen and now that she’s older her opportunities have dried up. She refuses to do bit parts or play a mother, and so has retreated back into her old films. Her agent arranges to have one of her former screen partners come by. She’s horrified to see that he has aged and stopped acting, instead becoming the manager of chain of grocery stores.
I think that’s why I like this episode, it would have been easy to just do a Sunset Boulevard clone and while that is a lot of what it does, this episode goes the extra mile to give it just that little something extra. “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine” takes the time to show someone who has chosen to stop looking into the past, someone who has chosen to get out of the game. For many shows, that would be enough, saying this is a corrupt and sexist organization and the only way to win is to not play the game.
However, The Twilight Zone acknowledges that this second act in American life is a luxury that is often only afforded to men. Barbara recognizes that what sway she may have had in 1950’s American life was based on her youth and fame as an actress, fame that has dried up as she lost her youth. There’s a subtle bit of commentary with how much older Jerry is than Barbara, speaking to the way Hollywood often teams up young women with men twenty years their elder as romantic partners. Jerry has the luxury as being seen as a whole person, of being judged on their skills, instead of by their gender.
This fact is echoed by the other two male characters in the episode, Barbara’s agent and the head of the studio she used to work for. Both of them make an effort to help break Barbara out of her existential funk but they both do so by appealing to vanity and to her past, not realizing that by doing so they are enforcing the same societal norms that lead to her present state. Instead in the end she retreats both literally and metaphorically into the past, becoming a part of the films that she used to be so renowned for. But, and this is important, it isn’t into an old film, instead Barbara creates a film resembling the ones she used to be in but set in her current home and starring her as she is now.
In doing so Barbara has created a world, a society that judges her on her skills, especially that which she values most, acting. “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine” recognizes though, that this is merely a wish, one that may or may not even be real. When Barbara’s agent finds her handkerchief lying on the ground it is an admission that this isn’t real, but it could be, that Barbara’s wish may come true. Yet by having a man say this and be the one to find it instead of Barbara’s maid, it’s a statement that it is sexism that is holding this back from happening.
Hollywood sexism is an evergreen subject, and one that can be a bit tricky to handle. I don’t know if this episode is ever a perfect handling of it, and I think a lot of that comes down to the time period. More than that though it’s a symptom of having been directed and written by two men. I think a lot of what I find in the episode is meaning that was found through the performance of Ida Lupino, an accomplished director in her own right, as Barbara. Not to say this isn’t well written, it is but I think it loses something that could have been brought to the surface from someone who had really experienced this sort of sexism. I still believe that “Where is Everybody?” is the best episode so far but “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine” makes a strong case.
The Twilight Zone
Season One Episode Four: “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine”
Written by Rod Serling
Directed by Mitchell Leisen