Season 3, Episode 21
Directed by: Lamont Johnson
Written by: George Clayton Johnson
George Clayton Johnson was wise beyond his years, spending the early '60s—when he was only in his thirties—writing a string of moving and mature teleplays on the nature of aging and death; indeed, the first story he ever sold was entitled, "All of Us Are Dying", a blunt statement that just about sums up the mortality-obsessed worldview expressed in his writings. His first episode of The Twilight Zone's third season, Nothing in the Dark, deals with an elderly woman's coming to terms with her own imminent demise, but frankly, though sweet, it's a tad cloying in the way it plays out. (Read our review of it here.) His next episode, Kick the Can, threatens to succumb to the same sort of sappiness, but through a last minute reversal of tone it becomes an effectively tragic tale about loneliness and the forsaken character of old age.
Charles (Ernest Truex, fiesty) may have a bed at Sunnyvale Rest on Tranquility Lane, but he doesn't quite live there, if you know what I mean. Surrounded by zonked-out, senile and half-blind droolers, he still has a spunk about him and an unwillingness to go gently into that good twilight of soup and half-a-sandwich lunches. Against the backdrop of stationary senescents that opens the episode, tow-headed kids are seen playing the children's classic kick-the-can. Charles spots their can and selfishly steals it, against the protests of the children. "Hey mister, that's our can, we're playing with it," one pleads, but Charles, gripping it madly with a far away look in his eyes, is completely oblivious to his imploration.
That's because he's suddenly too preoccupied with pondering the nature of age. Is age an effect of time, or is it merely a state of mind? Charles is fascinated by the idea that the Fountain of Youth might be just a way of thinking, but his cantankerous roommate and lifelong pal Ben (Russell Collins) wants no talk of such silliness. He peers out the window, crotchetily complaining about those dang noisy kids, loud enough to "wake the dead", or at least just the elderly fusspots near death living at the home. Charles is more forgiving, admiring their sense of play and remarking, in reference to the retirement home's grounds, "kids can't resist going where the grass is." (Certainly a cleverly subtle joke from well-known marijuana-legalization advocate Johnson.)
In contrast to the playing children, Charles' fellow septua- and octo-genarian housemates are nothing but "vegetables on a porch", seemingly unflappable until something happens—then they're all nosy and crabby commentators in typical senior citizen fashion. "Let him drown himself if he wants," one remarks of Charles as he dances in a sprinkler.
"We all get old," is the repeated, defeatist refrain that Charles just cannot accept; he becomes convinced that the secret to juvenescence is in play, and that a game of kick-the-can will restore their youth. "[But] I can't play kick the can alone!" he entreats his fellow residents, with a fervor on par with Howard Beale. "Wake up! This is your last chance!" Or, "I want you to get up, and go to your windows, and shout, 'I'm old as hell, and I'm not gonna take it anymore!'"
Preceding this outburst is a rather touching scene as the old timers discuss the changes that accompany old age. "It's the running I miss the most," one remarks, to which another woman agrees. This coaxed-out spirit of mournful melancholy is what ultimately inspires all the seniors to finally agree to play Charles' game. All but Old Ben, that is, who wants nothing to do with it; Ben won't go because, as Charles asserts, he's afraid—afraid to look foolish, afraid to make a mistake; Johnson, playing up a prominent theme from Nothing in the Dark, is saying that it's not only a surrendering-to-the-inevitable mindset that makes people "old", but that it's a driving sense of fear, the sort that adults of any age often feel and what ultimately separates them from their youthful counterparts. Eventually, Ben rouses the home's president, played by notable character actor John Marley (who got a bedful of horse's head in The Godfather), and asks him to put a stop to this foolishness.
Of course, when they get outside there are no old folks, just children at play. It worked! Charles was right, there is still magic in the world! This expected and inevitable happy ending almost makes Kick the Can nothing more than pleasant and well-acted feel-good fare, but then comes the tragedy--Ben, now the only old person left, begs his old friend Charles, now a young boy, to take him with them, to restore his youth. The small boy stares frightenedly at Ben, before simply running off to Ben's despair, a moment of devastating abandonment later revisited by Serling in On Thursday We Leave for Home. But the scene mirrors the opening scene, in which Charles thinks he is leaving the rest home to live with his son. When his son arrives there's a single line: "I didn't say you could come home, I said we'd talk about it." Charles exits from his son's car, understanding Sunnyvale is now his final stop on the merry-go-round of life. Charles' son abandons him, just as Charles abandons Ben, because that's what children do; that's where Kick the Can's true pathos lies.
For Netflix purposes:
On Vol. 3 of Image Entertainment's Twilight Zone DVDs.