Season One, Episode Thirty-Two
Written by: Rod Serling
Directed by: Don Medford
Loosely reminiscent of Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend in its opening scene, with its cracklingly poetic dialogue—just with a horn player instead of a writer—A Passage for Trumpet has Jack Klugman, the finest actor The Twilight Zone would ever feature—and they would feature him four times—playing a trumpet player and a drunk, an "urban loser" as Marc Scott Zicree calls him, an archetype to which Klugman would often return. (See, A Game of Pool, in which Klugman plays a similar character.) Beautiful in script and especially in execution, A Passage for Trumpet is the finest episode of The Twilight Zone I've come across so far during this project. Without a narrative anymore supernatural or science-fictional than It's a Wonderful Life, its relatively slight story about the value of life may not be as effective or devastating as Capra's classic film, but for a half-hour television spot it comes as close as it could reasonably be expected to. Indeed, A Passage for Trumpet's biggest flaw is that it's too short for its own subject matter; cinematographer George Clemens, responsible for the episode's artfully noirish chiaroscuro, said that during shooting the episode was shaping up to be an hour long, but unfortunately they couldn't convince the network or producers either to let them make a two part episode or to get them an hour-long slot to show it in; thus, only a presumably truncated version of the episode survives. But, like Greed or The Magnificent Ambersons, it's nevertheless a masterpiece in its own right. (Whether they actually shot an entire hour's worth and then had to edit it down, I don't know, but even if that wasn't the case we could say it suffered from "pre-production truncation".)
Klugman can't get a gig because he's always drunk and mucking up the tunes with his inebriated, atonal lines. (Was Schoenberg drunk when he developed the 12 tone system, inspired by Alcoholics Anonymous' twelve steps?) Why'd he throw his life away for some "bad hooch"? an erstwhile colleague asks. "Because I'm sad," Klugman says with an affectingly rueful smile, in one of the greatest line deliveries I've ever heard. Pawning his horn and despising himself, Klugman decides to end it all by leaping in front of a truck. He awakens hours later on the curb, like a run of the mill wino, as an invisible man, believing himself to be a ghost and noting that his suicide was the only success he's had in years. In reality, he's caught in a limbo between the real and the shadow, about to be taught a lesson; this is, after all, The Twilight Zone. He goes to the alley behind his old jazz club to soak up some swing when he hears some randy brass blues blowing nearby. On inspection, the blower is the Archangel Gabriel, hipply calling himself "Gabe" and pointing out he knows a thing or two about horns, man; ordinarily, hearing Gabriel blow his horn isn't a good sign, but it turns out he's not here to commence the Apocalypse, just to help Klugman remember the great aspects of life, and to give him the chance to live again, with a warning not to let his talent go to waste. "The bugle and me, till death do us part!" Klugman enthusiastically promises. The whole sequence is a little flat, as Klugman comes to realize all the wonders life has to offer—movies, friends, beautiful music—rather quickly for someone who five minutes ago had the conviction to off himself. The quick sum-up and narrative turn is a bit stilted and uninspired, the equivalent of Greed's title cards that sum up entire lost reels, demonstrating that Clemens was certainly correct when he said that the episode should've run for sixty minutes.
But A Passage for Trumpet brushes off the setback and rebounds with a beautifully simple scene in which Klugman, honking out the blues on his New York rooftop, meets a nice young girl who's new to town. Heartwarming without being hokey, A Passage for Trumpet has a message even for those among us who aren't a setback away from leaping into oncoming traffic; as Serling notes in the closing narration, "[life] can be rich and rewarding and full of beauty...if a person would only pause to look and to listen." It's a cornpone sentiment that's tough, on film, to sell convincingly, but A Passage for Trumpet succeeds in closing the sale, thanks in large part to Klugman's magnificently nuanced performance. While Klugman wanders his limbo to learn his lesson, Gabriel reports that those who can't see him, and not he himself, are the ghosts, the waking, walking dead, suggesting that, save for a conscious few, most of us are numbed in miserable complacency, unable to recognize the beauty (and truly talented, like Serling?) around us. A Passage for Trumpet encourages us to stop, smell the roses and live a little; so play some music, fall in love. Come on you scamps, get up you sinners (you're all too full of expensive dinners?), stand up on your lazy feet and sing! And blow, Klugman, blow!
For Netflix Purposes:
On Disc 4 of Image Entertainment's Twilight Zone DVDs.