The Twilight Zone: Season 1, Episode Four “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine”

Original Air Date: October 23, 1959
Writer: Rod Serling
Director: Mitchell Leisen

Picture of a woman looking at a picture. Movie great of another time, once-brilliant star in a firmament no longer a part of the sky, eclipsed by the movement of earth and time. Barbara Jean Trenton, whose world is a projection room, whose dreams are made out of celluloid. Barbara Jean Trenton, struck down by hit-and-run years and lying on the unhappy pavement, trying desperately to get the license number of fleeting fame.
-Rod Serling

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Our protagonist, Barbara “Barbie” Jean Trenton, is played by Ida Lupino, a prominent female filmmaker and actor during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Barbie is an aging film star from the 1930s who lives in a hazy world of conceit and denial. Her home in Beverly Hills is a dark mansion where, secluded from the world, she draws the shades and watches old movies from yesteryear. Her agent and caretaker is Danny Weiss (played by the great Martin Balsam whose filmography included Psycho, On The Waterfront, and 12 Angry Men). He visits Barbie regularly despite her unpleasant rejection of the contemporary world. Film buffs will note that “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine” pays homage to the legendary Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. Both the film and the Twilight Zone episode share the same themes as well as the musical composer, Franz Waxman. However, whereas Sunset Boulevard ends in tragedy, “The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine” concludes with Barbara Jean finally achieving her dream. Like Don Quixote or Pygmalion, her life is swallowed up by a desire to live inside a work of art.

Barbie suffers from nostalgia. She longs for the “golden age” of old tinseltown when she was young and when she starred in major motion pictures while attending lavish parties with her friends. Presently, she lives in a fantasy world, a fabricated vision of the past, where she is consumed by romanticism and overwhelmed with a longing for what cannot be.

One day, Danny orchestrates a meeting for Barbie with studio head, Marty Sall (played by Ted de Corsia), but instead of offering Barbie the lead role in an upcoming film, as would be the case for a pretty young actress, he instead offers her the part of an old mother. Offended, she storms out of his office and announces she will throw a party for her many Hollywood friends, but Danny reminds her that most of her friends have either died or moved away from Hollywood.

Again, Barbie retreats to her library (her “sixteen millimeter shrine”) to watch old films from the glory days. Then one day, Danny arrives to tell her that Jerry Herndon (played by Jerome Cowan), one of her old lead counterparts, will be visiting. In excitement, Barbara Jean dons an old classic dress and greets Jerry only to find, in horror, that he has aged considerably. No longer an actor, Jerry now runs a chain of grocery stores outside Chicago.

In dismay, Barbara Jean locks herself inside her library and plays a film to distract herself from the outside world –a reminder of lost dreams. As she watches the picture, she calls out to a younger Jerry onscreen hoping she can once again join him in the old days just as the screen fades to a blur. Later, the maid enters and shrieks in horror as she gazes upward at the screen. Danny is immediately called to the scene and when he arrives he cannot locate Barbara Jean. When he looks up at the still running 16mm projection, he watches as Barbara Jean appears in the movie -she has finally returned to her old life. She now lives within the movie, as a permanent memory of old Hollywood. Danny calls out to her on the screen, but she slowly turns to blow him a kiss before leaving with a young Jerry, never to return again. As Danny slowly leaves her mansion he finds her scarf lying on the floor where it would have been in the film. He leaves with his own musings: “To wishes, Barbie,” he says. “To the ones that come true.”

“To the wishes that come true, to the strange, mystic strength of the human animal, who can take a wishful dream and give it a dimension of its own. To Barbara Jean Trenton, movie queen of another era, who has changed the blank tomb of an empty projection screen into a private world. It can happen in the Twilight Zone.”
-Rod Serling

My Thoughts on “The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine”

This episode toys with a now well-trod theme in popular media: the life of an aging Hollywood star who lives alone with her fading memories. Hollywood, her home in more ways than one, serves as a dream factory –a place of pure imagination and hope– but it is not real. In America, it is movies rather than paintings or poetry, which are the true architects of our cultural mythology. And in many cases, we look to movies that uplift mimetic representations of our cultural aspirations, as well as movies that confront our darkest fears. Finding the boundary between art and reality poses a difficult problem for us. Barbara Jean is merely one more aging victim of Hollywood sentimentality and nostalgia. “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine” reveals to us the frightening possibilities of wishes when they actually come true.

The Twilight Zone Trivia:

  • The title of this episode refers to a 16mm motion picture film reel, a semi-professional format for screenings used in homes, schools, and institutions.
  • This is the first episode to feature a female lead character.
  • Many consider this episode to be director Mitchell Leisen’s best, however Rod Serling publicly declared he thought this episode was a failure.
  • Ida Lupino did not appear on camera again in the series, but she did work behind it, directing the Season 5 episode “The Masks.” She was the only woman to direct an episode of The Twilight Zone (original series).
  • Martin Balsam is one of the few actors to appear in more than one series of The Twilight Zone.
  • The score for this episode was completed by legendary German-American composer Franz Waxman. He had also provided the score to Sunset Boulevard (for which he won an Academy Award), a film which had a strong influence on this episode. Waxman’s music was also featured in classics like Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Rebecca (1940), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941), Suspicion (1941), and Rear Window (1954). This was the only episode Waxman worked on for The Twilight Zone. Now an aging man, he was less in demand by this point (further buttressing themes in the episode) and he died in 1967.
  • This episode draws upon the classic Award-winning film, Sunset Boulevard (1950).

Click here to return to my survey of The Twilight Zone series.

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