Original Air Date: April 11, 1963
Writer: Rod Serling
Director: David Lowell Rich
“I have disliked and detested you with great cordiality. I have found you to be from the moment you came into my office a predatory, grasping, conniving, acquisitive animal of a man –without heart, without conscience, without compassion, without even a subtle hint of common decencies.”
A floor of typists clack away as Mr. Sebastian Dietrich (John Anderson) who has been summoned to meet with a wealthy businessman named William Feathersmith (Albert Salmi) who has built a vast business empire across many diversified industries, but the one company he has yet to own is the Dietrich Tool & Co. The two man have a long history together, one characterized by mutual loathing. Mr. Dietrich says, “I have disliked and detested you with great cordiality. I have found you to be from the moment you came into my office a predatory, grasping, conniving, acquisitive animal of a man –without heart, without conscience, without compassion, without even a subtle hint of common decencies.” At this remark Mr. Feathersmith merely smiles and announces his plan to ruin Dietrich. Mr. Feathersmith has purchased a debtor’s note for $3M to the Dietrich Tool & Co and he intends to call the note. Realizing he has been defeated, Mr. Dietrich leaves and tells the elevator boy, “Take me down, young man. Take me all the way down. If there’s any place lower than this floor.”
“Witness a murder. The killer is Mr. William Feathersmith, a robber baron whose body composition is made up of a refrigeration plant covered by thick skin. In a moment, Mr. Feathersmith will proceed on his daily course of conquest and calumny with yet another business dealing. But this one will be one of those bizarre transactions that take place in an odd marketplace known as the Twilight Zone.”
Later that evening, Mr. Feathersmith gets drunk alone in his office but he is interrupted by an elderly building custodian named Hecate (Wright King). The two discuss how Mr. Feathersmith has nothing left to conquer, like the weeping Alexander the Great, and they also discuss their mutual history growing up in Cliffordville, Illinois. A bemused yet reflective Mr. Feathersmith tells Hecate, “I wish I could go back to Cliffordville and begin again, I mean start all over. You see, getting it, that was the kick. Getting it, not having it.”
Mr. Feathersmith stumbles back to the elevator but it mysteriously deposits him on the thirteenth floor where a company called the “Devlin’s Travel Service” exists. Here he meets an alluring but oddly horned woman named Devlin (Julie Newmar) who offers to transport him back to the Cliffordville of his youth. In exchange for the bulk of his net worth (since Mr. Feathersmith has already sold his soul to the Devil in a financial deal from years prior), Mr. Feathersmith will be granted the ability to appear as he once did, that he remembers everything as he currently does, and that he immediately travel back to 1910. This way, Mr. Feathersmith believes he will be able to get ahead of everyone in the past –he knows the history of the stock market, the location of valuable oil wells, and other important events which will make him the most successful man in history.
Moments later Mr. Feathersmith is indeed transported via mysterious airplane back to Cliffordville in 1910 as a much younger man. Here he spots a young Hecate (whom he mocks) and a young Sebastian Dietrich (whom he deals with brashly). Mr. Feathersmith rushes over to a local banker named Mr. Gibbons (Guy Raymond) from whom he negotiates a deal to acquire the “Widow Turner’s land” outside town which holds considerable oil reserves. The land is owned by none other than Mr. Gibbons and Mr. Dietrich. When Mr. Feathersmith buys the land with the bulk of his remaining assets he believes he has swindled the two men, but in truth they both are well aware of the oil, there is simply no machine yet invented to get to it (suddenly Mr. Feathersmith remembers that the drill which is needed was not invented until 1937). He goes mad trying to figure a way out of his conundrum until Devlin reappears.
She offers Mr. Feathersmith the chance to return to 1963 if only he can pay $40. He has about ten seconds to sell his newly acquired land for $40. He frantically stumbles upon Hecate and sells him the land before boarding the midnight train back to 1963. In the end, Hecate and Mr. Feathersmith’s roles are reversed back in 1963 –Hecate is now the tycoon and Mr. Feathersmith is now the custodian.
“Mr. William J. Feathersmith, tycoon, who tried the track one more time and found it muddier than he remembered, proving with at least a degree of conclusiveness that nice guys don’t always finish last, and some people should quit when they’re ahead. Tonight’s tale of iron men and irony, delivered F.O.B. from the Twilight Zone.”
“Of Late I Think of Cliffordville” is a Rod Serling adaptation of a Malcolm Jameson’s 1943 short story entitled “Blind Alley” originally published in a pulp magazine called Unknown Worlds. It is about a time-traveling deal with the Devil that goes awry for one arrogant robber baron. I think Mr. Feathersmith’s comeuppance would have been slightly more tantalizing if we also saw what happened to Mr. Dietrich in 1963, as well, but all the same this is another marvelous episode. It revisits certain recurring themes in the series, including earlier episodes in the fourth season including a time traveling episode (“No Time Like The Past”) and a faustian bargain (“Printer’s Devil”). While Albert Salmi (who previously in the episodes “A Quality of Mercy” and “Execution”) is terrific as the vicious and cold-hearted tycoon Mr. Feathersmith, it is truly Julie Newmar who steals the show with her devilish and mischievous performance as Devlin.
There is an amusing interlude in the episode in which Mr. Feathersmith demands to be introduced to Mr. Gibbons’ daughter Joanna, but she turns out not to be as he remembers: uncouth, shrill, loud, gluttonous and so on. This scene continues a well-trod theme in The Twilight Zone, the past is never quite as golden as we might remember. “Of Late I Dream Of Cliffordville” is a splendid and compelling episode, but certainly not an essential classic in the series.
The Twilight Zone Trivia:
- Initial short story writer Malcolm Jameson was struggling with throat cancer (forcing him to retire from his naval career) hence why he turned to writing when he penned the initial story “Blind Alley” in 1943 in a pulp magazine called Unknown Worlds. Tragically he died two years in 1945 and thus never lived to see the fruits of his fiction produced on the silver screen. The town was named Cliffordville in the original story. “The Blind Alley” was a reference to Feathersmith’s blindness (or rather hubris). Rod Serling purchased the story in 1963.
- Close observers will notice crates in the background n the scene in which Feathersmith negotiates his way out of Cliffordville. These crates were actually used as shipping crates for the wax figures in the previous episode “The New Exhibit.”
- Albert Salmi, then age 36, plays both a 75 year old and 22 year old.
- The stop off on the thirteenth floor is a nod to the popular superstition that the thirteenth floor is unlucky. Most buildings prior to 1980 had no thirteenth floor.
- Cliffordville, Illinois is a fictional town but there is an unincorporated community called Clifford, Illinois.