'Playhouse 90' was an exceptionally good anthology series, which consistently offered the most prestigious actors, directors and scriptwriters available in America at the time, combining their talents to create 90-minute dramas. (Hence the title of the series.) This posting is specifically about 'A Town Has Turned to Dust', an original drama by Rod Serling which aired as the 'Playhouse 90' episode for 19 June 1958.
In August 1955, a 14-year-old boy named Emmett Till, from a black working-class neighbourhood in Chicago, went to visit relatives in a deeply segregated small town in Mississippi. He made the mistake of speaking disrespectfully to a white townswoman. Two days later, Till was abducted by white men. His mutilated corpse was later found in the Tallahatchie River. This lynching attracted national attention. Two men were arrested and charged with Till's murder, but were acquitted at trial after the defence attorney explicitly urged the all-white jury to be faithful to their Anglo-Saxon heritage.
'A Town Has Turned to Dust', written by Rod Serling, was intended to be an indictment of the entire Emmett Till affair. Serling's original script followed the facts closely, only changing the name of the town in the Deep South, and the names of key individuals. A few fictional details were added. In the real-life case, Emmett Till's abductors made no attempt to conceal their identities; in Serling's script, the men are described as wearing hoods over their heads. Unfortunately, the TV network's censors had conniption fits when they read this script. The network became afraid of 'offending' their sponsors or viewers. One after another, all the most salient details of Serling's script were changed in order to make the material 'safe' and inoffensive.
To avoid offending Southerners, the town in Serling's script was relocated to New England. (So it's all right to offend New Englanders, then.) The reference to 'hooded' abductors was taken out of the script, for fear of offending the Ku Klux Klan. (Heaven forbid we should offend the Klan.) Serling was required to alter the dialogue so that references to 'hoods' became 'homemade masks'. (How many grown men wear homemade masks?) Worst of all, the victim of the abduction -- originally a black teenage boy -- was changed to a white boy with a speech impediment. The script that had been an indictment of racism and lynch law was now a character study about bigots who killed a boy merely because he stammered! These changes sound laughable, but Serling was (understandably) outraged. At very nearly the last minute, the script was altered even more ... relocating the action to a southwestern border town, and changing the victim and a few other characters to stereotypical Mexicans.
'A Town Has Turned to Dust' does feature an excellent cast, including Rod Steiger in the lead role, and a supporting performance by William Shatner: this at a time when Shatner was still considered a respected actor rather than an outrageous ham. Shatner gives a reasonably restrained performance here, although he does seem to spend rather much time flexing his immense biceps in a short-sleeved shirt. Less impressive is the shrill Fay Spain as the wife of the lynch mob's leader.
In later years, Rod Serling gave many interviews in which he spoke bitterly about network censorship of his scripts. Although he never (to my knowledge) specifically cited 'A Town Has Turned to Dust', nevertheless this script received more corporate interference than any of Serling's other projects. Serling's ordeal on this project was directly responsible for his decision to create a TV series devoted to science fiction and fantasy: Serling believed that teleplays which took place in the far future, on distant planets, would be less likely to incur interference than scripts which took place in the here and now. Although we might resent the decisions of the censors who bowdlerised Serling's script about the Emmett Till incident, the fact remains that -- were it not for the interference of those censors -- Serling might never have been provoked into creating his wonderful series 'The Twilight Zone'.
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