“A most unusual graduation exercise now. Its title: “The Class of ’99”—a set of numbers and a pair of eyes. We’ll move behind them now to give you an idea why we call the place you’re in the Night Gallery.”
Oral examination day at the university. Students, members of the class of 1999, silently fill the classroom auditorium as the professor prepares to deliver their final exam.
Part one of the test is on the sciences. The class members respond rapidly and correctly to the professor’s random questions, as though the minutiae of the subject had been drilled into them. Addressing one student, Johnson, the professor asks him to name four men whose work has been related to propulsion. Johnson repeats three, but falters on the last name. The impatient professor, making a notation on his student roster, asks the trembling student to sit down. Johnson hesitates, insisting desperately that part of his answer was correct. The professor, infuriated at Johnson’s presumption and his poor scholarship, upbraids him severely.
Moving on to the behavioral sciences, the professor calls on a student, Clinton, and poses to him a hypothetical case: he and another student, Barnes, are in competition for an extremely important professional position. The professor asks Clinton to describe Barnes, which he does, noting height, weight, and approximate age. “Look at him again,” prods the professor. “Is there any other salient feature which you might consider relevant?” Clinton replies flatly, “He’s black.” “And being black may pose a special problem,” continues the professor. Clinton responds: “He might be pushy . . . aggressive . . . he might be inferior.” The professor calmly asks how Clinton would react on the primary emotional level to a man like Barnes. “I’d slap him.” The professor, nodding, solicits the action. Clinton moves down the lecture hall steps to face Barnes . . . and slaps him. Now addressing the other student, the professor asks for Barnes’s response. “Slap him back”—and Barnes does so at the professor’s request.
The next student, Miss Peterson, is allowed by the professor to choose anyone in the class to whom she responds negatively: a Miss Fields. The antipathy springs from social status, Peterson being from a poor family, Fields from the wealthy elite. The professor impels a display of hostility from the two with the same cold, clinical analysis as before—an explosion of violence followed by an immediate return to order.
Next, the professor calls on Elkins, a pale, dark-haired student. The hypothesis: a society made up of his own kind and an enemy. The chosen enemy: scanning the top row of the lecture hall, Elkins picks out an Asian student, William Chang. Asked by the professor to characterize a possible relationship, Elkins replies that none is possible—a question only of survival, him or Chang. And how should Elkins deal with him? “I would have to kill him,” Elkins replies. At this, the professor produces a handgun and places it on the lectern. Elkins takes it and climbs the lecture hall steps, taking aim at Chang. He hesitates. The professor demands he proceed. Elkins fires—and shoots out a light fixture, deliberately missing his quarry. The professor is furious and demands to know why he missed killing the enemy. Elkins falters, as if trying to grasp some concept beyond his comprehension. “I’m not sure he is the enemy,” he responds. The professor, seeing the murmured reactions of the other students, hurriedly deactivates the class. Elkins, he says, has infected the others. The students slowly grind to a halt, winding down like spent clocks. Demanding selective control, the professor calls on Johnson. The professor instructs Johnson to explain the ramifications of Elkins’s resistance. “He failed to kill the enemy. So what evolves is yet a second enemy. A traitor . . . a subversive . . . an unreliable.” Johnson takes the pistol from the deactivated Elkins, points it at the student’s head, and fires. Elkins falls to the steps, a sputtering mass of wires and circuits in the wrecked cavern of his once-human face. “Very good, Mr. Johnson,” nods the professor. “You have reinstated yourself most admirably. You get an A.”
At the commencement ceremony, Johnson addresses his classmates. Their purpose, he says, is to repopulate society in a world depleted by holocaust. “We have been created by man in his image. All that we know—our attitudes, our values—are part of the integral data fed into us and we shall use them as a point of beginning. We must be just . . . but ruthless in terms of survival. We must recognize that many of the ancient virtues are simply weaknesses. For example, to tolerate an inferior is an act of misplaced compassion and, as such, interferes with our function as members of the society. We shall repay our debt to man by emulating him. We shall act as men . . . react as men. We shall be men.”
A Serling original, “Class of ’99” graphically exemplified to both Jack Laird and the author what Jeannot Szwarc could do for Night Gallery. “This kid is brilliant,” Serling said, “a consumately skilled director. [The story takes place] all in one classroom, and at no single moment did you ever feel confined, or that you were in the same place. There was movement, movement, movement, constantly.” Szwarc was equally taken with Serling’s work (“Jack sent me the script and I fell on my ass!”), devising a complicated sequence of tracking shots, cuts, and changing perspectives to mirror the play’s gradual arc of tension—all shot on a restrictive one-and-a-half-day schedule. Szwarc’s fluidly moving camera and pacing turned a potentially static piece into riveting drama, aided in no small part by the performances of the principals.
Vincent Price is magnetic as the steely, imperious professor, probing for weaknesses in his graduating class of robot surrogates. His harsh manner suggests that not everything is what it seems here, and the viewer’s perceptions are then upended when the professor begins proctoring the class in the social imperatives of bigotry. The shock is abrupt and leaves the audience scrambling for answers: What kind of final exam is this? What kind of university is this? What kind of society is this? And then, reminiscent of the staggering finale to his screenplay for Planet of the Apes, Serling reveals that it is our own. We have passed our dread legacy on to the next eager generation of rote-spinning automatons. Presenting material more appropriate to a neo-fascist rally (and strongly reflective of the racial turmoil of the times), Serling shrewdly tosses his gasoline cocktail into the benign, high-minded halls of academe. In Serling’s future, intolerance has become institutionalized. Price’s calm, clinical delivery of this incendiary material is icy and authoritative.
Conversely, the other actors on the set found Price as charming as his character was forbidding. “He was very accessible,” recalls Frank Hotchkiss, who played Clinton. “Very pleasant, open, and an interesting guy. He was very happy to talk to people in the cast who had the chutzpah to go up and say ‘Hi,’ and chat with him. He was quite the opposite of what I expected, and I was thrilled to have the chance to meet him.” During the few lulls in the shooting, Hotchkiss and Price discussed art, photography, and of course acting. “He opened that show beautifully with that minute monologue,” says Hotchkiss, “sets the whole thing in his inimitable fashion.”
Brandon de Wilde also turns in a fine performance as the quick-to-recover Johnson. Best known for his previous work in the classic feature films Shane, The Member of the Wedding, and Hud, de Wilde’s distinguished career ended abruptly—and tragically—the next year. While performing Butterflies Are Free in Colorado, a traffic accident ended his life at age thirty.
Trying to disguise the true identities of the students until the finish, Szwarc lectured his acting “class” in the correct behavior of robots. “Jeannot warned us against too much overexpression,” recalls Barbara Shannon, who played Miss Peterson. “He told us, ‘You have to remember that you are all robots, and that you’re infiltrating society as humans. You have been programmed for certain behavior according to your social class, but without too much emotion.’ At the time, I thought I would play my scene with a little more ‘low class,’ to give it more color. And Jeannot had to remind me, ‘No, you can’t do that. There has to be just a flicker of emotion.’“ The cooling effect of the students’ deportment, just shy of deadpan, helps throw Serling’s controversial themes into stark relief.
Adding to the segment’s effectiveness is its remarkable set, a white-on-white classroom auditorium designed by Joseph Alves, and the fluorescent paranoia of Lionel Lindon’s lighting. Combined, they vividly create an atmosphere of cold, antiseptic unease. The special effects for the robot shut-down finale were remarkably simple—in fact, there were none. “There were no opticals in that show,” Szwarc recalls. “When you find out the students are robots, and they slow down and freeze, all that was done live because we didn’t have money for opticals.” Confirms Hotchkiss: “We actually did freeze. I don’t know how long we held that pose.”
Technically as well as conceptually, “Class of ‘99” is a superb testament to what Night Gallery could be, and marked a turning point in Szwarc’s involvement in the series. “When Serling saw the show, he thought it was terrific,” Szwarc recounts. “The rushes were at lunch, and I couldn’t make it. When they came back, I was told that Rod Serling kept asking, ‘Who is this guy? Boy, this is terrific!’ That’s when I got to meet him. From then on I sort of had open access to all his scripts. He asked Jack Laird if I could do his stuff regularly. I mean, even Jack flipped!”
Later in the season, Szwarc would return to direct a number of classic Gallery segments, including H. P. Lovecraft’s “Cool Air,” “The Sins of the Fathers,” and the series’ best-remembered episode, “The Caterpillar.”
CLASS OF ’99
Written by Rod Serling
Directed by Jeannot Szwarc
Music: John Lewis
Director of Photography: Lionel Lindon
The Professor: Vincent Price
Johnson: Brandon de Wilde
Elkins: Randolph Mantooth
Clinton: Frank Hotchkiss
Barnes: Hilly Hicks
Miss Fields: Suzanne Cohane
Miss Peterson: Barbara Shannon
Bruce: Richard Doyle
Templeton: Hunter von Leer
McWhirter: John Davey
Miss Wheeton: Lenore Kasdorf
Professor’s Assistant: John Rayner
To read more about this episode and the making of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, click here.