Howard Silk: [frustrated by his other] “You know, they say it’s so great to meet yourself. Bullshit! It’s kind’a like losing your virginity, ya know? Wait your whole life for it, and then 20 seconds later you’re disappointed.”
[J.K. Simmons to…J.K. Simmons “Counterpart” (2017-19)]
Sometimes I find it surprising that a specific unique genre is constantly utilized for adaption for movies and Network TV/cable/streaming shows. For example, for crime and mysteries you can have the femme fatale character (too often blond) who entraps someone into their plans which can result in one’s self-destruction or at least put them at great risk to themselves or to others. Another one, usually found in romantic comedies, can be for an ex-couple (married or otherwise) reconnecting again maybe when one or both are about to get married to someone else, or when they have to interact in some other way (vacation, work, health, some setback, etc.) and find that they are really either still attracted to each other, or they develop a new attraction to each other after the passage of time. There are literally dozens and dozens of different unique themes that are repeated over and over again (different clothes, same person/type of person wearing them) because they are consistently popular with the general public. Actors and actresses also repeat these specific types of roles too because (1) they are good at playing them, (2) they are stereotyped into playing these types of roles either by the various studios/networks/media companies, (3) they are too lazy to try anything else, or (4) it’s the only Damn thing that they can play really well. An example of #4 is John Travolta who is always terrific at playing dumb, stupid, punks but for anything else…Ahhhh, Never Mind! This month’s Blog Post will discuss one specific type of genre which is not usually discussed at all for either movies or Network TV/cable/streaming/shows. What is it you ask? Why, it’s a genre involving Twins or more specifically, Identical Twins!
There are a number of famous works of literature that feature identical twins. For example, there is Mark Twain’s “The Prince and the Pauper.” There is also Alexander Pope’s “The Prisoner of Zenda.” Lastly, there are two by Alexandre Dumas which are “The Corsican Brothers” and “The Man in the Iron Mask.” Not surprisingly, all of these can also be considered swashbuckling adventure novels/novellas (which is another unique type of genre too). Every one of these examples have been adapted, while not exactly sticking to the exact storyline, many times for film, theater, and TV. I have not seen all of the many adaptions (Shocking! I know!), but I have seen enough of them to have some opinions on which ones are worthwhile. Twain’s “The Prince and the Pauper”, which is the historical fiction story of two identical twins born separately in 1547 England (Edward VI, son of Henry VIII and Tom Canty, a pauper) who, after switching places have to assume their new roles for real, had some really fine versions of the tale made. One was a three-part Network TV adaption made in 1962 on “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” TV show with actor Sean Scully playing both twins and Guy Williams (who originally played the swashbuckling Zorro for Disney) playing the novel’s equally swashbuckling character of Miles Hendon, a former soldier who protects and helps the young Edward. While it was made strictly with children in mind, it was still very good, and Williams made a dashing Hendon (before he started acting like a department store manikin as the father on the stupid “Lost in Space” TV show a few years later).
Another one (and maybe the best of them all) was the Warner Brothers Studio version made in 1937 starring actual identical twins Billy and Bobby Mauch in the twin roles and, with maybe the greatest swashbuckling actor of them all, Errol Flynn as Hendon. Flynn, who was also an underrated actor, is terrific in the role, and the film had additional top-notch assistance provided by Director William Keighley (who would also co-direct Flynn one year later in the even better “Adventures of Robin Hood”), cinematographers’ George Barnes and Sol Polito, film score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and fine acting support by Alan Hale and the always great Claude Rains as the two principal villains. If you have never seen this version, try to find and watch it sometime (preferably with children). It’s a classic!
Speaking of another classic involving identical twins, as I’ve previously mentioned, there’s “The Prisoner of Zenda” with enough different versions made to rival “Pauper”. There was even a whole bunch of comic versions of this story like one film starring Peter Sellers in 1979, a subplot in the 1965 comedy film, “The Great Race” (with Jack Lemon playing the twins), and even, of all things, comedian Don Adams for an episode of his espionage sitcom “Get Smart” playing the dual role. I even saw a pretty good serious adaption in a 1961 TV version starring a young Christopher Plummer in the title role. It was stagey with cheap sets, and had more characterization and drama than any action. Of course, for a little kid like me what did I care. It was “The Prisoner of Zenda” for Christ Sakes Already! However, the all-time best one of them all was the 1937 version starring Ronald Colman in the title role and directed by John Cromwell.
For this big budget version, they pulled out all of the stops with great assistance provided by cinematographer James Wong Howe, an Oscar nominated film score by Alfred Newman, and a great supporting cast consisting of Madeleine Carroll, Raymond Massey, Mary Astor, David Niven, and a scene stealing Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. as his nemesis, Rupert of Hentzau. This tale of English gentleman Major Rassendyll (Colman) in 1897 Eastern Europe having to take the place of his double, Rudolph V at his country’s coronation as the new king, and then having to continue the charade when the real king is kidnapped is a slam bang romantic adventure classic highlighted by Colman’s fine portrayal. Besides having one of the most beautiful speaking voices ever heard by an actor (and which has been endlessly mimicked ever since, even on an animated “George of the Jungle” cartoon show by a talking ape), Colman could actually act. He was a great romantic lead. His scenes with Carroll as Flavia, the real king’s intended bride, have real emotional pathos as you see him slowly falling in love with her while desperately trying to (1) maintain his facade, and (2) not to succumb to the temptation to let the real king die so he can have Flavia and the crown for himself. He is equally good playing the real king, a wastrel who also changes while being held captive showing real courage and defiance even in the face of possible death. About the only real issue I have ever had with this film is with the action scenes, especially the final sword fight between Colman and Fairbanks, Jr. which is a huge letdown. Cromwell couldn’t direct any action scene worth a Damn, and they even tried to re-shoot some them with another director to little avail even though they had one of the best in the business in cinematographer Wong Howe. For action scenes alone, check out another version of “Zenda” made in 1952 with Stewart Granger in the double role. It’s not as good but, wow, what a sword fight. However, even with Cromwell’s limits as a director, this version of “Zenda” is still the best of them all thanks to Colman’s arresting performance.
Many actors have had the chance to play identical twins in films over the years. However, there has only been one actor who has ever played identical twins in two different films. Do you have any idea who that might possibly be Dear Reader? Would you believe…
Yep, she did two of them. Now it would be nice to say that these two were classics too and, in a way, they actually are. They are both Classic…ally Badddddd! The first one was “A Stolen Life” (1946) which has the old cliche storyline of her playing the meek/wholesome sister, Kate (who is duller than a butter knife) vs, mean, manipulative/trollop sister, Pat who steals Kate’s new boyfriend Bill (Glenn Ford) and marries him. Sometime later Kate and Pat go sailing, a sudden storm occurs, Pat drowns, and Kate now assumes Pat ‘s identity so she can win back Bill who now hates the real Pat because she had continually cheated on him (Oh, the horror!). Will Kate tell him the truth? Will Bill forgive her? Will you admit you just wasted two hours of time on this piece of Shit? Even though Bette Davis has been dead for over 30 years, the remains in her casket could still out act any actress ever trying to play a character like Pat. However, for her performance as Kate (who probably should have been wearing a “Kick Me!” sticker on her back), that’s another story. It almost looked like Davis was internally seething throughout the entire movie whenever she was trying to play such a boring and weak character like Kate. Despite “Life” utilizing ground breaking special effects cinematography to enable Davis to play two different roles in the same scene, “A Stolen Life” was just a TV soap opera before they actually had TV soap operas. Unfortunately, for her second effort playing identical twins for the 1964 film, “Dead Ringer,” it was even worse!
“Ringer” was an adaption of a fine 1946 Mexican film noir called “La Otra” (AKA “Dead Pigeon”) starring actress Dolores del Rio as identical twins which had been sitting on a Warner Brothers Studio shelf all the way back in 1946. By the time the nineteen sixties rolled around, whoever thought that it was a good idea to make a movie from a script written back in the forties must have been smoking some serious peyote. Worse, now Bette Davis must have been smoking some of that same peyote too, if she thought that she could successfully star in this one. In the early to mid-sixties, a number of older former big nineteen thirties/forties female movie stars (Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, Olivia de Havilland, Davis, etc.) were making schlock films like this one because there were so few roles for older women (which is still too prevalent even today). The archaic storyline of two long-time estranged identical twins: (1) rich, evil Margaret who stole her now recently deceased rich husband away from (2) dowdy, downbeat, and financially struggling Edith who ultimately plans to murder and assume Margaret’s identity was lamer than “Chester” from the TV western, Gunsmoke!” Worse, Davis both in her appearance and in her acting style looked ridiculous because, even though she was 56 years old at the time, she looked more like someone 76 years old trying to act like someone 42 years old (which was del Rio’s age when she was in “La Otra”). Even worse, Edith’s cop boyfriend was played by mash potato faced Karl Malden who must have been playing older roles since he was two years old. However, even here he still looked younger than Davis. In keeping with the AARP acting lineup, they must have then emptied the entire Hollywood actor retirement home since the cast included fellow oldsters George Macready, George Chandler, Cyril Delevanti, and Estelle Winwood. They even had old, former big-time star Paul Henreid directing this mess. By the time I finished watching “Ringer” I felt like I needed to mainline some Geritol quick or else I’d fall asleep faster than an overstuffed hibernating bear. Now, of course if any of you ever want to see a good version of “Ringer,” just skip this one and see del Rio in the Mexican “La Otra” instead.
Network TV shows then also had episodes involving different types of identical twins, and often it was for genres such as S/F, horror, and even espionage. For examples you had the following:
- “Star Trek”: “What Little Girls are Made Of” [Season One, Episode 7 (10/20/66)]. While on a distant barren planet Captain Kirk is captured and a duplicate android of himself is made to assume control of his ship. This excellent episode was written by famed S/F and horror writer Robert Bloch (“Psycho”), and it definitely fits into the S/F and horror realm (and Ted Cassidy of “The Adams Family” plays one Hell of a scary android.)
- “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”: “The Double Affair” [Season One, Episode 8 (11/17/64)]. Napoleon Solo (never has there ever been a stupider name for a spy) is captured, and his plastic surgery duplicate takes his place to obtain some secret stuff. Stupid S/F and espionage plot, but it has a good motorcycle chase and fist-fight at the end. Also, any episode with a young Senta Berger in it can never be too bad!
- “The Outer Limits”: “The Duplicate Man” [Season Two, Episode 13 (12/19/64)]. A scientist (Ron Randell) in the future has to create an illegal clone of himself programed to hunt and kill a dangerous, and also illegal, escaped telepathic creature that he had secretly smuggled in to study before it goes on a rampage. Terrific noir-like adaption of a fine story by famed S/F and horror writer Clifford D. Simak (even though the creature looked more like a shabby Chewbacca with a bird beak!)
- “The Twilight Zone”: “In his Image” [Season Four, Episode 1 (01/03/63)]. Alan (George Grizzard), with fractured memories of his past and, at times, murderous urges, tries to find out who he really is while taking his recent fiancee to visit his home town. One of the all-time best episodes of “The Twilight Zone” (an expanded hour version) with a tour de force performance by Grizzard (and no, I’m not going to tell you anything else, Dear Reader). See it!
Network TV, cable, and other streaming services also had series which had storylines involving identical twins. One of the earliest ones was the ABC sitcom, “The Patty Duke Show” (1963-66) with Duke having an identical paternal cousin (also played by Duke with a Scottish accent) due to the fact that their fathers (both played by veteran character actor William Schallert) were also, identical twins. Sometimes, a visiting third paternal cousin (also Duke) would show up with a Southern accent to cause even more comic(?) mayhem. Without going into the sheer biological improbability/impossibility of three paternal cousins being exactly identical, this show was typical of the type of crap sitcoms that polluted the television airwaves back then. Basically, it was just ABC jumping on the Patty Duke bandwagon to pimp her for some cheap ratings since Duke just won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for “The Miracle Worker” the year before. Besides Duke demonstrating that she couldn’t do either a Scottish or a Southern accent very well, it mercifully, was cancelled after three years.
A far better series involving identical twins (actually, a whole container ship load of them) was for the espionage/science fiction Starz Network cable series, “Counterpart” (2017-19). “Counterpart” takes place in Berlin and involves an entryway opening between two parallel Earths with everyone having an identical twin (even with the same name), except their opposite is on the alternative Earth. The entryway was created after an experiment in 1987 East Germany, but when a major pandemic occurred on the alternative Earth in 1996 resulting in the death of hundreds of millions there, and the virus causing the pandemic was thought to have originated on our Earth, a Cold War situation has existed ever since. Now the Top-Secret entryway is a major checkpoint portal where both sides strictly enforce who is allowed through each way with associated spies, assassins, officials, and other various individuals passing through constantly. Even though this might be the only series where we have more identical twins than you know what to do with, this series is focused on the main character of Howard Silk played by the terrific Oscar-winning actor, J.K. Simmons. On our Earth he is a meek, unassuming, and minor married office worker. However, on the alternative Earth he is a ruthless, intelligent, and highly dangerous operative estranged from his wife, and needing to reveal his presence to and enlist the aid of his twin on our Earth to stop a rogue faction on his alternative Earth from executing a plan to get revenge on our Earth for causing the pandemic on their world.
Although “Counterpart” is science fiction, it is also espionage, and it is terrific in conveying this dark shadowy world where lies, subterfuge, double-dealing, and betrayal are as common as in any espionage novel. The entire cast is excellent, the various storylines are complex and believable, and the series is both suspenseful and constantly surprising. However, maybe the best thing in “Counterpart” is J.K. Simmons in the pivotal role of Howard Silk. He is absolutely amazing! He literally becomes two different and distinct personalities before your very eyes, especially when both twins are together. Each one is unique, and they butt heads constantly, but it is subtle at times rather than overt. What’s even more remarkable is when each twin is on the other’s world and has to pretend they are the other one. You see the slight changes he makes to each character non-verbally, from facial expressions to even body movement to pretend they are the other one, but at the same time, still maintaining some of the same characteristics of their original character. While watching Simmons performance, all I kept thinking was, “How in the frigging Hell is he doing that?” This series is a standout in its own right, and it’s a shame that it only lasted two years. However, for “Counterpart,” J.K. Simmons’ portrayal of Howard Silk is someone (or is it two?) who you’ll always remember.
Well, that’s about it for this post. There are other fine performances by actors portraying identical twins whether it’s Kevin Kline in the political comedy, “Dave” (1993) or Lee Marvin in his Oscar winning performance for the Western comedy “Cat Ballou” (1965). We’ll always have more of them. Let’s just hope that they’ll be more “good” ones!