Today’s the anniversary of the opening of King Tut’s burial chamber by Howard Carter and George Herbert in 1923, and there’s no better way to celebrate random historical events than with thematically appropriate episodes of The Twilight Zone!
This time, we’re checking out a Season Five number called “Queen of the Nile,” with a script attributed to Charles Beaumont. Beaumont was a tragic, fascinating figure who helped shape the elements that are often best remembered about the series. Though Rod Serling tends to take up most of the conversations about TZ, many of the strongest episodes were penned by Beaumont.
But this is an episode from 1964, and by then the illness that would kill him at age 38 had begun to manifest. It’s widely known that while Beaumont was still pitching ideas for The Twilight Zone, as well as other anthology shows, he was beginning to rely on his writer friends to ghost the scripts and get them done in time for production. The general consensus is that the heavy lifting for this one was done by Jerry Sohl.
“He was, and remains in his work today, a writer of ideas, notions, fancies. You can tell his ideas to your friends in a few crisp lines,” Ray Bradbury said of Beaumont. “He is a storyteller who weaves his stories out of those ideas, some large, or, you may claim, predominantly small.”
We begin with entertainment reporter (get a real job, you bum!) Jordy Herrick arriving at the home of movie star Pamela Morris. It’s a large home. Stately, the narrator from Batman might call it. There’s a circle drive, a somewhat wild garden full of large shady trees, and some… unique statuary about.
A large onyx representation of Wadjet-Bast seems to be watching Jordy. She is flanked by two white stone pharaohs. A quirky take on garden gnomes.
The Wadjet-Bast is an enigmatic figure, a woman with the head of a lioness and a sun disc for her crown. Around her neck is wrapped a snake that raises its head just above hers. Jordy is amused by it, as he hops out of his convertible and heads up to the house.
A maid lets him in and leads him through a large marble foyer, decorated with a pair of golden sphinxes.
It bears mentioning that this was made a year after Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra changed eyeliner and home décor in a significant way. If this episode had been made a few years earlier, these objects would have looked more occult than on-trend, but in 1964 the immediate instinct is to associate them with a fad that a lot of people were indulging in.
Jordy heads into the living room to wait for Pamela Morris. He finds that it’s also decorated to the hilt with Egyptian-looking artefacts, though it doesn’t seem to bother him. What does pique his interest is an enormous portrait of a beautiful woman with raven black hair, and a dignified but somehow patronizing smile. She’s very beautiful. In the corner of the portrait is a signature that Jordy takes special note of. Bersonne 1940.
A splashing sound catches his attention, and he heads out a set of open French doors that lead to the backyard pool. There – in a sequence no doubt calculated to evoke Elizabeth Taylor’s famous milk bath – the lovely Pamela Morris, played by Ann Blyth, swims for the steps. She’s wearing a white swimsuit with a little skirt that looks particularly Grecian. She smiles as the maid wraps her in a towel and points out Jordy, lurking voyeuristically by the doors.
Pamela is on her way to greet her new acquaintance when she’s stopped by an old woman who doesn’t look too pleased. In fact, she looks full of bitterness and resentment. She’s being played by Celia Lovsky, who was married to Peter Lorre in real life, and played T’Pau on Star Trek!
“I’m not going to stand by and watch it happen this time,” the old woman says to Pamela.
But Pamela doesn’t have time for dire warnings or vague threats. She brushes the old woman off and waves a coy, regal greeting to Jordy.
Jordy, who is already smitten with the bathing beauty, waves back.
There’s a good chance that his… fondness for beauty is going to result in a very bad thing happening to him. In the Twilight Zone.
Oh, wait, damn, that’s Rod’s job.
Here he is:
“Jordan Herrick, syndicated columnist whose work appears in more than 100 newspapers. By nature a cynic, a disbeliever, caught for the moment by a lovely vision. He knows the vision he’s seen is no dream. She is Pamela Morris, renowned movie star, whose name is a household word and whose face is known to millions. What Mr. Herrick does not know is that he has also just looked into the face of the Twilight Zone.”
(Rod’s the best.)
While Pamela has been upstairs changing into her next glorious outfit, Jordy has been snooping around in his plaid sport jacket, staring at that portrait again. Jordy isn’t horrible or anything, he’s just easily beguiled and a little doofy, and it has a bad habit of skewing just a touch sleazy.
Pamela, for her part, is playful and just the right amount of seductive to bamboozle the easily bamboozled Jordy. She confesses to loving a good swim, and apologizes for keeping him waiting. Ann Blyth started her career playing a teenage femme fatale in 1945’s Mildred Pierce, so this sort of scene comes very easily to her, and it works well.
But it’s time to get down to brass tacks. Jordy has a very specific angle for his next article, and that’s Pamela’s age.
How old, exactly, is timeless beauty Pamela Morris?
To her credit, Pamela laughs and says she understands. She has producers and directors, and reporters have editors. All of them are looking for the best story as quickly as possible. It’s the nature of these things. Besides, a woman as famous as she is can’t afford to have any secrets.
Jordy is impressed with her humour, and confesses he was afraid the question would offend her.
Pamela replies that he has nothing to fear from her.
“Now, why don’t you tell me how old you think I am?” She asks, standing up and twirling like a model at the end of a runway.
“You don’t look any older now than you did in that painting over there.” Jordy hedges, nodding at the portrait he has developed a Dana-Andrews-in-Laura type obsession with.
Ah, the portrait. Pamela says she was only a young teenager when she posed for it, and it was Bersonne’s vision to paint her as a woman grown into her beauty. Pamela says he wanted to “project the flowering of a fragile blossom” and that he was a wild, intense personality. Her first taste of the real world.
The maid brings in a tray of coffee, and begins to serve Pamela and Jordy while the old woman from before watches them from a doorway. With a sort of grim determination, the old woman strides into the room, and Pamela’s face becomes an icy mask.
She introduces the old woman as Viola Draper. Her mother.
Jordy says that Viola must be very proud to have so famous a daughter, and Pamela quickly asserts – with a gleaming white smile – that her mother has never approved of her career. Viola says coldly that she had absolutely no say in the matter, and Pamela jokes about being headstrong.
“Was she always as beautiful as she is right now?” Jordy asks.
“Always.” Viola answers.
But when Jordy starts to try and get Pamela’s date of birth out of Viola, Pamela quickly sends the older woman to the kitchen to check on the staff. She tells Jordy that Viola’s mind is going, she’s getting too old to hang onto her marbles, and it’s sad.
To cheer things up, Pamela suggests they head out onto the terrace.
She lounges on a wide upholstered deckchair, reclining like an Ancient goddess, and tells Jordy that this is where she spends most of her time. Looking at the stars at night. She pulls him gently towards her, and he curls up next to her on the chair. He’s easier to catch than a cold. But, to his credit, he at least tries to stick to his mission of figuring out Pamela’s age – and he explains to us why people might be wondering about it.
“I’m 38, Jordan. May I call you Jordan?” Pamela is all wide eyes and soft lips. “Is 38 terribly old?”
“The years have never been kinder to anyone,” Jordy waxes poetically.
Keep it together, Jordy! You’re a journalist!
Man, this guy’s no Carl Kolchak.
He does, however, have some notes and a list of dates that he wants to clear up, but before he can start citing them, Pamela goes on the defensive. She asks if he’s been reading columns by “stupid, jealous women.”
Geeze, Pamela, show some solidarity. There’s no need to get catty and throw the whole gender under the bus just because some showbiz reporter is getting dangerously close to your sinister secret. Ovaries before brovaries, Pam.
Anyway, Viola is listening to their conversation from a nearby doorway, and she looks resigned and horrified as Jordy asks how it was possible for Pamela to have starred in a film made in 1935.
Twenty-nine years ago.
This was prior to the internet, which as innovations go has done probably the most for record-keeping in terms of films, images, credits – all the stuff that it’s Jordy’s job to keep track of. It’s not so simple for him to find all of these connections, and even trickier to verify them.
Pamela explains that there was another actress with the same name in that film, and it’s a problem that’s come up before. This should be a red flag for Jordy, since he ought to know it’s against union rules for two actors to use the same name. But he lets that one go.
The one he’s not going to let go is a film from 1940 called Queen of the Nile, Pamela made it with an actor named Charles Danforth. According to her story, she would have been 15 years old. She replies that Juliet was 12. Then she laughs it off and explains that she matured early, and nobody involved in the film knew she was only 15, because she’d lied to get the job.
It’s not totally implausible for the era. Veronica Lake was only 17 when she was the leading lady in Sullivan’s Travels, and Sandra Dee was claimed to be two years older than she was so that she could find more work as a teenage model. More recently, Mila Kunis hid her age when she auditioned for That 70’s Show, being only 14 and heavily implying (without outright saying) she was 17 or 18. So, it’s a thing that happens.
Jordy believes her, and asks if the film inspired her choice of décor. She says it did, and that she calls the style Early Egyptian. Then she jokes that if her first big break had been in a horror film, she might have a house decorated with caskets.
“I do still feel 15, I really do!” She smirks, then changes her mind. “No. With you sitting there, I feel new and breathless and just 21.”
She wants to savour everything in life, to have as much of life as possible. She tells him that she so rarely gets to speak her mind and share her dreams. And she wants to share his dreams.
She pulls him in for a sudden, passionate kiss.
He doesn’t do anything to stop her.
I get the impression that there’s a part of Jordy that’s always sort of fantasized about one of the elegant stars he interviews falling in love with him. Devoting herself to his life, the way he’s devoted so much of himself to writing about silver screen goddesses and queens. He’s letting it happen because he wants it to happen.
Pamela pulls away and does the old: “What must you think of me? Kissing you so intensely?”
It’s obviously manipulative, but Jordy is the last person to care. Watching from the shadows, Viola clenches her eyes closed and retreats, temporarily defeated.
Jordy makes a date to see Pamela again for dinner that night, and begins to leave.
Pamela watches him go, the girlishness falling away from her. When she turns to walk back into the house, she’s as cold and glittering as a gemstone.
But Viola has decided that she’s going to stick to her guns, and this time things are going to go down differently. She makes her way down a shortcut in the front garden, and calls to Jordy as he heads for his car. There’s a sense of warning in her voice when she begins by telling Jordy that she thinks he’s a nice young man. Jordy is a little confused, and to be fair he hasn’t figured out Pamela’s super obvious secret yet, even though I’m pretty sure the rest of us know what the deal is. To him, this super intense old woman just called him over for a secret conversation in the bushes so that she could give him grandmotherly compliments.
Of course, her real reason was to tell him to never come back to the house. (Surprise! He’s not going to listen!) He should never even see Pamela Morris again, if he can at all avoid it. Pamela is older than he thinks.
Jordy says that Pamela told him her age.
“Yes. 38.” Viola smiles cynically.
“Well, isn’t that true?”
“Mr. Herrick, you wouldn’t believe me if I told you how old I think she is.”
Uh… think? Don’t mothers generally know the age of their own children? I mean, Jordy’s not a mother, but he’s pretty sure that would be the case.
Viola tells him that he’s absolutely right. But she’s not Pamela’s mother – she’s her daughter!
We get a commercial break from the good people at The Twilight Zone to help us absorb this shock. And it would be more of a shock if they hadn’t already done a Beaumont episode back in Season One called “Long Live Walter Jameson” that had a pretty similar premise.
Non-monstrous immortals were kind of a hot topic in speculative fiction around this time, especially on television. Most of them – like Star Trek’s Flint – were meditations on the responsibilities and the burden of loneliness an immortal might face. But Beaumont was generally of the opinion that even if you weren’t a horrible person at the beginning of your immortal journey, by the time you’d lived a few hundred years, you would become one. In his books, there really was no such thing as a non-monstrous immortal.
As for our old pal Jordy, he’s basically ignored every single thing Viola said to him, and when next we see him, he’s pulling into the circle drive with Pamela in the front seat. It’s at the end of a wonderful evening, or at least Pamela says she enjoyed it. Jordy seems a little weirded out. Not weirded out enough to stop himself from trying to get some, but that’s Jordy for you.
After he seems a little less into a kiss than she was expecting, she asks the intrepid young reporter if anything’s bothering him. He says that Viola told him that she was Pamela’s daughter and that Pamela is pretty old. He’s not clear on how old, but the implication was that it was old.
Pamela brings up the Viola-is-suffering-from-dementia cover story again, but this time throws in a new twist. According to her, Viola has been totally unhinged since she caused the auto accident that killed Pamela’s father about ten years ago. Since then it’s been unholy immortality this, I’m not your mother I’m your daughter that, it’s really quite upsetting. Thanks for bringing it up and ruining Pamela’s nice evening on the town Jordy, you’re a great date.
Jordy apologizes and changes the subject by talking about his whirlwind life as an entertainment reporter based in Chicago. Pamela says she played Chicago once, at the Wells Theater.
The Wells Theater? This sparks an idea in Jordy’s mind, and he’s clearly mulling some stuff over as he makes out with Pamela a second time. His lips say “kissing time” but his eyes say “I’m onto you, immortal witch!”
Later, once he’s done crossing the boundaries between journalist and subject, his gives Reuter’s man Krueger a call. Back before anyone had access to Google, being Google was a person’s job. Krueger does everything from looking up images and photographs to researching dates and scanning old newspaper articles for mentions of specific subjects. Everything is carefully filed and made of paper – if the office were to catch fire, some of those records would be lost forever. (It’s kind of a fascinating job, and if you’d like to see a story that features a Human Google more prominently, you should check out Desk Set, a romantic comedy starring Katherine Hepburn as Google.)
Krue is happy to hear from Jordy, and asks if he wants to chase down a new story for him. Jordy explains that he’s still working on the Pamela Morris one.
“Listen, I want you to do something for me,” Jordy asks, “look up the file on a picture called Queen of the Nile.”
No problem. Which one does he want? Krueger tells Jordy that there were two versions, a silent film made around 1920, and a talkie in 1940. Jordy says he’d like him to pull both.
It’s hard to tell if Jordy believes that Pamela is hiding some supernatural secret. He looks amused here, bouncing on the balls of his feet, and you can tell that if it comes together enough, he thinks it’ll make a great story. But is it a great story because it’s true, or because it’s so fantastic and there’s enough evidence to make people wonder if it’s true? I don’t think even Jordy knows yet.
Krueger quickly grabs what Jordy’s looking for and returns to the phone. The first question is what the actress who starred in the silent version was named. The answer is Constance Taylor, as a nod to Hollywood’s most recent Cleopatra. Actually, Krueger tells us, back before he was a one-man search engine, he had interviewed Taylor when he was a fresh new face on the journalism scene.
He recalls that on the last day of shooting Queen of the Nile, there was an accident. A cave-in in a tomb in Egypt – they were filming on location, which is kind of ridiculous for a film from 1920 – and poor Constance Taylor didn’t make it out in time. But they never actually found the body.
It was the end of a promising career, according to Krueger. Constance Taylor had been something extraordinary, an ageless beauty. He remembers that she’d been a big hit back in the days of the Floradora girls.
Back in the 1900’s, a musical sensation started in Britain and soon took Broadway by storm. It was called Floradora, and it was about a perfume company, a fake hypnotist, and the undying but untidy love of three couples who all get married at the end. The women of the chorus were called Floradora girls, and were sources of great speculation and admiration. The most famous of them was Evelyn Nesbit, who married money and found herself mixed up in a notorious murder scandal.
In 1930, a film starring Marion Davies was made called The Floradora Girl. Marion Davies was also mixed up in a notorious murder scandal.
So, with all that in mind, we learn that Krueger has taken this timeline back all the way to 1900, if Constance Taylor and Pamela Morris are one and the same. Krueger also remembers that Constance Taylor had been married about six times before the accident, though he can’t quite recall the fates of her husbands.
Jordy asks him if he’s got a photo of this Constance Taylor, and Krueger says he does. It’s time to compare the two women and see if any of this holds water.
Krueger lays the two photos side by side, and it’s obvious that it’s the same woman. Krueger doesn’t commit to the answer though, saying that the makeup and costuming are so distinct, it’s really hard to say for sure. If you dress a woman up like Cleopatra, she looks dressed up like Cleopatra.
I’m cutting him some slack because he has gigantic glasses and seems like a good guy, but the resemblance goes well beyond “they’re both wearing heavy eyeliner.”
This maybe is more than enough for Jordy. He asks Krueger to send along the photos, as well as any clippings about Pamela Morris’s romantic entanglements. And anything Krueger can find about either Taylor or Morris playing the Wells Theater in Chicago.
Speaking of, off the top of his head, does Krueger happen to remember what year the Wells Theater got torn down?
“Oh, sometime back in the 20’s. Why, Jordy?”
Jordy says he’s not going to tell anybody until he’s 100% sure… always a good sign for a character in a dangerous situation.
A few days later, we see that Pamela is having another swim in her pool, distracting her from the secret meeting going on in the house.
Jordy has come to speak with Viola.
Viola is going through the clippings and evidence he’s brought, while he stands by the windows and watches Pamela swim. The first time he’d done that, he was filled with admiration and desire. Now he’s filled with disgust and fear.
“It’s true,” Viola nods, closing up the file of clippings and handing it to him. “It’s all true. But don’t show it to her, take it and leave.”
Do what the lady says, Jordy. You can get a statement from Pamela over the phone.
Instead of leaving, he flips the file open to a specific clipping from the 1920’s that shows an advertisement for a play at the Wells Theater. There's a photograph of a very familiar raven-haired bombshell.
“Is this Pamela?” Jordy demands.
Yes! God! She just told you all of it’s true, now go Jordy!
Viola says that Pamela has had many different names and identities over the years.
“But she herself hasn’t changed for forty years?”
Obviously longer than that, Jordy. You’re terrible at this. Take your clippings and leave. Now.
“At least 70 years. The total sum of my life,” Viola explains. “She’s ageless. Perhaps eternal.”
Jordy wants to know how Pamela does it. What the secret is.
Pond’s Cold Cream, Jordy. Now get the hell out of the house!
Viola takes him to one of the Egyptian statues. A sun disc with a scarab on it. She explains that she doesn’t know the secret, and if she did, she’d probably use it for herself. But she suspects it has something to do with the beetle, with Egypt.
Jordy notes that the scarab is the symbol of everlasting life, which is wrong. The scarab is a symbol of regeneration and rebirth. Still fits for Pamela.
He asks Viola why she stays.
Well, Jordy, nobody else has the secret of eternal youth, so if you want to have it, you’ve got to stick around.
But there’s a little more to the story. Viola hints at something having happened between her husband and her mother, but we don’t get any details. Which is a bummer because it sounds slightly more interesting than the Jordy angle.
Still not leaving despite the existence of the telephone, Jordy begins to ask what happened to some of the men that mysteriously disappeared out of Pamela’s life.
It’s then that Pamela comes back into the house.
This time, she wearing the greatest outfit ever. Sandals, loose black trousers, a golden top with tassels and the structure of a breastplate, and a black robe with golden trim. The costumes for Pamela are really on point, which is great because this is not the most expensive looking episode. The lighting is very sitcom, and there are some painted backgrounds, and (unfortunately) the ancient artefacts all look super fake. Ann Blyth keeps everything going, not only with a delicately menacing performance, but with her parade of fab looks.
She looks annoyed as the maid brings in the cart of tea and coffee. Has Viola been telling Jordy wild stories again?
Jordy doesn’t think they’re wild. In fact, he has a whole briefcase full of evidence.
Well. That won’t do.
Pamela tells the maid to take Viola upstairs and serve her tea in her room so that she can talk to Jordy alone. She drops two drugged sugar cubes in a cup of coffee while Jordy’s back is turned.
Jordy drinks the coffee.
“What is it you want? Money?” Pamela asks.
“No. Just the truth.”
“Then you shall have it.”
She glides to a nearby plant, where she has nestled a small glass box beneath the leaves. She comes back and sits on the arm of the sofa next to Jordy. He’s not looking so great. He’s already sweating buckets, and he might barf. He looks barfy.
Pamela shows him that the glass box contains a scarab.
A very rare scarab, gifted to her a very long time ago by a pharaoh.
“Pharaoh?” Jordy confirms deliriously.
“You said so yourself, Mr. Herrick. I was once Queen of the Nile.”
“Wha… baaa?” Jordy kind of belches out in horror as the poison overwhelms him and he collapses in a sweaty, unconscious heap on the floor.
Pamela moves swiftly to his side and unbuttons his shirt.
She places the scarab on his bare chest, and watches as Jordy’s youth is steadily drained from him.
His hair greys, his face becomes lined, then wrinkled, his skin becomes grey and sallow, the hair turns white. Then, all too quickly, there his body has become bones. Cracking bones. And soon, nothing but dust.
He should have left the house when Viola told him to.
Pamela Morris or Constance Taylor or whatever her name really is carefully plucks the scarab from the dried out bones and places it on her own chest. She absorbs the life of Jordan Herrick with a look of relief and satisfaction on her face.
Once the process is complete, she quickly slips the scarab back into its glass box and returns it to the plant. As she does, Viola returns – perhaps trying to save Jordy one last time – only to find a suit full of bone powder on the living room floor.
Viola is devastated. Pamela scolds her for coming in before she was called, and tells her to clean up what’s left of Jordy.
How many men have passed through their vacuum cleaner? A dozen? Two dozen? How often does Pamela need to do this, and how often does she choose to do this?
The doorbell rings.
Pamela hurries to the front hall, where the maid introduces another handsome young reporter. Pamela is breathless and beguiling as usual, as she takes his arm and leads him to a chair.
Will his fate be the same as Jordy’s? Or will he manage to make it out thanks to a twist of timing, like old Krueger had? It’s hard to say.
But the next time you see a YouTube sensation who looks an awful lot like a long-ago beauty queen who came to a mysterious end, spare a thought for Pamela and her little friend the scarab.
Take it away, Rod:
“Everybody knows Pamela Morris, the beautiful and eternally-young movie star. Or does she have another name even more famous, an Egyptian name from centuries past? It’s best not to be too curious, left you wind up like Jordan Herrick, a pile of dust and old clothing discarded in the eternity of the Twilight Zone.”