Nowadays, Roald Dahl is best remembered for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach and his other novels for children, but there was a time when he was known exclusively for his creepy little fables. Stories like “Lamb to the Slaughter” and “Man From the South” and “Dip in the Pool” were all highly regarded for their bitingly ironic endings.
In 1961, this reputation made Dahl an interesting fit for a horror anthology show called ‘Way Out (with the apostrophe, not sure why). The show was a quick-fix replacement for a Jackie Gleason gameshow, You’re in the Picture, which was such a disaster that Gleason apologized to the American public and it was cancelled after a single episode. Anthology shows were relatively easy to put together – you didn’t need to negotiate with a recurring star, you could change gears on a weekly basis, and you could crib sets on the backlots. Plus, people really liked The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, so it was a good solution for that unsightly gap on Friday nights.
Dahl would host in the hands-off manner of Alfred Hitchcock, as well as contribute some of his stories for adaptation, most notably “William and Mary” for the premiere.
The series ran for sixteen episodes, but it wasn’t a hit with audiences. It’s not hard to see why, it’s a really weird show. It’s not bad, but it’s weird. In the late ‘70s, Dahl would work on a more successful television vehicle for his stories, ITV’s Tales of the Unexpected. (Not to be confused with the American Quinn Martin Production of the same name.) Meanwhile, ‘Way Out would become an oddity, and a bit of a holy grail for a certain kind of television fan.
Only five episodes are circulated in the general public. The other eleven, still preserved, are only available to view at the Paley Center for Media in New York. They’ve never been released on DVD, and of the five episodes, what we have are bootlegs of bootlegs. For those of us who can’t get out to New York, it’s a frustrating turn of events. It's also, incidentally why there aren't many screencaps for this episode. I figured nobody wanted to squint at grey blobs.
Today, we’re taking a look at one of the episodes not penned by Dahl, “The Croaker.” It’s more lighthearted than the vindictive disembodied brains and slowly melting faces the series usually went for, so it’s a fun place to jump in. It was written by Phil Reisman Jr., who wrote two other episodes for 'Way Out and also created a show called I Spy. (Not the one you're thinking of, just something with the same title.)
Each episode started with Dahl’s image repeated over itself, like a ghost trapped in a hall of mirrors. He would usually smoke, and almost always give us instructions on how to better murder our spouses. Even when the episode at hand was not primarily concerned with spouses murdering each other.
“How are you?” He asks with a sly grin, “And how is your love life these days, you ladies? Because whatever happens, you should always try to remember that men are not nearly so preoccupied with the opposite sex as most women would like to think. Above all, you see, man is a colossal egotist. Far more concerned with his own self than he is with females.”
He has a very pleasant voice, light and natural, but he talks very quickly compared to other hosts.
“It’s why women are always having to doll themselves up to attract his attention. To me, the behaviour of the male human is very much like that of the male frog. The frog, whenever he feels a trifle amorous, calls his female by blowing out his dewlap and letting it go with a burp.”
(Thanks for coming into my life and making me double check the spelling of dewlap, Roald Dahl.)
“The female comes hoppity-hop-hop over to his side, and waits eagerly. But by then, the male has become so engrossed with the business of blowing his horn, that he’s forgotten all about her. And she actually has to nudge him, several times, before he turns to embrace her. That’s what happens with frogs, but you see what I mean, don’t you?”
Tonight’s play is all about frogs, which is a refreshing change from the murder speeches, but I will say, his homicide instructions are slightly more informative than his biology lessons.
Okay! The story itself starts with a little boy, played by Richard Thomas who would later go on to star in The Waltons. The boy’s name is Jeremy Keeler, and he’s wandering the lanes between idyllic suburban houses calling for a dog, Spot.
He notices that the French doors of a nearby house are open. The yard looks a little overgrown, and a For Sale sign out front is shabby and worn. With almost no hesitation, Jeremy goes straight in, calling for Spot and whistling.
It’s obvious straight away that this isn’t a normal house. For starters, there’s an enormous taxidermy crocodile in the corner of the living room. And an equally eye-catching aquarium full of algae and tadpoles – the aquarium provides a really interesting shot of Jeremy inspecting the living room as tadpoles seemingly swim around him.
The hallway is guarded by two massive palm trees, leaves hanging down like curtains, and of course this is where Jeremy heads. He finds a locked door, next to an old-fashioned desk and a second member of the crocodilian family, this time a stuffed caiman.
Jeremy reaches out and puts a finger in the caiman’s mouth as eerie music plays.
Suddenly, a pair of hands grab the boy and spin him around.
“Who are you? What are you doing in my house?”
Why, it’s character actor John McGiver! (He was in everything, you know him when you see him.)
This time around, he’s not a friendly figure. He’s wearing Coke bottle glasses, a strangely formal dressing jacket, and he’s shaking the kid like a ragdoll as he barks questions.
For his part, young Jeremy is cool as a cucumber while he rattles off his name, the dog’s name, and even this weirdly intense home owner’s name. It’s Mr. Rana. Jeremy saw it on the sides of the boxes when the moving van came a few days ago.
Mr. Rana asks the boy if he makes a habit out of breaking into random houses instead of, you know, knocking. Jeremy says it’s the only way to get inside, nobody ever lets him in on purpose. Where’s Mr. Rana hiding the dog?
“What makes you think I have your dog?”
It’s not Jeremy’s dog. It belongs to the people next door, and it went straight into Mr. Rana’s yard after Jeremy let it loose.
You see, Jeremy is a young entrepreneur. A businessman in the making. He has a system where he encourages pets to run away, sometimes by something as simple as leaving a gate open, and then he watches where they go. And as soon as a reward is on the table, he takes them back to their owners. When he grows up, he’ll make an excellent phone psychic.
While the kid is listing all the different types of birds he’s lost by accident, Mr. Rana makes his way to a nearby drink tray, insisting that he hasn’t seen the dog. He takes an eyedropper out of his pocket, and puts a few drops of a mysterious liquid into one of the drinking glasses. It starts to smoke ominously.
I know this looks like it’s going to go a little Law & Order: SVU here, but stick with it.
And, no, it’s not a step in the right direction when Mr. Rana leans towards Jeremy with the glass of creeptastic water and says: “Little boys are always thirsty.”
Jeremy notices right away that the water stinks. It reminds him of a dirty pond, he says, thrusting the glass back towards Mr. Rana.
“It smells like a frog’s been in it,” Jeremy muses, not disgustedly, but more like he’s trying to put his finger on the specific smell.
Huh. You know, with all this frog talk and Dahl’s speech about frogs and men being similar creatures, Mr. Rana’s quirks – the strange stooping hop to his gait, the eyes enlarged by the lens of his glasses, the deep set frown that pushes his double chin towards his shoulders – seem more, I don’t know, prominent? But it’s probably nothing.
Mr. Rana wants to know if Jeremy likes frogs.
Jeremy shrugs and says he doesn’t have anything against frogs, but the conversation is cut short by a dog yelping behind that mysterious locked door.
Spot?! But Mr. Rana said he hadn’t seen any dog, and he seems so trustworthy!
Panicking, Mr. Rana asks if Jeremy has ever noticed that certain species of frog make a barking noise just like a dog. (Frogs sound like they’re belching their dewlaps, Mr. Rana. This was discussed before your entrance.)
“You’ve discovered my secret,” Mr. Rana says, getting his face really close to Jeremy’s, “I’m a frog fancier. Let’s keep that just between the two of us, eh?”
Everything is exactly halfway between hilarious and terrifying right now.
Jeremy, never missing a mercenary beat, rubs his fingers together in the universal sign for money and holds out an expectant palm. Mr. Rana gives him a quarter, and that seems to be enough.
So, let’s see, this episode was from 1963, so twenty-five cents would be around two dollars today. In both time periods, Jeremy can buy a bottle of soda for his silence.
Following through on seeming way more disturbing than he’ll actually turn out to be, Mr. Rana stops Jeremy at the door and asks if he’d like a source of steady income. Jeremy, having had a very safe childhood so far, says he’s interested.
Luckily, this is all about catching flies. Mr. Rana is having a hard time finding enough for his many frogs to eat, and he’ll gladly pay Jeremy for full jars of real flies. And if Jeremy starts knocking over garbage cans at night so that the garbage sits until morning, then there would be even more flies. A quarter for every full jar, and bonuses for creating a more fly-filled neighbourhood.
It’s basically Jeremy’s dream job.
Also, he right away decides to start a mini-exterminator business, where he “grows” flies in people’s yards and under their porches, and then hires himself out to get rid of the flies. Delightful! Never change, Jeremy! But maybe become more aware of the signs of child predators, okay?
Speaking of, Mr. Rana grabs Jeremy by the wrist and pulls him over to the aquarium.
“You see that tadpole, there?” He asks softly. “That was once a boy who tried to betray me.”
Oh, Mr. Rana. You're so normal!
After Jeremy safely leaves through the French doors, we hear Spot barking again, just as frantic as before. Mr. Rana mixes his strange formula in with a bowl of dog food, and disappears behind the mystery door, promising Spot a dinner to remember.
Time to go and meet Spot’s constantly bickering owners, Fred and Cora Tench. Cora is being played by Madeline Sherwood, who was always amazing, and would later warm the hearts of TV audiences everywhere as Mother Superior Placido on The Flying Nun.
Cora says she can’t find Spot anywhere, and her charming husband replies that Spot is her dog and her problem.
“He’s not my dog. Not after you trained him to growl every time I come near him. He’s got your disposition, he’s your dog.”
Fred is being played by Rex Everheart, and his voice will immediately sound familiar to Disney fans. He was Belle’s father, Maurice, in Beauty and the Beast.
He tells his wife that she and the dog look alike, too, and when she tries to argue back at him, he makes barking noises.
Whatever happens to Fred is well earned.
Cora, it should be mentioned, isn’t exactly being the bigger person here. Underneath her husband’s barking noises, you can hear her saying that Spot always growls at treacherous slobs, and it’s not her fault if that’s what Fred happens to be.
In the middle of this domestic squabble, Jeremy saunters in from the kitchen door, casually mentioning that he knows where Spot is.
Annoyed at being spied on during a fight, Cora scolds Jeremy for sneaking into her house, and reminds him that she said she’d call his mother straight away the next time he did it. I have no idea why she didn’t call his mother the first few times, as letting kids slide on actual against-the-law crimes seems weird.
Jeremy just takes a seat on the couch, with a very casual:
“’Lo, Mr. Tench. ‘Lo, Mrs. Tench.”
(Totally unimportant side note, I often see the word Hello written as ‘Lo when children are saying it, in order to convey offhanded mumbling. But it always sounds weird to me, and whenever child actors are told to do it, it’s very obvious that this is not how they usually say Hello. They are clearly saying ‘Lo – with the apostrophe and the upper case L.)
Fred, winning as many sympathy points as he can, tells his wife to stop yipping, calls Jeremy a little monster, and says that if the kid tells him where the dog is, no questions will be asked.
Naturally, Jeremy says he’ll tell Fred whatever he needs to know, for the bargain price of a quarter. I deeply admire this money grubbing little punk, I really do.
Cora gets a little miffed at this price, but ultimately Spot is worth twenty-five cents to the Tenches, so the silver crosses young Jeremy’s palm. Immediately, the kid divulges that he saw Spot go into Mr. Rana’s house, heard Spot barking behind a mysterious door, Mr. Rana is the weird guy who moved in last week, and the dude collects frogs.
“Alright you little squint, you’ve been paid,” Fred gives Jeremy a gentle shove towards the door, “Now go on down to the depot and play on the tracks.”
Meanwhile, Cora is mortified that there’s some kind of frog farm in their exclusive neighborhood.
The two of them bicker some more, mother-in-law jokes are bandied about, and eventually it’s settled that Fred will go and talk to Mr. Rana and get Spot back.
By the time he gets around to this, night has fallen.
Fred is wearing a sports coat, and folds his arms a little nervously after he knocks on Mr. Rana’s door. He’s unpleasantly surprised when the door opens promptly, and Mr. Rana is in front of him asking what he wants.
Quickly clearing his throat and trying to play the whole thing off for laughs, Fred introduces himself and says that he and the wife lost their dog, has Mr. Rana happened to see him?
Mr. Rana says no, which isn’t too much of a surprise, and goes to close the door.
But Fred stops him. He has an idea of how to annoy Cora a little, and it involves staying for a very long time at Mr. Rana’s and then coming home totally Spotless. The way he’s talking, you can tell he lives to annoy his wife, it’s his whole world for some reason.
Eager for a volunteer, Mr. Rana happily invites Fred inside. Drinks are most certainly on the menu.
“I was hoping some of the neighbours would drop in,” Mr. Rana muses, spiking a glass of whisky with his smoky concoction. Fred takes a little tour of the oddities in the living room, peering into the aquarium with a look of mild disgust.
Fred takes his glass, and gulps down half of it, no questions asked.
If there’s one thing classic television teaches us, it’s that you shouldn’t drink random beverages handed to you by oddballs. If there's a second thing, it’s that if you try to cover up your mistakes with wacky hijinks, it usually works out great and sometimes William Holden comes to visit.
Mr. Rana, again failing to get a sense of somebody else’s personal bubble, leans in over Fred’s shoulder and explains that he’s never been fond of dogs. He’s a frog man, and not in the Naval sense.
Fred asks if the aim of raising frogs is eating them, or selling them to French restaurants.
“Sir,” Mr. Rana bristles, “I may be eccentric, but I am not depraved.”
Frogs are the most admirable creatures on the earth, turns out. They’re inherently serene, spending half a year hibernating in mud, and the other half sunning on a lily pad in quiet contemplation. Frogs are probably ten times as happy as the world’s happiest man.
“You sold me, pal,” Fred toasts the rest of his glass and knocks it back, “I wouldn’t mind being a frog myself!”
He belches a surprisingly froggy sounding belch, and excuses himself. But the belching soon becomes uncontrollable. Next, his arms start bouncing at the elbows, fists tucked in at his chest; and lastly, his legs start squatting up and down at the knees.
Uh-oh. Fred’s looking very frog-like indeed…
At least he’ll be happy?
A few days later, Jeremy comes to visit Mr. Rana with a new batch of flies. He finds the French doors ajar again, and lets himself in to have a look around. This kid finds more ajar doors than a private eye in a film noir. Also, if Mr. Rana weren’t purposefully trying to trap people into his house to drink a crazy frog potion, I would say he was aiming to get robbed.
This time around, the mysterious door is opened. Naturally, Jeremy goes straight for it as fast as he can without running. He peeks in, and then he goes in.
The room is murky, humid and full of ferns, reeds, and other plants. Spanish moss hangs from the roof, and the centerpiece is an enormous pond, or swimming pool, or tank. Whatever you want to call it. Jeremy weaves through the plants, clutching the jar and looking confusedly around. Perched on a mossy stone pedestal is a great big frog, belching its heart out.
Jeremy goes over to the frog, as though he finds it uncannily familiar, but Mr. Rana soon springs out of the foliage and grabs the boy by the shoulders.
“Do you know what you’ve discovered?” He demands angrily.
“That your bedroom is a swamp?” Jeremy answers, earnestly confused about the implications, “I think it’s real cool.”
Mr. Rana asks what the grown-ups in town will think when Jeremy tells them, and Jeremy replies that they just won’t believe him. He’s a known trouble maker, liar, and all around morally bankrupt kid. That’s some fine strategic thinking, Jeremy.
Jeremy is the most dynamic villain I’ve seen in a while.
He also straight up asks the question on everyone’s mind:
“Mr. Rana, are you a frog?”
Instead of answering directly, Mr. Rana decides to air his views on evolution. For starters, Darwin was an idiot – he believed that humans started in the great pond, then evolved up past jellyfish, birds, amphibians, and reptiles. (Guessing Mr. Rana hasn’t actually read anything by Darwin.)
Jeremy interrupts to mention that reptiles are his faves, particularly snakes.
Mr. Rana flinches at the mention of the frog’s natural enemy, but continues his speech. Darwin didn’t realize that the amphibians were the highest form of life, and after progressing to their level, humans regressed. We’ve been slipping backwards, further and further from our slimy ultimate state.
“All things beyond the frog are just mutations of the frog.”
Cool. Yeah. That sounds… scientific.
Anyway, the end result of all of this theorizing is that Mr. Rana believes the world is slowly turning back into a swamp, and when the great swamp returns, the frogs will rule the world. Until then, man must serve the frogs and, one by one, become them.
And by serving them, never cheat the frogs. Apparently, Jeremy’s jar of “flies” are thirty percent raisins. Mr. Rana angrily turns the boy out, shouting that if he’s not going to take his job of procuring food for the overlords seriously, then he’ll get no more quarters from Mr. Rana!
Once alone, Mr. Rana resumes feeding his frog collection, calling them all by name. Including Spot and Fred.
Speaking of Spot and Fred, surely Cora must have noticed that all the members of her household are steadily disappearing?
She has. What’s more, she’s brought the police into the matter, by way of Sgt. McGoogin, who somewhat ironically has what I consider to be the name best suited to a frog. (Even though Rana is a genus of frog, it just doesn’t sound froggy enough to me.) The young officer reads out the description Cora gave him, while she files her nails, curled up in the corner of her sofa.
The description is of a slack-jawed, yellow spotted dog who drools uncontrollably.
McGoogin says he needs a description of Fred now, and Cora tells him that was the description of Fred.
“How do you think it looks to have my husband just up and walk out on me? If I’d seen this coming, I would’ve done it to him,” Cora shakes her head.
There’s a Missing Person report out on Fred, and McGoogin already interviewed who he calls “the weirdo next door” but says that Mr. Rana, although the last person to see Fred, said that everything was pretty normal. Fred was talking about how happy his life was going to be, and the only thing that seemed to make him uncomfortable was a froggy throat.
Cora argues that people as irritating as her husband are incapable of disappearing without a trace.
McGoogin promises her they’ll keep doing the best they can, and as he gets up to leave, Jeremy appears from the kitchen again. Just sneaking in and out of houses like a criminal. McGoogin starts in on him immediately, citing other illegal entries, his truancy record, and recent reports that the kid has been breeding flies, which McGoogin is pretty sure is some kind of Health Code violation.
Jeremy ignores his rap sheet, and tries to tell the officer that Mr. Tench has been turned into a frog. He does this very calmly, and matter-of-factly, totally unlike a kid in a Goosebumps book. Yet the officer remains unconvinced. Incredulous, even.
He tells Jeremy to get out of the Tench house, stay out unless he’s invited in, and stop wasting police time with his crazy reverse fairy tales.
The three of them all leave through the French doors (both houses are flipped versions of each other in layout), with McGoogin saying he’ll check the hospitals again.
Cora heads back inside, and immediately hears a strange noise.
Like a wind up spring.
Or a croaking frog.
She finds Fred the Frog sitting in his living room chair, blinking at her with his amphibian eyes. Fred jumps. Cora jumps, too, then throws her shoe at him and tells him that he must be one of the pets from next door. She warns him to stay put, and runs across the yards to go get Mr. Rana.
Fred follows her, and when Mr. Rana opens the door, he finds a shrieking Cora demanding that he do something about the frog.
Mr. Rana quickly scoops up Fred and hurries into the pond room, careful to keep the door closed behind him. Once Fred is safely back with Spot, Mr. Rana returns to the living room to deal with Cora.
Cora is practically hyperventilating in his armchair, apologizing for being so easily frightened by the frog, and explained that she’s all wound up because her dog disappeared, and also some stuff is going on with her husband, it’s not important. Can she have a drink? Just to help her calm down. Something very light, only half and half.
Of course, you can, Cora.
The eyedropper comes out, the drink is mixed complete with frog serum, and soon it’s in Cora’s hand.
She takes a sip.
As she starts to calm down, she tells Mr. Rana that his house is “like a hollow log, but comfortable, you know?”
She starts to hiccup in an extraordinarily frog-like manner. And I do mean extraordinarily, the sounds she makes are hilariously perfect. If there’s was an award for steadily turning into a frog, no performance would ever top this one. It’s amazing.
Soon, she’s on her feet, hobbling around on one shoe with a noticeable little hop, explaining that she actually doesn’t have anything against frogs. It’s just unexpected frogs, and, she thinks, that one particular frog she found in her living room. Oh, she didn’t like that one particular frog. He reminded her of somebody. Can’t put her finger on who.
You know what was funny? Finding a frog in her husband’s chair, right after Jeremy Keeler told her that Mr. Rana had transformed Fred into a frog!
“How would you even do that?” She slurs between croaking hiccups, “with a little magic wand?”
Wands are obsolete, Rana tells us. It’s all chemical concoctions now. Potions.
It smells a touch like pond water, but it’s easily hidden by mixing it with something stronger. Like whiskey.
Realization dawns on Cora, as her hiccups turn into bona fide frog croaks, and come faster and faster. Ominous music swells as we fade out, and fade back in onto the For Sale sign that had been outside Mr. Rana’s house. It’s now in the yard of the Tench place.
The pond room at Mr. Rana’s is, ahem, hopping with activity. He now has several frogs, and is calling out their names as he tosses them flies. A fly for Fred, a fly for Cora, and at the very end, a fly for Mr. Rana. He grabs one of the juiciest ones out of the jar, and pops it into his mouth.
Time enough for one last visit from Jeremy, who sneaks through the mystery door like it’s nothing.
It’s been a couple of months since Jeremy came by with flies, and Mr. Rana is disappointed. The two of them had been talking about Jeremy setting up a lemonade stand at the train station, so that he could catch the thirsty commuters. Of course, it would be lemonade with a faint hint of pond scum, but as long as Jeremy got his quarters, what was he to care?
Jeremy explains that he’s been busily working on a project of his own.
He’s been studying what Mr. Rana’s been doing to people, trying to find out how exactly it was done. And, he figured it out. Sort of.
See, Jeremy just couldn’t bring himself to believe that an animal so low on the food chain was the zenith of evolution. It just didn’t make sense. His formula had a slightly different goal than turning people into frogs.
He started his own lemonade stand, so he could experiment on his customers. Why, just this morning Sgt. McGoogin came by and bought a drink.
Jeremy smiles as he pulls a very sinister looking snake from his pocket. It coils up around his hand, and Mr. Rana shrieks in terror.
“You’ll like it here, Sgt. McGoogin,” Jeremy tells the snake warmly, “And when the world turns back into a great big jungle, all the snakes will have plenty to eat, on account of there being so many frogs.”
Awesome work, Snake Overlord Jeremy.
And that closes out the story, but not the episode, because it’s time for Roald Dahl to come back and ask us a vital thematic question:
“Are frogs happier than people?”
He says we can’t be sure, but the price of human legs is usually higher than that of frog’s legs. Especially in restaurants.
*Two corrections were made to this post. I erroneously implied that the I Spy show created by Phil Reisman was the I Spy show, and I had the publication info for "Royal Jelly" wrong because I trusted Wikipedia when the official Roald Dahl website let me down. Never trust Wikipedia. Also, shout out to Mike Doran for pointing those two out and helping us all become better TV bloggers.