Retro Recaps: The Twilight Zone (Season 4, Episode 7) – Jess-Belle
Throughout the years, the concept of love and relationships has popped up in many shows, often as Valentine’s Day approaches.
In February of 1963, it just so happened that the broadcast date for a new Twilight Zone episode, fell on that fated day. And with it, brought the tale of an Appalachian love triangle, between flaxen-haired Ellwyn Glover (Laura Devon), the handsome Billy-Ben Turner (James Best), and the raven-haired Jesse-Belle Stone (Anne Francis).
At the Glover’s annual barn dance, Luther Glover (George Mitchell) praises the bountiful harvest that he and his neighbors have collected, along with an announcement: his daughter Ellwyn Glover, is to be wed to Billy-Ben Turner.
However, not everyone in attendance is happy for the couple, notably Jess-Belle Stone, who quickly leaves. Billy follows her outside, where Jess claims that she still longs for the time when they were together. She feels that Billy is only marrying Ellie for her family’s wealth, but Billy claims that isn’t so.
Before he returns to the dance, Jess asks Billy to tell his bride-to-be, not to start making her wedding dress just yet.
“Why should I tell her a thing like that?” replies Billy, curiously.
“She ain’t married you yet, Billy-Ben,” says Jess, sternly. “Maybe she never will.”
It is then that Rod Serling’s voice is heard, as we see Jess watch the lovers embrace, before storming off:
The Twilight Zone has existed in many lands in many times. It has it’s roots in history, in something that happened long, long ago and, got told about and handed down from one generation of folk to the other. In the telling the story gets added to and embroidered on, so that what might have happened in the time of the Druids is told as if it took place yesterday in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Such stories are best told by an elderly grandfather on a cold winter’s night by the fireside, in the southern hills, of the Twilight Zone.
Jess-Belle is next seen at the home of a woman named Granny Hart (Jeanette Nolan), whom the locals claim to be a witch. Granny just laughs this off, and inquires why the girl has come to her.
Jess claims she wants the old woman to help her make Billy-Ben love her again, but upon being asked for money for the old woman’s services, the girl claims she has none…but is willing to pay ‘any price.’
With those words, Granny pulls out a small bottle from a covered shelf. Jess drinks it’s contents, but suddenly flinches! After a few moments, her eyes open, and Granny Hart claims that once Billy sees her, he’ll never have eyes for another.
Jess-Belle then returns to the barn dance, where she interrupts a dance-circle, and catches Billy’s eye. Just as Granny Hart promised, he becomes enchanted by her, and as Ellwyn and the others watch, the two walk out of the barn!
Ellwyn’s mother and father immediately have harsh words for Billy turning his back on their daughter, but Ellwyn claims she knows what happened: “Jess-Belle bewitched him.”
Some ways off, Jess-Belle and Billy lay in a field, talking of their future together. Suddenly, Billy notes the moon overhead going down, causing Jess to suddenly claim she has to get home.
Once there, she rushes for her room, ignoring the entreaties of her mother. As the clock tolls The Witching Hour, Jess collapses to the floor of her room, and in a puff of smoke, turns into a leopard.
Some time later, Billy comes to Jess, and gives her the ring he had given Ellwyn, claiming it now belongs to Jess. He also speaks how he has made plans with a preacher, and how her mother will make her a wedding dress, but Jess seems perturbed by all this.
She claims she needs to go away, but as Billy grabs her arm not wanting her to leave, she lashes out a hand at him…leaving three claw marks raked across the side of his face!
She then rushes back to Granny Hart, claiming she feels an emptiness inside. It is then that Granny claims that she really is a witch, and reveals the price Jess paid for Billy-Ben: her soul. Granny also reveals that because of this, Jess has also become a witch!
“You paid the price,” she tells the girl. “Take what you paid for.”
After several days of doubt, Jess puts aside her fears, and decides to heed the old woman’s advice, soon giving in to Billy’s request to be wed soon.
Sometime later, Jess-Belle comes across Ellwyn Glover picking wildflowers. The two trade ‘quiet barbs’ with each other, before Jess tells Ellwyn to watch out for a wildcat that’s been seen in the area.
However, Ellwyn claims her father is rounding up a number of men (including Billy) to take care of the creature, before morning the next day.
Jess returns home, where her mother works to hem her wedding dress. When she claims she saw Ellwyn out in the fields looking ‘sickly,’ her mother thinks maybe she should take the girl some tonic.
“You and your tonics,” laughs Jess. “You’re worse than Granny Hart-”
The slip of her tongue causes an awkward silence between mother and daughter. When Jess’ mother finds out her daughter has knowledge of the old woman, she soon deduces what her daughter has done in getting Billy to love her again.
When the girl reveals the price she paid, her mother says they should pray for her, but Jesse claims that will do not good. Instead, she asks her mother to lock her room door, so that she cannot get out until morning.
Though her mother does as she wishes, Jess (in her leopard form), escapes out her bedroom window, and ends up in the Glover’s barn, spooking the horses, and scaring Ellwyn.
The girl’s screams attract her father and the men hunting the cat. Billy and another man fire at it, and are surprised as the creature vanishes in a puff of smoke!
“A witch,” exclaims Ellwyn’s father. “That cat, was a witch!”
Billy examines where the wildcat disappeared, and finds the ring he had given to Jess. As the other men leave, Billy begins speaking to Ellwyn…a sure sign that his connection with Jess-Belle has been severed.
A year passes, and Ellwyn and Billy are set to be wed. As Billy prepares for the wedding, he is visited by Jess-Belle’s mother, who gives him her daughter’s silver hairpin as a gift…along with a warning.
As talk turns to Jess-Belle, her mother claims that she does not believe her daughter is dead. Though Billy claims one of his bullets hit the wildcat in the Glover’s barn, Mrs Stone tells how she saw a toad in her daughter’s room, and upon trying to kill it, it turned to smoke, and flew away!
Billy tries to put this thought out of his mind, but at the wedding, he notices a spider crawling on Ellie’s veil. Plucking it off and holding it in his hand, it then disappears in a puff of smoke, leading Billy to believe that Mrs Stone was right.
After the ceremony, the newlywed couple returns to Billy’s house, where strange things begin to happen. Ellie finds herself attempting to slap Billy, and a clock in the room suddenly falls to the floor! Billy then gives Ellie their Bible, and tells her not to leave the house, as he rushes off.
Billy seeks out Granny Hart, wanting to know how to kill a witch. She asks for a lock of his hair as payment, but Billy instead pays her in coins. Hart then tells Billy that he needs to make a figure of the girl, wearing something she wore, then stab it in it’s ‘heart’ with something of silver.
Billy then goes to Jess-Belle’s home, where her mother gives him the wedding dress she hemmed for her daughter. before he leaves, she tells Billy that she is sure her daughter would appreciate what he is trying to do.
Billy returns to his house, where he finds Ellwyn standing outside. He tells her that he knows how to be rid of Jess’ spirit, but is shocked when Ellie starts speaking, with Jess-Belle’s voice!
Billy rushes into the house and locks the door (with the possessed Ellwyn pounding on it from the outside). Putting the dress on a seamstress’ mannequin, he then stabs it in the heart-area with the silver pin. Suddenly, Jess-Belle materializes, before the figure crumples to the ground and disappears, leaving behind the empty dress.
Billy then finds Ellwyn outside, having no recollection of what happened since her wedding. As he embraces her, the girl’s eye is drawn to the heavens, where she witnesses a star, streaking through the sky.
My mama says when you see a falling star,” she tells Billy, “that means a witch has just died.”
“So I’ve heard tell,” replies Billy, sure that he and Ellwyn are now safe, and that Jess-Belle is truly gone, but also finally at peace.
I’ve often been a fan of stories with a “be careful what you wish for” storyline. Of course, this wasn’t the first Twilight Zone episode to handle the concept of love and potions.
In Season 1, there was the modern-day story called The Chaser, where a young man gets a love potion to get a girl he lusts after, to love him. In the end however, her constant fawning over him gets to be too much, and he ends up paying for something called, “the glove cleaner,” to fix his dilemma.
Writer Earl Hamner Jr, wrote eight episodes during the last few seasons for The Twilight Zone, and in one interview, he claimed that Jess-Belle was his favorite one to write.
It was also done relatively quickly. When another script fell-through, Hamner pitched, wrote, and finished Jess-Belle in a week’s time (with no time for revisions!).
There was also an issue with the kind of cats considered for Jess-Belle’s nightly transformation. The original idea for a tiger was dropped, when the producer Herbert Hirschmann claimed they were hard to work with. After this, there was consideration for a black leopard (to match the color of Jess’ hair), but none could be found, leaving the production to settle on the spotted leopard in the episode.
Along with writing the episode, Hamner also wrote the lyrics to several musical interludes throughout. As the story progresses, a female voice sings bits of a small ‘ballad,’ about the story. It is notable that in place of a closing narrative by Serling, we get a reprise of part of the ballad, heard in the beginning of the episode:
Fair was Elly Glover, dark was Jess-Belle.
Both they loved the same man, and both they loved him well.
Hamner also uses some creative wordplay, when it comes to Jess and Ellwyn. They never get into a shouting match over their love of Billy-Ben (being decent young women), but Earl gives them a small moment of trading barbs, through wordplay.
This comes when Jess-Belle finds Ellwyn in a field by herself.
“Lots of wildflowers around here,” notes Jess. “Saw a patch of ‘old maid’s fern’ up on the mountain.”
A few moments later, Ellwyn responds with: “I notice a lot of ‘vixen-wort’ around here m’self.”
Buzz Kulik, the director, also was a Twilight Zone alumni, directing nine episodes during the show’s run.
In several of his episodes, he had a way of having the camera play among people’s faces, having the actors say plenty with just their expressions.
This type of storytelling is seen in the opening scene especially, when we see Billy-Ben looking a bit nervous, locking eyes with Jess-Belle, after his and Ellwyn’s engagement is announced.
It’s the look of a young man who seems to have possibly made a snap-decision, without telling the other party.
The overall story plays out almost like an Appalachian ‘fairy-tale,’ but it does feel like it stretches the story a bit long for the hour-long format of Season 4. Some areas feel a little repetitive, though one wonders if maybe there could have been more of Jess-Belle in her leopard form, and how her late-night presence affected the locals.
Word is that Earl Hamner was also planning to adapt the story into a musical at one point. When Anne Francis (who played Jess-Belle) heard this, she told him she’d love to play the role of Granny Hart in it…only for him to say he didn’t feel she would have been right for the role. However, this venture was never completed (as far as I know).
Out of all the characters in the episode, it is Jess-Belle and Granny Hart that stand out the most.
The character of Jess-Belle could easily have been a vindictive and over-the-top girl who is willing to knock aside anything and anyone in her way. One can easily see the girl’s name is a take on the word ‘jezebel’ (meaning ‘an impudent, shameless, or morally unrestrained woman,‘ according to Merriam-Webster), but the character here is crafted to be little more than a young woman, whose yearnings end up being her downfall. She thinks all her troubles are behind her once she has Billy-Ben, but it feels like everyday after, she is stuck living with the consequences of her actions, making her a tragic figure.
Jeanette Nolan seems to have the more ‘fun’ role in the episode, as she plays Granny Hart as a witch with a spirited personality. There is a devilish mischief Nolan imbues on the old woman. She seems to delight in causing mischief, and a naive young woman who wishes for a man’s love, gives her some entertainment. It doesn’t help that she seems to smile a great deal, a Cheshire grin that makes one wonder what is going on in her mind.
There is even an interesting juxtaposition, as we first see her in black robes conjuring something, before she pulls the robes away, and simply looks like a kindly old woman, expecting company.
Jess-Belle is not one of the more popular episodes of The Twilight Zone, but it feels like it was somewhat ‘experimental’ in it’s execution. And for that, it sticks out in my mind.
It’s cautionary tale about how love can sometimes blind people to the consequences of their actions, proves to be an intriguing story that the episode’s cast and crew, wove together, all those years ago.