Monday, February 14, 2011

Season One, Episode 6: Ten Drops of Water

Air Date: November 11, 1960
Director: Philip Leacock
Writer: Howard Rodman
Guest Stars: Tony Haig, Burt Brinckerhoff, Deborah Walley, Robert F. Simon, Sara Haden, Oliver McGowan, Don Beddoe

"Ten Drops of Water" is the one of the reasons I fell in love with Route 66. It may be my very favorite episode of the show. It certainly falls within my Top 3 all-time favorite episodes.

Buz and Tod are driving over a rough dirt road through southern Utah canyon country on their way to work for a man who owns a horse ranch in the area. On the narrow road, they come across young Homer Paige (magnificently played by 12-year-old newcomer Tony Haig), who is towing his beloved pet mule Overjack to the same place where Buz and Tod will be working.

Homer ends up selling Overjack to the kind-hearted local rancher. Homer sets off for home, leaving Buz and Tod to do their good deed for the day. They buy Overjack from the rancher to take him back to Homer. With Overjack in tow behind the Corvette, Buz and Tod head to the Paige ranch where Homer lives.

The ranch is run by two brothers, Homer and Virgil (Burt Brinckerhoff, pictured right), and their sister, Helen (Deborah Walley) - all orphans whose parents died working on the land. The land is arid and rough and inhospitable. The Paige ranch is in the midst of a terrible drought. Virgil is infuriated when Buz and Tod bring Overjack back to the ranch because the young siblings are on the verge of starving and cannot afford to take care of the mule. But Homer is thrilled to see his dear friend. Buz is mystified as to why Virgil yelled at him and Tod.

"This ranch, there's been drought here for two years," explains Helen. "Do you see that?" She points to a windmill pump. "That's what gives us water. Last year we got water at 900 feet. But suddenly it stopped. We got ten drops of water an hour. We took our last savings and we drilled down 400 feet more and water came. You see that alfalfa across the road? Without water, it dies. You see those steers? Without water, they die. There's me and Homer and Virgil and that ranch is all we have. We won't have it anymore if we don't have water. It was done and you undid it. There isn't enough water here for Overjack, too. He doesn't pull his weight here anymore and he has to go. Do you understand? How many times do you think you can ask a 12-year old boy to give up the thing he loves the most in the world?"

To make matters worse, the water soon stops coming out of the ground. Tod drives Virgil into town - Kanab, Utah - to see if he can borrow money to repair the pipe under the ground by pulling it up and fixing it. His request is turned down, although the banker offers to buy Virgil's land. Virgil refuses. Tod and Virgil return to the ranch, and Buz and Tod end up rigging the Corvette to help by taking off the tires and turning it into a pulley that can be used to raise the pipe from the ground.

As if things weren't bad enough, a wind storm hits. In a fit of frustration, Virgil whacks Overjack on the hind end, sending the mule running off into the swirling dust. When the wind storm dies down, Homer runs off after the mule he loves. Eventually, Homer finds Overjack lying in the dirt, covered with dust, weary, dehydrated and near death. Overjack eventually dies, leaving Homer distraught. Meantime, Tod drives the Corvette to a nearby ranch and chews out an older couple, the Pepperells, for not helping the Paiges. Mr. Pepperell (Robert F. Simon) tells Tod that they didn't help the Paiges because the Paiges never asked for help.

The Pepperells and other neighbors pitch in to help the desperate Paiges. Thanks to the assistance, the well is fixed and running again. But the Paiges realize that this desolate land offers no real future. Virgil, long the most stubborn of the siblings, finally gives in and offers to sell his land to the banker. The Paiges and Buz and Tod leave for greener pastures. Before the Paiges drive off to their new home, Homer stops at the grave of his father, tells him he loves him, and says goodbye.

Route 66 episodes don't get any better than "Ten Drops of Water." It is often unjustly neglected by fans, despite the fact that it would be impossible to find another episode with its raw emotional power. All of the performances are incredible, especially Burt Brinckerhoff as the determined Virgil. He later became a well known television director, gaining fame for directing numerous episodes of the WB series 7th Heaven. He was also a veteran of many sixties' anthology shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Fugitive. The other siblings, played by Tony Haig and Deborah Walley, turn in equally strong performances. Convincing child actors are not plentiful, but Haig is particularly authentic as a little boy who grows up much too fast.

Philip Leacock's masterful direction makes splendid use of the scenic southern Utah countryside. Even though this area is often thought of in popular culture as John Ford Country, Leacock's resourceful approach brings out the harshness and the barren existentialism of this dry terrain. In "Ten Drops of Water," it becomes a landscape of despair, driving the Paiges off the land before it kills them the way it did their ancestors.

Interestingly, "Ten Drops of Water" is the first non-Stirling Silliphant teleplay. The episode was written by Howard Rodman, one of the key behind-the-scenes figures responsible for Route 66 (he doesn't always get credit; he is often overshadowed by Silliphant and Herbert B. Leonard). But I challenge you to find an episode with better writing than "Ten Drops of Water." You can't. The dialogue rings true in every single scene. Rodman's script displays a familiarity with the region that only could have come from somebody who spent a lot of time there or researched the area carefully or both. He knows the history. He gets it right.

Rodman and director Leacock also very wisely put Buz and Tod in the background in this episode. They wisely refrain from the Silliphantian Beatnik Lingo, which wouldn't have gone over like a led balloon in this episode.

Ultimately, "Ten Drops of Water," like the Paige siblings, shows a tremendous amount of courage. At a time - 1960 - when Hollywood celebrated winning and winners and rarely showed people failing, "Ten Drops" depicted three spirited youths who struggle against enormous odds, sacrifice almost everything and are broken by the land. They have no other choice but to pack up and move on. But luckily, they haven't sacrificed quite everything. They still have each other. And their departure from this barren land, shown in the end credits without the iconic Nelson Riddle theme, represents a hope for a new beginning and a second chance.

Rating: 10 out of 10

1 comment:

  1. By allowing the distribution of old sitcoms and variety shows through DVD, all generations have been enabled to watch and love some of the classic shows and entertainers.
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