An Old West medicine man makes extravagant claims about the healing powers of what he peddles in the Night Gallery story “Dr. Stringfellow’s Rejuvenator,” reviewed here.
“Dr. Stringfellow’s Rejuvenator” ***
Written by Rod Serling
Directed by Jerrold Freedman
Forrest Tucker as Dr. Ernest Stringfellow
Murray Hamilton as Snyder
Don Pedro Colley as Rolpho
Lou Frizzell as the Farmer
Geri Berger as the Farmer’s Daughter
Matt Pelto as the Undertaker
Sandy Ward as the Bartender
In a late 1800s Western town, Dr. Ernest Stringfellow (Forrest Tucker, excellent) has set up his covered wagon and delivers a blustery, fast-talking sales pitch to the gathered townsfolk about the advantages of his “rejuvenator,” and when finished, sends his assistant Rolpho (Don Pedro Colley) into the crowd to sell what he can at a dollar a bottle.
After selling just a handful of the product, they retire to the inside of the wagon and consider their next move. A farmer (Lou Frizzell) then approaches them and appeals to the doctor to take a look at his sick daughter. Stringfellow agrees and looks at the girl (Geri Berger), who is in the man’s cart. She is extremely pale and complains of abdominal pain. Stringfellow can see that she is gravely ill, yet falsely assures the man that his rejuvenator will cure her within a few days and takes a dollar for it plus another for a “small honorarium for my time.”
Walking back to his wagon, he is confronted by Snyder (Murray Hamilton), a former actual medical doctor (Stringfellow just calls himself one). Snyder is now the town drunk, but he still retains knowledge of his former profession and upbraids Stringfellow for promising the farmer false hope when the girl has an appendicitis which will surely prove fatal in a matter of days, if not hours.
Not enjoying this dose of bitter reality, Stringfellow lashes out at Snyder, saying it’s a “diagnosis from a drunk.” “Doubtless,” replies Snyder, “but with a far sight more truth than the labels on those bottles of yours.”
That night, in the local bar, Stringfellow downs a bottle of whiskey and Rolpho eats a hard boiled egg, troubled by the morality of their business, telling Stringfellow that “it’s not fair” what the pretend doctor has done by prescribing a false elixir to the girl.
Stringfellow then launches into some excellent, classic Serling dialogue, almost making me believe how he views what he does. “Dreams should be on the label. I give hope to the hopeless, dreams to the dreamless, an illusion of health to all the poor, doomed yokels who have a dollar in their jeans. You see, I let them get a little peek over the pigsty, a view of heaven.” Forrest Tucker is really quite fine here, combining bluster with hints of conscience that he wants to do more, to be legitimately able to care for the sick, while he may be largely rationalizing what he does. Yet, there is a small ring of truth to what he says. Who can say if it’s better to be told that you or a loved one is going to die soon or to be given some hope in those final hours, even if it is false.
The farmer finds Stringfellow in the bar and informs him that his daughter has taken a turn for the worse. Stringfellow then reassures the man with some wild claims. “You know what I do, brother? I sell faith. I’m going to give that child of yours enough belief so she can kick her way out of a pine coffin if she needs to. Do you understand me? If that child crosses over into the shadows, I am going to bring her back to life!”
At this point, I thought that the episode might veer into the supernatural and the girl would indeed be saved, but she is not. She dies. And Stringfellow does not appear to be remorseful at this news and prepares with Rolpho to move on to the next town.
Stringfellow leaves the bar and as he crosses the street, which is swirling in dust, he sees someone sitting in a rocking chair on the other side at the funeral home. It is the girl. He becomes quite frightened at the sight of her, or her ghost. The wind kicks up, the girl disappears and the funeral home’s sign falls.
Next we see the undertaker and Rolpho. The undertaker tells him that the sign missed Stringfellow by a foot but his heart couldn’t take it. Rolpho bitterly says, “fool old man. You thought you were the smartest. Turns out you were the dumbest of them all,” and tosses a lantern into Stringfellow’s wagon, igniting it.
Apparently that small bit of conscience and remorse inside Dr. Stringfellow wasn’t quite enough.