Sunday, November 13, 2011

Robert Bloch on TV Part Two - Alfred Hitchcock Presents: “Madame Mystery"

by Jack Seabrook

"Madame Mystery" was broadcast March 27, 1960, during the fifth season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.  It was the second Robert Bloch story to be adapted for this anthology program, and it was based on a short story titled "Is Betsey Blake Still Alive?" that was first published in the April 1958 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

Both story and teleplay concern Steve, an unsuccessful Hollywood writer who rents a cottage at the beach to write and meets Jimmy Powers (Dolan in the teleplay), a young and successful public relations man in the movie business.  Steve is jealous of Jimmy's inexplicable success at the young age of twenty-three. Betsey Blake, known as the Screen's Blonde Baby or Miss Mystery, has been killed in a speedboat accident. She had just finished filming Splendor, an expensive movie scheduled for release in several months.

The studio is worried that her death will hurt the picture's chances for success, so Jimmy pitched a publicity campaign idea that the studio loved--lots of news about her life and death will create interest in the upcoming film, and the news campaign will include a rumor that she is still alive. Jimmy asks Steve to work on the campaign but Steve refuses.

As the months go by, the publicity campaign around Betsey Blake is a huge success. By the time Splendor is ready to open, Betsey Blake fever has gripped the nation. Jimmy visits Steve to boast about his success, when a dumpy, drunken woman appears in the doorway. She is Betsey Blake, back from an extended trip. She explains that she survived the boat accident and spent some time in South America. She came home when she ran out of cash.

Audrey Totter as Betsey Blake

Betsey has been following her rise in popularity and now wants to reveal to the public that she is still alive. However, instead of the mysterious blonde siren, she has become a fat, drunken brunette. She goes home with Jimmy, who later returns to Steve's cottage alone, explaining that the woman who had claimed to be Betsey Blake was really just a fraud trying to cash in on the dead star's sudden fame.

Joby Baker as Jimmy

Jimmy tells Steve that there was an accident near Jimmy's house and the woman fell off of a steep cliff to her death. Jimmy is in no hurry to tell the police and doesn't want any mention of the woman's claim to be Betsey Blake, fearful that it would ruin the publicity machine he has so successfully engineered. Steve calls the police. Jimmy admits that he never liked Betsey Blake and offers to pay Steve to keep quiet about the dead woman's claims. Steve realizes that the woman's death was no accident and that Jimmy killed her. "You'd murder your own mother for a story," he says, and Jimmy replies: "How'd you guess?"

Harp McGuire as Steve

When William Fay adapted "Is Betsey Blake Still Alive?" for television, he made some changes. The story begins with a young, blonde starlet named Lois stumbling into Steve's beach cottage as he works at his typewriter. Lois is on a date with Jimmy, who soon arrives. Her character adds nothing to the plot, but she does set up a nice contrast with the aging, faded Betsey Blake who appears at the end of the first act. Lois is the "before" picture in the arc of a Hollywood starlet; Betsey is the "after."

Instead of "The Screen's Blonde Baby" or "Miss Mystery," as in the story, the TV Betsey has the nickname, "Madame Mystery," presumably because Fay thought "Madame" was more exotic and mysterious. The biggest change in the teleplay is that Jimmy is successful in convincing Steve to work on the publicity campaign by putting three one hundred dollar bills down in front of him. In the story, Steve remains pure and does not succumb to the lure of easy Hollywood money. In the teleplay, there is no such resistance.

When Betsey appears, she looks frazzled but not quite as slovenly as she is described in the story. When Jimmy takes her home and she dies in the story, the action is described in rather vague detail by Jimmy when he returns to Steve's cottage. In the teleplay, we see it all, and it is different. Jimmy walks Betsey back to his house, which is reached by a long set of steep wooden stairs on the outside. At the top of the stairs, they fight bitterly, as Jimmy insists that he made her movie a guaranteed hit and Betsey reminds him that it was she who got him a job at the studio in the first place. Jimmy violently shoves Betsey through the landing's flimsy wooden railing and she falls to the beach below. We see her lying on the beach, dead.

The teleplay then ends as does the story, with Steve calling the police and telling Jimmy, "You'd kill your own mother to be a big man at Goliath Studios, wouldn't you?" and Jimmy replying, "My mother? That's right, Stevie. But how did you know that's who she was?"

William Fay, who adapted the story for television, was born in 1918 and is still alive. He wrote for many TV shows from 1954 to 1967, including 16 episodes of the Hitchcock series. He was also a writer of short stories and the editor of Popular Publications starting in 1935.

John Brahm directed "Madame Mystery." Brahm directed ten episodes of the Hitchcock series and his dark, brooding style has been discussed before on bare*bones and also on A Thriller A DayBrahm of the chance to show something moody and mysterious.

Betsey did not survive a fall from a not very great height.

The star of the show is Joby Baker, as Jimmy.  Baker was born in 1934 and is still alive.  He appeared in four episodes of the Hitchcock series and was on TV and in movies from 1952 to 1984, including a regular role on the series Good Morning, World (1967-1968). In "Madame Mystery," Baker chews the scenery in his attempt to portray a brash, young Hollywood publicist who covers up his feelings of self doubt with loud talk and a flashy style.

Harp McGuire plays Steve as a slightly older, more mature writer. He lived from 1921 to 1966 and was on TV from 1953 to 1963. His performance is low key and not very memorable.

Best of the cast is Audrey Totter as Betsey Blake. She was born in 1918 and appears to be alive today and living in a Hollywood nursing home. She had a small part in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) and a lead role in The Lady in the Lake (1947). She appeared in numerous TV episodes and movies from 1945 to 1987 and was a regular on four different TV series. As Betsey Blake, she is brash and loud, looking every bit the aging starlet who still has a thing or two to say to anyone who will listen.

Meri Welles
Rounding out the cast as Alfredo the plumber is Mike Ragan, who was born Hollis Bane and who appeared in countless movies and TV shows starting in 1924. Playing the part of Lois, the starlet, is Meri Welles, who had a role in Little Shop of Horrors (1960) as the blonde who Seymour meets by a park bench, accidentally knocks out with a rock, and then feeds to his carnivorous plant.

"Madame Mystery" will be available in January 2012 when Universal releases the DVD set of Alfred Hitchcock Presents season five.  The short story, "Is Betsey Blake Still Alive?" was reprinted in the Robert Bloch collections Blood Runs Cold (1961), Bitter Ends (1990), and in the multi-author anthology, Silver Screams: Murder Goes Hollywood (1994).


Bloch, Robert. "Is Betsey Blake Still Alive?" Silver Screams: Murder Goes Hollywood. Stamford: 
Longmeadow, 1994. 253-67. Print. 
Galactic Central. Web. 13 Nov. 2011. <>.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
The Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Web. 12 Nov. 2011. <>.
"Madame Mystery." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 27 Mar. 1960. Television.
Wikipedia. Web. 12 Nov. 2011. <>.


Peter Enfantino said...

Believe it or not, I have not seen this episode. I have it but it remains one of the only a handful of AHs I haven't watched. Curious, as I'm the world's biggest Robert Bloch fan (well, maybe second only to David J. Schow) and pride myself on having seen (just about) all of Bloch's screen stories. This is another feather in your (very feathered) cap, Professor Jack. Take a bow!
I'll now queue this up right after I get through watching a Mr. Freeze for the Batman blog and an episode of Combat to re-establish my sanity!

Walker Martin said...

I'll be digging through my Alfred Hitchcock Presents to watch the Bloch shows also.

Peter, I'm a fan of Combat also. But how come they never show Nazis partying with half nude girls like the mens adventure magazine covers of the fifties and sixties?

Todd Mason said...

No chance you folks haven't seen this, I hope:

Jack Seabrook said...

Todd--yes, I have looked at that website. It's especially good for helping track down stories!

Matthew Bradley said...

Wondering if you can clear up some confusion regarding the title of Bloch's original story. In BITTER ENDS, it is published as "Betsy [note spelling, as it appears throughout] Blake Will Live Forever," and although it is correctly attributed to EQMM in 1958, there is no indication of a retitling.

In his "unauthorized autobiography," ONCE AROUND THE BLOCH, he refers to the purchase by the Hitchcock people of "'The Cure' and what they retitled 'Is Betsy Blake Still Alive?'" At first, I thought this meant that "IBBSA" was a working title for the episode that was aired as "Madame Mystery." Of course, it's also possible that from the vantage point of the 1990s, either Bloch or the publishers of the Citadel Twilight edition of BITTER ENDS (Volume 2 of what purported to be, but most certainly was not, his "complete" stories) made a mistake.

But another possibility has just occurred to me: maybe by "they," Bloch meant EQMM rather than the Hitchcock series. Magazine editors often slapped titles on short stories that were neither chosen nor approved by the authors (as I know from Matheson), and it would then make sense that Bloch gave the story his preferred title when it appeared in his collection.

How "Betsey" became "Betsy," I have no idea.

Jack Seabrook said...

The cover of EQMM for April 1958 calls it "Is Betsey Blake Still Alive?" The Fiction Mags index online drops the "e" for the inside title. I can't say whether Bloch submitted it to EQMM under an alternate title. I do know that, at least in regard to "The Cuckoo Clock," Bloch's memory for minor details such as source titles was not always completely accurate.

Matthew Bradley said...

Neither is mine! :-) Thanks much for the additional info.

Anonymous said...

This is a FANTASTIC article. I'm happy to give you guys a running for the biggest Bloch fan! It's such a shame that so much of his work is sliding out of print - day by day it almost feels like sometimes. His TV and film stuff is just awesome.

If you're a fan, you HAVE to check out this blog. It's fantastic:

It's called "Pay No Attention to That Man Behind the Curtain - On Forgetting Robert Bloch".

Love this site!

- Mark McDonald

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Mark. I took a quick look at the Bloch site you mentioned and it looks very interesting.

Grant said...

I'm sorry I've missed this review so far, because I've always been very attached to this episode.

Jack Seabrook said...

I'm glad you happened upon this post, Grant! This episode came out on DVD after I wrote this post.

Anonymous said...

Strange Episode, And An Excellent Review!

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks for reading and for leaving a comment!