Friday, December 23, 2011

Robert Bloch on TV Part Five- Alfred Hitchcock Presents: “The Greatest Monster of Them All"

by Jack Seabrook

Robert Bloch’s second teleplay for season six of Alfred Hitchcock Presents was “The Greatest Monster of Them All,” broadcast by NBC on February 14, 1961. As the show opens, Hal Ballew sits in his office in a run-down Hollywood studio, reading a book on entomology and trying to find a new insect around which he can build a cheap monster movie. Director Morty Lenton chides him for his cheapness, suggesting a giant cockroach. Tipsy screenwriter Fred Logan arrives and, in place of a giant bug, Ballew suggests that he write a horror movie with a high school angle—playing youth against death. Logan brings up the name of Ernst Von Kroft, an old-time monster movie star.

Later, Ballew brings Von Kroft to his office and introduces him to Logan. Von Kroft takes his job seriously, wanting to create a horror picture “in the great tradition.” Ballew and Lenton don’t have the same aspirations; Lenton even suggests a toothless vampire.

The scene then shifts to the movie set, where the young cast takes a coffee break as Logan brings in new dialogue for the scene about to be filmed with Von Kroft. Von Kroft acts out a scene with starlet Lara Lee, putting his all into it, and Logan applauds his efforts. Lenton insists on close-ups of Von Kroft but won’t say why.

The great Sam Jaffe.

Once the movie has been released, Ballew sends Logan to a theater to take notes on audience reaction to his new picture; he mentions that Von Kroft will also be attending. As Logan watches the movie unfold, Von Kroft sits nearby, in a theater otherwise filled with teenagers. They appear to be frightened by the events onscreen until Von Kroft’s scene begins. Lenton dubbed a Bugs Bunny voice for all of Von Kroft’s lines, and the theater explodes with laughter. Logan is shocked and Von Kroft is angry and mortified.

William Redfield
Logan, drunk, visits Von Kroft at his apartment, only to find the old man distraught, wondering why Lenton made him look like a fool. Von Kroft pulls out his old makeup case and Logan passes out. On awakening, Logan goes to Ballew’s office and finds it empty. He continues on into the studio, exploring the darkened set of the recently-filmed motion picture. He finds Lenton dead, with two puncture wounds in his neck. Nearby, he finds Ballew injured. Ballew tells him that Von Kroft killed Lenton and is still on the loose.


Von Kroft, in full vampire makeup and with knife in hand, leaps from a catwalk above Logan and Ballew but breaks his neck in the fall and dies. Says Logan, he was “the greatest monster of them all.”
Bloch’s teleplay was based on a story of the same name by Bryce Walton. Comparing the story to the teleplay demonstrates Bloch’s talent for solving dramatic problems in a way that utilizes the medium of television to improve upon a source.

The monster, shrouded in fog.

Walton’s short story features the same characters and plot, but Bloch’s teleplay expands it, adding more humor and making significant changes. The banter between Ballew and Lenton is new, and actors Sam Jaffe (as Ballew) and, especially, Robert H. Harris (as Lenton), play their scenes broadly, with Yiddish/Brooklyn accents and misplaced words (“Edgar Albert Poe,”  for example). At one point, Lenton vigorously massages his bald head in what appears to be an attempt to stimulate hair growth. Watching this program, it’s clear that everyone involved was having fun, going well beyond Bloch’s script in order to be entertaining. One suspects that the subject matter was quite familiar to all of them.

Robert H. Harris tries to promote hair growth.
The opening scene, where Ballew and Lenton try to come up with a new insect for a giant bug movie, is not in the story, nor is the scene where Von Kroft visits the producer’s office and spontaneously tries out for the part by attacking Lenton like a vampire. As he has done in other scripts, Bloch uses foreshadowing here, anticipating the later murder of Lenton by Von Kroft in a manner made to look like that of a vampire.

Best of all is the movie set. The show’s third scene opens with a close-up of a fog-enshrouded monster that looks like the monster from Night of the Demon (1957); the camera pulls back to reveal a woman dressed in black, who moves in to kiss the monster before they both take a coffee break. The blonde starlet, Lara Lee, chews gum incessantly until Lenton tells her to get rid of it; she takes it out of her mouth and tosses it disdainfully on the floor of the set, saying “yes, master” in a voice like that of a mad scientist's hunchbacked servant.
Director Robert Stevens, who directed 44 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (this was his last, until the series expanded to an hour), also deserves credit for this wonderful episode. He uses an extreme close-up of Von Kroft’s eyes during the informal tryout in Ballew’s office to show that Von Kroft has talent of the sort that is sorely lacking in the contemporary movie business.

One aspect of the story that Bloch chose to play down is the detail about Von Kroft’s rooming house, which Logan visits prior to seeing the movie. Describing the ancient Hollywood rooming house, Logan tells us:

It was really very old, with cupolas and a bell tower, and surrounded by untended masses of rose bushes, wisteria, and untrimmed palm trees whose branches hung dry and brown, like dead grass skirts.

Bloch chose to replace these evocative details with humor and action. In Walton’s story, Von Kroft is clearly an amalgam of Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney, and Boris Karloff. He was a matinee idol in Hungary (like Lugosi), he became famous in Hollywood for playing a monster in heavy makeup (like Karloff), and he always did all of his own makeup (like Chaney). In Bloch’s teleplay, Von Kroft’s background is not discussed, beyond stating that he had been a great horror film star in the old days.

Meri Welles and Richard Hale

The biggest differences between the story and the teleplay involve Lenton’s betrayal of Von Kroft and the story’s ending. In the story, Lenton films Von Kroft in close-up, focusing on his toothless mouth. When shown on the big screen, a toothless vampire gumming a starlet evokes audience laughter. In the teleplay, Lenton instead dubs what has to be an uncredited Mel Blanc reading the lines in a Bugs Bunny voice. The effect is much more dynamic onscreen, both funny and cruel.


At the end of the story, Von Kroft uses his makeup to turn himself into a summary of various monsters he had played. When Logan arrives at the studio, he finds Lenton lying in a grave with a broken jaw and Ballew hanging dead from a gibbet, replacing a dummy that had been there before. In the teleplay, Von Kroft dresses as a vampire, as in the movie he had just filmed, kills Lenton with a knife to make it look like a vampire’s bite, and leaves Ballew in a grave with unspecified injuries. At the end of the story, Von Kroft is found lying dead under the gibbet from which Ballew is hanging; in the teleplay, he leaps to his death from a catwalk.

Bloch’s adaptation of Walton’s story is very creative, using sound and pictures to turn the story into a real send-up of low-budget monster movie making around 1960. Bryce Walton was a prolific pulp author who wrote over 1000 short stories in his career and lived from 1918-1988. “The Greatest Monster of Them All” was first published in the May 1959 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and it was reprinted in Ellery Queen’s 1967 Anthology.


The cast of the Hitchcock show features William Redfield as Logan. Redfield lived from 1927-1976, and was in many TV shows and movies. He had a key role in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and helped found the Actor’s Studio, but I will always remember him as Floyd Unger, Felix’s brother, in the “Shuffling Off to Buffalo” episode of The Odd Couple, broadcast February 8, 1974. Floyd ran a bubble gum factory in upstate New York and briefly hired Felix, whose unsuccessful ideas included Opera trading cards for kids who didn’t like sports.

Playing Hal Ballew was Sam Jaffe (1891-1984), who had a long and brilliant career in Yiddish theater, on Broadway, in movies and on TV. He was blacklisted in the 1950s but spent 50 years in the movies. Robert H. Harris played Morty Lenton; Harris lived from 1911-1981 and appeared in 9 episodes of the Hitchcock series, including “The Dangerous People.”

Richard Hale played Ernst Von Kroft. Hale lived from 1892-1981 and appeared in many movies and TV episodes. Much to my surprise, as I was recently watching All the King’s Men, Richard Hale turned up in a crowd scene early in the film and then later had a key role playing the father of a girl killed in an auto accident. His character’s name? Richard Hale!

Other minor payers in the cast included Baruch Lumet, who also had a small role in “The Cuckoo Clock,” and Meri Welles (as Lara Lee), who appeared in “Madame Mystery.”


Sources:

EBooks-Library.com - Your Best Source for EBooks, Historical Documents and Sheet Music - All in PDF Format. Web. 20 Dec. 2011. <http://ebooks-library.com>.

Galactic Central. Web. 21 Dec. 2011. <http://philsp.com/>.

Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.

"The Greatest Monster of Them All." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. NBC. 14 Feb. 1961. Television.

The Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Web. 20 Dec. 2011. <http://www.imdb.com/>.

Walton, Bryce. "The Greatest Monster of Them All." 1959. Ellery Queen's 1967 Anthology. Ed. Ellery Queen. New York: Davis, 1966. 146-57. Print.

Wikipedia. Web. 20 Dec. 2011. <http://www.wikipedia.org/>.

9 comments:

Peter Enfantino said...

Best installment yet, Jack. I've somehow missed this episode but will get right on it. Your summation and that shot of the demon have got me running for my dvds right now!

John Scoleri said...

This looks very cool, although I'm disappointed that we're only just getting Season 5 on DVD next week.

Hmmm... maybe a Hitchcock blog isn't so crazy after all...

Peter Enfantino said...

it's inevitable, Scooter.

John Scoleri said...

Yeah, that's what I keep saying about a certain other dimension... a dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity.

Matthew Bradley said...

Excellent as always, Jack. This was another case in which I didn't have the original short story for reference, so again, it's good to have you enumerate the differences for us lucky readers.

A few other choice credits: Redfield played the pilot of the miniaturized submarine PROTEUS in FANTASTIC VOYAGE and appeared in the underrated Western DUEL AT DIABLO; Jaffe was immortalized in the title role of GUNGA DIN and played the scientist in the original DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL; and Harris was the disgruntled and murderous makeup man in AIP's HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER.

elias26 said...

Love the blog! I’ve been just an absolute huge fan of Hitchcock all my life…I even have his logo/outline tattooed on my forearm. My mom got me into his work when I was just a little kid and I’ve never looked back. A lot of the shows are out now, on DVD, but I know a lot of times those boxed sets are expensive… so as a DISH customer/employee I’ve been spending a lot of time at DISHOnline where I can watch over 150 episodes of Hitchcock Presents, as well as more than 50 episodes of the Hitchcock Hour. Love it, and thanks again for the great review!

john kenrick said...

Thanks again for the fine review, Jack. I'm mixed on The Greatest Monster Of Them All. For some reason they had a hard time bringing classic horror themes into contemporary television in th1 60s. The spooky Thriller aside, they often got it wrong. There was that Route 66 episode Lizard's Leg And Owlet's Wing, that should have been great,--with that cast!--that doesn't quite make it.

I feel the same about the Hitchcock half-hour. Much as I love Sam Jaffe, admire Richard Hale and Robert H. Harris, it doesn't quite work for me. No fault of the actors. It's neither serious enough or funny enough for my tastes. There was real tragedy in the fate of Von Kroft, yet somehow one feels it only from the outside. I couldn't feel for the character himself. The ending was strong, but too little too late. A shifting (ambivalent?) mood also hurt the hour long Sign Of Satan a few years later.

Jack Seabrook said...

I'm sorry you don't like this episode, John. I think it's a fun sendup of cheap monster movies!

john kenrick said...

I didn't dislike the episode, Jack, so much as I was disappointed by it; but with that cast it couldn't be a total failure.

One could probably make a list,--I couldn't, because I haven't seen the half-hours in some time--of the short and long Hitchcock entries, list hour longs that are or feel like continuations or remakes of half-hours.

Certainly The Greatest Monster Of Them All and Sign Of Satan are two that feel like kissin' cousins.