Thursday, August 23, 2012

Ray Bradbury on TV Part Two: Alfred Hitchcock Presents "And So Died Riabouchinska"


by Jack Seabrook

The second episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents to be based on a Ray Bradbury story was “And So Died Riabouchinska,” which was broadcast on CBS on February 12, 1956. Bradbury wrote the original story, titled “Riabouchinska,” in the 1940s and it was first sold to Suspense, the CBS radio series, where it was adapted by Mel Dinelli and broadcast over the air on November 13, 1947. Bradbury and his agent, Don Congdon, subsequently sold serial rights and it was first published under the title “And So Died Riabouchinska” in the second issue of The Saint Detective Magazine (June/July 1953). The story sold a couple of years later to the producers of the Hitchcock TV series, and Mel Dinelli was hired to adapt it once again, this time for television.

The published version of the story begins as a group of people are gathered in a basement room to view a corpse. They hear a voice begging to be let out of a small coffin; the voice belongs to Riabouchinska, the female dummy controlled by ventriloquist John Fabian. Detective Lieutenant Krovitch questions Fabian, his wife, and his agent, all of whom claim not to have known Ockham, the dead man, before the prior night. When the box is opened and the dummy removed, Fabian calls it “my lovely lady” and his wife appears envious. Fabian and Riabouchinska behave as if they are separate people—he admits he is “helpless” while she wants to tell the truth.

Claude Rains and Charles Bronson
 Krovitch learns from Fabian’s wife Alyce that theirs in an unhappy marriage; Fabian lavished attention on the dummy and his wife turned to the agent for companionship. Krovitch investigates Fabian’s background and confronts him with a photograph of Ilyana Riamonova, a beautiful young woman who disappeared in 1934 and is the image of Riabouchinska, the dummy. Fabian admits that Ilyana had been his assistant. He fell in love with her and then drove her away. Fabian searched for her unsuccessfully and eventually carved a dummy in her image. He recalls that his old dummy, Sweet William, had urged him to carve the new dummy, suggesting that Fabian’s practice of acting as if he and his dummy are separate people is a quirk that predated Riabouchinska. Sweet William died and was replaced by Riabouchinska; Fabian experienced her as if she were alive, with warm breath and beating heart. Though he continues to deny knowing Ockham to Krovitch, Riabouchinska whispers “the truth” and confesses that Ockham had sent letters blackmailing Fabian. Ockham had been on a vaudeville bill with Fabian years before. He came and threatened to destroy Riabouchinska if Fabian did not pay him $1000. Riabouchinska tells Krovitch that she heard Fabian murder Ockham from where she lay in her box.

Riabouchinska says that she cannot live with a killer. Fabian says “she’s gone” and it is not clear if he means the girl, years ago, or the spirit of the dummy, whose voice has left his heart and his throat. “Riabouchinska slipped bonelessly from his limp hand, folded over and glided noiselessly down to lie upon the cold floor, her eyes closed, her mouth shut.” His reason for living gone, Fabian goes out meekly with Krovitch, presumably to face the penalty for murder.

“And So Died Riabouchinska” is not one of Ray Bradbury’s strongest stories, but it does have an interesting germ of an idea and some flashes of the lyrical writing that would later mark his best work. When Mel Dinelli adapted it for television, he made changes to extend the length of the story and to increase the dramatic tension (adding dialogue and beefing up the character of Krovitch) but he did not make major alterations to the plot.

The TV version opens with a scene where a couple of aging vaudevillians, Maisie and Dan, banter backstage as Fabian arrives with his dummy in a suitcase. His character is quickly established, as is the fact that he is protective of his dummy. Maisie flips a coin as part of a bet and the coin rolls down the stairs to the basement, where it comes to rest on the body of the dead man, Ockham. Looking for the coin, the two vaudevillians discover the body.

The next scene introduces Krovitch, played by Charles Bronson, as he begins his investigation. Bronson’s performance in this episode is weak and it pales in comparison to that of Claude Rains, who gives an inspired performance as Fabian. The dummy, Riabouchinska, speaks with a Russian accent and Rains moves his jaw and lips when she speaks, even though actress Virginia Gregg supplies the dummy’s voice.

In between scenes of the investigation, we see a shot of the end of Fabian’s stage act, taken from the rafters as Krovitch learns another piece of information from a stagehand. The rest of the show follows the story closely. Rains’s soliloquies are the highlight—he clearly adores the dummy, and there is a well-acted sequence where he relates how the dummy came alive to him. He makes Riabouchinska do each thing he describes: he says that her hand moved, and the wooden hand moves slightly; he says that her eyes opened and they follow suit. This is an excellent example of Rains’s skill at both vocal and physical acting.

Riabouchinska
 Bronson, who either growls or yells his way through the show, aggressively tells Fabian that “it proves dat you been lyin’ straight down da line!” Riabouchinska delivers the final confession, telling Krovitch that “down, down, down I heard them going,” and as she says this both her eyes and those of Fabian move downward with each word. The conclusion of the show suffers from the same problem as does the story—Fabian’s rationale for having killed Ockham is weak. He says that Ockham threatened to tell the world about the nature of his relationship with his dummy, and this just never seems that shocking or worthy of murder. While it seems more likely that Fabian had killed Ilyana, he denies this and insists that embarrassment over the threat to reveal his love for Riabouchinska was the trigger for his violent action. Sadly, the TV show ends with an inappropriate musical theme, a jaunty vaudeville instrumental that is at odds with the events onscreen.   

The photo of Ilyana Riamonova
 that Krovitch shows to Fabian
Mel Dinelli (1912-1991), who adapted the story both for radio and television, did not write any other episodes of the Hitchcock series. His screenplay credits include The Spiral Staircase (1946) and Fritz Lang’s House By the River (1950). Robert Stevenson (1905-1986) directed “And So Died Riabouchinska” for television. His direction of this episode is unremarkable. He directed seven episodes of the half-hour Hitchcock series in all, and his film credits include the 1943 Jane Eyre with Orson Welles, Mary Poppins (1964), and numerous TV episodes and films for the Walt Disney company.

Claude Rains (1889-1967) was one of the great Hollywood actors of the Golden Age of cinema, appearing in important roles in many classic films. He turned 66 years old in 1955, when this episode was most likely filmed, and he appeared in four other episodes of the Hitchcock series, including “The Cream of the Jest.” Charles Bronson (1921-2003) was born Charles Buchinsky, and appeared in two other Hitchcock TV episodes, as well as an episode of The Twilight Zone. He co-starred in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) but his career really took off in the 1970s, when he became one of the world’s biggest box office draws due to films such as Death Wish (1974). Finally, Virginia Gregg (1916-1986) provided the voice for Riabouchinska, just as she had supplied the voice of Mrs. Bates in Psycho (1960). She also appeared in “A Home Away From Home” on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, as well as five other episodes during the show’s ten-year run.

The real Tatiana Riabouchinska
The name Riabouchinska, chosen by Ray Bradbury as the name of Fabian’s beautifully carved dummy, is unusual, and may have been taken from the ballerina Tatiana Riabouchinska, who was born in Russia just before the revolution in 1917. Her family fled to France when she was a baby and she grew up to be a star with the Ballet Russe, becoming famous in the 1930s. Her photographs show a face that could well have been the inspiration for the dummy of story and show.

“And So Died Riabouchinska” was collected in Bradbury’s The Machineries of Joy (1964) and again in The Stories of Ray Bradbury (1980). The Suspense radio play can be heard online, and the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode can be viewed online. Bradbury himself adapted the story in 1988 for an episode of The Ray Bradbury Theater; it is not available for online viewing but can be purchased as a DVD.

Ray Bradbury provides the final word on Alfred Hitchcock Presents "And So Died Riabouchinska": "It was not a great half hour, but it was such a pleasure to see Claude Rains in something I had done."

Sources:

"And So Died Riabouchinska." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 12 Feb. 1956. Television.

Bradbury, Ray. "And So Died Riabouchinska." 1953. The Stories of Ray Bradbury. By Ray Bradbury. New York: Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 1980. 579-88. Print.

Eller, Jonathan R. Message to the author. 20 Aug. 2012. E-mail. 

"The FictionMags Index." The FictionMags Index. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Aug. 2012. <http://www.philsp.com/homeville/FMI/0start.htm>.

"Galactic Central." Galactic Central. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Aug. 2012. <http://philsp.com/>.

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

IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 19 Aug. 2012. <http://www.imdb.com/>.

Kunert, Arnold R. "Ray Bradbury: On Hitchcock and Other Magic of the Screen." "Conversations with Ray Bradbury" (2003). Ed. Steven Louis Aggelis. Electronic Theses, Treatises and Dissertations. Paper 1.  http://etd.lib.fsu.edu/theses/submitted/etd-11182003-234211/unrestricted/AggelisSDissertation.pdf.

"Welcome To The Center for Ray Bradbury Studies." The Center for Ray Bradbury Studies: Home Page. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Aug. 2012. <http://www.iupui.edu/~crbs/>.

Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 19 Aug. 2012. <http://www.wikipedia.org/>.



10 comments:

Harvey Chartrand said...

Claude Rains had a much juicier role as a blackmailing alcoholic has-been actor in the 1957 AHP episode THE CREAM OF THE JEST, based on a very suspenseful story by Fredric Brown. Rains also benefited from solid support by James Gregory and Paul Picerni. I'm sure Rains (as an older actor) appreciated the work, but the four other AHP episodes in which he appeared were undistinguished, including THE HORSE PLAYER, one of the few episodes directed by Hitchcock himself. THE DOOR WITHOUT A KEY was probably the worst of the lot.

Peter Enfantino said...

You can read all about The Cream of the Jest here:
http://barebonesez.blogspot.co.uk/2011/04/fredric-brown-on-tv-part-4-alfred.html

Matthew Bradley said...

Fredric Brown? You could write a book about that guy! Oh, wait...

And let's not forget that one of Rains's best movies was Hitchcock's NOTORIOUS (1946).

Nice work, as always, Professor Energizer Bunny.

Jack Seabrook said...

Welcome back, Harvey! I did not go into Claude Rains's credits because I've written about him before, but I just love him. As Matthew points out, he was great in Notorious.

Harvey Chartrand said...

Thank you. It's great to be back. Claude Reigns! Until Anthony Perkins shocked the world in PSYCHO, Rains played the greatest Momma's Boy of all time in NOTORIOUS.

Brenda Anne Du Faur said...

Charles Bronson's performance "weak"?! Robert Stevenson's direction "unremarkeable"?!
I couldn't disagree more. The episode is a little masterpiece from beginning to end. Charles Bronson is wonderful as the detective. Without fault. He is intense and seamless in his acting. His facial expressions are strongly effective as is his convictioned acting. His animal magnetism and charismatic energy, his striking and unique looks are spotlighted to great advantage. What a beast! What a performance! He is a big part of what makes the episode work. Robert Stevenson's direction "unremarkeable"!". This mini masterpiece is a vivid, unique, memorable, and unforgettable film accomplishment. The whole tenor and feel of the piece, the photography, the lighting, the scenes, the players, everything contributes to an alluring mood of the work. Riabouchinska's voice is gripping and eerie. I wonder who made the beautiful but odd and intriguing doll. What an unforgettable voice and face. Brenda Du Faur
***

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks for reading, Brenda! I respect your opinion and I hope you will find other episodes to comment on!

john kenrick said...

Like Brenda, I like this episode, too, Jack, just finished watching it tonight on MeTV, wasn't expecting to even finish the first act, as I'd seen it before, literally decades ago, remembered it as "just another ventriloquist dummy horror". Yet it drew me in. There was something powerful in the presentation. Director Robert Stevenson did fine work with Walt Disney later on, has never had an auteur reputation, yet he hit the spot for me with his handling of And So Died Riabouchinska.

The backstage atmosphere was strong, I felt, as it seemed more like a horror story than a suspense tale. There was a cramped quality to the production that worked in its favor,--did anyone even go so far as to step outside, even into the alley?--thus making the secret to the story as "locked in" as the little wooden dummy Riabouchinska. Whether intentional or serendipitous, it lent an intensity to the episode.

Downsides: the back story felt underdeveloped, as early on it seemed like it had maybe a back stage Anastasia potential. Instead, it was just a murder mystery. Also, I'm in the minority in finding Claude Rains' performance as Fabian strangely lacking in pathos. He was a first rate actor but I never thought of him as a great one. There's something self-pitying about him. It's in his face, his mannerisms, and it seems to come from within the actor himself, as a private person. That's just my take. I don't dislike him but I'm not a major fan, either. Actually, I found Charles Bronson's strong, forceful playing of the detective more effective, and, strangely, more frightening. This is a man no one would want to be interrogated by!

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, John! I'm glad you enjoyed the show. I love that MeTV is running these again.

john kenrick said...

Yup. It's great, Jack. At first I resented it, as I'm a big fan of the hour long episodes, but they've rerun them like a half-dozen times now. The half-hours are more a mixed bag, but when they're good they're great. I was delighted by Riobouchinska. Or maybe I was just in a ventriloquist dummy mood...