Thursday, September 20, 2012

Ray Bradbury on TV Part Four: Alfred Hitchcock Presents "Special Delivery"

by Jack Seabrook


The fourth episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents to be based on a story by Ray Bradbury was “Special Delivery,” broadcast on CBS during the series’ fifth season on Sunday, November 29, 1959. It is unclear from available sources whether Bradbury wrote the story first and adapted it into a teleplay, or whether he wrote the teleplay first and adapted it into a story. The story did not appear in print until the October 1962 issue of Galaxy; it was subsequently retitled “Boys! Grow Giant Mushrooms in Your Cellar!” and collected in The Machineries of Joy (1964) and The Stories of Ray Bradbury (1980).

“Come Into My Cellar” begins on a beautiful Saturday morning, as suburban dad Hugh Fortnum awakens to hear his neighbor, Mrs. Goodbody, call herself “the first line of defense concerning flying saucers.” A special delivery package arrives for his son, Tom, containing mushrooms to grow in the cellar “for-Big-Profit.” Around noon, Hugh sees friend Roger Willis, who is suddenly “afraid for everybody” and warns Hugh to “watch everything for a few days.” At twilight, Hugh and his wife Cynthia sit together on the porch. Tom proudly shows off his mushroom crop, growing fast after only seven hours.
Hugh begins to worry about the mushrooms when Roger Willis’s wife Dorothy calls to say that her usually steady husband has run off. Hugh visits Dorothy, sharing her concern at Roger’s unexpected disappearance. Hugh receives a frantic telegram from Roger, who is heading for New Orleans and tells him to “refuse all special delivery packages.” Hugh calls the police, but later that evening Roger calls to say all is well and he’ll be home soon. Beginning to suspect that all is not well with the mushrooms that arrived by special delivery earlier that day, Hugh confirms that not only the Willises, but “all the boys on the block are going in for it.”

After midnight, Hugh lays awake, sorting things out in his mind. He asks Cynthia if she thinks an invasion from outer space is possible, concocting a theory about alien spores reaching Earth, growing as mushrooms and taking over. Hugh goes to the kitchen for a glass of milk and finds a dish of fresh-cut mushrooms in the refrigerator. He realizes that the invasion could succeed if the mushrooms were eaten by humans, allowing the aliens to take over from within. He calls down to Tom, still in the cellar well after midnight. The boy admits to having eaten mushrooms on a sandwich and to having put them in the refrigerator for his parents to eat. A tense conversation ends as Hugh affects a “jaunty air” and heads down to the basement.
Steve Dunne as Bill
Has Hugh eaten a mushroom? Is he giving up? Is he possessed? Has he convinced himself that his fears are groundless? Whatever the reason for his sudden “jaunty air,” the story ends with a sense of menace, as we fear that Hugh’s theories are correct and the invasion is underway. “Boys!” recalls Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers (first serialized beginning in 1954) in its evocation of an alien invasion being accomplished by means of seeds arriving from outer space and replacing humans with duplicates grown in pods. Whereas Finney’s story was a criticism of changes the author had seen in mid-twentieth century America, Bradbury’s tale is more a reflection of the paranoia rampant in 1950s suburban life, where everything seems sunny on the surface but may well be dark and dangerous underneath.
Peter Lazer as Tom
Ray Bradbury adapted “Come Into My Cellar” for the Alfred Hitchcock Presents series (or perhaps it was an original teleplay that he later revised for print) and it was broadcast under the title, “Special Delivery.” The TV show follows the story closely, though Bradbury moves incidents around for dramatic effect and changes the ending to one that is direct and frightening. The show begins as the package is delivered; the neighbor, Mrs. Goodbody, is referred to a few times but never seen. Early in the episode, director Normal Lloyd and director of photography Lionel Lindon compose a nicely lit shot looking down the stairs into the basement. This shot will be repeated in various forms throughout the program, either eerily lit to suggest menace or flatly lit to show the absence of danger.

The casting is perfect, especially Steve Dunne as Bill (not Hugh), the father, and Peter Lazer as Tom, the son. The scenes that take place outdoors use late 1950s TV sitcom scenery and camera setups to establish that Hartford, Connecticut (identified in the show but not the story as the tale’s location), is an ideal suburb. Early on, one scene that is expanded features Roger telling Bill that he has a sense that something is wrong. He remarks that people have been vanishing and foreshadows a future Bradbury novel by quoting MacBeth: “By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.”
Joe looking at the camera
“Special Delivery” also prefigures a classic Twilight Zone episode, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” which would air just over three months later (on March 4, 1960). In “Monsters,” an idyllic suburb is thrown into chaos by events that are revealed to have been set in motion by aliens who plan world domination. In “Special Delivery,” the events are subtler and more frightening, since they concern the most intimate of relationships among family members.

Bradbury’s script has nice touches of 1950s optimism, such as this exchange between father and son: “Haven’t you heard? The world’s ending,” says Bill, the father, to which his son Tom replies, “Nope! The way I see it, everybody looks forward.” Unfortunately, the future that “Special Delivery” anticipates is one where humans with emotions and feelings are replaced by “Martians.”
Beatrice Straight as Cynthia
Some highlights of the show are the lighting, especially in the shots looking down into the cellar when the mushrooms lined up in their flats seem to glow with an unearthly luminescence. When Roger’s wife Dorothy expresses to Bill her fear that her husband has been kidnapped, she is lit in a harsh, film noir style. There are a couple of odd shots of her son Joe, standing close to the camera in the central entrance hallway of his home and staring straight into the camera; it is hard to tell if this was intentionally done to create a sense of unease or if the young actor lacked experience.
The lead-up to the final scene is altered slightly from the story, as Bradbury has Bill’s wife, Cynthia, realize some of the horror of what is happening. The dramatic effect is heightened by accomplishing this through dialogue between the characters rather than as thoughts of Bill, as it is in the story. The biggest change from story to teleplay occurs in the final scene, which is a classic of television horror. Unlike the story, where Hugh heads down the stairs with a jaunty step to see Tom, the show has Bill slowly descend into the cellar as Tom stands in the shadows, holding a half-eaten mushroom sandwich. Tom tells his father, in a voice filled with menace, “I wanted you and mother to eat them.” Tom’s eyes glow in the dark, similar to the mushrooms in earlier scenes, as he offers his father a bite of his sandwich, insisting that “You’re hungry!” Bill, seemingly in a trance, takes a bite, and the show ends on a note of terror.

“Special Delivery” was directed by Norman Lloyd, who was also the show’s associate producer. Lloyd had appeared the year before in a dual role in the previous Bradbury episode, “Design for Loving.” His work behind the camera in this episode is outstanding. Handsome Steve Dunne (1918-1977) played Bill, the father. He had a long career without any significant roles, appearing five times on the Hitchcock series. I remember him best from a minor role as a TV newscaster in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971). Beatrice Straight (1914-2001) played his wife, Cynthia. She won an Oscar for her brief role in Network (1976) and also appeared in “The Cuckoo Clock” on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Peter Lazer (1946-2008) played Tom, the son. His career began at age ten and was over by age 21. He also appeared in another classic episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents titled “Don’t Interrupt.” Finally, Frank Maxwell (1916-2004) played Roger, Bill’s friend. He had an instantly recognizable face and appeared in many TV episodes, including six on the Hitchcock series.

Frank Maxwell as Roger
“Special Delivery” is available on DVD and may be viewed online here.

The story was remade in 1989 as an episode of The Ray Bradbury Theater, with a new script by Bradbury. The remake is painful to watch. Starring Charles Martin Smith (American Graffiti), it suffers from unimaginative direction and an intrusive and overbearing score. There are occasional, brief flashes of the original story, as in the scene where Roger confesses his fears to Hugh (Dad is back to his original name), but for the most part the show demonstrates the poor quality of much episodic television of the 1980s, with bad color, weak attempts at humor, and a lack of subtlety. The suburban idyll of the 1950s has become something to satirize and treat as ironic, rather than as an ideal that is being compromised from outside. The remake can be viewed online here and it is also available on DVD.


Sources:

Aggelis, Steven Louis, "Conversations with Ray Bradbury" (2003). Electronic Theses, Treatises and Dissertations. Paper 1. <http://diginole.lib.fsu.edu/etd/1.>
Bradbury, Ray. "Boys! Raise Giant Mushrooms in Your Cellar!" 1962. The Stories of Ray Bradbury. Ed. Ray Bradbury. New York: Knopf, 1980. 589-601. Print.
Eller, Jonathan R., and William F. Touponce. Ray Bradbury: The Life of Fiction. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 2004. Print.
"Galactic Central." Galactic Central. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Sept. 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. 16 Sept. 2012. <http://www.imdb.com/>.
"Special Delivery." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 29 Nov. 1959. Television.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 16 Sept. 2012. <http://www.wikipedia.org/>.




















6 comments:

Harvey Chartrand said...

I usually prefer the Alfred Hitchcock episodes in which Norman Lloyd stars or directs, as his taste generally runs towards the bizarre and perverse. But there's nothing special about SPECIAL DELIVERY, other than the evocative cinematography. SPECIAL DELIVERY is a pale knock-off of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and not particularly frightening, in my estimation. Why is it so difficult to adapt Ray Bradbury to the small screen? Perhaps if Elliott Reid had been cast as the father, the show might have worked. Or the late Biff Elliot (so good as the father in THE DAY OF THE BULLET). Or Biff McGuire (outstanding in THE GENTLEMAN FROM AMERICA). Or Harry Townes (who registered mind-destroying fear like no other actor in the classic Thriller episode THE CHEATERS). But Steve Dunne doesn't make much of an impression as Bill Fortnam. And, unlike BODY SNATCHERS, the plot (even by horror and science-fiction standards) is a bit too far-fetched. I can't suspend disbelief, or accept the premise of aliens coaxing humans to eat giant mushrooms and thus become transformed into alien fellow travelers, no matter how hard Norman Lloyd tries to sell me on the idea. SPECIAL DELIVERY is a misfire from start to finish.

Jack Seabrook said...

Harvey, I appreciate your comment but I think this is a great episode! Steve Dunne is just right as the dad and his performance veers between comic and terrified so well that you have to wonder what's really going on. The last scene is just plain creepy. That kid really gets to me, as he did in "Don't Interrupt," another favorite episode that I'll get to one of these years.

Harvey Chartrand said...

I watched SPECIAL DELIVERY a second time. I liked the creepy ending, but it didn't take Steve Dunne long to be convinced to chow down on those mushrooms from outer space. The ending was rather abrupt, after all those "pictures of people talking" (the end of the world as seen from an American family's cramped living room and kitchen). Cinematographer Lionel Lindon did an awesome job lighting the final scene, pinpointing light on Peter Lazer's eyes while the lad remained in silhouette, until his eager, possessed-by-alien face was revealed. Lindon photographed the scene with Lazer-like precision! Peter Lazer died at the ripe old age of 62 in 2008, not having acted in anything since an episode of Felony Squad in 1967. Lazer reminded me of another juvenile actor who specialized in evil children: John Megna, who terrorized his parents Leslie Nielsen and Peggy McCay in The Alfred Hitchcock Hour episode THE MAGIC SHOP, loosely based on a story by H.G. Wells. (Is it true THE MAGIC SHOP was cut for syndication, and that only truncated versions of the episode appear on YouTube?) Sadly, John Megna is no longer with us either. He died of AIDS in 1995, at the tender age of 42. Yesterday, I saw Steve Dunne in another episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents: SERVICES RENDERED, co-starring Hugh Marlowe. I must admit that Dunne wasn't a bad actor, but his career was not very grand. He died in 1977 at age 59, not having worked in his profession since 1973. One final observation about SPECIAL DELIVERY: Frank Maxwell, the foreteller of doom, played a role quite similar to Royal Dano's Elijah in John Huston's MOBY DICK, which was brilliantly scripted by... Ray Bradbury!

Jack Seabrook said...

I don't know about "The Magic Shop," but I'll get to it eventually! I'm glad you watched the show again and found more to like.

Harvey Chartrand said...

Jack,
I'm very much looking forward to your next installment in the Ray Bradbury/ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS series, which if I'm not mistaken should be THE FAITH OF AARON MENEFEE (1962), Bradbury's adaptation of a story by Stanley Ellin. Down the line, how about focusing on episodes based on stories by Henry Slesar (no shortage of material there)? A couple of seasons of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS could just as easily have been called THE HENRY SLESAR SHOW.
Keep up the stellar work!
Harvey

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Harvey! I'm working on "Aaron Menefee" now. I will definitely do a series on Slesar. My next author will be Roald Dahl.