Thursday, October 18, 2012

Ray Bradbury on TV Part Six: The Alfred Hitchcock Hour "The Jar"

Pat Buttram as Charlie Hill

by Jack Seabrook


“The Jar” is one of the best hours of television I have ever seen. The creative team behind this masterpiece takes Ray Bradbury’s short story and brings it to life on the small screen, expanding it, deepening it and, in the end, making it as fascinating and mysterious as its central object. On its surface, “The Jar” is a simple story, yet it has layers upon layers that make it worth watching more than once.

The story begins at a carnival somewhere in Louisiana, near an unnamed city but only ten miles from Wilder’s Hollow, a small settlement on the edge of a swamp where the people live in poverty, ignorance and misery. Charlie Hill, a heavy set simpleton who works in “the bottoms,” is visiting the carnival on his own. Like many of his neighbors, he is childlike, and later tells his child bride Thedy that he “rode on the merry go round three times [and] the Ferris wheel twice.” It is not the rides that entrance him, however, it is a sideshow attraction: a large glass jar with something floating in it. Charlie has been staring it at for three hours and, as the carnival is about to close, a midget carnival barker responds greedily when Charlie offers to buy the jar. The carney sells it to him for twelve dollars after figuring out that that is all the money Charlie has; Charlie is easy to fool and is taken advantage of, time and time again. When he returns home to his wife, he gives her a hair ribbon with her name stitched on it with sequins—“Thedy Sue Hill”—and tells her that it cost sixty-five cents, “nickel a letter.” Once again, Charlie was taken: at a nickel a letter, the cost should have been sixty cents.

Billy Barty as the carney
Thedy is a young woman married to an older man whom she clearly finds grotesque. She pivots between child and woman in the space of a heartbeat, her voice lisping like that of a little girl but her figure and clothes demonstrating that she is well aware of her power over men. Charlie’s dream of being a respected member of his community is fulfilled when he displays the jar in his parlor (with an embroidered cloth cover featuring a poem about “Mother” left over it when no one is there to see it) and all of his neighbors, from a pair of elderly grandparents to a pigtailed little girl, come to sit in his house and stare at the jar, fascinated, wondering what it is and sharing their personal interpretations.

The stories these backwoods people tell are harrowing. One young man named Juke, who boasts that a doctor told his mother that he had the mind of a ten year old, tells about a time when he was a child and his mother told him to drown a kitten. A mother suspects it may be the remains of her little boy who was lost in the swamp. A grandmother suggests that it is all things to all people, asking “why does it have to be just one thing?”
There is a snake in this Eden, however, named Tom Carmody. He is a handsome young man who is having an affair with Charlie’s wife Thedy. Tom is jealous of the attention paid to Charlie, and he and Thedy run off together one evening to the carnival at which Charlie first bought the jar. Thedy returns to find Charlie in bed and tortures him by telling him that she and Tom spoke to the little man at the carnival and learned what is really in the jar. “It’s paper and it’s clay and it’s cotton and it’s string . . . and that’s all it is,” she tells her husband, who is horrified that she will tell the neighbors and end his reign as someone to be looked up to. Recalling Juke’s story of drowning the kitten, Charlie playfully chases her around the bedroom and through the house, calling “Here, Kitty.” She plays along, purring and mewing, until suddenly he grabs her and pulls the jar’s embroidered cover over her head. A shock cut follows and we see Charlie at another evening get together, as he brutally slices the end off of a large watermelon with a huge knife. It is clear that he has killed and beheaded Thedy, and the scene that follows is a classic of horror, as the neighbors sit in their usual places in Charlie’s living room, looking at the jar and arguing about whether its contents have changed. Finally, the little girl approaches the jar and announces that there is a ribbon in the hair of what floats inside. She spells out the letters on the ribbon: “T-H-E-D-Y-S-U-E-H-I-L-L.” It is the ribbon that Charlie had brought back from the carnival, and the group suddenly realizes what Charlie has done, as he sits in his usual spot, smiling placidly, unconcerned with being caught and loving the attention.

"The Jar" walks a fine line between humor
and horror, as this sign demonstrates.
“The Jar” benefits from superb casting and brilliant work behind the camera. The script by James Bridges is outstanding, taking Bradbury’s short story and adding scenes and elements to make it a more powerful tale of horror. The character of Jahdoo, the black man, is the focus of a scene that is added, as he is paid one dollar by Tom and Thedy to steal the jar and destroy it. He believes that it contains the heart and center of all life from Midibamboo Swamp, from which all life came ten thousand years ago. Charlie learns from Juke that Jahdoo has stolen the jar and tracks him through the swamp, rifle in hand, until he sees the jar sitting on an old tree stump. Approaching it, Charlie gets caught in quicksand and calls for Jahdoo, who gives a long and wistful speech about his interpretation of the jar’s contents as Charlie sinks lower and lower. Jahdoo ignores Charlie’s pleas, showing that life has little value in the swamp, but he finally pulls Charlie out, commenting that “they paid me a dollar, Charlie, to steal and destroy the center of all creation.” Jahdoo is no Judas and will not let Charlie die; Charlie is like the messiah who has brought the gospel of the jar to his people.

Collin Wilcox as Thedy Sue Hill

The most significant change from story to script comes at the end. In Bradbury’s story, the suggestion that Charlie killed Thedy (neither has a last or even a middle name in the original) and put her severed dead in the jar is subtly made but never spelled out; in the television show, it is made very clear and is the source of the show’s horrible and shocking ending.

In his closing remarks, Alfred Hitchcock jokes that the events of “The Jar” are not to be taken as comparable to those of the popular pursuit of sitting in one’s living room watching television. But “The Jar” is much more than that—it is a religious experience, where Charlie’s disciples see into the deepest, darkest parts of their own hearts and confess to what they find. The comparison to religious experience is made later when Jahdoo tells Charlie in the swamp that he was not confident enough to “testify” to what he saw in the jar, much as his fellow black churchgoers testify in the Southern Baptist church.
As with so many of the adaptations of Ray Bradbury stories for the Hitchcock series, Norman Lloyd was centrally involved in the production, both directing and producing. He draws perfect performances out of the entire cast and weaves together a story onscreen that is impossible to look away from. The cinematography by Walter Strenge demonstrates a careful use of grays and shadows, with both the interior of Charlie’s house and the exteriors in the swamps dripping with mystery, horror, and despair. Finally, the music by Bernard Herrmann is central to the experience of watching “The Jar.” It begins at the carnival, with a spooky calliope theme that returns on and off throughout the episode. The combination of a source by Ray Bradbury, a script by James Bridges, direction by Norman Lloyd, cinematography by Walter Strenge, and music by Bernard Herrmann make “The Jar” one of the highlights of the ten-year run of the Hitchcock series.
As Charlie, Pat Buttram is a force of nature. Buttram (1915-1994) was a comedic performer who was best known for his performances in Westerns; he is most familiar today to viewers as Mr. Haney on Green Acres, in which he appeared from 1965-1971. “The Jar” is well known as one of Buttram’s rare serious performances and his light comedy background is perfect for Charlie, making his shift to a menacing tone at the end of the story that much more frightening. Buttram appeared in one other episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

Collin Wilcox (1935-2009) plays Thedy as a childlike woman with a cruel streak. Twenty years younger than Buttram, she seems like a woman who has very little going for her but who makes the most of what she has. While she appeared in two other episodes of the Hitchcock series, she is best remembered to fans of classic television as the young woman struggling with a decision to change her appearance in the Twilight Zone episode, “Number 12 Looks Just Like You, which had aired three weeks earlier on January 24, 1964.

William Marshall as Jahdoo
James Best (1926- ), as Tom Carmody, does not have much to do other than to look handsome and mean. He had been acting in movies and on TV since 1950; readers will recall him as Jeff Myrtlebank in the Twilight Zone episode “The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank”; he also appeared in three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and played Sheriff Roscoe Coltrane from 1979-1985 on The Dukes of Hazzard.
William Marshall (1924-2003) appears as Jahdoo; he had a long career but is best known as Blacula (1972). He succeeds in portraying the black character in “The Jar” without resorting to stereotype, something that mars Bradbury’s original story, where the character verges on offensive.
The cast of “The Jar” is so impressive that even the actors in small roles deserve mention. Granny Carnation is played by Jane Darwell (1879-1967), a great Hollywood actress who started in films in 1913 and played Ma Joad in John Ford’s classic The Grapes of Wrath (1940). “The Jar” was one of her last two roles; the last was as the woman feeding the birds on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral in Mary Poppins that same year.
George Lindsey (1928-2012) plays Juke, who is said to have the mind of a ten year old. Like Pat Buttram, Lindsey was known for folksy humor, appearing as Goober on The Andy Griffith Show from 1964 to 1968. In”The Jar,” he gives a great performance, highlighted by his powerful monologue about drowning a kitten.
George Lindsey as Juke 

Jocelyn Brando (1919-2005), Marlon’s sister, has a very small role as the mother of the pigtailed little girl who reads off “Thedy Sue Hill” at the end. Brando appeared in three other episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including “A True Account.”

Slim Pickens (1919-1983) plays Clem; his face and voice are instantly recognizable from countless westerns, but he will always be remembered riding the atomic bomb and waving his cowboy hat at the end of Dr. Strangelove (1964).

Finally, the carnival barker is played by the great Billy Barty (1924-2000), who had a long career in Hollywood and also appeared in the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, “The Glass Eye.”
With this cast and crew, it is not surprising that “The Jar” is such a brilliant hour of filmed television. Bradbury’s story was remade twice. The first time was in 1986, when it was filmed in color by director Tim Burton as an episode of the 1980s revival of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Just half an hour long, this version of “The Jar” begins promisingly as a reimagining of the story, set in the contemporary New York art world and starring Griffin Dunne as an artist who finds the jar in a junkyard and sees his career take off when he makes it the centerpiece of an exhibit. There is a clever bit where a Texan named Charlie (played by an actor with a resemblance to Pat Buttram) tries to buy the jar and ends up buying other pieces for $12,000 (rather than the $12 the jar costs in the original), but the second act quickly devolves into clich├ęd soap opera and the program has none of the emotional power or mystery of the original.
Jane Darwell as Granny Carnation
The second remake was for an episode of The Ray Bradbury Theatre; it is not available online, but you can read Phil Nichols’s review of it here. There was also a radio adaptation for Tales of the Bizarre; listen to it here.

“The Jar” was broadcast on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour on February 14, 1964, a gruesome little gift for Valentine’s Day on Friday night on CBS. Right before it, also on CBS, The Twilight Zone’s episode, “From Agnes—With Love” premiered. “The Jar” is not yet available on DVD but can be viewed online here. The first remake was broadcast on April 6, 1986, on NBC; it can be viewed online here. The second remake, on The Ray Bradbury Theatre, was first broadcast on January 17, 1992. It is not available online but it is part of the DVD set of the series that can be purchased here. Ray Bradbury’s story was first published in the November 1944 issue of Weird Tales; it has been reprinted in Dark Carnival (1947), The October Country (1956) and The Stories of Ray Bradbury (1980).

Sources:

Bradbury, Ray. "The Jar." 1944. The October Country. New York: Harper, 2011. 97-115. Print.

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

IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 14 Oct. 2012. <http://www.imdb.com/>.

"The Jar." The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. CBS. 14 Feb. 1964. Television.

"The Jar." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. NBC. 6 Apr. 1986. Television.

"Weird Tales - 1944." Weird Tales - 1944. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Oct. 2012. <http://www.yankeeclassic.com/miskatonic/library/stacks/periodicals/weirdta/wt1941/wt1944.htm>.

Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 14 Oct. 2012. <http://www.wikipedia.org/>.











13 comments:

Harvey Chartrand said...

It's quite jarring to realize that three of the artists involved in the production of this most frightening of Alfred Hitchcock Hours died quite recently: Ray Bradbury, George Lindsey and Collin Wilcox. In 1964, Lindsey guest starred in two other excellent episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour: The Return of Verge Likens with Peter Fonda and Bed of Roses with Patrick O'Neal. Not since the days of John Williams has an actor appeared in so many Hitchcock shows in one season. Wilcox also starred in the dreadful The Monkey's Paw – A Retelling (with Leif Erickson and Jane Wyatt) and in the amusing Coyote Moon episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents [starring Macdonald Carey]. You can view most of these episodes on YouTube. James Best is still around (at age 86, he just completed work on two films) and so is the seemingly indestructible Norman Lloyd (97 and still going strong). I was surprised to discover that James Bridges died in 1993.

Walker Martin said...

I watched this episode a couple years ago after reading the story in WEIRD TALES and was very impressed. This is proof that TV can produce quality shows. I've also seen the two remakes which are interesting but not near the quality of this episode. This has to be in the running for best episode of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS.

Matthew Bradley said...

Genre fans will remember that before he became the writer-director of such mainstream hits as THE PAPER CHASE and THE CHINA SYNDROME, Bridges scripted Joseph Sargent's superb 1970 adaptation of the D.F. Jones SF classic COLOSSUS (aka THE FORBIN PROJECT).

Jack, I saw "The Jar" a couple of months ago with my wife and couldn't agree more. It's a standout for both Bradbury and the Hitchcock series, and you do a wonderful job of explicating why.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Harvey! Norman Lloyd is amazing. It was interesting to discover how closely he worked on the Bradbury episodes, something I might not have noticed had I not taken this approach to reviewing them.

Walker, glad to hear from you again! I agree that this is one of the best episodes. The next (and last) Bradbury one is up there as well.

Thanks, Matthew! I agree that James Bridges wrote some great TV. The Paper Chase was a favorite of mine back in the 70s.

Phil said...

Well done, Jack - another excellent review. I hadn't considered the religious dimension of the episode, but you make a good case for it (although I still think that Lloyd's staging suggests that he is satirising television itself, more than anything else).

Thanks for linking to my review of the RAY BRADBURY THEATRE version of the story (an episode which was scripted by Bradbury himself). A more direct link than the one you gave is:

http://home.wlv.ac.uk/~in5379/rbt/45thejar/thejar.htm

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Phil! I agree that it looks like they're all sitting around watching TV, and Hitch's closing remarks reinforce that interpretation by denying it!

Harvey Chartrand said...

The quicksand scene is very funny. It never fails to make me laugh out loud. Maybe it's because the name Jahdoo (which Pat Buttram pronounces "Joe-doo") sounds funny. I even thought this macabre scene was oddly humorous when I first saw THE JAR as a tadpole in 1964.

Jack Seabrook said...

It's funny and nerveracking at the same time, because you aren't quite sure Jahdoo is going to pull him out! I think he relented because they offered him so little money to destroy his idol in the jar.

Marina Francisco said...

MeTV is showing the Alfred Hitchcock hour regularly now. "The Jar" was broadcast tonight (well, this morning) - 2 am PDT in San Francisco 12/28/13.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks for the reminder! I love MeTV!

Anonymous said...

I liked some of the humor in it but I was bored watching people look at a jar! It is ridiculous as someone would have lifted the lid to see it was nothing! Even at the carnival the lid would have been lifted! Jahdoo would definately taken a look! Episode was ok, not wonderful like critics say!

Anonymous said...

Also, wouldn't the lid have been glued shut????????

Jack Seabrook said...

I think the whole point was that these people were so anxious to put their own interpretations on what was in the jar that they would never want to open it and smash their illusions. It took a child to notice that the emperor had no clothes, to steal a metaphor from another story.