Thursday, November 29, 2012

John Collier on TV Part One: Alfred Hitchcock Presents-"Back for Christmas"

by Jack Seabrook

John Collier was born in London in 1901. He began his writing career as a poet, then had some success with his first novel, His Monkey Wife, published in 1930. In this novel, the protagonist is tricked into marrying a chimpanzee and discovers that life with her is preferable to life with the vapid women he meets. Collier moved to Hollywood in 1935 when he was hired to write the Katherine Hepburn film, Sylvia Scarlett; he continued to write screenplays and, eventually teleplays. Other screenplays included The African Queen (1951), which was credited to James Agee and John Huston but on which Collier and Peter Viertel also worked, and I Am a Camera (1955), which later inspired the Broadway musical and film, Cabaret.

Collier is best known for his short stories, many of which were collected in Fancies and Goodnights (1951), which won an Edgar Award and an International Fantasy Award the following year. Like His Monkey Wife, many of his short stories exhibit a misogynistic theme, though Paul Theroux wrote that it is "such a wickedly cheerful kind it is irresistible." Collier's stories were adapted for radio and later for television, as early as a 1946 episode of Lights Out. Five of his short stories were adapted by other writers for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, while Collier himself adapted three stories by other writers: two for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and one for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Collier did not adapt any of his own stories for the Hitchcock TV series.

John Collier died in California in 1980. In this series of nine articles, I plan to examine each of the episodes of the Hitchcock series either adapted from a Collier story or adapted by Collier from the work of another author. The first episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents to be adapted from a Collier story was "Back for Christmas."

"Back for Christmas" was first published in The New Yorker on October 7, 1939 (I am using the version collected in the 1961 Bantam paperback edition of Fancies and Goodnights; sources report that Collier rewrote some of the stories in this volume for republication in book form, but I do not know if this story was one of them). The story begins as Dr. Herbert and Mrs. Hermione Carpenter host a party for their friends. The Carpenters are about to leave for America and their friends insist that they must be back in England for Christmas. After everyone leaves, Dr. Carpenter calls his wife upstairs and murders her as she leans over the bathtub, bashing in her skull with a length of lead pipe.

He strips naked to clean up the mess and has to go to the cellar to turn on the water supply, which his wife had shut off as part of her preparations for travel. While he is in the basement, the Wallingfords stop by to say farewell. He hides until they leave then cleans up the body, disposing of it in pieces in a hole that he had claimed was being dug for a wine cellar. He drives off alone, secure that he will get away with his crime. He thinks of a woman named Marion, who is waiting for him in Chicago, and plans to write letters home as if he were Hermione in order to cover his tracks.

John Williams and Isobel Elsom
In a New York hotel, he reviews letters that have arrived for him in the mail. The last letter is from a builder, whom his wife had hired as a surprise to excavate the cellar and build a sunken wine bin as a Christmas present for him. He realizes that the excavation will reveal his wife's corpse and he will indeed be summoned back to England for Christmas.

While this twist ending and the theme of the murderer getting his comeuppance seem perfectly tailored for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the teleplay was not the first time that "Back for Christmas" had been adapted for broadcast. In fact, it was adapted for radio and broadcast four times: first, on December 23, 1943, starring Peter Lorre, as part of the Suspense radio series; second, on December 24, 1947, starring Paul Frees, as part of the Escape series; third, on December 23, 1948, starring Herbert Marshall, this time back on Suspense; and finally, on December 23, 1956, again starring Herbert Marshall and again on Suspense.

Prior to the fourth radio show, however, it was adapted for television by Francis Cockrell and broadcast on CBS on Sunday night at 9:30, March 4, 1956, as part of the first season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Alfred Hitchcock directed this episode, the fourth of the season that he directed himself. While the skeleton of the short story remains, the details of the television show are quite different than those found in its source.

Note the pipe in Herbert's mouth as he digs.
The show opens in the cellar, as the camera pans across the room to rest on Herbert, knee deep in the hole he is digging. He wears suit pants and a vest, and the first shot shows him smoking a pipe, though the pipe disappears with the first cut in a continuity error. Hermione comes down to see him; he is too tall for the cramped space, symbolizing both the boundaries that exist in his life and hinting at the freedom he will seek in America. Before Hermione enters the picture, Herbert is a man, digging and measuring with confidence. Once she appears, he is henpecked and bowed, his eyes downcast. In a shot that shows off Hitchcock's mastery of the camera, Herbert looks down at the hole and the camera assumes his point of view, slowly panning along the length of the hole and then up Hermione's body, making the hole's ultimate purpose clear right away. In the story, Herbert's murder of Hermione comes as an unexpected surprise; in the TV show, it is obvious from the first scenes what he plans to do.

Even the twist ending is foreshadowed as Hermione tells Herbert that she as a "nice surprise" for his lunch. After Hermione goes back upstairs, Herbert checks what appears to be a joint passport and confirms that his wife's height is 5'4"; he allowed an extra two inches in the hole and comments, "no use crowding." Herbert's henpecked nature is highlighted in the second scene, as he has lunch with Hermione and allows her to dictate to him how much he likes Shepherd's Pie, despite his weak protestations. Hermione is extremely well organized and plans everything out in detail; Herbert clearly despises her yet she is wholly unaware of his feelings.

The show's third scene is where the published story begins, as the Carpenters host a tea party for their friends to bid them farewell. When asked about Los Angeles, Herbert describes it as "large, casual, very disorganized," the opposite of his life with Hermione. At one point, the soundtrack for the party scene devolves into a chatter of voices, recalling the dinner party scene in Hitchcock's Murder (1930); here, the point is that Herbert's mind is elsewhere and he is not really listening. More foreshadowing is provided when Hermione mentions another surprise that will require them to be back for Christmas.

After the party, Elsie the maid leaves and the Carpenters share tea. Herbert then changes his clothes and proceeds to the cellar, where he picks up a lead pipe and calls for Hermione. In a humorous scene, she insists that he come back upstairs and help her change a dust cover on a hanging lamp; their byplay as he steadies the small stepladder and she replaces the dust cover is quite amusing. Hermione insists that she can do a better job than the maid did but in fact her work is much sloppier; the irony of Herbert's helping her with this task is great, since he plans to murder her moments later.

In a marked departure from the story, Herbert summons Hermione to the cellar again, where he asks her to lean over the hole to make sure it is deep enough. He raises the pipe and strikes; she falls into the hole and the picture dissolves to a scene some time later, as he finishes smoothing the dirt over the hole he has filled in. He trudges upstairs to wash his hands, only to find the water turned off. This scene is much less suspenseful than the one in the story, were Herbert strips naked and murders Hermione over the bathtub upstairs. He discovers that she had shut off the water at the main and has to run downstairs unclothed and bloody, only to be interrupted by the arrival of the Wallingfords. On TV, of course, he could not be naked and he could not cut his wife's body into pieces, so instead Herbert murders Hermione in the basement, letting her body fall conveniently into the waiting hole and significantly cutting down on the mess. Herbert's method in the TV show actually makes more sense than his method in the story!

As Herbert, John Williams's facial expressions are wonderful as he hides behind the stairs in terror, listening to the Wallingfords' banal conversation, knowing that he is a few steps away from capture. The second half of "Back for Christmas" also expands on the short story, but in a different way. We see stock shots of an ocean liner arriving in New York Harbor, followed by shots of Herbert superimposed over more stock shots of the sights of New York. More stock shots follow as Herbert is superimposed over shots of a drive westward; in the story, he received the fateful letter at his hotel in New York; in the TV show, he makes it all the way to California and moves into the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills.

In the final scene, he sits on the outdoor patio of his hotel room, typing a letter to friends in England: "We are established in a charming flat and Herbert begins his work on Monday," it reads, demonstrating that he is pretending to be Hermione in the letter. A new colleague stops by and remarks that Herbert is drinking beer for breakfast, something he would not have been allowed to do under Hermione's watch. A maid arrives to clean up and he tells her not to move anything--he is fulfilling his earlier description of America as "disorganized."

The trick shot near the end of the
episode highlights the letters.
The show ends as he opens the bill and the camera slowly dollies in on his shocked expression before cutting to a closeup of the bill, which is dated December 1955. The camera zooms in on the bill and a rectangle of light highlights the phrase, "To excavating cellar floor"; the rest of the picture fades to black as the camera lingers on these words, moving from left to right along the page as Herbert's eyes might. This is the second trick shot of the episode (the first was the pan along the hole and up Hermione's body early in the show). The episode ends with a humorous closeup of Herbert's shocked expression as he mutters, "Back for Christmas. She said I'd be back for Christmas."

Francis Cockrell (1906-1987), who wrote the teleplay, wrote for the movies from 1932-1956 and for TV from 1950-1973. He wrote 18 scripts for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "The Dangerous People," as well as scripts for One Step Beyond, The Outer Limits and Batman.

John Williams (1903-1983), who plays Herbert, was born in England and had a long and wonderful career as an actor. He was on stage beginning in the 1920s and in movies from 1930-1978. He appeared in three Hitchcock films--The Paradine Case (1947), Dial M For Murder (1954), and To Catch a Thief (1955); he also won a Tony Award for his role in the stage version of Dial M For Murder in 1953, before the film was made. He made numerous TV appearances and was on Alfred Hitchcock Presents 10 times, as well as appearing in episodes of The Twilight Zone, Thriller and Night Gallery. He was a regular on Family Affair, filling in for the ailing Sebastian Cabot as butler Mr. French's brother. Many remember John Williams for his popular TV commercial, "120 Music Masterpieces."

Isobel Elsom (1893-1981) played Hermione; she was on stage as early as 1911 and began her film career in 1915. She appeared in Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux (1947) and Hitchcock's The Paradine Case (1947), as well as in My Fair Lady (1964). She was in five episodes of the Hitchcock TV series and also appeared on One Step Beyond and Thriller.

Others in the cast included A.E. Gould-Porter (1905-1987) as Major Sinclair; he matched John Williams by appearing in ten episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "The Glass Eye." Mollie Glessing (1891-1971) played the English maid, Elsie, and appeared in seven episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents as well as three episodes of Thriller.

"Back for Christmas" is easily available on DVD or online. It was later remade as an episode of Tales of the Unexpected; that version can also be viewed online.

Sources: N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Nov. 2012. 
"Back for Christmas." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 4 Mar. 1956. Television. 
Collier, John. "Back for Christmas." Fancies and Goodnights. New York: Bantam, 1961. 182-87. Print. 
"Escape and Suspense!" 'Escape and Suspense!' N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Nov. 2012. <>. 
"Ghost Radio." Ghost Radio. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Nov. 2012.>. 
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print. 
IMDb., n.d. Web. 25 Nov. 2012. <>. 
"JerryHaendiges Vintage Radio Logs." Suspense .. Episodic Log. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Nov. 2012. <>. 
"John Collier." Contemporary Authors. Gale, n.d. Web. 25 Nov. 2012. 
"Listen to Audio." Suspense. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Nov. 2012. <>. 
N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Nov. 2012. <>. 
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 25 Nov. 2012. <>.


John said...

What a great retrospective of this fine author. Along with Beaumont, Bradbury, and Russell, Collier was one of the finest short story writers.

Harvey Chartrand said...

A.E. Gould-Porter made a fleeting appearance as a bookseller/spy in Hitchcock's dismal Cold War espionage drama TORN CURTAIN (1966) and again co-starred with John Williams in RAINY DAY, a 1957 episode of SUSPICION, the short-lived Hitchcock-produced TV anthology series (which is way past due for a DVD/Blu-ray release).
Other John Collier stories (such as EVENING PRIMROSE, filmed as a musical with Anthony Perkins in 1966!) were featured in Alfred Hitchcock paperback anthologies.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, John. I'm looking forward to reviewing the rest of his contributions to the Hitchcock series!

Harvey, did you ever see that musical? Sounds like an odd concoction.

Harvey Chartrand said...

EVENING PRIMROSE is on YouTube (Parts 1-4). Catch it while you can!
Part 1 is at

Peter Enfantino said...

This could be your best installment yet, Jack! I remember reading Fancies and Goodnights in High School and really digging the story about the giant bird egg. Collier was a Saturday Evening Post version of Robert Bloch.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, guys! There is a book of short stories out there called John Collier and Fredric Brown Went Quarreling Through My Head that I have never read, though I guess I should!

Matthew Bradley said...

Great stuff, as always. Didn't know Collier worked on THE AFRICAN QUEEN, which means he indirectly helped Bogie (my favorite actor) win his only Oscar. Always loved Williams, especially in DIAL M FOR MURDER. Chief among those who remember "120 Music Masterpieces" are undoubtedly any readers of the blog A THRILLER a Day, many of whom still wake up screaming.

Curious to know what your ninth article will be about, if there are eight Collier-related episodes of the Hitchcock series (five based on, and three written by, Collier). Did I miss something?

A curious side note regarding Collier. Decades ago, Martin Harry Greenberg, Richard Matheson, and Charles G. Waugh edited a book called THE TWILIGHT ZONE: THE ORIGINAL STORIES. They hoped to include every single story ever adapted on the 1959-64 series (several of which were, of course, written by Matheson himself), but if I recall correctly, Collier's "The Chaser" was the only one for which they could not get the reprint rights; why, I don't know. What a shame.

Jack Seabrook said...

You did not miss anything. Part 9 will be the overview and episode guide. It's funny that they couldn't get rights for "The Chaser"--it's very short and in Fancies and Goodnights.

Unknown said...

I am proud to say John Collier was my Uncle. He married my fathers sister Harriet and I have many fond memories of him. He was rather short and extrememly charming with a fabulous speaking voice and the most incredible English accent you have ever heard.
I met Dalton Trumbo and his wife Cleo, Sam Jaffe and many other fine actors and writers who also had been black listed by McKarthy. One day when they rented a house on the beach in Malibu I wnet outside and played beach ball with a very attractive blonde woman. When I came inside and dusted off my feet my Aunt Harriet had me call my father and tell him I had just been playing with none other than Lana Turner. Uncle John was a fabulous cook and loved to entertain.
He was a good father to my cousin John and a wonderful and loving husband to my Aunt Harriet who loved him to the day she passed.

Jack Seabrook said...

Mark, thanks so much for your note! I hope you enjoy the series on your uncle. Playing beach ball with Lana Turner must have been quite an experience!