Thursday, December 13, 2012

John Collier on TV Part Two: Alfred Hitchcock Presents-"Wet Saturday"

by Jack Seabrook

The second episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents to be adapted from a story by John Collier was "Wet Saturday," which was the first episode of season two, on September 30, 1956. The story upon which it was based had been published originally in The New Yorker on July 16, 1938.

This very British tale, which has been described as a satire of family life, begins on a rainy day in July, as Mr. Princey speaks to his assembled family: his wife, whose name is never revealed; his "hulking" son, George; and his "cloddish" daughter, Millicent. Princey feels little love for any of them but saves especial scorn for Millicent; he thinks that her "features were thick, her jaw heavy, her whole figure repellently powerful." It is her physical power that has led to the current situation: Princey's "austere pride of position in the village, his passionate attachment to the house" are threatened because Millicent has killed Withers, a man she loved, in the family stable, and his body lies there waiting for Princey to decide what to do next. Withers had stopped by on this rainy Saturday to tell Millicent that he, a curate, had heard from the bishop that he was to have the vicarage and could now marry. When he told the young woman that he planned to marry someone other than her, she hit him over the head repeatedly with a croquet mallet.

Into this scene of familial discord stumbles Captain Smollett, who walks in just as the discussion rages. Princey and George ask Smollett to accompany them on a visit to the stable, where Princey tells Smollett what happened. Holding the captain at gunpoint, Princey forces Smollett to incriminate himself in the murder by leaving evidence; ostensibly, this is to ensure Smollett's silence.

After returning to the house, Princey tells his family that they can rely on Smollett; after the captain departs, Princey telephones the police and asks them to "send someone at once" because "something rather terrible has happened up here." The implication is that Princey will frame Smollett for the crime, thus preserving his family's position in the community and shielding his daughter from being punished for her crime. (Read the story here.)

"Wet Saturday," like "Back for Christmas," was published in a popular magazine (The New Yorker) where it would have received a great deal of exposure. It was adapted for radio and performed three times in the 1940s on the Suspense series: on June 24, 1942, starring Clarence Derwent; on December 16, 1943, starring Charles Laughton; and on March 20, 1948, starring Dennis Hoey. Follow this link for an interesting article on the radio adaptations that includes links that allow one to download and listen to each of them.

The producer of Alfred Hitchcock Presents chose "Wet Saturday" to adapt for television. The teleplay was written by Marian Cockrell and the show was directed by Alfred Hitchcock. This episode was rehearsed and filmed over a three-day period from August 22 to 24, 1956; it was broadcast just over a month later on CBS on Sunday evening, September 30, 1956.
Crazy Millicent stuffs sandwiches in 
her mouth as her father pontificates.

If one ever wondered how long a short story should be in order to fit a twenty-four minute (approximately) television slot, one would find the answer in "Wet Saturday," because the television show is as faithful an adaptation of a story as I have ever seen. From start to finish, the teleplay follows what is on the printed page, with very minor changes. As usual, in television programs from this era, characters are more physically attractive onscreen than their descriptions on the page warrant; George Princey is more handsome than hulking, and Millicent, his sister, is pretty, though actress Tita Purdom portrays her in a way best described as a basket case. One notable change that probably results from a decision that American audiences would not understand British terms is that Withers is changed from a curate who has just been assigned to a vicarage to a schoolmaster who is out hunting butterflies. It is also possible that the television adapters thought the murder of a schoolmaster might be more palatable to television audiences than the murder of a clergyman. "A white rat in a dog collar" becomes "a knobby-kneed clown with a butterfly net," removing one of several references to rats from the TV show.
John Williams as Captain Smollett

Sir Cedric Hardwicke plays Princey in a manner that suggests that he is an attorney, going over every fact and analyzing every detail. The implication that Princey may be a lawyer in his work life is not made in Collier's story; it may be a decision by Hardwicke, though it is never spelled out explicitly.

The only real addition to the story in the televised version is a scene where we see Princey and George in the stable. George hides the body while Princey wipes Millicent's fingerprints off of the handle of the croquet mallet. Princey inspects the sewer grate (a piece of flagstone in the story) and sees a rat scurry across the floor, giving him an excuse for having gone out to the stable (he later tells Smollett that they went out to shoot a rat).

There are a couple of humorous moments added to the show, both courtesy of John Williams, who plays Captain Smollett. The first is a brief bit when Princey tells Smollett to finish his drink and Smollett says he will finish it later, then looks into his empty glass and mutters a disappointed "Oh!" The second is when Smollett decides to leave and announces that he will "go along now--it's stopped raining," yet through the windows behind him the pouring rain is clearly visible. The indignities to which Smollett is subjected are amusing, from being punched in the face twice by George to allowing the young man to pluck two hairs from his head to plant on the body. The droll manner and expressions of actor John Williams provide the perfect setting for these scenes.

One minor problem with "Wet Saturday" is the use of stock music phrases to underscore surprising or humorous events; this occurs throughout the early seasons of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and can be either charming or annoying, depending on one's point of view.
Sir Cedric Hardwicke as Princey

As in "Back for Christmas," the subtlety of Collier's story may have been thought to have been too difficult to grasp for 1956 television viewers, necessitating an added final scene with dialogue where Princey explains his plan in detail to his family. Millicent stuffs sandwiches in her mouth, much to her father's annoyance, as he sets out the story that they will tell the police. This scene is unnecessary but does not harm what is, overall, a strong episode of the series and a second faithful adaptation of Collier's work. Hitchcock's concluding remarks add a humorous twist; he states, tongue in cheek, that Millicent later re-enacted the crime for the benefit of the police, this time using the croquet mallet on her overbearing father.

George and his father address Captain Smollett
Marian Cockrell (1909-1999), who adapted "Wet Saturday" for television, was a novelist who wrote books for children and adults. Shadow Castle (1945) is considered a classic fantasy for young women. Ms. Cockrell wrote eleven episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents as well as four for Batman. Her career in television lasted from 1955 to 1966. Her husband, Francis Cockrell, had adapted Collier's "Back for Christmas" for the Hitchcock series earlier in 1956 and would write many more teleplays for this show. Her daughter, Amanda Cockrell, is also a novelist; her website includes a mention of her mother (access it here).

Alfred Hitchcock directed "Wet Saturday" and appears to have added very little beyond his usual flawless staging and camera placement. There are no trick or showy shots as there were in "Back for Christmas"; his influence is chiefly felt in the choice of story and in the casting of Sir Cedric Hardwicke and John Williams, actors with whom he had previously worked. Articles on "Wet Saturday" that attribute its themes to Hitchcock ignore the fact that it is a very close adaptation of its source story by John Collier.
Jerry Barclay as George

Sir Cedric Hardwicke (1893-1964), who portrays Princey, had a long and distinguished career on stage, appeared in films from 1931 to 1964 (along with a couple of earlier appearances in silent films) and was seen on television from 1949 to 1964. He was knighted in 1934 and his films include Karloff's The Ghoul (1933), Laughton's The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), Chaney's The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), The Lodger (1944) with Laird Cregar, and Hitchcock's Suspicion (1941) and Rope (1948). He appeared in two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents as well as one each of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits.

John Williams returns for a second time in an adaptation of a Collier story, following his starring role in "Back for Christmas." Norman Lloyd called him "the definitive Hitchcock actor . . . the underplaying, the subtle humor, the indirect approach that he had" appealed to the master of suspense.

Tita Purdom plays Millicent; she appears to have had a brief career, with credits going only to 1959. A news article dated February 20, 1956, says that she was 27 years old and about to file for divorce from actor Edmund Purdom.
This publicity photo depicts Tita Purdom in 
scene that does not occur in the episode.

Jerry Barclay (1930- ) plays George; his career ranges from The Man With the Golden Arm (1955), in which he played a junkie, to Whore (1991), in which he played "dead trick in car." His portrayal of George is quite amusing.

"Wet Saturday" can be viewed online here or purchased on DVD here. It was remade as an episode of Tales of the Unexpected starring Fritz Weaver; it was broadcast on July 7, 1984, and may be viewed online here.


Collier, John. "Wet Saturday." 1938. Fancies and Goodnights. New York: Bantam, 1961. 84-90. Print.

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

IMDb., n.d. Web. 9 Dec. 2012.

"Wet Saturday." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 30 Sept. 1956. Television.

"Wet Saturday." The New Yorker. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2012.

Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 9 Dec. 2012.


Mark said...

what a great episode and john collier is a great writer.

Stuart said...

Both Television versions are great, but being a Hitchcock fan that one gets my vote, being a Collier fan I have most of his stuff but his own version of the one act play (not the short story which has been anthologised many times) from 1941 still sadly eludes me.

Jack Seabrook said...

I hope you locate the play one day! The search is half the fun!

john kenrick said...

The Hitchcock Presents Wet Saturday doesn't quite work for me but for the daft performance from Tita Purdom, mostly for laughs. I found the radio Suspense version way more effective. This version is a game effort, yet its players aren't quite at their best; nor is its director, which is a pity.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, John. I enjoyed it. No episode with John Williams will ever get a bad rating from me! I flipped on TCM last night and caught 5 minutes of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter, and there was John Williams with Tony Randall. Priceless!

Anonymous said...

Excellent Review As Usual!

Jack Seabrook said...