Thursday, January 24, 2013

John Collier on TV Part Five-Alfred Hitchcock Presents: "Anniversary Gift"

by Jack Seabrook

The last story by John Collier to be adapted for Alfred Hitchcock Presents was "Anniversary Gift," which had been published in the April 1959 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. More humor than horror, the story concerns Hermie Jensen, who is unhappily married to Myra, a woman with "the mental age of ten." They live in a cheap house in an unfashionable beach colony in Florida, where Hermie longs to return to his native Brooklyn. Myra has collected a menagerie of pets, which Hermie looks after while she lounges in her playsuit.

Hermie imagines killing Myra and suggests that she get a new pet snake. He sets off for the village of Melodie, north of the Everglades; at the end of a dirt road, he finds a 13 year old boy named Eidelpfeffer, a self-styled herpetologist who put an advertisement in a magazine offering live reptiles for sale. Hermie pretends to be a professor seeking a small, very poisonous snake to use in an experiment and the boy sells him a coral snake for $18.50, nearly all the money he has.

Hermie returns home and gives the snake to Myra as an early anniversary present, recommending that she cozy up to it and leaving the room so it can bond with her. He goes for a walk and returns to find Myra complaining that the snake doesn't like her; Hermie sits down on the couch and is bitten by the snake, which had burrowed between the cushions. Myra runs for help but returns to find Hermie dead; a game warden captures the snake and confirms that it's a harmless king snake. Myra is relieved to know that Hermie died of a heart attack and she is certain that he did not intend to give her a deadly serpent, as he had claimed after he was bitten.


"Anniversary Gift" is a clever and funny story that demonstrates that author John Collier had grown familiar with American ways yet still used British expressions in his writing to describe them: he notes that Hermie had "looked forward confidently to control of the exchequer" and that Myra's first husband had died before he could make his "postwar pile." It is noteworthy that the first four Collier stories adapted for Alfred Hitchcock Presents had been published originally in The New Yorker, a popular and respected mainstream magazine, while "Anniversary Gift" was published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, a digest that published crime and detective stories; EQMM was probably the best in its field, but in terms of respectability, circulation and (probably) pay rate, it was a step down from The New Yorker.

The story belongs in the category of those where the main characters think that they are smarter than they are. Hermie is bilked by a thirteen year old boy who sells him a harmless king snake when he asks for a poisonous coral snake. Myra spends her days lounging around their Florida home playing with her pets and allows herself to believe that her husband had not tried to kill her. This unfavorable view of married life recalls "Back for Christmas," though Hermie is not successful in killing his wife. In the five Collier stories adapted for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, all of the families have been dysfunctional. In "Back for Christmas," Herbert Carpenter is henpecked and kills his wife because it is easier than standing up to her. In "Wet Saturday," the Princey family includes a murderous daughter and a boorish son; the father must frame a family friend to preserve the clan's air of respectability. In "De Mortuis," Dr. Rankin thinks that he leads a happy life but decides to kill his wife after learning that she is unfaithful. In "None Are So Blind," Seymour Johnstone is so anxious to inherit his aunt's money that he speeds her death along with a poorly conceived murder. Finally, in "Anniversary Gift," Hermie Jensen despises his wife and tries to kill her by taking advantage of her love of animals; his stupidity leads to his own death. John Collier has been descried as a writer who does not like women; these five stories demonstrate that he has few illusions about family life in general.
Barbara Baxley as Myra

After the three Collier episodes that had been broadcast in rapid succession in the fall of 1956, there was a three-year drought for the author before "Anniversary Gift" appeared on CBS on Sunday, November 1, 1959, near the start of the show's fifth season. The teleplay was by Harold Swanton, who added aspects to the source that served to make the show even funnier than the story. There is a running gag where a toucan screeches at Hermie and calls him a "slob." A new character is added in George, the next-door neighbor, who spends his days drinking beer and going fishing. Ironically, George tells Hermie that he envies Hermie's married life--George's wife died nine years before and he is lonely. Ignoring Hermie's question ("How'd you manage that?) as to how his wife died, he tells Hermie that "since she's been gone, my life is nothing but beer and fishing." Hermie doesn't share his sadness and envies George's life as a widower.

As Hermie, Harry Morgan has a wonderful time with the role, mimicking the words "one beer" as Myra tells him his limit and grudgingly accepting an "allowance" of ten dollars from his spouse. He becomes animated and cheerful when he thinks he is putting one over on Myra; he rhapsodizes about what wonderful pets snakes make and tells her she needs to get to know her new pet better and "love him up." Morgan's comic timing is perfect. He imitates a snake dance strip tease and shows Myra how she could carry a snake inside the front of her blouse and let it peek its head out. Watching this episode, it is hard to imagine that Morgan and Barbara Baxley (as Myra) could have performed this scene without dissolving into laughter and ruining the take.

Michael J. Pollard as Hansel Eidelpfeiffer
Another highlight is the scene where Hermie visits Eidelpfeffer, renamed Hansel Eidelpfeiffer in the show (and even funnier for that). The "boy" (played perfectly by a 20 year old Michael J. Pollard) figures out very quickly that Hermie is not the professor he claims to be and talks circles around him before out-negotiating him and taking his $10 allowance as payment for a fraudulent snake. Morgan again shines in this scene, boasting that the scientists at Cape Canaveral want to beat the Russians and be the first to put a snake on the moon.

"Anniversary Gift" is an excellent comic episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents that benefits from a tight script, excellent camerawork and editing, and terrific performances. One of the best moments comes after Hermie has been bitten; he is frantic while Myra remains calm: Myra tells him that they should clean the bite, because one "never can tell where their teeth have been," and Hermie responds, "They've been in me!"

The script for "Anniversary Gift" was by Harold Swanton, who wrote for radio and then television, with credits going as late as 1980. There is no biographical information available online, so I will add him to the list of writers to highlight in this series of articles in order to learn more about him. He wrote 11 episodes of the Hitchcock series and won an Edgar in 1958 for best episode of a TV series ("Mechanical Manhunt" on The Alcoa Hour).

Jackie Coogan as George
Normal Lloyd directed the show; born in 1914 and still alive today, he was associate producer or producer of over 200 episodes of the Hitchcock series, directing 22 of them and acting in five. Harry Morgan (1915-2011) was one of the most recognizable actors on TV in the '60s and '70s, appearing in various series such as Dragnet and M*A*S*H. This was the only time he appeared on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, though he directed two episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Barbara Baxley (1923-1990) was also a recognizable TV actress who was on TV from 1950-1987 and in movies from 1955-1990. She was in six episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including co-starring in "Design for Loving" with Norman Lloyd.

Jackie Coogan (1914-1984) played George, the neighbor. Coogan started in the movies as a child in 1917 and became a star when he co-starred in The Kid (1921) with Charlie Chaplin. He had a long career in movies and on TV and is best remembered today as Uncle Fester on The Addams Family (1964-1966). Like Harry Morgan, this was his only appearance on the Hitchcock series.

Henry Morgan as Hermie
Michael J. Pollard (1939- ) played Eidelpfeiffer with what film historian David Thomson called his "sleepy-boy mumbling" style. He has been making movies since 1959 and his most famous role was in Bonnie and Clyde (1967). He appeared twice on Alfred Hitchcock Presents as well as on Lost in Space and Star Trek.

"Anniversary Gift" was remade as part of the 1980s revival of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and broadcast on February 28, 1987. Neither version of the show is available for online viewing but the original may be purchased on DVD here.


Sources:

"Anniversary Gift." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 1 Nov. 1959. Television.
Collier, John. "Anniversary Gift." 1959. Ellery Queen's Murder--in Spades! New York: Pyramid, 1969. 58-72. Print.
"Galactic Central." Galactic Central. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Jan. 2013.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 20 Jan. 2013.
Thomson, David. The Big Screen : The Story of the Movies. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012. Print.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 20 Jan. 2013.


3 comments:

Grant said...

Along with liking this one in general, I'll watch just about ANYTHING with Michael J. Pollard, especially playing either a delinquent or one of his "oddball" kid roles, or a mixture of the two.

This story is also probably the only piece of pop culture where I've seen a Herbert Zim "Golden Guide." Pollard is holding a copy of the "Reptiles and Amphibians" one.

Harvey Chartrand said...

I used to like John Collier but now I think I prefer Collier Young. John Collier seems obsessed with marriages going down the crapper, or duplicity between the sexes. It's getting old. But I always enjoy seeing Jackie (MESA OF LOST WOMEN) Coogan in action. A fine actor, who went on to fame and fortune as Uncle Fester in THE ADDAMS FAMILY on TV.

Jack Seabrook said...

Grant: I love that he pulls the Golden Guide out of his back pocket! I think I had one about the space program.

Harvey: Thanks for reading. The next three posts will cover John Collier's adaptations of stories by other authors, so I think we'll see a change in theme. I went down to the Trenton Public Library last night to xerox "Jizzle" from a bound volume of Collier's Magazine. They have a wonderful collection of old bound periodicals in the basement that they have not yet thrown away.