Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Hitchcock Project: Henry Slesar Part Seven-"The Kind Waitress" [4.25]

by Jack Seabrook

Henry Slesar's short story, "The Case of the Kind Waitress," was first published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine's October 1958 issue. It was adapted for television and aired late in the fourth season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents on March 29, 1959. The story is well told and has been anthologized repeatedly; the filmed version is less successful, though better than the prior Slesar effort, "The Right Price."

The story concerns Thelma Tompkins, a 44 year old waitress at the Hotel Gordon Restaurant who takes a special interest in Mrs. Mannerheim, an elderly regular customer whom she thinks must be over 90 years old. Thelma is another of Slesar's ordinary people: she has worked for "11 years as a waitress" and is no beauty; he mentions "the imperfect features of her drab face" and her "stringy brown hair." Mrs. Mannerheim seems barely alive; with a "tiny shrunken body," she is "white-faced and wraith-like." The third main character is Thelma's 34 year old brother Arthur, a lazy ne'er do well who works at a drug store. Since their father died, Thelma and Arthur are each other's only family.

One day, due to Thelma's kindness, Mrs. Mannerheim tells her that she has taken care of the younger woman in her will. Arthur is excited to learn of the coming windfall but his enthusiasm wanes as months pass and the old woman does not die. Eventually, tired of waiting, he suggests to Thelma that she "help her along," insisting that it would be a "mercy killing" that he could facilitate with powder from his drug store sprinkled on her food each night.

Thelma resists this idea for a month but finally gives in and begins slowly poisoning her elderly friend. Yet Mrs. Mannerheim lives on! Thelma decides to give her one large dose to end the waiting (Thelma waits on Mrs. Mannerheim in both senses of the word--as a server and as an expectant inheritor). One evening, when the old woman does not come down for dinner, Thelma takes a tray to her room and loses her temper, leading Mrs. Mannerheim to threaten to change her will. Thelma strangles her and is discovered by a chambermaid. She is arrested and jailed, only to be told by a policeman of a surprising discovery at autopsy: Mrs. Mannerheim had had a parasitic infection and the only thing keeping her alive was small, regular doses of arsenic!

Rick Jason
"The Case of the Kind Waitress" has a double twist ending: the title character snaps and becomes a murderess, and the instrument of her earlier attempts at murder is revealed to have been life-sustaining. Once again, Slesar writes of crime among the working class and portrays conflict among family members.

The title of the story was shortened to "The Kind Waitress" when it was adapted for television by William O'Farrell, who also changed the story in other ways that blunted its effectiveness. Arthur is no longer Thelma's younger brother; instead, he is her boyfriend, a handsome, clarinet-playing misogynist whose casual cruelty to his lover would not pass muster if this episode were filmed today. Thelma's desperate attempts to hold on to her man inform all of the wrong choices she makes. When Arthur hears of the promised inheritance, he thinks only of himself: "No more playin' for peanuts! I could start my own band!" As Arthur, Rick Jason is hard to watch; his performance verges on that of the beatniks and hipsters we will see in upcoming years on this series.

Olive Deering
Making Arthur a musician rather than a pharmacist creates an obvious problem that the script goes to absurd lengths to solve. No longer able to pilfer arsenic from the back room of the drug store where he works, this version of the murderous Arthur has to bring home a stack of books from the library to study up on poisons. His reading skills seem rudimentary as he reads the words aloud and stumbles over them. Instead of arsenic, he happens on Anotyne, made from Larascrofa leaves. I did a quick bit of research on these drugs. Arsenic has been used for many years to treat parasitic infections, as Slesar's story points out, but the Anotyne and Larascrofa leaves mentioned in the filed episode appear to be conjured up from whole cloth, perhaps because the producers of the television show did not want to give viewers any useful ideas.

Celia Lovsky
The situation gets even crazier when Arthur rigs up a home chemistry set in Thelma's apartment. Like a be-bopping Dr. Frankenstein, the nearly moronic clarinetist manages to cook and distill the imaginary drug using a hot plate. If one is to take the story literally, he manages to make enough of the drug to supply Thelma with bottles of it over a period of six months! As Arthur remarks, "Gotta hand it to these science cats!"

The conclusion of the show is also changed for no good reason. In the story, Thelma is caught red-handed, but onscreen she gets away with murder, only to blurt out a confession during a coroner's inquest. She then overhears Mrs. Mannerheim's doctor explain that he had been giving his patient Anotyne to treat her heart condition. He says that "Anotyne was the only thing keeping her alive" and, in case we did not get it right away, his words are repeated three more times as a voice over!

Cooking up some poison!
William O'Farrell (1904-1962) wrote this and one other teleplay for Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Happily, the other script was an adaptation of his story, "Over There, Darkness," for which he won an Edgar Award in 1959. He was a crime novelist who worked in television from the late 1940s to the late 1980s.

"The Kind Waitress" was one of 29 episodes of the Hitchcock series to be directed by Paul Henreid (1908-1992), the actor turned director who also directed "The Landlady" and "Annabel." His work on this episode is competent but not outstanding.

Rick Jason (1923-2000) gets top billing as Arthur, though his performance was not one he would recall in his later autobiography, Scrapbooks of My Mind (2000), which can be read online here. Jason was on TV and in the movies from 1953 to the late 1980s; he never appeared on the Hitchcock series again but he had a five-year run as Lt. Gill Hanley on Combat. He ended his own life the year his book came out.

Olive Deering (1918-1986) plays Thelma, her wide-set eyes giving her face a fish-like appearance. She was the sister of actor Alfred Ryder and she was a member of the Actors Studio, onstage beginning in 1933 and in movies and on TV from the late 1940s. She also appeared in one episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and had a role in the classic Outer Limits episode, "The Zanti Misfits."

Robert Carson
Stealing the show as Mrs. Mannerheim is Celia Lovsky (1897-1979), who had been married to Peter Lorre from 1934 to 1945. She appeared on the Hitchcock show three times and was in such films as Fritz Lang's While the City Sleeps (1956), the Lon Chaney biography, Man of a Thousand Faces (1957), and Soylent Green (1973). She also had a memorable part as the Vulcan priestess at Spock's wedding in the Star Trek episode, "Amok Time."

Finally, in a small role as the coroner is Robert Carson (1909-1979), brother of Jack Carson. Robert appeared on the Hitchcock show eleven times, always in small roles, including one as the inquest board chairman in "Mother, May I Go Out to Swim?"

"The Kind Waitress" is available on DVD here and can be viewed online for free here. (If Larry Rapchak is reading this, perhaps he can identify the rather infectious melody that Arthur plays on his clarinet!)

"Chemical of the Week -- Arsenic." Chemical of the Week -- Arsenic. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 July 2013.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb., n.d. Web. 07 July 2013.
"The Kind Waitress." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 29 Mar. 1959. Television.
"Main Page." The Alfred Hitchcock Wiki. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 July 2013.
"Scrapbooks of My Mind - A Hollywood Auto-Biography by Rick Jason." Scrapbooks of My Mind - A Hollywood Auto-Biography by Rick Jason. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 July 2013.
Slesar, Henry. "Case of the Kind Waitress." 1958. Clean Crimes and Neat Murders: Alfred Hitchcock's Hand Picked Selection of Stories by Henry Slesar. New York: Avon, 1960. 126-36. Print.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 07 July 2013.


Harvey Chartrand said...

Henry Slesar's episodes are rather dull so far, aren't they? I think Slesar became a favorite of Joan Harrison and Norman Lloyd because his stories were so cheap to produce. None of Slesar's 37 (!) episodes of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS can be considered a classic. But every one of them is cheap, cheap, cheap. A few episodes barely qualify as mystery/suspense stories.

Jordan Prejean said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jordan Prejean said...

Nice writeup, Jack! Although I do think the producers were a bit heavy on Slesar, I think some fine episodes were produced from his work. Unfortunately, like "The Kind Waitress," the journey from original story to screen adaptation was sometimes rocky and the writer and/or producers messed up a perfectly fine story by imposing illogical changes. Among the stories that are only marginally mystery/suspense, I think few if any belonged to Slesar and though he never produced anything as enduring as "The Glass Eye" or "Lamb to the Slaughter," he produced some nice episodes such as "The Right Kind of House."

Jack Seabrook said...

Harvey, don't let these last two episodes bring you down! As Jordan points out, there are many solid ones, both in the seven I've looked at so far and in the many still to come.

Be sure to check out Jordan's excellent blog: The Twilight Zone Vortex!

Harvey Chartrand said...

Henry Slesar's stories are often two-headers requiring a minimum of sparsely decorated sets. Hitchcock once said that too many movies were actually "pictures of people talking" and we get a lot of talk in "Slesarian" episodes. They also lend themselves to the 30-minute format of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS. By comparison, Slesar only scripted 10 episodes of THE ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR (including the unforgettable BEHIND THE LOCKED DOOR). Overreliance on one writer wasn't good for ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS. A few more stories by Jack Ritchie, Richard Matheson and Bryce Walton et al would have been very welcome.

Jordan Prejean said...

I absolutely agree with that last statement, Harvey. I would have loved to see more Ritchie and Matheson, and especially more John Collier, Fred Brown, Robert Bloch, and Roald Dahl. Even though the show used these writers a good bit, there was a lot of their work left over that would have made excellent episodes. Fred Brown's "Cry Silence" would have been great, as would have Matheson's "The Distributor." Hitchcock probably could have made an unforgettable episode out of Bloch's "The Cloak," although because of its supernatural nature, it may have been a better suit for a show like Thriller.