Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Hitchcock Project-Henry Slesar Part Thirteen: "Party Line" [5.33]

by Jack Seabrook

A party line, or single telephone line that connects two or more subscribers with the main exchange, is a bit of technological history in most places today. In the late 1950s, however, party lines were still used in rural areas where it had not yet become feasible to run multiple cables. The Rock Hudson and Doris Day vehicle Pillow Talk, released October 7, 1959, had a party line as a key plot element. That party line was not as treacherous as the one in Henry Slesar's short story "The Deadly Telephone," which was first published in the January 1960 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, not long after Pillow Talk came out.

Slesar's story tells the sad tale of Helen Parch, a stout country spinster who is in the habit of listening in on her party line to the gossip of her neighbors. She receives a visit from Daryl Atkins of the District Attorney's office, who tells her that Heyward Miller has escaped from the mental institution where he had been held for years. Miller and his wife had lived near Mrs. Parch and, when his wife was pregnant and had an emergency, he had tried to interrupt one of Mrs. Parch's chatty phone calls on the party line to call the doctor. She refused to hang up and his wife died. He blamed her ever after and was later jailed and shut up in a mental institution, from which he has now escaped.

Helen worries that he may want to come after her but she has no friends or relatives with whom to stay, so she remains alone at home as night falls. She hears a neighbor's dog barking and begins to worry when she hears a noise in her cellar. Picking up the telephone to call the sheriff, she discovers that two of her gossipy neighbors are engaged in a conversation. As she did with Miller years before, they do not believe her claims of having an emergency and refuse to hang up. The story ends this way: "she was still screaming when the hand took the receiver from her and replaced it on the hook. It was a thick, hairy hand and possessed of terrible strength."

Royal Dano
"The Deadly Telephone" is an effective story that quickly paints a portrait of rural isolation and demonstrates how one woman's selfish act can set in motion a cascade of tragedies that will go on for years. The producers of Alfred Hitchcock Presents chose Slesar's story to mark his fifth and final entry in the show's fifth season; retitled "Party Line," the episode is a brilliant example of how to balance comedy and terror in a suspenseful half-hour package. "Party Line" was broadcast on CBS on Sunday, May 29, 1960. The teleplay was written by Eli Jerome, who had also adapted Slesar's "One Grave Too Many" the week before. Jerome has no other credits beyond these two episodes, leading Harvey Chartrand to suggest that this may have been a pen name for Henry Slesar. This is a very intriguing suggestion that I have been unable to confirm or deny by research.

Gertrude Flynn, Judy Canova, Ellen Corby
Starring as Helen is Judy Canova, an actress who was very familiar to viewers at the time as a comedienne specializing in hillbilly humor. The opening scenes of the show lead one to think it will be a comedy, as Helen putters around her country home and listens in on her neighbors' telephone calls. Director Hilton Green does an excellent job of telling the story in pictures by using superimposed heads as they talk on the telephone: Helen's in the middle of the screen and the women on whom she eavesdrops on either side of her. The irony and humor are clear, as Helen calls her neighbors "busybodies" even as she secretly listens in on them.

Charity Grace
The show veers off from its source early on, as Helen tells Atkins the story of what had happened years before. In a flashback sequence, she is on the phone with Mrs. Anderson when Miller interrupts the call to insist that they hang up. He claims he has an important business deal to conduct and they accede to his wishes. Helen listens in on his call and discovers that he is using the telephone to place a bet on a horse race. The next day, Helen meets Miller at the grocery store and tells him that she knows that he had lied about the nature of his call. These additional scenes make the moral picture in "Party Line" more complicated than that in "The Deadly Telephone." In the story, there is no suggestion that Miller was anything but an innocent victim of Helen's selfishness. The picture onscreen is a bit more murky. Miller is rude to the women in his initial call, and he does lie to them. When the subsequent call takes place, one may understand (though not excuse) Helen's skepticism about Miller's claim that he has another emergency. After refusing to hang up, she tells her friend that "you just have to treat people the way they deserve to be treated--that's the golden rule." Helen misunderstands the ancient teaching and twists this aphorism to suit her own purposes.

Arch Johnson
Director Hilton Green does a superb job of telling the story, and the conclusion of the fatal phone call finds the camera slowly zooming in on the central face--that of Miller--as the faces of the women superimposed on the sides are crowded out of the picture. His face is bathed in sweat and he is lit with high-contrast lighting, conveying that the situation is as tense as he claims.

Back in the present, after the flashback comes to a close, Atkins tells Helen that Miller may want to seek her out and kill her. As Helen, Judy Canova gives a tremendous performance, and it is totally unexpected; she plays upon her image as a light comedienne and goes from comedy to terror in the space of several scenes. The little touches in "Party Line" are almost too many to mention: one of Helen's neighbors is the delightfully-named Betty Nubbins, who tells her friend Emma at the beginning of the show that she is sick of hearing Helen talk about the time she won two Bingo games in a row. In the flashback sequence, we see Helen boasting about that very event. Later, when Betty calls Helen to snoop on her visit from Atkins, she lies to Helen and says that Bingo will not be any fun without her. What Jerome (Slesar?) and Green have done, with the help of an excellent cast, is to paint a picture of a small, insular community where everyone is pleasant on the surface but filled with deceit underneath. All of the women lie to each other constantly and eavesdrop on each other's conversations. Only near the end, when Helen is beginning to be consumed by worry and is fed up, does she speak during one of her eavesdropping sessions, telling her neighbors that they are "nasty old busybodies."

Helen heads down to the cellar
The show's final scene is a gem of suspense, as night falls and Helen secures windows and doors in a doomed effort to shut out the escaped lunatic, Mr. Miller. The set decoration is even worth noting, down to the rug beater hanging on her kitchen door! Unlike Helen in the story, Helen on TV has a dog. He barks and she grabs a flashlight and follows him into the dark cellar, where he chases a cat out of the window. This scene prefigures a key scene in one of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour's most terrifying episodes ("An Unlocked Window"). Helen goes back upstairs and calls out the front door after the dog, Nero. Yet she, rather than the dog, is by this point whimpering with fright. She hears another sound in the cellar and puts a chair in front of the door. She picks up the telephone receiver and begs her friends to get off the line so she can call the sheriff. Her terror is palpable as they casually deny her fervent request. As she sobs into the phone, a man's shadow crosses her and then the man's back blocks our view of the soon to be late Helen Parch.

Canova
"Party Line" sneaks up on you because expectations of Judy Canova do not include such a stellar performance in a non-comedic role. Canova (1913-1983) was a popular star on radio, headlining The Judy Canova Show from 1943-1955 playing a hillbilly character. She was known for her singing, yodeling and corny humor. Born Juliette Canova, she was in movies from 1934 and on TV from 1955. This was her only appearance on the Hitchcock series and, judging from "Party Line," that's unfortunate, because she had the capacity to develop a believable character in a short time.

Hilton Green (1929- ) directed this episode. He was a long-time assistant director on many TV shows, including Alfred Hitchcock Presents, who was given this opportunity to direct. He never directed another episode of the Hitchcock series, which is a shame, based on the great work he did here.

Appearing as Atkins was the scarecrow-like Royal Dano (1922-1994), who had a long career as a character actor in movies and on TV. He was on three episodes of the Hitchcock series and also appeared in The Trouble With Harry (1955).

Canova, Johnson, Grace
Arch Johnson (1922-1997) played Miller, in one of his three appearances on the series. A familiar face among character actors, he had a career on TV and in the movies that lasted over three decades and he was in the original Broadway cast of West Side Story.

Ellen Corby (1911-1999) plays Emma, one of the gossipy neighbors. Born Ellen Hansen, she was in movies from 1933 and on TV from 1950 to 1997. She appeared five times on the Hitchcock series and once on Thriller,  but she was most famous for her role as Grandma Walton on The Waltons (1971-1980).

Ted Knight
In a small role as Maynard, the man behind the grocery store counter, Ted Knight (1923-1986) makes an early appearance. Born Tadeusz Konopka in Connecticut, he was on Alfred Hitchcock Presents only once. he also appeared once each on The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. In 1970, he shot to fame as Ted Baxter, the pompous newscaster on The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977). He followed this with The Ted Knight Show (1978), a hilarious role in Caddyshack (1980), and Too Close for Comfort (1980-1987).

"Party Line" is available on DVD here or can be viewed online for free here. It is one of the best Henry Slesar episodes to date.

Sources:
"Galactic Central." Galactic Central. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Sept. 2013.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 28 Sept. 2013.
"Party Line." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 29 May 1960. Television.
Slesar, Henry, and Alfred Hitchcock. "The Deadly Telephone." Clean Crimes and Neat Murders: Alfred Hitchcock's Hand Picked Selection of Stories by Henry Slesar. New York: Avon, 1960. 65-71. Print.

Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 28 Sept. 2013.


7 comments:

Harvey Chartrand said...

Henry Slesar was a very prolific writer in those days. He used the pen name "O.H. Leslie" in ALFRED HITCHCOCK'S MYSTERY MAGAZINE if two of his stories appeared in the same issue.
Ellen Corby has a small part in VERTIGO. Ted Knight has a walk-on in PSYCHO and today's audiences laugh when they recognize the comic actor.
PARTY LINE is yet another superb episode of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, building up to a horrifying finale... and its quality is all due to the genius of Henry Slesar.

Jack Seabrook said...

Agreed! This was a great episode and I didn't expect it!

Harvey Chartrand said...

Unfortunately, it's back to square one with the next ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS episode based on a story by Henry Slesar. PEN PAL (with Katherine Squire and Clu Gulager) is a dud, even though it co-stars Stanley Adams and is directed by John Brahm. PEN PAL may be the cheapest-looking episode of the entire series.

Jack Seabrook said...

Watch this space next Thursday for my review of "Pen Pal!"

Harvey Chartrand said...

They remade PEN PAL in 1988 for the new made-in-Canada ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, and poor dowdy old Jean Simmons played the lead role. Actually, Simmons was only 59 but way past her prime. And she was drinking quite heavily at the time.

john kenrick said...

Party Line was an enjoyable episode, and quite frankly I thought that the men, Royal Dano and Arch Johnson, gave better performances than the women, but that's just my opinion. There was a cell phone-like, near addictive quality to the chattering of the women that, allowing for different fashions and personal styles, and, especially, the in yer face feminist-women's empowerment attitude so ubiquitous these days, rang some familiar chords that kept the episode from being locked in time.

Judy Canova struck me as too darn likable for the leading role,--or was that the point?--as she radiated an innocence, a provincial quality, that made me feel protective toward her, wanting to save her from the fate that seemed inevitable after the mid-way point. The episode worked well from a "plot perspective", played mean at the end. Otherwise, pretty good entry overall.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, John. I thought this was a standout episode and I wish Hilton Green had directed more.