Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Hitchcock Project-Henry Slesar Part Twenty-Two: "A Woman's Help" [6.24]

by Jack Seabrook

Tired of caring for his bedridden wife Elizabeth, Arnold Bourdon is pleased when she hires a pretty, young nurse named Miss Grecco to care for her and to keep her company. In time, Arnold and Miss Grecco fall in love and plan to murder Elizabeth slowly by giving her small overdoses of her evening sedative. One night, Elizabeth catches her husband and her nurse in an embrace and fires the woman. Realizing that her husband cannot be trusted around another young nurse, Elizabeth hires a dowdy, older woman. What she does not realize is that the new nurse is Arnold's mother and that she is fully engaged in the plan to carry out the murder of her son's wife.

"A Woman's Help" was broadcast on NBC on Tuesday, March 28, 1961, during the sixth season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The onscreen credit states that the teleplay is by Henry Slesar, based on his story. However, the story--if an actual story preceded the teleplay--was not published until 1962, when it was included in the collection, A Crime for Mothers and Others. The copyright notice in that paperback states that the story is one of four in the collection that has not been previously published.

Geraldine Ftizgerald
It is hard to tell whether this dull episode falls flat because of the teleplay or because of the uninspired direction by Arthur Hiller. The story that was published a year after the show aired is much more entertaining than the TV show, but that may be because Slesar's narrative takes an ironic and humorous approach to what looks like tired material on screen.

Starring as Elizabeth is Geraldine Fitzgerald, an actress whose star quality overshadows the part she is given to play. Elizabeth is supposed to be unlikeable and we should be rooting for Arnold to succeed in his plan to eliminate her. In the short story, Slesar describes her as having "graying hair and yellow skin" and she is said to be "barely presentable." In contrast to this description, however, Fitzgerald is an attractive woman of 47 years (at the time of filming), who looks rather hale and hearty for someone supposed to be confined to bed. Hers is easily the standout performance of the episode.

Scott McKay plays Arnold, and his performance is so lifeless that it helps to sink the episode.

Scott McKay
As Miss Grecco, the nurse, Antoinette Bower fails to demonstrate the vibrancy and beauty that she would often exhibit later in her career. In the short story, her character is described as having "superb legs," and as being "provocative," "voluptuous," "remarkably pretty," and looking as if she came from the "Folies Bergere." On screen, Bower conveys none of this, and comes across as rather insipid. Born in Germany, she has a vaguely exotic middle-European accent but her performance fails to light up the screen.

It seems clear that Hiller should have taken a more exaggerated and ironic approach to the material. Instead, he has the cast play it straight, as if it is serious drama. In Slesar's story, the tone is one of light humor, and he seems to recognize that this situation has been played out many times before and thus cannot be taken seriously. For instance, midway through the story and show there is a scene in Arnold's kitchen at midnight when he and Miss Grecco first profess their love for each other and then share a kiss. In the short story, it seems so ridiculous that it can only be played for laughs, yet onscreen it is in earnest and just seems cliched. The only humor in the TV show is found in the very first scene, when a sense of suspense is built only to have it revealed to be about cooking a three-minute egg.

Antoinette Bower
The only notable camerawork in the TV show comes near the end, when Hiller places Elizabeth at the top of the stairs twice to demonstrate her power over Arnold, who stands below her. One wonders if Slesar realized the shortcomings of the show when he turned it into a short story for his collection, since he adds narrative passages and scenes and deletes others.

The title, "A Woman's Help," has multiple meanings for Arnold, who has spent his entire life supported by women. He is tied to Elizabeth by her money, a fact he points out to Miss Grecco when they first discuss marriage. Even at the end of the show, when his mother appears out of nowhere as the new maid, he is still dependent on a woman to advance his aims. It is ironic that his mother is willing to help him kill his wife, and one wonders if Miss Grecco will still be in the picture after the murder is accomplished!

Scott McKay and Lillian O'Malley, as Arnold's mother
Geraldine Fitzgerald (1913-2005) was born in Ireland and started her film career in England in 1934. She had emigrated to the U.S. by 1938, where she quickly appeared on Broadway with Orson Welles and bore him a son. She had a long and successful film career that began in 1939, the year she appeared in two classics: Wuthering Heights and Dark Victory. She had many roles on TV from 1949 to 1989 and was on the Hitchcock series twice.

Scott McKay (1915-1987) was born Carl Gose and had a long career on Broadway. He also appeared in movies starting in 1944 and on TV starting in 1950. He was on the Hitchcock series twice and was briefly married to actress Ann Sheridan, one of his four wives.

Antoniette Bower (1932- ) had just started her career on TV the year before this episode was filmed. She would go on to appear in movies and on TV into the early 1990s, including two roles on the Hitchcock series, as well as appearances on The Twilight Zone, Thriller, Star Trek, and many other shows. She still lives in Los Angeles and has appeared at conventions, where she greets fans of classic TV.

Arthur Hiller (1923- ) directed television shows from 1954 to 1977 and movies from 1957 to 2007. He directed 17 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents; the last one reviewed here was "One Grave Too Many."

Surprisingly, even though "A Woman's Help" is not a memorable episode, it was remade in 1981 for the series Tales of the Unexpected, starring Tony Franciosa. Bert Salzman wrote the teleplay. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents version is available on DVD here or may be viewed for free online here. The Tales of the Unexpected version is may be viewed for free online here. The series is available on DVD but it is expensive and it is hard to pin down which DVD set includes this episode.

Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb., n.d. Web. 15 Feb. 2014.
Slesar, Henry. "A Woman's Help." A Crime for Mothers and Others. New York: Avon Book Division, 1962. 40-49. Print.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 15 Feb. 2014.
"A Woman's Help." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. NBC. 28 Mar. 1961. Television.


Grant said...

Antoinette Bower is also great as a classic "shrew" wife in the COLUMBO episode NEGATIVE REACTION.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Grant! I've been catching Columbo on MeTV!

john kenrick said...

I agree with your comments on this episode, Jack, watched it for one reason: Geraldine Fitzgerald. Her performance disappointed me somewhat. The star power was indeed there but it's like she had no one to act off with. In an hour long Hitch, Power Of Attorney, she was master class brilliant. The way she used her eyes said so much about what her character was feeling. In this one she was competent, served in the material nicely, no more. In my humble opinion, that is.

Jack Seabrook said...

She was very good in "Power of Attorney"--I wrote about that episode recently! She is also good in "A Woman's Help" but I don't think she's right for the part.

john kenrick said...

Right, Jack. Miss Fitzgerald was really too young and despite some (apparently slight) attempts to age her and make her appear drab, this didn't really work. Too mature to be a babe, she was still an attractive woman. In Power Of Attorney, made a few years later, she looked older and yet was still somehow good looking.