Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Hitchcock Project-Henry Slesar Part Forty-One: "What Really Happened" [8.16]

by Jack Seabrook

"What Really Happened" is an unusual entry in the Hitchcock TV series because it is loosely based on an actual event. When British lawyer Charles Bravo died on April 21, 1876, his wife was suspected but nothing was proved. Florence Bravo was a beautiful woman who had been only 19 years old when she met and married a dashing military man from Canada. He became an alcoholic and she fled to a sanatorium to recover from the stresses of her life. While there, she fell in love with the doctor in charge and her husband died, leaving her a rich widow. She bought a mansion and hired a woman named Jane Cox as a live-in companion. The doctor was married, so she moved on to Charles Bravo, who came from a good family but was not wealthy. They married and she lived an extravagant lifestyle, much to her new husband's displeasure. He fired Ms. Cox, her companion, and was soon poisoned with antimony. Florence was suspected and a highly-publicized inquest resulted in a verdict of murder, but the jury could not determine the culprit.

Anne Francis as Eve Raydon
This case was still well-known in England in 1926, when Marie Belloc Lowndes published her novel, What Really Happened. Mrs. Belloc Lowndes (1868-1947) was a popular English novelist whose first book was published in 1898. Among her dozens of novels and non-fiction works, the most famous was The Lodger (1913), which was filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1927 under the same title. In What Really Happened, Lowndes provides her version of the Bravo case, updated to the 1920s.

As the novel begins, pretty war-widow Eva Raydon is on trial for murder after her husband, Birtley Raydon, has been poisoned with arsenic. Her lover, Jack Mintlaw, had made a fortune in Canada after the Great War but came back to England to find her remarried to Raydon. Adelaide Strain, her friend and housekeeper, shocks the court by testifying to new evidence that she heard someone come into the hall where a tray with drinks rested just before Birtley drank the fatal glass of shandy-gaff, a cold drink consisting of beer and a soft drink.

Ruth Roman as Addie Strain
Raydon had accused Amos Purcell, the gardener's son, of being a thief just a week before, and the young man died in a cycling accident six weeks after Raydon's death. The judge sums up the case to the jury and all looks bleak for Eva. As chapter one ends, two observers of the trial wonder what really happened.

Most of what follows consists of a flashback to the events leading up to Birtley's death. Like Florence Bravo, Eva Raydon had married young, become a widow, had a lover, and then married another man. Adelaide Strain has a son named Gilly and her husband also died in the war. She is dependent on the Raydons for her survival and that of her child and she is good friends with Eva but not well-liked by Birtley. Birtley's mother does not approve of his marriage to Eva.

Gene Lyons as Howard Raydon
After a year at The Mill House, which Eva bought with her own money, Jack Mintlaw returns to the area and is still in love with Eva. Eva lives extravagantly and this comes to light when a bill collector comes to the house and demands that Birtley pay a large dressmaker's bill. Birtley consults with his mother and insists that Eva take a loan from her solicitor to settle her own bills. Eva meets with Mintlaw, who sends her a large check to pay her debts. Birtley decides that one way to save money is to fire Adelaide. She visits a friend at the hospital and takes some arsenic from a medicine cabinet. She grows distraught at her bleak job prospects and, that evening, when she overhears Birtley criticizing her son, she pours the arsenic into the glass of shandy-gaff that he will drink at bedtime.

Gladys Cooper as Mrs. Raydon
Before her guilt can allow her to prevent him, Birtley downs the drink and later awakens in great pain. The doctor is called and Birtley dies of what is thought to be a perforated ulcer. His mother is summoned and immediately blames Eva. Mrs. Raydon insists on a post-mortem and snoops around in Eva's things, finding a letter from Mintlaw. Putting this together with Eva's debt and sudden, unexplained influx of cash, she goes to the police. Two days later, just as the funeral is about to begin, the coroner announces that a post-mortem will be done.

Detective Henry Plimmer of Scotland Yard is on the case. He investigates and concludes that Birtley was murdered; the post-mortem shows that he died of arsenic poisoning. Plimmer arrests Eva for murder. Adelaide watches it all and cooperates with the investigation but is never a suspect. The story then returns to the end of the trial, where it had left off for the long flashback. The judge concludes his summing up and the jury deliberates. Some think Eva guilty, some think her not guilty, and some suspect the gardener's son. No one ever suspects the truth of the matter. Eventually, the jury acquits Eva and, as the novel ends, all on the defense team agree that it was Adelaide's testimony that made the difference. No one ever knows what really happened, but in her novel Mrs. Belloc Lowndes provides an intriguing theory for a solution to the real-life murder of Charles Bravo fifty years before.

Michael Crisalli as Gilly Strain
Marie Belloc Lowndes adapted her novel into a play that was published in 1932 as What Really Happened: A Play in Prologue, Two Acts and Epilogue. According to London theater records, it was performed once in the West End, at the Duke of York's theater, on September 13, 1936. The play follows the novel closely but turns the narrative into drama by putting everything into dialogue. I think it is more likely that Alfred Hitchcock or Joan Harrison knew of the novel than the play when, 26 years later, Henry Slesar was asked to adapt it for television. The title card reads "from the novel."

"What Really Happened" was broadcast on Friday, January 11, 1963, on CBS. It is directed by Jack Smight and stars Anne Francis as Eve Raydon, Ruth Roman as Addie, Gladys Cooper as Mrs. Raydon, and Steve Dunne as Jack Wentworth (Mintlaw in the novel). Howard Raydon (Birtley in the book) is played by Gene Lyons and Adelaide's son, Gilly, is played by Michael Crisalli.

The poison framed behind a glass
From the start, it is clear that Slesar struggled with how to adapt this novel into a one-hour television show set in the early 1960s. The initial scenes take place in the Raydon house, where Howard trips over a toy that Gilly left on the floor. When Gilly accidentally breaks an expensive clock. Raydon is angry and fires Addie, who promptly pours poison in his warm milk. Director Smight frames a nice shot of the bottle of poison (actually, liniment to treat Eve's dog's skin condition) visible behind the empty glass, suggesting that it will soon end up in the glass itself. Eve then takes the glass of milk up the stars to serve to her husband; the trip up the stairs with the poisoned glass of milk on the tray is a brief homage to the famous scene in Hitchcock's Suspicion where Cary Grant walks up the stairs with a glass of milk that may or may not be poisoned.

Echoes of Suspicion
Howard drinks the milk and later collapses and dies. His mother emerges from a bedroom down the hall and immediately accuses Eve of murder. These initial scenes present too much information too quickly, introducing characters without explaining who they are or why they are there. The show then switches into courtroom mode, recalling Slesar's earlier teleplay for "I Saw the Whole Thing." Much of the episode is taken up with the trial.

Mrs. Raydon is the first witness we see testify. She relates two events in flashback, describing one incident when she walked in on Eve and Jack together on the couch and a later incident when Howard confronted Eve about her bills. In both flashbacks, Eve is wanton and uncaring, first flirting openly with Jack and then acting blithe and confrontational with Howard. It is through these flashbacks and Mrs. Raydon's testimony that Slesar pieces together events from the novel in order to try to show the strong case against Eve.

Cary Grant in Suspicion
The episode then takes an unusual turn, following Kurosawa's Rashomon, as Eve takes the stand. She relates the same two events that Mrs. Raydon did, but this time the flashbacks are different, portraying Eve as an innocent victim. The scene on the couch with Jack is entirely without guile and the scene with Howard shows her to have been surprised by the large bill and willing to make it right. A third flashback is added, in which she meets Jack for lunch and he volunteers to write her a large check.

Toward the end, Slesar's script deviates completely from its source novel. Cross-examination of Eve reveals that she had a baby by her first husband and that she asked Addie to raise the child as her own while Eve made a living. It turns out that young Gilly is secretly Eve's son, not Addie's, and that Eve has kept Addie employed and living with her in order to keep her son nearby. When Howard fired Addie, it meant that Eve's son would be taken away, and the prosecuting attorney uses this to establish a motive for murder.

Mrs. Raydon's version
Overwhelmed with guilt, Addie goes home that night and tries to commit suicide by drinking more of the poison that she used to kill Howard. She survives but leaves a note that Jack reads and then gives to the judge. In the note, Addie confesses to the murder of Howard, vindicating Eve. As the show ends, the prosecuting attorney is disturbed by the belief that the jury would have convicted the wrong person. In his closing remarks, Alfred Hitchcock tells us that Addie was later tried, convicted and hanged for the murder. Too bad for Addie--the death penalty in England was abolished two years later!

Eve Raydon's version
"What Really Happened" as presented on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour is a mess, and Henry Slesar's script is chiefly to blame. The elements of the novel are there, as are the basic facts of the original murder on which the novel was based, but they are shoehorned into what is essentially another courtroom drama. The concluding revelations about the true parentage of Gilly and Addie's subsequent suicide attempt are unnecessary and point toward the sort of plot twists that likely informed Slesar's later work as a writer of TV soap operas.

Jack Smight (1925-2003), the director, worked in TV from 1949 to 1986 and in movies from 1964 to 1989. He directed four Twilight Zone episodes and four episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. His most well-known films were Harper (1966) and Midway (1976).

Steve Dunne as Jack Wentworth
Anne Francis (1930-2011), who plays Eve, was born Ann Marvak and was one of the beauties of 1960s television. She had started in movies in 1947 and TV in 1949 and she is best known for Forbidden Planet (1956) and the series Honey West (1965-66). She was on The Twilight Zone twice and the Hitchcock series five times, including Slesar's "Keep Me Company."

Ruth Roman (1922-1999), who plays Addie,  was born Norma Roman and started in movies in 1943, moving to TV in 1954. She was in Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train (1951) and she also appeared on The Outer Limits. This was her only appearance on the Hitchcock TV series. Of note, she and her son survived the wreck of the ship Andrea Doria in 1956.

Michael Strong as Molloy, the defense lawyer
Appearing as Mrs. Raydon is Gladys Cooper (1888-1971), the beloved English actress and star of stage and screen. She began her film career in 1913 and moved to TV in 1950. She was in Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940), as well as three episodes of the Hitchcock series, three of The Twilight Zone, and an Outer Limits.

Demonstrating his usual wry likability as Jack Wentworth is Steve Dunne (1918-1977), born Francis Dunne, who was in movies from 1945 and on TV from 1951. He was on the Hitchcock show five times, including Ray Bradbury's "Special Delivery" and Henry Slesar's "The Man With Two Faces."

Other familiar faces in the cast include Michael Strong as the defense lawyer and Tim O'Connor as the prosecutor. Both make their only appearances on the Hitchcock show.

Tim O'Connor as the prosecutor
Gene Lyons (1921-1974) plays the unfortunate Howard Raydon; he was on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour three times and also made appearances on The Twilight Zone and Star Trek. He was best known for a recurring role on Ironside.

Finally, Gilly Strain, the child, was played by Michael Crisalli. He was born in 1954 and only has a handful of credits to his name, all in 1962 and 1963.

"What Really Happened" is not yet available on DVD but may be viewed online for free here. The novel is available for free download from the Internet Archive here.

Sources:
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 30 Oct. 2014. <http://www.imdb.com/>.
Lowndes, Marie Belloc. Novels of Mystery: The Lodger, The Story of Ivy, What Really Happened. New York: Longmans, Green, 1933. Internet Archive. Web. 19 Oct. 2014. <https://archive.org/details/novelsofmysteryl00lown>.
Lowndes, Marie Belloc. What Really Happened: A Play in Prologue, Two Acts and an Epilogue. London: Ernest Benn Ltd., 1932. 
Mahon, Elizabeth K. "Murder Most English--Florence Bravo and the Balham Mystery." Scandalous Women. N.p., 28 July 2008. Web. 30 Oct. 2014. <http://scandalouswoman.blogspot.com/>.
"Marie Belloc Lowndes-(Not Only) A Story of London Fog." Bibliodaze. N.p., 6 June 2014. Web. 30 Oct. 2014. <bibliodaze.com/2014/06/marie-belloc-lowndes-not-only-a-story-of-london-fog>.
"What Really Happened." The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. CBS. 11 Jan. 1963. Television.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 30 Oct. 2014. <http://www.wikipedia.org/>.
"Women Playwrights in the West End: 1930 – 1939." London Theatre Tickets RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Oct. 2014. <http://www.westendtheatre.com/9053/west-end-theatre-history/history-data/women-playwrights-in-the-west-end-1930-1939>.
  • Antenna TV is airing two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents every night! Check out the daily schedule here.
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4 comments:

Anonymous said...

It's a shame Universal won't release the hour episodes on DVD in Region 1. I noticed this morning, however, that someone is selling a Region 4 set of the third season of the one-hour episodes on eBay.

Jack Seabrook said...

Amazon has the whole set of hours on Australian DVD but you can get them from private collectors on ioffer.com.

Grant said...

Since Addie is such a tragic character instead of a "wanton" killer, I've always thought it was extreme that Hitchcock tells you at the end about her sentence (if I remember correctly, even the prosecutor felt bad for her, along with feeling guilty about the conviction he nearly got). But I didn't know till now that it was from a true story. Is that why Hitchcock's closing lines mention the execution?

Jack Seabrook said...

I think he was just placating the censors. In the real case, they never figured out who the killer was and no one was convicted, much less executed. Thanks for reading!