Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Hitchcock Project-Roald Dahl Part Five: "Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel's Coat" [6.1]

by Jack Seabrook

The sixth season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents began on NBC, a new network, and on Tuesday, a new night, with "Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel's Coat," broadcast on September 27, 1960, and based on the story of the same name by Roald Dahl. The story had been published first in the December 1959 issue of Nugget, a men's magazine competing with Playboy. Dahl's tale begins with an extended lecture by the author about how American divorce laws make slaves of men and how, to comfort themselves, they tell stories such as this one.

Dr. Bixby, a dentist, and his wife live in New York City. Once a month, she claims to take the train to Baltimore to visit her Aunt Maude while actually visiting the wealthy Colonel, with whom she has been having an affair for eight years. One year, just before Christmas, the Colonel's groom presents her with a gift from the Colonel as she boards the train for home. She opens the gift on the train and sees that it is a beautiful mink coat; with it is a brief note from the Colonel telling her that he can't see her anymore. Her disappointment over the end of their relationship is minimal: "What a dreadful shock," she thinks. "She would miss him enormously."

Mrs. Bixby's delight on first trying on the coat
With that out of the way, she goes back to admiring her new coat until she realizes that it will be hard to explain to her husband. On arriving in New York, she asks a taxi driver to take her to a pawn shop, where she pawns the coat for a loan of $50 until Monday. She insists that the pawn ticket be left blank as to the identification of the item and its owner. Returning home to her husband, she thinks about all of his characteristics that she would like to see changed. She perceives him as "subsexual," his fancy clothes designed to hide a lack of masculinity. She shows him the pawn ticket and claims that she found it in the taxi.

Les Tremayne as Bixby
The Bixbys speculate about the item it will redeem and he says that he will pick it up on Monday. If it is something nice, he promises to give it to her for Christmas. On Monday morning, he calls her to say that he picked up the item and she tries to guess what it is. At lunchtime, she visits him at the office and is shocked when he presents her with a "ridiculous fur neckpiece." She pretends to like it and he tells her that "I'm afraid you mustn't expect anything else for Christmas. Fifty dollars was rather more than I was going to spend anyway." He adds that he will be late getting home that evening.

Mrs. Bixby stars to leave, planning to confront the pawnbroker, when Dr. Bixby's young assistant returns from lunch, wearing "the beautiful black mink coat that the Colonel had given to Mrs. Bixby."

Stephen Crane as the Colonel
Dahl's story has a very British feeling even though it is set in America and deals with American characters. The irony is subtle but the revenge that Dr. Bixby takes on his unfaithful wife is devastating. Husband and wife clearly dislike each other and, at the end of the story, each is aware of the other's deception yet they keep the knowledge to themselves in order to maintain the status quo. The story gets off to a poor start with Dahl's misogynistic introduction, but the strength of the plot and the surprise of the twist ending are undeniable.

"Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel's Coat" was collected in Dahl's collection entitled Kiss Kiss that was published in 1960. The story was purchased for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and adapted for television by Halsted Welles. Alfred Hitchcock directed the episode, which was produced from August 17, 1960, to August 19, 1960. Psycho had been released in June and the director had not yet started working on Marnie.

From the opening sequence
The televised version of "Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel's Coat" is more successful than the short story version, due to crisp direction by Hitchcock and strong performances by the cast, led by Audrey Meadows as Mrs. Bixby and Les Tremayne as her husband. Hitchcock is in playful mode with the opening sequence, where a patient in a dental chair has a tooth drilled in unflinching closeup. The lovingly photographed though unpleasant procedure is classic Hitchcock.

The show is characterized by a light, humorous tone from start to finish. When Mrs. Bixby comes to her husband's office to bid him farewell before going to Baltimore, she is welcomed in by his pretty nurse, much to the chagrin of a male patient who has been sitting in the waiting room. "I believe I'm next," he tells the nurse, thinking Mrs. Bixby is a patient who skipped ahead of him in line.

Hardly the kiss of two who dislike
each other, or so it seems . . .
Dr. and Mrs. Bixby discuss mundane matters of their family's finances; this exchange shows that money is tight and they appear to be a middle-aged, married couple in love with each other. Dr. Bixby laments that his wife will be gone for a single night and she passionately kisses him goodbye. Mrs. Bixby then takes the train to Baltimore, where she is met by a Black chauffeur and taken to a genteel Southern mansion. On its porch, she embraces the Colonel and gives him an equally passionate kiss! The sudden discovery that she is cheating on her husband is a surprise after the seemingly loving farewell they shared.

Mrs. Bixby arrives at the Colonel's house
As she speaks with the Colonel, he reveals that they first met when he was a hospital patient and she was a nurse. She compares his house and grounds to her home in New York City, and it is clear that she prefers the genteel, expansive residence of her lover to the cramped quarters she shares with her spouse. All is not well, however, as the Colonel announces that he must visit a neighbor to view horses that will be auctioned off the next day. The next morning, at breakfast, he again talks of horses, and when he later leaves to go to the auction he instructs his maid to give Mrs. Bixby the gift and goodbye letter, both of which she opens while still at his house rather than in the bathroom on the train, as she does in the story.

Audrey Meadows as Mrs. Bixby
Mrs. Bixby is known to the maid, whom she calls Eloise, and to the chauffeur, who she calls Johnson; they both call her Mrs. Bixby. The relations between the races are a subtle and wry way that Welles and Hitchcock show the contrast between North and South, between New York and Baltimore--perhaps Hitchcock believed that Baltimore was closer to the Deep South than it really was.

The plot follows that of the story closely after that, as Mrs. Bixby returns to New York and pawns her coat. Back at home that evening, she and her husband again discuss mundane details of his work, adding to the contrast between the life she lives openly and the one she has been living in secret, her day to day life in reality and her once a month excursion into near-fantasy.

The scene between Mrs. Bixby and her husband, where she produces the pawn ticket and feigns ignorance of what it is, is beautifully payed by Audrey Meadows and Les Tremayne. Earlier in the show, before her duplicity had been revealed, they appeared to be a loving couple. Now, their interactions seem to be those of two people who are pretending; it is evident that the marriage is a sham and that each one realizes it without being aware that the other knows it as well.

"It's not every woman who has a mink!"
The final scene, at Bixby's office, is equally well played. Mrs. Bixby pretends not to know what's coming while Dr. Bixby pretends to have an exciting surprise for her. He dangles the pitiful mink stole over his head like he is waving a sausage in front of a hungry dog, and the look of disappointment on her face is perfect. He asks, "What's the matter--don't you like it?" and remarks that "It isn't every woman who has a mink!" Mrs. Bixby's facial expressions telegraph her emotions as she goes from disappointment, to angry determination, to shock as the pretty nurse walks by wearing the mink coat.

At the end, the cheater is cheated. Mrs. Bixby thought that her ruse was unknown but she has been outsmarted by her husband. Did he know that she took the coat to the pawnbroker, or did he think that she really just found the ticket in a taxi? Did he give the coat to his nurse knowing he was taking something that his wife had received from her lover? Has he been having an affair with his nurse all along, or is the gift of the mink coat the beginning of a beautiful relationship? After the final shot, will Mrs. Bixby confront her husband? Will he confront her? Dahl, Welles and Hitchcock, along with the cast of the TV show, combine to create characters who have believable pasts and futures, who exist beyond the confines of the half hour window through which we observe their lives. All we know is that the Bixby marriage has changed irrevocably and that Mrs. Bixby got what she deserved.

Halsted Welles (1906-1990), who wrote the teleplay for "Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel's Coat," wrote for movies and TV starting in 1949. He wrote six episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and another six of Night Gallery. He is best known for writing the screenplay for 3:10 to Yuma (1957).

Mrs. Bixby sees the nurse wearing her coat
As Mrs. Bixby, Audrey Meadows (1922-1996) plays a character very different than Alice Kramden socio-economically, yet her face and voice are so associated with her role on The Honeymooners that it is impossible to watch this episode and not think of her saying "Ralph!" She won an Emmy in 1954 for her work with Jackie Gleason and worked almost exclusively in television from 1951 to 1995, reprising the Alice role into the 1970s. This was her only appearance on the Hitchcock show. A website devoted to her career is here.

Playing her husband is Les Tremayne (1913-2003), who was born in England and who acted for decades on radio, in movies, and on TV. He was on the Hitchcock series four times, including "Isabel." He had a small part in Hitchcock's North By Northwest (1959).

Sally Hughes
Stephen Crane (1902-1982) plays the Colonel; this was his only appearance on the Hitchcock show. He played character parts in movies from the early 1930s and later on TV. Sally Hughes plays the nurse; she had few credits other than two appearances on the Hitchcock show.

"Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel's Coat" was remade twice for television. The first time was for a BBC series called Thirty-Minute Theatre; Hugh Whitemore wrote the teleplay. This episode was broadcast on November 2, 1965, and has been lost.

The second adaptation was for Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected. The teleplay was by Ronald Harwood and the show was broadcast on March 31, 1979. It may be viewed for free online here. Roald Dahl introduces this episode and remarks that the short story took him about five months to write (it was completed in January 1957) because he took so many wrong turns while trying to work out the plot. Julie Harris plays Mrs. Bixby in this version, in which the setting is moved from America to England and Ireland. The episode is dull, marred by inept camerawork and bad music.

The 1960 version of "Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel's Coat" is not available online but is available on DVD.

Sources:
Dahl, Roald. "Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel's Coat." 1959. Roald Dahl: Collected Stories. Ed. Jeremy Treglown. New York: Everyman's Library, 2006. 536-52. Print.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2015. <http://www.imdb.com/>.
Mamber, Steve. "The Television Films of Alfred Hitchcock." Cinema 7.1 (1971): 2-7. Web. 12 Apr. 2015. <www.tft.ucla.edu>.
McGilligan, Patrick. Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light. New York: Regan, 2003. 608. Print.
"Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel's Coat." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. NBC. 27 Sept. 1960. Television.
"Mrs. Bixby and the Colonel's Coat." Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected. 31 Mar. 1979. Television.
Spoto, Donald. The Life of Alfred Hitchcock: The Dark Side of Genius. London: Collins, 1983. 580. Print.
Treglown, Jeremy. "Appendix." Roald Dahl: Collected Stories. New York: Everyman's Library, 2006. 849-50. Print.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2015. <http://www.wikipedia.org/>.

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