Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Hitchcock Project-Robert C. Dennis Part One: "Don't Come Back Alive" [1.4]

Although Henry Slesar was involved as a writer in the most episodes of the Hitchcock series overall--47--he actually wrote or co-wrote teleplays for only 24 of the half-hour episodes and nine of the hour episodes. An argument can be made that Robert C. Dennis, who wrote teleplays for 30 of the half-hour episodes, all in the first four seasons, was a more prolific contributor to Alfred Hitchcock Presents than Henry Slesar. Dennis was very involved in setting the tone for the series in its early years; in fact, his last teleplay for Hitchcock was in season four, while Slesar's first was in season five. In a sense, Slesar picked up where Dennis left off as the show's most frequent writer.

In this series, I will review each of the episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents written by Robert C. Dennis. Four of his teleplays have already been covered in my series on other writers. It's interesting to note that only two episodes were based on short stories by Dennis; the other 28 were his adaptations of short stories by other writers.

Robert C. Dennis was born in 1920 in Ontario, Canada, and came to the U.S. in 1936. He began selling stories to the pulps in the late 1930s (the Fiction Mags Index lists a story as early as 1939) and continued until the early 1950s, selling over 150 stories to magazines. He wrote more than 40 radio plays and, in the early 1950s, when other pulp writers were turning to slicks, digests, or paperbacks, Dennis began writing for television. This became the main focus of his career and he is credited with over 500 teleplays from 1950 to 1983. He wrote a handful of movie scripts, but episodic TV was his bread and butter. He created two syndicated series in the 1950s: China Smith, which ran 52 episodes from 1952 to 1955, and Passport to Danger, which ran 39 episodes from 1954 to 1956.

From the original pulp
He is said to have invented the "teaser," the short scene at the start of a TV show that captures the viewer's attention and ensures he or she will not change the channel during the first commercial break. In the early 1970s, he wrote two novels: The Scent of Fear (1973) and Conversations With a Corpse (1974). He was a founding member of the Los Angeles chapter of the Mystery Writers of America and he died in 1983.

The first episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents to be written by Robert C. Dennis was "Don't Come Back Alive," which was only the fourth episode to be broadcast, going out over the airwaves on the CBS network on Sunday, October 23, 1955. It was based on Dennis's own short story of the same name that was first published in the November 1945 issue of Detective Tales. As the story opens, Frank Partridge, the narrator, insists that he is not a criminal, though the police think that he killed his wife seven years ago in 1938, when she disappeared.

Back in 1938, Frank is 39 years old and expects war to break out any day. He and his wife Mildred worry that war will be followed by another depression and wonder how they will survive. Frank thinks of the $10,000 life insurance policy that he bought for his wife and suggests that she disappear for seven years so that he can have her declared legally dead and they can collect the life insurance.

Sidney Blackmer as Frank
Mildred disappears and the police suspect Frank of murder. Detective Kettle is on the case and searches everywhere for the missing woman's body, even having workmen dig up Frank's garden. As the years pass, war does break out and Frank and Mildred manage to see each other occasionally on the sly. Kettle retires and buys a house on the same block as Frank.

Over time, Frank and Mildred see less and less of each other. When he notifies the insurance company of his plan to make a claim, the investigation is conducted all over again. One day, with only six months to go before the seven years are up and she can be declared legally dead, Mildred appears and asks Frank for a divorce. Frank, unable to let go of his dream of cashing in her policy for $10,000, kills her with a poker and hides her body. Kettle continues to haunt him and remarks, as the story ends, that they should have dug deeper in the vegetable garden, not realizing that this is where Mildred is now laid to rest.

The end of the story is ambiguous: does Kettle really plan to dig up the garden, or is he just waxing nostalgic about an old, unsolved case? The question is answered in the television adaptation, also called "Don't Come Back Alive" and also written by Robert C. Dennis.

Virginia Gregg as Mildred
The TV show moves the time ahead to 1948, so there is no backdrop of economic depression followed by war. Instead, Frank is a much older man who has trouble finding a job. When he tells Mildred that he has landed a job as a salesman but will not start till the next month, she replies that they are about to be evicted. He laments that, in six or seven years, he will be 60, "too old to be employed." The life insurance policy is worth $25,000, and Dennis's script extends and dramatizes the decision and planning surrounding Mildred's disappearance. A suspenseful scene is added just after she leaves; her sister Lucy comes to the house to pick her up and Frank, having just returned from delivering Mildred to the apartment where she will hide, jumps out of his car and runs to the back of the house, falling in the garden on the way. He enters through the back door and answers the front door, clearly out of breath and dirty from his fall. These details are later mentioned by Kettle--now an insurance investigator rather than a policeman--as evidence to support the claim that Frank murdered his wife.

Sidney Blackmer gives a rather theatrical performance as Frank. He was about 60 years old at the time, though  the script has him saying that he will not be 60 for six or seven years. Virginia Gregg plays Mildred and she was only about 39 years old at the time of filming; she is made up to look older to match Blackmer; when she returns to ask for a divorce, it is not difficult to make her look as if the seven years apart have made her appear younger. Gregg gives a nuanced, effective performance as Mildred, a woman very much in love with her husband who is forced to live apart from him for so long that her love withers and dies. Best of all is Robert Emhardt as Kettle; his whiny voice and smug expressions give perfect life to the dogged insurance man.

Robert Emhardt as Kettle
There is a fine scene that takes place in a public library, as Frank and Mildred meet in secret in the stacks, talking to each other over a row of books. Another effective scene comes at Christmas, when a planned visit by Frank fails due to Kettle's meddling, leaving Mildred to sit alone in a restaurant as a Christmas carol plays. As the story nears its end in 1955, the year the episode first aired, Kettle again visits Frank and accuses him of murder, as he has been doing for nearly seven years. Frank loses his temper a grabs a heavy candlestick on the mantle but does not attack Kettle. Instead, in the scene that follows, Frank uses the same candlestick to bludgeon Mildred before telling her corpse that "You've been dead too long to come back now."

In the final scene, Frank leaves his house to go to court to have Mildred declared legally dead when Kettle appears. Kettle admits defeat but notices that Frank has been digging in his garden. To Frank's horror, Kettle tells him that, just to show that there are no hard feelings, he'll turn over the ground in Frank's garden while Frank is in court so it will be easier for the man to plant his roses. The camera moves in on Frank's horrified face as Kettle begins to dig, and the show is over. The story's ambiguous conclusion has now been made clear: Kettle will find the body and Frank will finally be proved a murderer. Kettle's error for seven years was in thinking that a crime had been committed. Unfortunately for Frank, circumstances came together to fulfill Kettle's prophecy.

A covert meeting in the library
"Don't Come Back Alive!" is an entertaining story that Robert C. Dennis deepens in his teleplay; he is aided by three good actors who give life to his characters.

Sidney Blackmer (1895-1973) began his movie career in 1914 in silent film. He served in World War One and then became a stage actor before returning to the world of film. He won a Tony in 1950 as Best Actor for Come Back, Little Sheba, appeared in many TV shows from 1949 to 1971, and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He was seen in the first TV adaptation of Cornell Woolrich's "Post Mortem" on Suspense in 1949, he was on Thriller and The Outer Limits once each, and he was in Fritz Lang's Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) and Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968). He appeared on Alfred Hitchcock Presents one other time, as Healer Jones in "The Faith of Aaron Menefee."

Playing Mildred is Virginia Gregg (1916-1986), who was in the occasional film from 1946 to 1986 and who appeared on numerous TV shows from 1955 to 1983. She was also a frequent actress on radio. Among her many credits are four episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including Ray Bradbury's "And So Died Riabouchinska" and "Santa Claus and the Tenth Avenue Kid," as well as three episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, including Robert Bloch's "A Home Away From Home." She appeared on Thriller, The Twilight Zone, and Night Gallery, and was one of three people to provide the voice of Mrs. Bates in Hitchcock's Psycho (1960). For more information, see this website.

Irene Tedrow as Lucy
The wonderful Robert Emhardt (1913-1994) plays Kettle and appeared on stage, movies and TV over his 33-year career. Among the seven Hitchcock episodes to feature him were Henry Slesar's "The Right Kind of House."

As Mildred's sister Lucy, Irene Tedrow (1907-1995) adds another character role to her long list of credits on stage, radio, movies and TV. She was on the Hitchcock show four times, including John Collier's "Back for Christmas."

Finally, "Don't Come Back Alive" was directed by Robert Stevenson (1905-1986), a British director who came to Hollywood in the 1940s. He directed movies from 1932 to 1976, including King Solomon's Mines (1937). While working in TV from 1952 to 1982, he directed seven episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "And So Died Riabouchinska." He was best known for his work for Walt Disney, directing 19 Disney films and many Disney TV episodes in the 1960s and 1970s. The most famous and successful of these was Mary Poppins (1964).

"Don't Come Back Alive" is available on DVD here or may be viewed for free online here.

Thanks to Amber Paranick at the Library of Congress for providing a copy of "Don't Come Back Alive!"

Sources:

Brooks, Tim, and Earle Marsh. The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows: 1946-present. New York, NY: Ballantine, 2003. Print.
Dennis, Robert C. "Don't Come Back Alive!" Detective Tales November 1945: 35-39.
"Don't Come Back Alive." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 23 Oct. 1955. Television.
"The FictionMags Index." The FictionMags Index. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 July 2015.
"Galactic Central." Galactic Central. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 July 2015. <http://philsp.com/>.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 12 July 2015. <http://www.imdb.com/>.
"Robert C. Dennis." Contemporary Authors Online. Thomson Gale, 2007. Web. 12 July 2015.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 12 July 2015. <https://www.wikipedia.org/>.

In two weeks: "Our Cook's A Treasure," with Everett Sloane and  Beulah Bondi!


2 comments:

RJR said...

I met Bob Dennis in the 70's. Very nice man, soft-spoken and modest.

RJR

Jack Seabrook said...

RJR, I would like to hear more about your meeting with Mr. Dennis.