In the days before television and the internet, the popularity of newspapers and magazines was such that advertisements reached millions of readers every week. One man who had great success advertising in periodicals was Frank Robinson (1886-1948) who, in the late 1920s, founded Psychiana, a religious movement. He advertised heavily in print in the 1930s and 1940s and sold his lessons and books by mail. He was so successful that he became known as the "mail-order prophet."
Was Robinson the inspiration for the title of "Mail Order Prophet," an Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode adapted by Robert C.Dennis from a story by Antony Ferry (1930-1970)? According to Hans van Maanen, Ferry emigrated "from London to Canada in World War II, and in the fifties he made a living as a journalist for the Quebec Chronicle-Telegraph . . . he [also] wrote a few stories for Canada's largest magazine, Maclean's." Ferry's widow, Joan, wrote here about their years together working in experimental theater in Canada prior to her husband's untimely death.
|The story was first|
In the story, Ronald Gubbins, a financial advisor, waits anxiously to find out if J. Cristiani's prophecy will come true. Gubbins has embezzled $15,000 from his employer and plans to kill himself if he is disappointed. He considers explaining his predicament to George Benedict, his co-worker, but decides to keep quiet.
Gubbins recalls having received the first letter from Cristiani four weeks before. Cristiani promised to make him rich if Gubbins believed in him and Cristiani made a prediction about an upcoming election. Gubbins thought about the offer but tore up the letter. A second letter followed a few days later, predicting the outcome of a boxing match. Gubbins thought the letters were a scam until he overheard someone talking about the unexpected outcome of the election. Cristiani's prediction of an upset came true! When the prediction of an upset in the boxing match also came true, Gubbins was hooked. He started placing bets based on predictions he received in the mail and won three in a row.
The sixth letter came and this time Cristiani wanted money before he would divulge a stock market tip that would make Gubbins rich. Gubbins spent three days thinking it over before deciding to steal money from his employer, sure that he could return it after he won the bet and before anyone noticed that it was gone. He sent Cristiani $200 and the stock tip arrived in the mail.
|Cogs in the machine|
The next day, Gubbins visits the post office to try to locate Cristiani. He discovers that the man has been jailed for fraud! He would send letters to a large number of people, with half of the letters predicting one outcome and half the other. Subsequent letters would be sent to the winners, the number of people being halved each time. After the list was winnowed down to a manageable amount he would ask for money. Many people have been duped and Gubbins, embarrassed, does not disclose his personal windfall.
Joan Ferry commented that her husband's story was a success and that he did well with royalties, though I have been unable to find anywhere that it has ever been reprinted. It was purchased by the producer of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and assigned to Robert C. Dennis to adapt for television. A copy of the script is in the Writer's Guild Foundation Archives and bears a draft date of April 2, 1957. It was filmed and aired as the second episode of the series's third season on CBS on Sunday, October 13, 1957; the onscreen title card shortens the title to "Mail Order Prophet."
|Jack Klugman as George|
There are nine scenes in this episode, which alternates among five locations. It begins at the office, where Ronald sits at a desk in front of George's desk. They complain about beings cogs in a machine and George receives the letter from Cristiani; both men share a laugh about it and Ronald tears it up. The second scene takes place in a restaurant, as Ronald meets George for a meal. The second letter has come and Ronald comments that Cristiani's first prediction had come true. They discuss the second prediction.
|Linda Watkins at the bar|
Grimes and Benedict are back in the restaurant again in scene five, as Ronald asks George for advice about the latest letter he has received. This time, Cristiani wants a donation and promises a stock market tip in return. Ronald wants to retire but George warns him against taking company funds and says he'll end up in jail. At the office again in scene six, Ronald steals bonds as George watches; he calls a stockbroker and places a large order. In scene seven, we see Ronald at home over the weekend; he is unshaven and distraught and reads aloud a suicide note that he has written.
In the final scene, George visits the Postal Inspector to find out about Cristiani and learns about the fraud scheme. George says that Ronald will never be convinced that Cristiani was anything but a prophet and, in the final shot, we see Ronald sitting happily in a ship's deck chair, superimposed over a shot of the ocean. Presumably, Ronald has made good on his promise to retire and head south.
In adapting Ferry's story for the small screen, Dennis chose to make the character of George Benedict both a foil for that of Ronald Grimes and also a stand in for the viewer. George is skeptical about Ronald's likelihood of success, tries to talk him out of embezzling money and, in the end, realizes too late that he, too, should try his luck with Cristiani's predictions.
|Ken Christy as the office manager|
In addition to the solid teleplay by Robert C. Dennis, "Mail Order Prophet" features strong acting from its two stars, E.G. Marshall and Jack Klugman, who play Ronald and George. They had appeared together as jurors #4 and #5 in the film version of 12 Angry Men that was released on April 13, 1957, though they had not been in the original TV version, broadcast on Studio One on September 20, 1954. "Mail Order Prophet" likely was filmed in summer 1957.
E.G. Marshall (1914-1998) was born Everett Grunz and had a long and distinguished career on stage, screen and television; he started in movies in 1945 and moved into TV in 1949. He starred in the TV series The Defenders from 1961 to 1965, hosted the CBS Radio Mystery Theater from 1974 to 1982, and made a memorable appearance in Creepshow (1982). This was his only appearance on the Hitchcock show.
|Judson Pratt as the Postal Inspector|
Marshall and Klugman carry the show, but among the character actors playing small, supporting roles are Ken Christy (1894-1962) as the office manager; among his other two appearances on Alfred Hitchcock Presents was his role as the boss in "Momentum" who is killed when his employee robs his house.
|Happy at last!|
Linda Watkins (1908-1976) makes the most of her brief role as the woman at the bar watching the boxing match next to Grimes. Her film career began way back in 1931 and, after a 17-year break from appearing on screen, she started working on TV in 1950. She also appeared in Henry Slesar's "On the Nose" as Lila, another instance of her doing a lot with a little time on screen.
This episode was directed by James Neilson (1909-1979), who directed twelve episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents; the last one reviewed here was "Crack of Doom."
"Mail Order Prophet" is available on DVD here or may be viewed for free online here.
Ferry, Antony. "The Strange Case of the Mail-Order Prophet." Maclean's Magazine. 15 Apr. 1954. 24-25, 90-94.
"Frank B. Robinson (1886-1948) The 'Mail Order Prophet.'" frankrobinson.wwwhubs.com. 5 Feb. 2016.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001.
"Mail Order Prophet." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 13 Oct. 1957.
von Maanen, Hans. "Letters from a clearvoyant." skepsis.nl/letters-from-a-clearvoyant. 5 Feb. 2016.
Writers Guild Foundation. http://librarycatalog.wgfoundation.org/writer/view.ashx?id=5236. 5 Feb. 2016.
In two weeks: "Silent Witness," starring Don Taylor and Dolores Hart!