Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Hitchcock Project-James Bridges Part Twelve: Where the Woodbine Twineth [10.13]

by Jack Seabrook

He is gone where the woodbine twineth,
With the vine on the ivied wall,
'Neath the shade of the weeping willow,
Where its long drooping branches fall
Remember then the soldier,
Ones noble and so brave,
And cast thy little token
A flowret on his grave

(from "Gone Where the Woodbine Twineth" by Septimus Winner, 1870)

"they don’t have harvesters any more; they’ve gone where the woodbine twineth"

(from Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain, 1883)

The phrase "where the woodbine twineth" seems to have been in use in the latter part of the nineteenth century. In Winner's poem, it suggests death, while in Twain's narrative it suggests obsolescence. Davis Grubb used the phrase in his short story, "You Never Believe Me," which was first published in the February 1964 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and then reprinted as "Where the Woodbine Twineth" in Grubb's collection, Twelve Tales of Suspense and the Supernatural, also published in 1964. It is probable that this book is where the producers of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour found the story, since the collection also included "Return of Verge Likens," Grubb's other contribution to the TV series.

"You Never Believe Me"
was first published here
The story concerns a woman named Nell and her five-year-old niece, Eva, whose parents are dead. Nell worries about Eva, who likes to play with her imaginary friends, such as Mr. Peppercorn; Nell reads to her from sober volumes like The Pilgrim's Progress and tries to instill the need to make herself useful in life. One day, Nell's father comes home from a steamboat trip to New Orleans, bringing a black doll as a gift for Eva. The child says the doll is named Numa, and that her arrival had been foretold by Mr. Peppercorn. Numa becomes Eva's playmate and Nell thinks she hears two voices when Eva plays with her doll. Eva tells Suse, "the old Negro woman," that if "Aunt Nell ever makes her go away she'll take me with her . . . where the woodbine twineth." Eva tells Suse that sometimes she and Numa change places.

One evening, Nell is certain that she sees another child playing outside with Eva, but the child just tells her that "You never believe me---." Nell takes the doll away as punishment, ignoring Eva's cries reminding her of Numa's threat. A week later, Nell finds the doll gone and goes outside to whip Eva. Under a tree, she finds a black child with Numa's doll box in her lap. Nell chases the girl away and picks up the box, but when she looks inside she sees not the black doll, Numa, but rather a white doll that resembles Eva.

When and where does this story take place? The time is never specified, but context clues strongly suggest the later years of the 19th century. The names Nell and Eva are old-fashioned and the black servants, Suse and Jessie, talk of "old times before the war." Eva's grandfather comes from New Orleans by steamboat and the parlor is lit by gaslight. Nell has a pianola (player piano) and these were popular from the 1880s through the first world war. At one point, the characters watch the evening packet pass on the river; a packet was a boat that traveled at regular intervals to deliver mail. In the story, Eva sits on the steps of the ice house and there is also mention of a meat house. I think that an argument could be made for just about any date from the 1880s until about 1910; the story seems to occur before the first world war.

First edition
As for place, the family is said to live near the river and Captain King comes from New Orleans by steamboat and docks at Cresap's Landing. This was also the location of Davis Grubb's novel, Night of the Hunter; it is situated on the Ohio River on the West Virginia side, in that little strip of land where West Virginia sticks up between Pennsylvania and Ohio. This is Marshall County, whose county seat is Moundsville, where Davis Grubb was born. Like "Revenge of Verge Likens," "Where the Woodbine Twineth" is set in the country, although the family has more in common economically with Riley McGrath of that story than with the Likens clan.

Like that earlier adaptation of a Davis Grubb short story, this one was adapted for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour by James Bridges, who was fast becoming a poet of country folk. The TV show first aired on NBC on Monday, January 11, 1965, halfway through the final season. Once again, Bridges starts the teleplay by depicting events that occur before the start of the story on which it is based. In the first scene, the funeral of Eva's father is shown and the focus is on the fidgety child, dressed in black. There is a dissolve to a scene of the funeral party arriving home in a contemporary automobile, which shows right away that the story has been updated to 1965 from the turn of the century setting of Grubb's tale. Eva is being brought to her new home and Nell shows her the bedroom where she will sleep, commenting that it had been her father's room. The child asks her aunt about her dead father and has questions about death; this is her first reference to her imaginary friend Mingo, and Nell's face shows concern for the child.

A domestic scene follows in the parlor, with Captain King reading while Nell pays bills. Though he suggests taking Eva to live with her mother's relatives, Nell claims to welcome the chance to care for the child: she is an old maid who stayed home to care for her mother until she died, then deferred her own dreams as she watched her brother make a life for himself. Bridges fleshes out the character of Nell in the teleplay and turns her into a sympathetic figure.

Margaret Leighton as Nell
Afraid of the dark, Eva asks Nell to stay with her and the two share a bed. Eva tells Nell that she must meet Mingo, a female creature who can live in a bird cage and has a fox for a horse. Nell admits that she thinks Mingo is a figment of the child's imagination and Eva realizes that, like her own father before his death, Nell does not believe Eva is being truthful. Nell wakes up in the middle of the night and finds Eva in the closet, playing hide and seek with Mingo. Nell orders the little girl back to bed and criticizes her for talking back. Eva says that Mingo told her she saw Eva's parents dancing together down in the ground--by all indications, she is a child attempting to process the death of her parents by means of an imaginary friend.

The next day, Eva helps Suse clean house and again discusses her imaginary friends. Unlike Nell, Suse is tolerant and accepts the child's stories without question. Nell overhears Eva asking Suse if Nell is an old maid and we can sense the first twinges of Nell's jealousy of the relationship between the child and the black servant. Later, Nell hears Eva playing and investigates, and this is where the TV show picks up with the beginning of the short story. An argument ensues between aunt and niece and Nell pushes an umbrella under the Davenport to show Eva that her tiny friends are not really there. The child angrily accuses her aunt of making her friends go away.

Eileen Baral as Eva
In a later scene, Eva hides in the loft of an out-building; Suse speaks to her and Eva responds in a ghostly voice. Once again, Suse does not dispute Eva's stories of her friends, instead indulging her with a smile. When Eva's grandfather returns, Nell is visibly sad to see Eva's happiness at the man's arrival; Nell is jealous but does not have any experience raising a daughter, much less one who has been traumatized by the death of her parents. Nell compares her own childhood to that of Eva and believes that she was disciplined harshly; this is the only model she has to guide her in how to deal with the little girl. By failing to express support for a belief in Eva's world, Nell loses connection with the child. The spinster aunt is unable to accept that Eva is a child with her own perspective and tries to pull her toward her adult world.

The first real sign of a supernatural event comes in a creepy, effective scene where Eva takes Numa under her bed covers to play and we suddenly see the outline of two figures bouncing happily under the blanket. For a moment, it sounds like the voices of two separate little girls. Later, Nell comes home and also hears two voices as Eva plays with Numa outside. Nell takes the doll as punishment and Eva says "I hate you" and tells Nell to "shut up," trying to bite the woman's shoulder. Nell grabs Eva, who screams and runs to Suse for comfort. Suddenly, the pianola starts to play, Numa in a box perched atop it. Nell is frightened and calls to Jessie for help; he comes and repairs the machine. Eva is sent to her room without supper. Again, by taking away the doll and banishing the child, Nell uses the sort of old-fashioned disciplinary techniques that she remembers from her own childhood, yet they will backfire horribly in this world of trauma and the supernatural.

Carl Benton Reid as Capt. King
Nell goes out for the evening after asking Suse if she is being too strict on the child and then answering her own question to her own satisfaction. Nell takes dinner up to Eva's room and, after she has gone, the child sneaks out and gains entrance to the locked parlor. Suse hears the pianola suddenly erupt into song again. The earlier shot of the two figures under the blanket, the sense that we hear two childish voices at play, and the eruption of the musical instrument into song add mystery and fright to the story, as if Numa has the ability to come to life and even to control inanimate objects. Nell comes home and sees Numa gone from her spot atop the pianola. Outside, in the dark, Nell seeks out Eva and again hears two girls playing together. She approaches a clearing under a large tree and, for the first time, she (and we) clearly see Eva and Nell as two live girls playing together, but the shot of them is so brief that we could easily doubt what we saw. Nell approaches and finds Numa, alone and leaning over the doll box. She chases Numa off and the girl seems to be trying to say something but unable to, as if she lives in a world of childhood and cannot speak to an adult. In Grubb's story, this is expressed as Numa having "a grief for which it had no tongue," the grief being at the removal of Eva from the world of the living by Nell's actions.

Nell has expressed her thought that the child is one who lives by the river and that she is someone with whom Eva should not play. Numa gives a look back before running off. Nell finds the doll that resembles Eva and screams; she runs off with the box to look for Numa and beg her to come back, dropping the box as she runs. The camera lingers on the face of the doll before Nell returns and cradles the doll in her arms, calling her Eva and crying for her lost daughter. The show ends on a haunting shot of the doll's face.

Juanita Moore as Suse
Is this really a supernatural tale, or is it symbolic of something else, perhaps the death of the unloved child and the attempt by the aunt to place the blame anywhere but on herself? It is a tragic tale as written by James Bridges and, once again, he has taken a good short story and transformed it into something more, a meditation on childhood trauma and misunderstanding between an adult and a child. In the initial scene, at the funeral, Eva appears to be in shock. Nell seems to take her in out of a sense of duty but appears wholly unable to understand and accept the child's need to make sense of her parents' deaths and her new living situation, instead falling back on patterns of behavior and discipline that seem to be misplaced. In the end, Nell's worst fears are realized, as the child she wanted to love disappears from her life forever and she is left with the knowledge that she drove the little girl away.

One of the many strengths of "Where the Woodbine Twineth" is its musical score by Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975). The music sets the scene as it plays under the opening credits, a haunting theme in waltz time played by woodwinds. The score continues on and off throughout the episode and contributes greatly to the mood. This was one of seventeen episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour to be scored by Herrmann; others included "Behind the Locked Door" and "The Jar."

Joel Fluellen as Jessie
The show is well directed by Alf Kjellin (1920-1988), who does especially good work with the child actress. He directed twelve episodes of the Hitchcock series; the last examined here was "A Tangled Web," the first with a script by James Bridges.

Davis Grubb (1919-1980), who wrote the short story, also wrote the story that was adapted for "Return of Verge Likens." These were the only two episodes of the Hitchcock show to feature his work.

Margaret Leighton (1922-1976) plays Nell, the spinster aunt. Her career on stage and on film began in 1938, and she won two Tony Awards for Best Actress in her career. She began appearing in TV shows in 1951 and worked up to her untimely death. She had a role in Hitchcock's Under Capricorn (1949) and was in one other episode of the half-hour series.

Lila Perry as Numa
Eva, the little girl, is played by Eileen Baral (1955- ). The child in the story is five years old. In the TV show, she is six years old. Baral was nine years old when the episode was filmed, but she convincingly plays a girl three years younger than herself. She had a brief career, spanning the years from 1964 to 1972, and all but one of her credits are for TV shows.

Captain King, Nell's father and Eva's grandfather, is played by Carl Benton Reid (1893-1973), who started out on Broadway in 1929 before moving into films in 1941 and TV in 1949. He retired from the screen in 1966 after appearing in three episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour; the other two were "The Jar" and "Run for Doom." He was also seen on Thriller.

Juanita Moore (1914-2014) plays Suse, the black servant who is Eva's closest adult friend. Moore's long career on screen stretched from 1939 to 2001 and her most notable role was in Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life (1959). She was in four episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "The Gentleman Caller."

Numa as a doll
Also in Imitation of Life was Joel Fluellen (1907-1990), who plays Jessie, Suse's husband. Though his career on screen lasted from 1937 to 1986, this was his only appearance on the Hitchcock show.

Finally, Lila Perry plays Numa as a human; she does not speak in her brief scene and this was the first of four TV credits listed in IMDb from 1965 to 1976.

"Where the Woodbine Twineth" is not available on DVD or online, but you can watch a scene from it here. MeTV has switched back to airing two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents every weeknight and one episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour every Sunday night, so it will be a while before this episode airs. You can read Grubb's story online here.

Sources:
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
Grubb, Davis. "You Never Believe Me." Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine February 1964. Where the Woodbine Twineth by Davis Grubb. Web. 13 May 2017.
IMDb. IMDb.com. Web. 29 May 2017.
"Where the Woodbine Twineth." The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. NBC. 11 Jan. 1965. Television.

Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 29 May 2017.

In two weeks: "An Unlocked Window" with Dana Wynter!

6 comments:

Grant said...

Even though it isn't necessary when it comes to liking the story, I always wonder how much it was trying to "say something" about race relations, mainly using Numa.
Since no one in the story is pictured as even partly a bigot (including Nell, who's misguided in other ways), I always wonder about that.

Jack Seabrook said...

I struggled with that when I was working on this post. I concluded that it wasn't trying to say anything about race relations. It's just a picture of the way things were in 1965.

Peter Enfantino said...

The first time I saw Woodbine was in the early 1980s, when I videotaped it off the USA Channel. On Sunday afternoons, they’d run one, sometimes two, of the old Hitch Hours. I’ve seen it probably half a dozen times since and it still retains its power though I must admit I think it might have been even creepier had it been a half-hour show. But it’s still one of my Top Ten TV horror episodes of all time (and depending on the day, my all-time favorite Hitch). Did anyone else think, “Hmmmm,” when Eva said “Daddy didn’t believe in Mingo either. Now daddy’s dead!”? That last glance back at Nell by Numa still raises the hair on the back of my neck. As usual, a great job, Jack!

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Peter! Lorraine and I watched every episode of the Hour show on USA in 1988 after we got married. It was a nightly appointment at 10 PM. She is a very tolerant woman, as you know.

john kenrick said...

The appeal of this one eludes me. Great title, excellent cast, but somehow is failed to deliver. Maybe because it seems to be about race relations without getting into the issue formally was an oblique effort,--but not really-- to address the at the time very timely topic, and this made it feel just plain wrong. I saw the ending coming by the mid-way point. Okay, not exactly but close enough. Once the symbolism became apparent it lost its footing in reality. It had at times a To Kill A Mockingbird vibe. Too much so for my tastes. Also, the direction was leaden and unimaginative. Maybe a Robert Florey or a Jacques Tourneur could make made something of it. I should add that I love the Hitchcock hour series, but when it was bad it was bad.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, John. I liked it but not as much as some other hours.