Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Hitchcock Project-Francis and Marian Cockrell Part Two: Into Thin Air [1.5]

by Jack Seabrook

The "Shouts and Murmurs" column still runs in The New Yorker. From 1929 to 1934, it was the personal, weekly column of Alexander Woollcott (1887-1943), a writer who was famous at the time for his humorous insights and curmudgeonly personality. Born in New Jersey, Woollcott helped create the Stars and Stripes newspaper while serving in WWI and became a prominent drama critic in New York City, writing for The New York Times and other newspapers. He was a member of the legendary Algonquin Roundtable, he had a radio show, and he was the inspiration for the character of Sheridan Whiteside in the play, The Man Who Came to Dinner (1939). Some of his writings were collected in a 1934 book called While Rome Burns, and it is one of those pieces, "The Vanishing Lady," that led to "Into Thin Air," the first episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents to be filmed and the fifth to be broadcast.

Published as two sequential "Shouts and Murmurs" columns in The New Yorker (July 6 and 13, 1929), "The Vanishing Lady" tells the story of an English widow who is returning home from India with her 17-year-old daughter. They arrive in Paris at the time of the 1889 Exposition Universelle, or World's Fair, and check in at the Crillon Hotel. The mother suffers from exhaustion and is seen by the house doctor, who examines her and sends her daughter by coach to his home to procure medicine prepared by his wife.

The trip to the doctor's house takes a long time and the young woman is forced to wait even longer for the medicine before making another extended trip back to the hotel. On arrival, she is told that she is in the wrong place. No one knows her and there is no sign of her mother. Everyone denies having seen either one of them before.

She is aided by a young Englishman to whom she appeals for help. Though people at the hotel, the embassy, and the police disbelieve her story, he has faith in her. Finally, a paper hanger confesses to having worked all night to re-paper her mother's room, and the mystery begins to unravel.

It turns out that the doctor had recognized that what appeared to be her mother's exhaustion was really a sign of the black plague brought from India, and the Parisians had worked together to cover up her illness and death to avoid a general panic in the crowded city.

Woollcott writes that he was told the story years ago as if it were true, but he recently found a 1913 novel by Marie Belloc-Lowndes called The End of Her Honeymoon that featured a similar event. This discovery led him to question whether the story was what we call today an urban legend.

Geoffrey Toone as
Basil Farnham
There was a World's Fair in Paris in 1899 and the Hotel de Crillon is a real place, located by the Place de la Concorde, though it was a private home in 1889 and it did not open as a hotel until 1909. The plague was spreading throughout the world at that time, though it did not reach India until 1896 and thus the English widow could not have contracted it there seven years before. It is a husband who disappears in The End of Her Honeymoon, not a mother; the novel's author, Marie Belloc-Lowndes (1868-1947), also wrote The Lodger (1913), which was the basis for the Hitchcock film of the same name that was released in 1927, and What Really Happened (1926), which was adapted in 1963 for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

The basic story recounted in "The Vanishing Lady" was used on various occasions and was adapted for radio on Escape (February 1, 1948), for TV on a series called Sure as Fate (October 17, 1950), and on film as So Long at the Fair (1950). When it was chosen for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, it appears that Marian Cockrell, who wrote the teleplay, was looking at Woollcott's story when she sat down to write. In his introduction to the episode, Hitchcock remarks that "many people have borrowed this legend" and mentions two novels and his own film, The Lady Vanishes (1938). However, that film was adapted from The Wheel Spins, a 1936 novel by Ethel Lina White. In that story, a woman does disappear and people do deny having seen her before, but the plot otherwise is much different than that of "The Vanishing Lady."

Alan Napier as Sir Everett
Hitchcock also notes that the story was "also related by Alexander Woollcott in his book, While Rome Burns," and that he will now present "our version of that famous old tale." The show that follows adheres closely to what Woollcott wrote. The characters are not given names in the original story, but for TV they have been christened Mrs. Winthrop and her daughter, Diana. Marian Cockrell's main job in adapting the story was to take a tale that is almost completely free of dialogue and turn it into a teleplay that is driven by dialogue. As in the story, they check in to room 342 of the hotel and the furnishings include an ormolu (gilt bronze) clock and old rose wallpaper. Occasional dramatic highlights are added, such as the doctor's reaction to taking Mrs. Winthrop's temperature and his wife's sudden appearance from behind curtains with the medicine. The TV show follows the print story almost exactly for the first half or so, even borrowing a line of dialogue, and only begins to diverge from its source slightly after Diana returns to the hotel and is treated like a stranger.

Mary Forbes
In the TV version, she is given another room in the hotel in which to rest. She then gets involved with Sir Everett at the British embassy and he assigns a younger man named Basil Farnham to help her. They go back to the hotel for more investigation, then have breakfast at an outdoor cafe, where she gets the idea to examine the room to see if its furnishings match what she recalls. They go back to see the room, which looks completely different. In the hotel lobby, Basil consoles her. She notices a workman painting the lobby and suddenly announces that she wants not only to stay in the hotel but in room 342, the room from which her mother disappeared. After another visit to the room, she intentionally tears a piece of the wallpaper on her way out and reveals that the room has been freshly papered over.

Diana demands to know where her mother is and, in the final scene, she is back at the embassy, where Sir Everett learns the truth and explains to her that she cannot take the body back to England because her mother died of the bubonic plague.

Maurice Marsac as the desk clerk
The main alterations made to Woollcott's story in adapting it for television involve turning narrative into dialogue, adding dramatic crescendos, and having Diana take more of an active role in uncovering the truth: in the story, a paper hanger confesses to having re-papered the room overnight; in the TV show, Diana herself suspects what occurred and rips the paper off of the wall.

"Into Thin Air" is directed by Don Medford (1917-2012), the stage name of Donald Muller, who was a busy director of episodic TV from 1951 to 1989. In addition to two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, he directed five episodes of The Twilight Zone and also the final, two-part conclusion of The Fugitive. He was a quick worker--in an interview for the Archives of American Television, Pat Hitchcock mentions that this first episode of the series was filmed in only two days. She adds that, after that, they realized that the time was too short and subsequent episodes were given three days.

John Mylong as the doctor
Pat Hitchcock (1928- ), Alfred's daughter, stars as Diana Winthrop in the first of her 10 appearances on the half-hour show. She was on screen from 1950 to 1960, appearing in three of her father's movies; after 1960, she was seen a few times on screen in the mid- to late-'70s and then not again.

Playing Basil Farnham is Geoffrey Toone (1910-2005), an Irish actor who was on screen for 60 years, from the late 1930s to the late 1990s. This was his only appearance on the Hitchcock TV show.

The great Alan Napier (1903-1988), born Alan William Napier-Clavering, plays Sir Everett; he was on screen from 1930 to 1988 and appeared six times on the Hitchcock show, including "Whodunit" and "I Killed the Count." He is best remembered as Alfred the butler on Batman (1966-1968).

In other roles:
  • Maurice Marsac (1915-2007), a French actor who made a career of playing waiters and hotel clerks, plays the latter here; he was on screen from 1943 to 1987 and also appeared on Kolchak: The Night Stalker.
  • Mary Forbes (1879-1974), a British actress, debuted on the London stage in 1908 and was on screen from 1914 to 1958. She plays Diana's mother who dies of the plague.
  • Ann Codee (1890-1961) plays the doctor's wife who prepares the medicine; a Belgian actress, she was on screen from 1928 to 1960.
  • John Mylong (1892-1975) plays the doctor; he was born Adolf Heinrich Munz in Austria and was in German films from 1921 to 1935 and then in American films from 1940 to 1962.
Ann Codee as the doctor's wife
None of these four actors ever returned to the Hitchcock TV show.

"Into Thin Air" is available on DVD here or may be viewed online here.

Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb. Web.
"Into Thin Air." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 30 Oct. 1955. Television.
Michaud, Jon. "The Original Shouts & Murmurs." The New Yorker 18 July 2012. Web.
"Pat Hitchcock." Archive of American Television. Web.
Wikipedia. Web.
Woollcott, Alexander. "The Vanishing Lady." New Yorker 13 July 1929: 36. Web.
Woollcott, Alexander. "The Vanishing Lady." New Yorker 6 July 1929: 32. Web.

In two weeks: "Breakdown" starring Joseph Cotten!


Grant said...

To me, one of the all-time great TWILIGHT ZONE episodes is "And When The Sky Was Opened," and this story is like a non-science fiction answer to that one, so that's one of the attractions of it.

Jack Seabrook said...

That's an interesting comparison, Grant. The TZ ep is sure livelier than the AHP one!