Thursday, November 23, 2017

The Hitchcock Project-Francis and Marian Cockrell Part Seven: There Was an Old Woman [1.25]

by Jack Seabrook

The sadness and loneliness of old age are played for laughs in "There Was an Old Woman," where a solitary septuagenarian comes face to face with a violent and desperate man and his ravenous wife. Monica Laughton lives alone in her big, old house, her only visitor the milkman. A black wreath hangs on her front door, but who has died?

When the milkman stops by a lunch counter and chats with the proprietor, he happens to mention that he thinks that it is dangerous for Miss Laughton to live alone with all that money in the house--he once heard that her fiancee left her "near about a million dollars." This remark attracts the attention of Frank Bramwell, who sits at the lunch counter having coffee. He and his wife are broke and decide to pay a visit to the Laughton house to steal the old woman's money. When they arrive, she welcomes them in and seems to think that they are distant cousins who have come for the funeral of Oscar, who was to be the best man at her wedding.

Yet all is not as it seems at the Laughton house, as the Bramwells quickly discover. Monica introduces them to her guests who have assembled for the wake, yet the guests are all present only in her imagination. In the coffin, where Oscar is supposed to lie, they see a pince nez, bow tie, carnation, and gloves, but no body. Monica has created an entire extended family in her mind and speaks to them as if they were present. The only other inhabitant of the house is her cat, Tippy, and the Bramwells realize that the old woman has lost her grip on reality.

Charles Bronson as Frank Bramwell
A tragedy long in the past seems to have stopped time for Monica Laughton, who tells her new guests that her fiancee, Richard, was "killed in a carriage accident on the way to the church" and all the members of the wedding party have been dying off, one by one. Oscar is now gone and his fiance, Cecily, is the last survivor. Like Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, a wedding-day disaster has arrested time for Monica Laughton, who allows herself a moment of sadness as she holds the bride and groom wedding cake topper before snapping back to her dotty, cheerful self.

Monica leaves the Bramwells in her bedroom and they begin to search for her hidden fortune. Finding nothing, Frank demands that Monica tell him the location of the money but she responds that Oscar left them nothing in her will. Not only broke but also hungry, the Bramwells seek food in the kitchen but find nothing edible; Monica promises a sumptuous dinner and, after she leaves the room, Frank tells his wife that they will have to kill the old woman to conceal their theft, arguing that "that old dame, she's lived long enough."

A long table is beautifully set for dinner, but the Bramwells discover that there is no food on the table and that the only living creatures present are themselves, the old woman, and her cat, who lounges where a platter of meat should be. After greedily spooning soup from a saucepan on the kitchen stove, Frank menaces Monica with his pocket-knife, forcing her to open a wall safe that had been hidden behind a portrait. No money is found, but the safe contains treasures of Monica's youth: "fans, dance programs, and valentines." Frank threatens to kill Monica's imaginary guests if she does not tell him where the money is, but his wife convinces him to wait till morning.

Estelle Winwood as Monica Laughton
Unbeknownst to the Bramwells, Monica is up early and in the kitchen, baking cupcakes for the mice and sprinkling a healthy dose of rat poison in the batter. The larcenous couple awake to the smell of freshly baked goods and race downstairs to confront Monica, who tells Frank that she sent all of her guests away because they are not safe with "a lunatic like you in the house." She slaps at Mrs. Bramwell's hand when she reaches for a cupcake, warning her that they are for the mice, then goes into the parlor to talk with Richard, her dead fiancee, saying "maybe he'd like me to join him." The Bramwells are overcome by their hunger and their greed and pay no attention to Monica's warning, ravenously eating the poisonous cupcakes as soon as she leaves the kitchen.

The final scene parallels the first, as the milkman arrives at Monica's front door and sees that now two black wreaths hang in mourning. Monica asks him to order a second coffin, remarking that two distant cousins have died. She insists on paying his bill and reaches into the large bag that she has carried with her throughout the episode; we see that it is full of money, and she gives the milkman a $1000 bill because she has nothing smaller, remarking that her purse is "the safest place in the world."

Norma Crane as Mrs. Bramwell
In "There Was an Old Woman," Marian Cockrell creates a world where the folks who think they are clever are fatally fooled and the woman who seems harmlessly insane turns out to be wiser than her guests. Monica Laughton manages to outwit Frank Bramwell at every turn by staying true to her personal narrative. Unable to face the tragedy that befell her as a young bride to be, she has withdrawn into a world of her own creation inside the safe walls of her home. She marks the passage of time by staging funerals for people who are not there, though there is a sense that she understands that the charade is nearing its end.

Does Monica intend to poison the Bramwells? I do not think so. Cockrell's script sets up the ending carefully, as two facts are brought up repeatedly throughout the story: Monica has a mouse problem and the Bramwells are very hungry. True, it is bizarre that she makes poisonous cupcakes for mice, but she does tell Mrs. Bramwell that the baked goods are for the rodents, not for her. The fact that the Bramwells eat them and die horrible deaths off screen hardly seems to be the fault of the old woman.

And what exactly does happen to the Bramwells? Presumably, they die from eating rat poison and Monica chooses to proceed with a wake for them, even though it means dealing with real corpses rather than imaginary ones. Monica must be a woman of great resources to be able to deal with their dead bodies, though one wonders what she will do with them after she holds a wake that will surely be attended by more imaginary friends.

Dabbs Greer as Theodore
"There Was an Old Woman" is directed by Robert Stevenson (1905-1986), an English director whose career in film and TV stretched from 1932 to 1982. He directed many films for Disney, including Mary Poppins (1964), as well as seven episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "And So Died Riabouchinska." In translating the story of Monica Laughton from the page to the small screen, Stevenson has trouble striking a balance between tragedy and comedy and seems to have chosen to emphasize the comic elements of the story, which results in the show having an uneven tone.

Marion Cockrell's teleplay was based on an unpublished story by Jerry Hackady (1924-2005) and Harold Hackady (1922-2015). Jerry was born in Connecticut and died in Florida. I have been unable to find any published writing credited to him. IMDb shows that he had a brief career in television as an actor in a few shows in 1952 and 1953 and as a writer of this Hitchcock episode and of an episode of Lights Out in 1951.

Both of Jerry's TV writing credits list Harold as co-writer. Harold had a longer career in show business than did Jerry, writing for TV and film from 1950 to 1971 and finding success as a lyricist for Broadway shows, where he was better known as Hal Hackady. Neither Jerry nor Hal have any other credits on the Hitchcock TV show.

Emerson Treacy
The star of "There Was an Old Woman" is Estelle Winwood (1883-1984), who was born in England and began acting on stage as a young girl. She came to America in 1916 and continued her stage career, moving into film in 1931 and TV in 1946. She made her last TV appearance in 1980, when she was well into her 90s. In addition to roles on The Twilight Zone, Thriller, and Batman, Winwood was seen in two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Charles Bronson (1921-2003) plays Frank Bramwell. Born Charles Buchinsky in Pennsylvania, Bronson worked in the coal mines as a boy before joining the Air Force in World War Two. His acting career began in 1949 and he appeared on TV and film before becoming a popular movie star in the 1970s in films like Death Wish (1974). Bronson was in three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "And So Died Riabouchinska" and "The Woman Who Wanted to Live."

The early seasons of Alfred Hitchcock Presents do not list character names in the credits, so Mrs. Bramwell is never given a first name as far as I can tell, though Frank does introduce her and Bronson mumbles her name, which might be Annie. Online credits list the character's name as Lorna. She is played by Norma Crane (1928-1973), who was born Norma Zuckerman and whose screen career ran from 1951 to 1974. She was in three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "The Equalizer," and she played Goldie in the 1971 film version of Fiddler on the Roof.

"Oscar" in his coffin
Dabbs Greer (1917-2007) plays Theodore, the milkman. He had a long career on screen, from 1949 to 2003, and was in two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "The Belfry." He was also seen on The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits and had a recurring role on Little House on the Prairie (1974-1983).

Finally, making a brief appearance as the man at the lunch counter is Emerson Treacy (1900-1967), who was on screen from 1930 to 1962. He had a popular radio and stage act in the 1930s called Treacy and Seabrook; his partner was an actress named Gay Seabrook.

"There Was an Old Woman" aired on CBS on Sunday, March 18, 1956. It 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. 11 Nov. 2017. Web.
"There Was an Old Woman." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 18 Mar. 1956. Television.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 11 Nov. 2017. Web.

In two weeks: "The Gentleman from America," starring Biff McGuire!


Grant said...

I definitely agree about the poisoning being accidental, because anything else would just be out of character for Monica. Not that I know the episode extremely well, but it always stays with me. That line about sending the imaginary friends away because of a lunatic like him might be the best comedy line of any Hitchcock episode. At any rate, I think it's very close.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Grant. That is a great line and she delivers it perfectly. It's interesting to review these stories as grouped by writer. Marian Cockrell's episodes seem to have some gentle, eccentric female characters.

Unknown said...

"gone to Glory all of them" is the line that always brings a tear to my eye.

Jack Seabrook said...

She gives a memorable performance, doesn't she?