Monday, December 25, 2017

Fredric Brown on TV Part Ten-The Deep End

by Jack Seabrook

In 2011, I wrote a series called "Fredric Brown on TV" that examined TV shows written by or based upon works by the author. An index to that series may be found here. In the ensuing six years, more classic TV shows based on Brown's writing have come to light and become available online, so I decided to pick up where I left off and add occasional posts examining more of Brown's television work.

"The Deep End" has been found and is available on DVD here or may be viewed for free online here. It is based on Brown's 1952 novel of the same name; the novel, in turn, is based on a 20,000-word novelet titled "Obit for Obie" that was written in early 1945 and first published in the October 1946 issue of the digest, Mystery Book Magazine.

Obit for Obie is one of Brown's best novelets. Narrated by reporter Joe Stacy of the Herald newspaper, the story begins as he is assigned to write a human interest story about 16-year-old Henry "Obie" Westphal, a local high school sports hero who was "just killed on the roller coaster at Whitewater Beach." Joe writes the obit but has to put it in a drawer when it turns out the boy who was killed was not Obie after all but rather a boy named Jimmy Chojnacki, who had stolen Obie's wallet. Suspicious of how a boy could be on the tracks of the roller coaster and not hear it coming, Joe cancels his week's fishing vacation and stays home to investigate the death while his wife Millie is away visiting family for a week.

Joe's investigation leads him to question Pete Brenner, a friend of Jimmy Chojnacki's, and to visit former flame Nina Carberry, who tells him about a series of fatal accidents at the high school attended by the boys. Gradually, over the course of a week, Joe begins to suspect that Obie Westphal, a "bronzed young giant," is actually a serial murderer who hides his evil deeds behind the mask of an All-American teenager. As Joe closes in on the truth, he nearly becomes Obie's next victim, as the boy sets a typewriter at the top of the stairs inside Joe's house in the middle of the night and nearly causes Joe to trip and fall.

Joe observes Obie twice head out of his home after dark and walk to the railroad jungles at the edge of town. Enlisting the aid of Pete Brenner, who had followed Joe menacingly in his hot rod on a couple of occasions, Joe follows Obie to the freight yards and is nearly killed when Obie reverts to his true form and tries to push Joe off of the top of a railroad car to his death. Only timely intervention by Pete, who hits Obie over the head with a lead pipe and causes the killer's demise beneath the wheels of a railroad car, saves Joe from becoming another victim. In the end, Joe is back at work at the Herald on Monday morning, and he is able to use the "obit for Obie" that he had written the week before. All he has to do is change a few words to report the boy's death under the wheels of a railroad car instead of a roller coaster car.

"Obit for Obie" runs 40 pages in its original digest appearance and is a perfect story, fast-moving and taut, with strong plotting, suspense, and action. Fredric Brown decided to expand and revise his novelet in 1951 and the resulting novel, The Deep End, was published on December 1, 1952. It is one of his best novels of suspense. To turn a novelet into a novel, Brown made many changes, both small and large. The narrator and main character's name is changed from Joe Stacy to Sam Evans, and as the novel begins he and his wife Millie are having marital problems, something that was absent from the novelet. Millie goes away for a week to see if the marriage can be saved and, while she is away, Sam has a torrid affair with Nina Carberry, something else that does not occur in the novelet.

Evans in the newsroom
Another important change involves Obie's younger sister. In the novelet, she had been crippled when she fell from a tree as a child and Obie's father suspected that Obie may have pushed her. In the novel, she died in the fall and Brown delves deep into a psychological analysis of the reasons for Obie's becoming a serial killer; Sam is never sure if Obie's father's suspicions of the boy drove the young man to become a killer. There is quite a bit of sex between Sam and Nina in the novel and late in the story Sam betrays Nina's trust by reading her private diary and learning that she had an affair with Obie herself. At the end of the book, Sam survives the ordeal and realizes that he loves his wife.

Brown's novel was sold several years after publication to a TV series called Wire Service that ran on ABC during the 1956-57 TV season and featured three stars, each appearing in about one-third of the 37 episodes produced, playing reporters for the Trans-Globe Wire Service of the title. One of the three lead characters was named Dean Evans, and it may have been a coincidence that he took the role of the character who had been known as Sam Evans in Brown's novel. In any case, The Deep End was tailor-made for a TV series that revolved around reporters; it is too bad that none of Brown's other great novels about journalists, such as The Screaming Mimi or Night of the Jabberwock, were similarly adapted.

Margaret Hayes as Mary Carberry
"The Deep End" aired on December 13, 1956, and a comparison of the TV show to the novelet and the novel shows that it was adapted from the book version of the story. Like the book, the TV show is narrated by Evans, who drives into the town of Riverdale as the show opens. He has been assigned to write the story of Johnny Westrup, as Obie Westphal has been renamed, a young man who "fell out of the press box at the Riverdale Junior College Stadium." Already we see that Obie has been made a few years older and is in junior college rather than high school, and the accident site has been changed from an amusement park to a football stadium. Of course, a novel does not have the same requirement as a TV show to have a surprise occur right before each commercial break, but in "The Deep End" that is exactly what happens: Evans is working on Johnny's obituary when Johnny walks through the door of the newspaper office and identifies himself.

As the show progresses, the writer of the teleplay finds a way to work in the character of Nina Carberry, renamed Mary, who is so important in the novel. This is accomplished by Evans remarking that he had been in Riverdale a few years before to cover an earthquake and that he had met Mary at that time. Now that he is back in town to write the story of the supposedly dead football star, he wants to look up Mary once again. In the book, high schooler Pete Brenner drives a jalopy and follows Evans a couple of times when the reporter does not know who he is. For the TV show, the detail of the car driven by the young man is retained, but here is is Johnny Westrup who drives it, and it is a souped-up hot rod with a large wolf's head mounted on the engine.

Larry Pennell as Johnny Westrup
Johnny identifies the body at the morgue as that of Steve Vittori (Jimmy Chojnacki in the book) and Mr. Westrup behaves strangely when he arrives and sees that his son is not dead. Evans gets a feeling that Johnny is too good to be true, but this seems like a mental leap without a strong foundation. Evans leaves his car to be serviced at a gas station in town and the attendant is a stand in for the Pete Brenner character of the book, though he does not have as big a role and simply answers some of the reporter's questions about Johnny. From the gas station, Evans walks to Mary Carberry's house and knocks on the door. They are flirtatious right away but, of course, there is no sex and they just seem like two old friends who are reconnecting. Mary fills Evans in on the fatal accidents at the junior college and tells him that one of the victims had been her roommate and that someone had paid for her funeral anonymously. A brown envelope with a typed note and $1000 was left leaning against her door; in another suspenseful "sting" leading into a commercial break, Evans and Mary see another brown envelope leaning against a door, clearly meant as another anonymous payment for the funeral of a victim of a fatal accident.

In the next act, Evans continues his investigation with Mary's help and there is a very subtle hint of a possible sexual relationship between them when Mary invites him to dinner and he says no, telling her that "if I stayed in Riverdale I wouldn't get a wink of sleep." He explains that he would be thinking about the mysterious brown envelopes, but the inference is there that he really meant that he would be up all night with Mary. Evans does end up staying for dinner at Mary's house, after which they drive to the junior college and walk the dark, empty halls. Evans asks Mary to check the records of the fatal accidents and we see that Johnny's hot rod is parked outside the school.

George Brent as Evans
Mary looks through files in the school's office while Evans goes to see the press box that was the site of the latest fall; there is a moody, reverse tracking shot of him walking alone down the long hallway, his footsteps echoing as he narrates in voice over and comments on the "dark corners and ominous shadows." Out on the football field, Evans sees that Johnny Westrup is in his football uniform and practicing by himself; in voice over, Evans compares Johnny to a bull in Mexico. Evans climbs up the stands to inspect the press box and, when he comes back down, Johnny tackles a hanging bag so hard that he breaks the frame on which it hangs. This serves as the rise in action that leads into the next commercial break and establishes that Johnny is strong and violent.

The second half of the TV show veers farthest from Fredric Brown's novel. Dean speaks to Johnny on the football field and tricks him into admitting that his father left the brown envelopes anonymously to pay for the funerals. Dean goes back to the office and shares his suspicions about Johnny with Mary. That night, Dean remarks in voice over that "I had a date with a tiger," a line taken directly from Brown's book. He waits outside the Westrup house and speaks to Johnny's father while Johnny lurks in the shadows of the porch. Johnny gets in his hot rod and Evans follows him by car; in voice over, Evans compares Johnny to "a predatory animal on the prowl in the jungle" and there is a close up of the wolf's head on the front of Johnny's car engine. The last commercial break occurs as Dean loses track of Johnny, who has sped off in his hot rod.

Johnny's car
In the final act, the delicate plotting of Brown's novel is cast aside for TV tropes, as Johnny's car begins to chase Dean's car through the streets of Riverdale. Johnny's car drives straight at Dean's, running it off the road and forcing Evans to attempt to escape on foot, pursued by the fleet football star. They end up back at the football field and Evans thinks of himself as "a sheep led to the slaughter." Johnny tries to get Evans to turn around so that he can break his back with a tackle; Johnny admits to the string of murders but claims that his father's suspicions were what turned him into a killer. Johnny chases Dean up through the stands and into the press box, but when the young man rushes at the reporter the older man steps aside and the younger man falls to his death from the press box. The show ends as does the novel, with Evans back in the newsroom completing his obituary with minimal changes.

"The Deep End" is an interesting adaptation of a great suspense novel, but the combination of budgetary restrictions, censorship, and a limited running time make it less effective than it could have been. The locations of the amusement park and the freight yards that play key roles in the book are gone, replaced by a rather mundane junior college football stadium. The characters are all older, from Johnny, who is now in junior college and who is played by a 28-year-old actor, to Evans, who is now a globe-trotting reporter for a wire service rather than a reporter for the local town newspaper. He is played by a 54-year-old actor who looks older. Mary is played by a 40-year-old actress who also seems older than her real age; perhaps she was made to look this way to minimize the age difference between her and the actor playing Evans. There is some of the psychological discussion found in the novel, but the fact that Evans comes from out of town to write this story and then suspects that something is wrong and stays on to investigate it does not seem credible.

The final chase at night
Most problematic is the final chase scene and the slightly ridiculous way in which Johnny attempts to kill Evans, first on the football field and then in the press box above it; the final rush and fall to his death seem uncharacteristic for a young sports hero. The direction of the show is pedestrian, save the tracking shot in the school hallway and some effective shots of the wolf's head on Johnny's car. In all, "The Deep End" is a disappointing adaptation of a strong book, more a curiosity than an example of classic TV from the mid-fifties.

The teleplay is by James Edmiston (1912-1959), who had a brief career writing for TV and film from 1952 to 1959 before his untimely death. He wrote two episodes of Wire Service and he also wrote a book titled Home Again (1955) about a Japanese-American family's experiences during WWII.

Johnny shows his true colors
Directing "The Deep End" is Tom Gries (1922-1977), who wrote for TV and film from the 1950s to the 1970s and who also directed for the big and small screens. He directed three episodes of Wire Service as well as four episodes of Batman and the 1976 TV movie about Charles Manson, Helter Skelter. He created the TV series The Rat Patrol, which ran from 1966 to 1968.

George Brent (1904-1979) was a Hollywood star nearing the end of his career when he played the lead role of Dean Evans. Born in Ireland as George Nolan, he was a member of the IRA during the Irish War of Independence (1919-1922) and fled the country with a bounty on his head. He came to the United States, where he became an actor on stage and then on film, with many starring roles from 1930 to 1953; among his films were 42nd Street (1933), Dark Victory (1939), and The Spiral Staircase (1946). The last part of his career was on TV, where he appeared on various shows from 1953 to 1960.

Mary Carberry, Dean Evans's female friend, is played by Margaret Hayes (1916-1977), who was born Flora Regina Ottenheimer. She acted in films from 1940 to 1962, including roles in Sullivan's Travels (1941), Alfred Hitchcock's Saboteur (1942), and The Blackboard Jungle (1955); she also played parts on TV from 1946 to 1964.

Robert Carson
Following a six-year career as a minor league baseball player for an affiliate of the Boston Braves (1948-1954), Larry Pennell began acting in films in 1955 and added TV in 1956. He appeared on Thriller and The Outer Limits and starred on Ripcord (1961-1963); his last film credit was in 2011. He does an adequate job of playing Johnny Westrup, though he is too old to play a character in junior college.

Most notable among the other players are Robert Carson (1909-1979), a very familiar face who played countless policemen, judges, wardens, and military men in film and on TV during a long career that spanned the years from 1939 to 1974. He was on the Hitchcock show 11 times and he also was seen on two episodes of Thriller.

Finally, the role of Bob, the gas station attendant, is played by none other than Edward Byrnes 
Edward Byrnes
(1933- ), the only member of the show's cast who is still alive. He was born Edward Byrne Breitenberger and had a long career, mostly on TV, from 1956 to 1999--this is only his second credit listed. He played "Kookie" on the TV series 77 Sunset Strip and was a teen idol for a short time; this clip, of him lip-syncing with Connie Stevens to his hit single, "Kookie, Kookie, Lend me Your Comb," demonstrates a level of hysteria among female fans that predated Beatlemania by several years.

"The Deep End" is one of what appear to be 21 of 37 episodes of Wire Service that survived and were discovered several years ago after having been thought to have been lost.

Sources:

Brown, Fredric. The Deep End. Garland, 1983.
Brown, Fredric. “Obit for Obie.” Mystery Book Magazine, Oct. 1946, pp. 89–128.
“The Deep End.” Wire Service, season 1, episode 11, 13 Dec. 1956.
IMDb, IMDb.com, 3 Dec. 2017, www.imdb.com.
Seabrook, Jack. Martians and Misplaced Clues: the Life and Work of Fredric Brown. Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1993.
Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 3 Dec. 2017, www.wikipedia.org.

2 comments:

Mike Doran said...

In the '56-'57 season, Wire Service ran on the ABC network, first on Thursdays, moved to Mondays in midseason.

In the summer of '59, ABC showed reruns of the Dane Clark episodes on Sundays, under the title Deadline For Action.

After that, Wire Service went into syndication.

Being an hour long, and having three rotating stars made Wire Service one of the more expensive film series of its time. It narrowly missed a pickup for a second season, in which Brian Keith would have replaced Dane Clark in the rotation (Keith appeared in the final first-run episode), but the sponsor (Miller Breweries) dropped out.

All that aside, Merry Christmas.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Mike! I hope you had a good Christmas. I appreciate the correction--real time crowd editing is one of many things I love about posting these directly online.