Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Hitchcock Project-Francis and Marian Cockrell Part Thirteen: Miss Bracegirdle Does Her Duty [3.18]

by Jack Seabrook

Millicent Bracegirdle leaves the safety of home in Easingstoke, England, and travels alone to a hotel in Bordeaux, France, to meet her sister-in-law, who is arriving from South America. She arrives late in the evening and ventures down the hall for a bath but accidentally returns to the wrong room and finds herself locked in when the doorknob comes off in her hand. To make matters worse, there is a strange man asleep in the bed! She spends a terrible night in silence, afraid of waking the man and afraid of scandal, but eventually discovers that the man is dead. A bit of ingenuity allows her to escape before the maid arrives in the morning and, in the end, no one but she knows of her night of terror. When she learns that the dead man was wanted for murder, she is not afraid and is glad that she was able to kneel and pray at his bedside.

This is a tremendous short story in which the title character is at all times focused on doing her duty. Her name, Bracegirdle, fits her, suggesting that she is constrained and rigid in her outlook. She has left a very ordered life with her brother, an Anglican priest, to travel outside her own country for the first time in order to meet her relative by marriage. "It was customary . . . ," the narrator writes, "for everyone to lead simple, self-denying lives . . ." Miss Bracegirdle overcomes her "horror of travel" and journeys, a woman alone, to a foreign country.

When she finds herself trapped in the wrong room, it is duty again that guides her thoughts and actions. She fears that, if discovered, she will be suspected of "breaking every one of the ten commandments," and remains quiet for hours in the darkness, much of the time hidden in the narrow, dusty space under the bed. Her duty to say her nightly prayers leads her to ponder the importance of kneeling and to come to the realization that " 'it isn't the attitude which matters--it is that which occurs deep down in us.' "

Mildred Natwick as Millicent Bracegirdle
The story is filled with gentle humor that flows from the absurdity of the situation and, after Millicent discovers that the man is dead, she is concerned that she might be accused of murder and sent to the guillotine. "It was her duty not to have her head chopped off if it could possibly be avoided," she thinks.

Her final act of duty comes from her decision to spare her brother the knowledge of her ordeal. She writes a letter to him and mentions all of the small events that occurred on her trip to France but leaves out the most shocking one--that she spent a night alone in a hotel room with the corpse of a man wanted for murder. "It was her duty not to tell"--it is as simple as that.

A cynical reader might wonder if Miss Bracegirdle uses duty as an excuse to protect herself, but it seems clear that in her mind she is protecting everyone else and resisting the temptation to tell a story that would make her the center of attention. In the end, Millicent is a strong, thoughtful woman who rises to the occasion and handles a situation that would challenge most people.

Gavin Muir as the Dean
"Miss Bracegirdle Does Her Duty" was written by Stacy Aumonier (1877-1928), a British writer best known for his short stories. He served in World War One and died at a fairly young age of tuberculosis; he was praised by such contemporary writers as John Galsworthy, James Hilton, and Rebecca West. IMDb lists a handful of films and TV shows adapted from his stories. This particular tale was first published in September 1922 and appears to have appeared contemporaneously in The Strand Magazine in England and in Pictorial Review in the United States. A reprint in the November issue of Current Opinion may be read here; there are charming illustrations and a photograph of the author.

The story was filmed as early as 1926; IMDb lists a short film version of the story with this date and credits Aumonier with the screenplay. It was filmed again in England in 1936 and starred Elsa Lanchester as the title character; Aumonier is again credited with the screenplay. He died eight years before, so this could be an error. Even if he did write the screenplay for the 1926 film, which may or may not be true, that version was surely silent and the 1936 version almost certainly had dialogue.

Tita Purdom as Maude
Aumonier's story was filmed a third time and aired on CBS on Sunday, February 2, 1958, as part of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents series. The task of adapting the story for the small screen was assigned to Marian Cockrell, who seems to have been the producer's first choice for stories involving eccentric older women. Cockrell uses tried and true methods to bring the story alive, adding an opening scene at Miss Bracegirdle's home at the Deanery in Easingstoke. The short story begins as she arrives at her hotel room in Bordeaux, but the TV version starts earlier and dramatizes a scene that was referred to as having occurred in the past in the story's narrative. This is followed by a stock shot of the Eiffel Tower and a superimposed title that reads, "Paris 1907," putting a specific date on the events that was absent in the original. There is a dissolve to Miss Bracegirdle arriving at her hotel room and it becomes evident that Cockrell has relocated the story from Bordeaux to Paris. Miss Bracegirdle explains to the maid that the train was delayed, so her late-night arrival is in the City of Lights rather than the port city in southwestern France.

After the maid leaves the room, voice over narration begins and subsequently dominates the episode. This allows Miss Bracegirdle to express her thoughts while alone, as Cockrell takes the narrative of the story and turns it into speech delivered by the main character. The character is a bit more playful and spunky than she is in the short story; she undresses for her bath and imitates the pose of a can-can dancer that she sees in a picture on the wall. In the bathroom, we observe her bathing and a towel is carefully placed on the edge of the tub to prevent embarrassment. Back in the wrong hotel room, the man in the bed is obviously dead from the first time he is shown, though Miss Bracegirdle does not notice. She first hides in the wardrobe but quickly moves to the space under the bed.

Albert Carrier as the waiter
The biggest problem with this episode is the unrelentingly cheerful stock music, which puts a comic spin on everything that happens. Miss Bracegirdle's is an absurd and amusing situation, but better use of music would have given the show a more appropriate mood to match that of the story. In the first important change to the tale, Millicent has returned to the dead man's room to fetch her towel when a waiter enters to bring morning coffee. She dives under the bed and remains there until he leaves, after having discovered the corpse. When she returns to her room and the maid comes in to tell her what has happened in the room next door, there is no mention of the man's death being thought a possible suicide, as there is in the story, and this was surely a deletion made for the censors.

The most surprising change comes at the end of the show, where Cockrell rewrites the conclusion of the story. Miss Bracegirdle does not pen a letter to her brother, nor does she leave the hotel and decide to keep what happened to herself. Instead, the waiter enters her room with morning tea. As she thinks in voice over how indecorous it is for a man to enter her room, he asks: "Does Madame require anything more?" He then reaches into his vest and pulls out one of her stockings, which she must have left in the dead man's room. Having found and returned it, he matches it to her other stocking hanging on the foot of her bed, gives her a conspiratorial wink, and exits the room, leaving her stunned!

The dead man (uncredited)
This surprising change completely alters the story's conclusion and is in keeping with the show's light tone. Her secret is known and misunderstood but no one thinks the worse of her. Cockrell's ending is clever and dramatic, but it ends the show by making a very different point than is made in Aumonier's story.

"Miss Bracegirdle Does Her Duty" is directed by Robert Stevens (1920-1989) with his characteristic flair. The bathtub scene is cleverly shot, avoiding nudity in an amusing way, and Stevens works well in tight spaces, especially when Miss Bracegirdle hides inside the wardrobe and under the bed. He uses two mirror shots toward the end of the episode and keeps the story moving at a rapid clip from start to finish. Stevens directed 49 episodes of the Hitchcock series and won an Emmy for his work on "The Glass Eye."

Mildred Natwick (1905-1994) gives a strong performance as Millicent Bracegirdle. Born in Baltimore, she began appearing on stage at age 21 and debuted on Broadway in 1932. She was on screen from 1940 to 1988 and appeared in John Ford's The Quiet Man (1952) and Hitchcock's The Trouble With Harry (1955). She was one of The Snoop Sisters in a series of TV movies in the early 1970s, and she appeared on Alfred Hitchcock Presents twice.

A Robert Stevens mirror shot
The rest of the actors in this show all have small parts, since the majority of it involves Miss Bracegirdle on her own. Gavin Muir (1900-1972) plays her brother, Dean Septimus Bracegirdle, in the opening scene. He was born in Chicago and appeared on screen from 1932 to 1965. This was one of his three appearances on Alfred Hitchcock Presents; another was in "Back for Christmas."

Tita Purdom plays Maude, one of the women sitting with Miss Bracegirdle in the opening scene. Purdom was born Anita Phillips and was a ballet dancer who had a brief career on screen in the 1950s. She also appeared in the Hitchcock-directed episode, "Wet Saturday."

The sly waiter in the last scene is played by Albert Carrier (1919-2002), who was born Alberto Carrieri in Quebec and who was on screen from 1950 to 1984. This was his only appearance on the Hitchcock show.

"Miss Bracegirdle Does Her Duty" is available on DVD here or may be viewed online here.


Aumonier, Stacy. “Miss Bracegirdle Does Her Duty.” Sept. 1922.,
The FictionMags Index, 6 Feb. 2018,
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. OTR Pub., 2001.
IMDb,, 6 Feb. 2018,
“Miss Bracegirdle Does Her Duty.” Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 3, episode 18, CBS, 2 Feb. 1958.
Stephensen-Payne, Phil. “Galactic Central.” Galactic Central, 6 Feb. 2018,
Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 6 Feb. 2018,

In two weeks: The Impromptu Murder, starring Hume Cronyn!


Grant said...

It's interesting that this is a sort of short story answer to "The Trouble With Harry," and both have Mildred Natwick. (In spite of Shirley MacLaine and the other actors in that film, I can't help preferring this story.)

Jack Seabrook said...

The short story is very entertaining. The show would be better if it weren't for that darn music!

Anonymous said...

Just saw it last night for the first time via streaming. Loved it and I loved the closing scene where the waiter serves Mildred her tea and he pulls out her stocking from the dead man's room ... then winks!! Almost as good as the closing scene from Pelham 1,2 3 with Walter Matthau's MUG

Jack Seabrook said...

I think a lot of the credit goes to Robert Stevens. His episodes tend to be very creative.