Thursday, April 12, 2018

The Hitchcock Project-Stanley Ellin Part One: The Festive Season [3.31]

by Jack Seabrook

"Death on Christmas Eve"
was first published here
Stanley Ellin (1916-1986) has been called one of the best mystery short story writers of the twentieth century. Born in Brooklyn, he held various jobs as a young man and served in the Army in World War Two before turning his hand to fiction. His first published story was "The Specialty of the House" (Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, May 1948), which had a big impact at the time of its publication and which has been reprinted many times throughout the years. He went on to win three Edgar Awards and he was named a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America in 1981. Also a novelist, he published many stories and books in a writing career that lasted nearly forty years. Many of his works have been adapted for film and television, including eight episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

In this series, three of his episodes have already been discussed: the first two ("Help Wanted" and "The Orderly World of Mr. Appleby") and the last ("The Faith of Aaron Menefee"). I will discuss the five episodes in between over the next ten weeks. Stanley Ellin's third published story, "Death on Christmas Eve" (Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, January 1950), was adapted by James P. Cavanagh for season three of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and broadcast on CBS on Sunday, May 4, 1958.

The story takes place on Christmas Eve, as the Boerum family lawyer, who is not given a name, visits Charlie and Celia Boerum at their Victorian home. Charlie's wife Jessie is dead and his sister Celia was cleared of murder at an inquest. The lawyer finds that Celia has set Jessie's possessions out to be discarded. Charlie is convinced that Celia killed Jessie by pushing her down the stairs and he wants to see her convicted and executed. The lawyer explains that, without a witness or a motive, the case can't be proved.

Charlie has always felt bullied by his older sister and has not left the house since the inquest, so the lawyer encourages him to visit his favorite bar and grill. Celia appears, having overheard the conversation, and tells Charlie that he can't go out to a bar during the mourning period. Charlie is furious that Celia has disturbed Jessie's possessions. While speaking to the lawyer, Celia nearly confesses to murder, but the lawyer advises her to be quiet. He leaves the home and walks to Al Sharp's Bar and Grill, where Al the bartender has been expecting him. The lawyer always visits on Christmas Eve, ever since Jessie died twenty years ago.

Carmen Mathews as Celia
"Death on Christmas Eve" depends on the author and the main trio of characters keeping a secret from the reader until the final lines, when a surprise ending reveals that they have been acting out a pattern every Christmas Eve since the death of the absent character, Jessie. The lawyer is a stand-in for the reader and observes the siblings abuse each other as if the death were recent, yet he knows the key fact that the reader does not. As a result, he must play a role that helps keep that important detail hidden.

The surprise ending must have made "Death on Christmas Eve" seem like a good story to adapt for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and the script was assigned to James P. Cavanagh (1922-1971), a writer who mostly worked in episodic television from 1952 to 1967. I have been unable to find any published work by Cavanagh, but he wrote fifteen episodes of the half-hour Hitchcock show and won an Emmy in 1957 for one of them, "Fog Closing In." He also wrote an early draft for Hitchcock's Psycho (1960). "Death on Christmas Eve" was retitled "The Festive Season" for television, a title that is more ironic than that of the short story and describes a time of year that is hardly joyous for the Boerum siblings.

The TV version opens with a brief establishing scene, as we see the lawyer, now christened John Benson, driving at night and pulling his car up in front of the Boerum house. He is invited inside by Celia and they have a long conversation in the library. The scene covers the same ground that is gone over in the story but it is longer and features more dialogue. Benson points out that Celia kept living in the family house even after her late father left it to her brother; she replies that Charlie is "all I have . . . all I ever had." Cavanagh's script amplifies a theme that had been more subtle in Ellin's story, the idea that Charlie had been smothered by his mother and that Celia took her place after she died.

Edmon Ryan as John
Charlie calls down to John and meets him on the stairs, rather than remaining cooped up in his room. There follows a long conversation between John and Charlie, who says that his room was the only place he could be apart from his mother and his sister. He had married Jessie and moved into another room with her, but when she died he retreated back into his childhood room and resumed the role of younger brother to Celia. He suggests that Celia resented his marriage and murdered his wife in an attempt to return the family to its prior state.

In the story, Charlie believes that Celia threw Jessie down the stairs: he heard his wife fall, ran out of their room, and heard Celia's door slam. In the TV show, Celia was away in Boston, shopping, and Charlie claims that she tied a cord across the stairs before she left, knowing that Jessie would come out of her room after an afternoon nap and fall down the dark stairs. Charlie shows John a ball of cord that he found in Celia's room and claims it's the cord that was used to kill Jessie.

As in the story, Celia appears in the door to announce that Charlie's dinner is ready. He finds that Jessie's possessions have been removed from her room and confronts his sister, threatening to kill her if she ever touches Jessie's things again. John visits Celia in her room and says that he has decided to spend the night in town, warning her to stay in her room tonight. She says she is not afraid, commenting that "Charlie has never done anything in his whole life--except talk." Celia leaves the room and heads down the stairs, tripping on a cord that has been stretched across them and tumbling down the flight of stairs. She is not hurt, though, and tells her brother that his effort to kill her failed. He says he is sorry that she survived. Cavanagh added this scene near the end of the show in an attempt to bring some excitement to a story that is essentially a series of conversations between the three main characters. The change in the method of Jessie's death was necessary to set up this scene late in the episode; it would be less dramatically satisfying to have Charlie try to push Celia down the stairs to reenact what he thinks she did to Jessie.

After her fall, Celia denies having killed Charlie's wife and he responds that she has been killing him "little by little" by smothering him in the same way that their mother did. He threatens that there will be "other times" and tells John to leave. The scene then dissolves to the final scene in the bar, and Cavanagh's script follows the original story very closely, ending with the same surprise. The twist ending is still a shock but the episode as a whole is too talky and drawn out to be satisfying. The addition of the attempt to kill Celia adds a modicum of excitement but does not overcome the tedium of the overly long conversations that precede it.

Richard Waring as Charlie
The episode is directed by Arthur Hiller (1923-2016), who does little to liven up the proceedings. Born in Canada, Hiller had a long career as a director, starting out in TV and ending up in film. He was president of the Director's Guild of America from 1989 to 1993 and directed seventeen episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Forty Detectives Later." He also directed three episodes of Thriller and the classic comedy, The In-Laws (1979).

Starring as Celia is Carmen Mathews (1911-1995), who is familiar to regular viewers of Alfred Hitchcock Presents from her roles in six episodes, including "Conversation Over a Corpse." She was born in Philadelphia and started her acting career on stage in England before returning to America, where she was seen mostly on TV and occasionally on film from 1950 to 1992. She was also frequently on Broadway, from the late 1930s until the early 1980s. Her performance as Celia Boerum is solid, as usual.

Benny Baker as Al
Edmon Ryan (1905-1984) plays the lawyer, John Benson, and was born Edmon Ryan Mossbarger in Kentucky. His screen career spanned the years from 1936 to 1970 and he also had some roles on Broadway during that time. He was on the Hitchcock show four times, including a part in the hour-long "Isabel," and he was seen in Hitchcock's spy thriller, Topaz (1969). As Benson, he holds his own in his scenes with the formidable Ms. Mathews.

The smothered son, Charlie, is portrayed by Richard Waring (1910-1993), who was born in England. He appeared mostly on TV from 1948 to 1965 and was also seen in a couple of films. He had various roles on Broadway from 1930 to 1968. In this, his only appearance on the Hitchcock show, he is intense but does not seem as believable in his role as Mathews and Ryan.

Benny Baker (1907-1994) plays Al, the bartender, who is in the show's final scene. Born Benjamin Michael Zifkin in Missouri, Baker had a long screen career, from 1934 to 1991, and frequently played small roles on film and TV. This was his only time on the Hitchcock show.

Read Stanley Ellin's "Death on Christmas Eve" for free online here. The TV show is available on DVD here or may be watched for free online here.

Sources:
Ellin, Stanley. “Death on Christmas Eve.” The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, Vintage, 2013, pp. 396–400.
“The Festive Season.” Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 3, episode 31, CBS, 4 May 1958.
The FictionMags Index, www.philsp.com/homeville/FMI/0start.htm.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. OTR Pub., 2001.
IMDb, IMDb.com, www.imdb.com/.
"Stanley (Bernard) Ellin." Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2003. Contemporary Authors Online, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/H1000028936/CA?u=lawr69060&sid=
CA&xid=384fa888. Accessed 31 Mar. 2018.
Stephensen-Payne, Phil. Galactic Central, philsp.com/.

Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 2 Apr. 2018, www.wikipedia.org/.

In two weeks: "The Blessington Method," starring Henry Jones and Dick York!


2 comments:

Brian Durant said...

Nice work, Jack. The only thing from Ellin that I've read is "The Specialty of the House" but he has been on my to-read list for a long time. This episode isn't terrible but the excessive talking makes for a long 25 minutes. I look forward to an interesting series!

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Brian. "The Festive Season" is very talky but the next one up is a classic!