Thursday, July 5, 2018

The Hitchcock Project-John Cheever Part Two: O Youth and Beauty! [6.8] and Wrapup

by Jack Seabrook
Gary Merrill as Cash Bentley

Published in the August 22, 1953 issue of The New Yorker, John Cheever's short story, "O Youth and Beauty!" takes place in the imaginary New York City suburb of Shady Hill, where aging former athlete Cash Bentley can always be counted on to end a Saturday night party by running a hurdle race using the living room furniture. He and his wife Louise have money problems and she struggles with the unceasing duties of being a wife and mother. When he loses his temper, they fight and she gets ready to go to her sister's, but they have sex and make up. One Saturday night, Cash trips while hurdling and breaks his leg. After he comes home from the hospital, Cash is depressed and sees signs of decay and despair all around.

On a summer night, he and Louise sit at home, the sounds of parties drifting in through their open windows. Some friends stop by and they all go to the country club, where Cash gets drunk and makes a fool of himself. Once again, he runs the hurdle race; this time he completes it but collapses from the effort. The next day, the Bentleys make the rounds of their friends' homes and have several drinks. That evening, Cash once again sets up the furniture at home for the hurdle race. He hands Louise the gun to fire a starting shot and, as he leaps over the sofa, she shoots him dead.


"O Youth and Beauty!"
was first published here
Cheever's story, which begins with a tour de force sentence that is nearly 200 words long, is almost completely told through narration with minimal dialog. The town where the Bentleys live is the same town where Blake lives in Cheever's story, "The Five-Forty-Eight," and once again the author paints a bleak portrait of suburban life in the 1950s. Cash Bentley's name connotes a level of wealth that he is frustrated in his inability to achieve; his sole success in life came as a young man, when he was a champion hurdler, and now he clings to his past glory, unable to face the harsh reality of his aging form. After he breaks his leg and comes home from the hospital, there is a symbolic passage where Cash is confronted with the rank smell of rotten meat when he opens the refrigerator, a spider web that covers his mouth when he looks for his varsity sweater in the attic, and a feeling of "erotic excitement" when he sees an aging whore who looks "like a cartoon of Death." Everywhere he turns, Cash sees signs of decay that both signal his own impending middle age (he is 40 years old) and foreshadow his death at the end of the story.

Toward the end, the Bentleys are shut out of the lovely sounds, smells, and sights of a summer night that young people around them find delight in. Cash "feels as if the figures in the next yard are specters from some party in the past where all his tastes and desires lie, and from which he has been cruelly removed." At the conclusion of the story, Cheever leaves the question open as to whether Louise shot Cash by mistake or on purpose. She has never fired a gun before and does not know about the safety catch; the story ends with these two sentences: "The pistol went off and Louise got him in midair. She shot him dead." The phrase "got him in midair" and the straightforward final sentence certainly make it seem like the killing was intentional, but the reader is left to interpret it as he or she wishes.


Patricia Breslin as Louise
A story like "O Youth and Beauty!" presents challenges to a writer seeking to adapt it for television, and Halsted Welles, who wrote the teleplay for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, did not succeed in transforming the tale from page to small screen nearly as well as he did when he adapted Stanley Ellin's story, "The Blessington Method." In fact, despite a good short story, a good teleplay writer, a good director, and a pair of competent actors playing the Bentleys, "O Youth and Beauty!" is not a good episode of the TV series. It premiered on NBC on Tuesday, November 22, 1960.

The initial scene finds the Bentleys at the country club, where an obnoxious drunk named Jim bullies Cash to run the hurdle race. In the short story, the ribbing is good-natured and Cash is anxious to set up and run the race, but in the show the teasing turns nasty and Cash's reaction is equally nasty. Jim and a group of other men taunt Cash, chanting "'Yay, champ,'" until he agrees to run the race. After it is done, he punches Jim in the face! Cash is angrier and Jim more cruel than their counterparts in the short story.

The scene then shifts to the Bentley home, where Cash and Louise kiss passionately in the yard while the babysitter and her boyfriend await their arrival inside. Gary Merrill, as Cash, looks every one of his 45 years while Patricia Breslin, as Louise, was only 29 years old when the show was filmed. As a result, this scene is uncomfortable to watch and Cash seems like a rough, older man preying on a gentle, younger woman. Inside the house, the babysitter's boyfriend praises Cash's trophy collection and admits that he just watched films of Cash running track in college. After the young couple leaves, Cash briefly turns on the movie projector and then jumps around the room in what he claims are dance steps but which look more like the efforts of a discus thrower.


The supposedly college-aged Cash Bentley
The film projector set up in the living room amid the trophies is an addition to the TV show that does not work at all. After a verbal altercation between the two Bentleys arises over Cash's complaints about money, he starts projecting his old films and runs another hurdle race in the living room. The film itself is poorly done, with shots of an actual race interspersed with shots of Gary Merrill running; unfortunately, he is obviously 45 years old in the shots, which are supposed to show him in college.

Cash breaks his leg and recovers, as in the story, and the scene where he watches young couples dancing together in a neighboring yard on a summer night ends with an awkward moment where he mutters, "'O youth . . . O beauty'" unhappily, parroting the episode's title. Back at the country club, Louise manages to stop Cash from running another drunken hurdle race, but once they're home again he starts projecting his old home movies and can't help setting up another course. He gives Louise the gun and tells her to fire a starting shot, but when she refuses he slaps her and commands that she do as she is told. Instead of the ambiguous ending of the story, the TV show has Louise close her eyes and fire the gun straight ahead of her. Cash collapses dead on the floor and she kisses him where he lies, then screams. On the movie screen in the living room, we see Cash cross the finish line at last.


David Lewis as Jim
The TV show manages to convey the major plot points of the short story but fails to convey its mood or substance. Gone are the signs of Louise's unhappy life and gone is the symbolism of Cash's impending middle age and death after he breaks his leg. Some creative shot setups by director Norman Lloyd fail to overcome the dramatic awkwardness of the adaptation; there is a shot from Cash's point of view as he walks out of the country club, the other members parting before him to reveal Louise waiting for him, and there is a self-consciously artistic shot through the crotch of a tree as Cash and Louise kiss in the yard. Worst of all are the tricks Lloyd uses to hide the fact that Gary Merrill is not really hurdling over couches and chairs: he is replaced by a stunt double in long shots, and these are intercut with shots of legs running and close-ups of Merrill's face. The addition of two violent acts is completely unnecessary, as Cash punches Jim and slaps Louise; these outbursts only serve to make Cash thoroughly unlikable. The obviously 45-year-old Merrill running in the films that are meant to show Cash in college does not help matters.

Maurice Manson as Arthur
"O Youth and Beauty!" is an example of an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents that is less than the sum of its parts. Halsted Welles (1906-1990), who wrote the teleplay, wrote for film and TV from 1949 to 1976, including 29 episodes of Suspense (1949-1953), six episodes of Night Gallery, and six episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He also adapted the classic western, 3:10 to Yuma, for the screen.

Director Norman Lloyd (1914- ) needs no introduction, and "O Youth and Beauty!" was a rare misfire for him as a director. He directed 22 episodes of the series in all and the last one we looked at in this series, "The Day of the Bullet," was a classic.


Theodore Newton
as the doctor
Playing Cash Bentley, Gary Merrill (1915-1990) seems a bit old for the role. An acquired taste, he was a busy actor on screen from 1943 to 1980. His most famous role was in All About Eve (1950), and he was seen in seven episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "Invitation to an Accident." He also appeared on The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits.

More appealing is Patricia Breslin (1931-2011) as Louise. In a screen career that lasted from 1949 to 1966, she appeared in five episodes of the Hitchcock series, one episode of Thriller, and two episodes of The Twilight Zone. I remember her best as William Shatner's wife on "Nick of Time," a classic Twilight Zone episode that aired only four days before "O Youth and Beauty!" Think of that: in one week, she was seen as a newlywed on The Twilight Zone and a middle-aged wife and mother on Alfred Hitchcock Presents--and she looked pretty much the same in both shows!


The supporting players are unremarkable:
  • David Lewis (1916-2000) plays Jim, the obnoxious country club member who bullies Cash; he was on screen from 1949 to 1993 and also appeared in the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, "Bad Actor." He made nine appearances on Batman as Warden Crichton and also turned up in The Night Stalker.
  • Maurice Manson (1913-2002) plays Arthur, the chubby country club member with the bow tie who fires the starting shot when Cash runs the hurdle race; he was on screen from 1948 to 1982 and can be seen in five episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "I Saw the Whole Thing."
  • Theodore Newton (1904-1963) plays the doctor who visits Cash when his leg is in a cast; he was on screen from 1933 to 1963 and can be seen in seven episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "What Really Happened."
Watch "O Youth and Beauty!" for free online here; it is available on DVD here. The story was adapted for television again in 1979 as part of 3 By Cheever, a PBS show that aired on October 31, 1979, and also included an adaptation of "The Five-Forty-Eight."

Sources:

Cheever, John. "O Youth and Beauty!" The Stories of John Cheever. Knopf, 1978, pp. 210-218.

Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. OTR Pub., 2001.

IMDb, IMDb.com, 24, June 2018, www.imdb.com/.

"O Youth and Beauty!" Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 6, episode 8, NBC, 22 Nov. 1960.

"The New Yorker August 22, 1953 Issue." The New Yorker, The New Yorker, www.newyorker.com/magazine/1953/08/22.

Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 24 June 2018, www.wikipedia.org/.


John Cheever on Alfred Hitchcock Presents: An Overview and Episode Guide

Two stories by John Cheever were adapted for Alfred Hitchcock Presents during the show's sixth season: "The Five-Forty-Eight" and "O Youth and Beauty!" The stories had been published in The New Yorker in 1953-54 and both took place in the fiction New York City suburb of Shady Hill. "The Five-Forty Eight" is an excellent translation of story to small screen, while "O Youth and Beauty!" is a disappointment. Each story involves an unhappy relationship and a gun. No more stories by Cheever made it to the Hitchcock series after these.


EPISODE GUIDE-JOHN CHEEVER ON ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS

Episode title-"The Five-Forty-Eight" [6.5]
Broadcast date-25 October 1960
Teleplay by-Charlotte Armstrong
Based on-"The Five-Forty-Eight" by John Cheever
First print appearance-The New Yorker 10 April 1954
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-here


Episode title-"O Youth and Beauty!" [6.8]
Broadcast date-22 November 1960
Teleplay by-Halsted Welles
Based on-"O Youth and Beauty!" by John Cheever
First print appearance-The New Yorker 22 August 1953
Watch episode-here
Available on DVD?-here

In two weeks: Our short series on Clark Howard begins with "Enough Rope for Two," starring Jean Hagen and Steven Hill!

4 comments:

Grant said...

I don't really know John Cheever directly at all, but I'm very fond of the film "THE SWIMMER" with Burt Lancaster, which is from one of his stories and has some of the same ideas as these stories that became Hitchcock episodes. THE SWIMMER uses that idea you mention early on of the characters "making the rounds" of their friends homes in a single evening, but in a much stranger way - the Burt Lancaster character decides to "swim across" his neighborhood in one day, because everyone has a pool. That one idea sets off a really strange set of scenes.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Grant! I'm sure I've read the story and I may have seen the movie. I'm very aware of the premise. Cheever was so well known back in the day but I don't hear much about him lately. I remember in the late '70s everybody had the big short story collection.

john kenrick said...

Hey, Jack: I was one of those who had a John Cheever short story collection. Probably more than one. The New Yorker sort of had him designated, anointed, as it were, given a certain Mr. Salinger's silence and need for solitude, Cheever was their Great Man. (They had others, of course, as many major literary figures were published in or affiliated with that magazine, but I need a little space for hyperbole...) Cheever had a national reputation as well, needless to say, and many of us Boomers took a liking to the man. He was a good interview on radio and television. His patrician background seemed to put him in line, almost by heredity, to be a Great American Writer.

I don't think that Cheever made it into quite that league, or even came all that close, but he had the sensibility, the breeding, the gentility,--though I never found his prose half so elegant as his admirers said it was--he had it all, from the perspective of the Critics, the ones that mattered. Heck, someone had to step up to the plate. The more sensitive and erudite Boomers needed a contemporary literary hero. Someone to look up to. Of our own generation, Anne Beattie didn't really have the right stuff. The sensibility was there but not the imagination. It's like it was all in her head, not on the page.

Okay, I'm rambling on here. I know I've read the short story O Youth & Beauty is based on but I can't remember it. The problem with adapting the works of Cheever for film and television is that he was a reader's writer and I suppose4 a writer's writer, too. The best thing about him was on the page. He was masterful. One knew the Great Tradition he was writing in, and he knew that you knew. Cheever was an "easy read", and a good one. He dealt with major issues with wit and style. I enjoyed his work. Downside: he no longer resonates with me. It's like he's a piece of my past. I even read that late novel he wrote and for the life of me I can't even recall the title! I was disappointed by it.

Now, with all that out of the way: the Hitchcock half-hour of the story under discussion was a rare case of that show delving into serious contemporary fiction. Another like it: the adaptation of Philip Roth's The Contest For Aaron Gold. That one works beautifully; it plays well and the characters engage my sympathy. In the Youth & Beauty entry I can't quite get why this was adapted for Hitchcock. John Cheever doesn't seem the right man for that show. As the author was already fairly well known when the episode was first broadcast it must have been a downer for all concerned. Gary Merrill and Pat Breslin were miscast; in the roles and as a couple. David Lewis was a fine actor and he looked right in the genteel suburban setting. Whenever I watch this one I always feel bad for Gary Merrill in those final shots of him, playing his younger self and not looking good. The episode plays as more sad than tragic. The look of desperation on Merrill's face,--the anxious striving--elicits my full sympathy, and yet I feel disengaged from the actual drama that he's playing in.

Jack Seabrook said...

Your comments on Cheever and his reputation are right on point, John. I think that if culture had not expanded (and rightly so) to include women and non-white authors, he might be better remembered. I think he came late to the game of when white male writers were the only ones admitted to the pantheon. His stories are certainly well written and deeper than the crime stories usually adapted for the Hitchcock show, but I think novelists have a longer shelf life (pardon the pun) in the cultural memory. I think the TV show of "Oh Youth and Beauty" is a mess and, as usual, I don't see the appeal of Gary Merrill. Thanks very much for reading and for leaving a detailed comment.