Thursday, November 22, 2018

The Hitchcock Project-Bernard C. Schoenfeld Part Eight: The Jokester [4.3]

by Jack Seabrook

"The Jokester" was the first appearance on Alfred Hitchcock Presents of a story by the prolific writer Robert Arthur (1909-1969), who had co-written the radio series, The Mysterious Traveler, from 1943 to 1952 and who had won Edgar Awards for writing radio drama in 1950 (Murder By Experts) and 1953 (The Mysterious Traveler.). Arthur edited a digest called The Mysterious Traveler that ran for five issues in 1951 and 1952, and the March 1952 issue featured his short story, "The Jokester," which ran under the pen name of Anthony Morton because Arthur also had another short story in that issue, "Sixty Grand Missing," which was a reprint.

"The Jokester" was first published here
Arthur's connection with Hitchcock had begun at least as early as 1951, when Hitchcock served as an "expert" on Murder By Experts. Arthur had been the "ghost editor" of Hitchcock's collection, Stories They Wouldn't Let Me Do On TV, which was published in 1957, and someone must have changed his or her mind soon after that because "The Jokester" aired as the third episode of the fourth season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents on Sunday, October 19, 1958.

Arthur's short story begins as reporters play cards one night at Police Headquarters. One of them, Dave Bradley, decides to play a joke on old Pop Henderson, the night attendant at the morgue. The reporters go downstairs to the morgue and ask Pop to show them one of the corpses, suggesting that it might be that of a missing New York banker. They distract the old man and, after he thinks they've left, Bradley scares him by pretending to be a corpse that is still alive. The other reporters feel bad about playing a joke on the old man and go home. Pop tells Bradley that the desk sergeant warned him that if he falls for any more jokes he will have to retire.

Albert Salmi as Bradley
Bradley heads for a bar, where he decides to play another joke and gives a man a hot foot. Unfortunately, the man is a boxer, who punches Bradley, causing the reporter to fall and crack his neck on the brass rail. Thinking him dead, the bartender and the boxer dump his body in an alley. Bradley awakens in the morgue, slowly recovering from paralysis, but when he tells Pop Henderson that he is still alive, the old man says that he is not falling for any more jokes and locks him in the same compartment where he had earlier lain.

Similar to Louis Pollock's 1947 story "Breakdown" in that both deal with a man paralyzed and thought to be dead who ends up in a morgue, Arthur's story ends on a much more downbeat note, as the bully seems to get his just desserts. A sentence early in the tale is important: the compartments in the morgue where the corpses are kept are described in this way: "They were refrigerated, with the temperature below freezing . . ." By locking the semi-conscious, partially paralyzed Dave Bradley in a compartment where the temperature is frigid, Pop Henderson ensures that the reporter will freeze to death long before his body is taken out for an autopsy the next day. Does the old man understand the consequences of his actions? It is hard to say. He does know that Henderson is alive, since they speak to each other, but he fears that he will lose his job if he is seen to be the subject of another prank. In the artificial world of a mystery short story, Bradley the bully seems to deserve what he gets, but in reality it requires some suspension of disbelief to think that the kindly old morgue attendant would commit what amounts to murder.

Rosco Ates as Pop Henderson
Bradley's extreme physical reaction to being punched and striking his neck is explained as he lies on the morgue slab, remembering a high-school football injury that left him in bed for a month, nearly immobile. The new injury is worse, he thinks, because he hit his neck harder and "heard it crack" when he fell. Bernard C. Schoenfeld, in adapting Arthur's short story for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, made sure that the viewer had some advance warning of Bradley's propensity to injury by adding an incident in an early scene where another reporter tries to horse around with Bradley and Bradley tells him that he has a very sensitive vertebra in his neck from a high-school football injury.

Jay Jostyn and James Coburn
as Morgan and Andrews
The teleplay for "The Jokester" is carefully structured, with parallel scenes at the beginning, middle, and end showing Pop Henderson in the morgue. While the story begins with the reporters' poker game, the show begins, in true Hitchcock fashion, with an establishing shot showing the exterior of the New York Police Department. There is then a dissolve to the morgue, where Pop Henderson is shown entering and checking a body on a slab. He hears a thud on the ceiling above and there is a cut to the poker game, where it is revealed that the thud was made by a typewriter falling to the floor. These reporters are more interested in the game than in the tool of their trade; in a few quick shots, Schoenfeld has established the location of the events, the main characters, and their professions.

During the game, Bradley draws the joker card twice, and Pop Henderson comes upstairs to speak to the reporters, one of whom has just written a story for the paper about the old man. Pop explains why he needs to keep his job (he has to pay his sick wife's doctor bills) but Bradley is callous and the kind reporter leaves before the three journalists who remain head downstairs to participate in Bradley's prank. Bradley tries to give Pop a hot foot but the old man awakens too soon. They all walk down to the corpse compartments and Schoenfeld gives the viewer a direct visual clue to the situation when Pop opens one of the doors and ice cold smoke pours out when he pulls out a drawer containing a body.

Art Batanides as the sergeant
Bradley is shown to be even more cruel than he is in the short story, directly insulting Pop and coming across like a physically imposing bully. He also drinks heavily, swigging from a flask as he telephones his newspaper. The first part of the show ends with a shot that is similar to one of the show's first shots, as Pop walks out of the morgue alone. Part two opens as Bradley enters the bar in a scene that Schoenfeld has expanded and changed from the source. The reporter is quite drunk, having been to three other bars already, and continues his misbehavior by presenting the bartender with a rubber dollar bill and by putting pepper-flavored liquid in the glass of a woman sitting next to him. The woman and her sailor boyfriend replace the boxer of Arthur's story and the sailor punches Bradley out of a sense of chivalry. Mike and Millie, the sailor and his girlfriend, put Bradley's supposedly dead body in the back seat of their car in an alley behind the bar and drive off with it.

Charles Watts
as the captain
The show's final scene is also expanded. The police captain enters the morgue and tells Bradley's fellow reporters that he is ordering Pop to resign, but they make him reconsider this decision by threatening to write an unflattering story about him. Orderlies wheel in Bradley's body and soon he is left alone in the morgue with Pop. After the old man locks the reporter away in his cabinet, he walks off through the morgue, the final shot similar to the ones near the start of the show and at the end of the first half.

"The Jokester" works very well due to perfect casting, a well-structured script, great lighting and camerawork, appropriate music (except one bad cue right near the end), and solid direction. The result is an excellent short film where the scenes in the morgue and in the bar feature high-contrast lighting that creates a strong noir atmosphere. Directing this episode was Arthur Hiller (1923-2016), whose long and successful career began on TV in 1954 and lasted until 2006. In addition to being behind the camera for three episodes of Thriller, he directed 17 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Post Mortem."

Baynes Barron as the bartender
Top billing goes to Albert Salmi (1928-1990) as Bradley. Born in Brooklyn, Salmi trained at the Actors Studio and appeared on Broadway. He was a busy TV actor from 1954 to 1989 and also appeared in films, starting in 1958. Genre roles included appearances on The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery and he was on the Hitchcock show three times, including "The Dangerous People." A biography of Salmi called Spotlights and Shadows was published in 2009.

Rosco Ates (1895-1962) plays Pop Henderson; he started out as a comedian in vaudeville and his film career began early, in 1929. He was in 15 westerns from 1946 to 1948 as sidekick Soapy Jones, and his TV career began in 1951. He was in six episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including the Hiller-directed "Post Mortem."

Claire Carlton as Millie
Playing Andrews, one of the reporters who participates in the prank, is James Coburn (1928-2002), and even in this small role he seems destined for stardom. Born in Nebraska, his screen career stretched from 1957 to 2002 and he was in two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He was also in an episode of The Twilight Zone. Among his many great film roles was one in The Magnificent Seven (1960), but it was the spy spoof Our Man Flint (1966) that made him a star.

The other two reporters are Morgan, played by Jay Jostyn, and Dave, played by Jim Kirkwood Jr. Jay Jostyn (1905-1977) starred as Mr. District Attorney on radio and his screen career lasted from 1951 to 1971. Jim Kirkwood Jr. (1924-1989) was born to parents who were both actors, and he started acting at age 14. He was a comedian on early TV (1948 to 1951) and acted in film and on TV from 1950 to 1965, but it was as a writer that he later gained fame; a novelist and a playwright, he won a Tony in 1976 for co-writing the book for A Chorus Line. A biography called Ponies and Rainbows was published in 2011.

Jim Kirkwood Jr. as Dave
Representing the men in blue are Art Batanides as the sergeant and Charles Watts as the captain. Art Batanides (1923-2000) is a familiar face from classic TV who appeared in countless episodes from 1951 to 1985, including roles on The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and Star Trek. He was in one other episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Charles Watts (1912-1966) was on screen from 1950 to 1965 and was seen in five episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "The West Warlock Time Capsule."

Finally, in the bar scene, Baynes Barron plays the bartender, Claire Carlton plays Millie, and Richard Benedict plays Mike. Baynes Barron (1917-1982) was onscreen from 1946 to 1979 and appeared in three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents; he was also a bartender in "Listen, Listen . . . . .!" Claire Carlton (1913-1979) was on Broadway in the '30s and '40s and on screen from 1933 to 1969. She was on Thriller and she was seen in three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "And So Died Riabouchinska." Richard Benedict (1920-1984) had a career as a screen actor from 1944 to 1984, including roles in Ace in the Hole (1951) and Ocean's Eleven (1960). He was also a busy TV director from 1962 to 1982.

Richard Benedict as Mike
Robert Arthur continued to work with Hitchcock, penning a teleplay for the TV show and having two more of his stories adapted, including "The Cadaver," which also dealt with a practical joke gone wrong. He ghost-edited many short story anthologies for Hitchcock and wrote a number of books in the young adult series, The Three Investigators. For more information about him, visit this website.

Thanks to Peter Enfantino for providing a copy of Arthur's original story!

The FictionMags Index,
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. OTR Pub., 2001.
“The Jokester.” Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 4, episode 3, CBS, 19 Oct. 1958.
Morton, Anthony. “The Jokester.” The Mysterious Traveler, Mar. 1952, pp. 72–79.
Stephensen-Payne, Phil. Galactic Central,
Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation,

In two weeks: And the Desert Shall Blossom, starring William Demarest!


Grant said...

I didn't know James Coburn was in more than one episode. He was good as the Union soldier (disguised part of the time as a Confederate soldier) in "An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge."

Jack Seabrook said...

He really lights up the screen in his small part in "The Jokester" and one can tell he was destined for much more.