Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Hitchcock Project-Bernard C. Schoenfeld Part Nine: And the Desert Shall Blossom [4.11]

by Jack Seabrook

"The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose."--Isaiah 35:1 (King James Version)

The prophet Isaiah wrote this passage in the eighth century B.C. when the nation of Judah was under siege by the Assyrian army; the verse refers to the time when the Lord will deliver his people from their enemies. On a smaller scale is Loren D. Good's short story, "And the Desert Shall Blossom" (Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, March 1958), in which two old men who live in a cabin they built on the edge of the desert find a way to resist the efforts of well-meaning townsfolk to bring them in from the wilderness in order to make their final years safer and more comfortable.

William Demarest as Tom
Ben Wilson and Tom Tye are proud of their cabin and do not intend to leave. Ben remarks that they must stay until their sagging rosebush blooms at least once. A dust cloud signals that a car is approaching but it breaks down a hundred yards from the men's front door. A stranger in a striped suit asks if they have a car, which they do not, and asks if they have food, which they are glad to share. He tells Ben and Tom that he needs to get to Reno and, when they tell him that he will have to walk, he pulls a gun and threatens them, hitting Tom across the cheek with the weapon. Ben bandages Tom, who quietly takes a gun from Ben's waistband; Ben flattens and Tom shoots the stranger.

Rosco Ates as Ben
Three weeks later, Sheriff Thompson visits and the two old men tell him that the stranger walked off toward Reno. It seems he was a criminal named Tom Carmody, who was wanted for murder. Ben and Tom refuse to go with the sheriff, who thinks they should move into town to have an easier life in their old age. After the sheriff leaves, the men admire their garden, where the "rosebush now stood straight and strong, healthily green and beautiful in the clear desert air." Though it is not stated explicitly, the implication is that the rosebush sits atop Carmody's grave, where his decomposing body provides live-giving nutrients.

Author Loren D. Good (1916-1993) was born and raised on the West Coast and worked as a cowpuncher and a railroad man before serving in the Army during WWII. After the war, he had a career in newspapers, public relations, and freelance writing. He wrote a children's novel set in Mexico called Panchito (1955) but I have been unable to find any published short stories that he wrote other than "And the Desert Shall Blossom."

Ben Johnson as Jeff, the sheriff
Bernard C. Schoenfeld adapted Good's short story for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents of the same title that aired on CBS on Sunday, December 21, 1958, and the short film is a delight! Schoenfeld takes a brief tale and improves it by paying close attention to story structure and motivation. The TV play unfolds in three scenes and the writer makes key changes that strengthen the dramatic effect of the tale.

In the first scene, the sheriff rides up to the men's shack and tells them that the town council wants them to move into an old folk's home in town. Ben and Tom have been homesteading in the desert since 1892, digging for gold in a nearby mine. The sheriff tells them that to qualify as homesteaders, they must grow something on the land that they occupy. They show him their rose bush, which looks barely alive, and Tom promises that they will pick a bouquet of roses in a month. After the sheriff leaves, they agree that "What we need is a miracle." This first scene adds the sheriff as antagonist and clearly sets a goal that the duo must reach by the end of the show.

Mike Kellin as the stranger
In scene two, the criminal arrives, wearing a fancy suit and speaking with a New York accent that sets him apart from the country way of speaking used by Ben and Tom. Events unfold as they do in the story and a confrontation that at first seems to suggest that the old prospectors are as vulnerable as the sheriff says ends up demonstrating that they are more resourceful than they might first appear.

The third and final scene finds the sheriff returning with his deputy, both looking for the criminal. Ben and Tom return from the mine with their mule and we learn that three weeks have passed. Ben reminds the sheriff of their deal and they show him the rose bush, which now bursts with blooming roses. The sheriff agrees that "It's a miracle" and leaves. The last shot makes clear what has happened as the camera pulls back to show that the rose bush is thriving right in the middle of a mound that resembles a grave.

Wesley Lau as the deputy
The changes to the story that Schoenfeld made for the teleplay are small but significant. By bookending the show with visits from the sheriff, he is able to set up a preposterous claim and then demonstrate by purely visual means just how the resourceful old men made it come true. Self-sufficient even in a harsh climate, Ben and Tom resist the encroachment of the modern world, which comes both in the form of law (the sheriff) and crime (the stranger), and bend outside forces to satisfy their needs. It's best not to try to analyze the ending too much and ask how a body could decompose quickly enough to serve as fertilizer or where the old men got the water to make their rose bush thrive; instead, one must sit back and enjoy the work of a talented cast and crew that takes a slight short story and elevates it to a highly entertaining half-hour of television.

"And the Desert Shall Blossom" is directed by Arthur Hiller (1923-2016), who also directed "The Jokester," the last Schoenfeld script to air before this one. Hiller worked as a director on TV from 1954 to 1974 and in film from 1957 to 2006 and was behind the camera for 17 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

The cast of this episode is especially good and the superb performances of the two leads make it very enjoyable. Starring as Tom is William Demarest (1892-1983), who served in the U.S. Army in WWI and then acted in vaudeville and on Broadway. His film career lasted from 1927 to 1976 and included appearances in eight films directed by Preston Sturges; he was on TV from 1957 to 1978 and is best remembered for playing Uncle Charley on My Three Sons from 1965 to 1972. This was his only appearance on the Hitchcock show. A website devoted to him is here.

The final shot reveals all!
Rosco Ates (1895-1962) plays Ben, gentle and friendly in contrast to Demarest's gruff Tom. Ates was a vaudeville comedian who later worked as an Air Force trainer in WWII; he was on screen from 1929 to 1961 and appeared in six episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "The Jokester."

Giving his usual solid performance as the sheriff is Ben Johnson (1918-1996), whose biography is titled The Nicest Fellow. A stuntman turned actor, he was on screen from 1939 to 1996, often in westerns. He won an Academy Award for his role in The Last Picture Show (1971) and only appeared in this one episode of the Hitchcock show.

The story was first
published here
Mike Kellin (1922-1983) plays the stranger from New York; he served in the Navy in WWII and then attended the Yale School of Drama. He was busy on Broadway and appeared on screen from 1950 to 1983. In addition to this episode, he was in one episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

Finally, in a small role as the sheriff's deputy is Wesley Lau (1921-1984), who served in the Army Air Corps in WWII and then went to the Actors Studio. He was on screen from 1951 to 1981 and appeared on Alfred Hitchcock Presents three times, including "Mrs. Herman and Mrs. Fenimore."

The short story has never been reprinted as far as I can tell, and thanks are due to Peter Enfantino for providing a copy. The TV show is available on DVD here or may be viewed for free online here. It is a real treat. Read more about it on the GenreSnaps website here.

Sources:

“And the Desert Shall Blossom.” Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 4, episode 11, CBS, 21 Dec. 1958.
The FictionMags Index, www.philsp.com/homeville/FMI/0start.htm.
Galactic Central, philsp.com/.
Good, Loren D. “And the Desert Shall Blossom.” Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Mar. 1958, pp. 81-87.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. OTR Pub., 2001.
IMDb, IMDb.com, www.imdb.com/.
Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, www.wikipedia.org/.

In two weeks: "Out There--Darkness" starring Bette Davis!

2 comments:

john kenrick said...

I agree with your assessment of this rather light episode of the Hitch series. It's charming, and even the menace of Mike Kellin's killer character doesn't add all that much menace, but just enough. The old coots seem tougher than the criminal intruder, and one never fears for them. Their independent ways elevate them higher, in their resourcefulness, than the one note gun-totin' bad man who invades their space and threatens them. This isn't quite a comedy, but it plays as almost a gentle old-time anecdote from a bygone era. The actors in this one are a huge asset.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, John. They are old pros, aren't they? Ben Johnson is solid, as well. Thanks for reading and for your comment!