Thursday, May 23, 2019

The Hitchcock Project-James P. Cavanagh Part Ten: A Jury of Her Peers [7.12]

by Jack Seabrook

James P. Cavanagh's teleplay for "A Jury of Her Peers" is based on a one-act play by Susan Glaspell entitled Trifles, which was first performed on August 8, 1916, in Provincetown, Massachusetts. As the play opens, five people enter the abandoned farmhouse of John Wright, where Lewis Hale, a neighboring farmer, explains how he stopped by the morning before and found Mrs. Wright sitting in her rocking chair. She told Hale that her husband was dead in their bed upstairs, having "'died of a rope round his neck.'" The Wrights had been asleep in bed together when someone "'slipped a rope round his neck and strangled him,'" but his wife did not wake up.

George Henderson, the county attorney, and Harry Peters, the sheriff, ignore the area around the kitchen, certain that it contains "'nothing important'" and that "'women are used to worrying over trifles,'" and criticize the mess that was left behind when Mrs. Wright was taken away. "'You're convinced that there was nothing important here--nothing that would point to any motive,'" says Henderson to Peters, and the men go upstairs to search the bedroom for clues.

The short story, "A Jury of Her Peers,"
was first published here.
Left on their own downstairs, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale wonder if Mrs. Wright is guilty of killing her husband and notice that she had been working on a quilt. The men come downstairs and laugh about the women's concerns before going outside. Mrs. Hale notices that the quilt shows signs of Mrs. Wright's having been nervous when she was working on it, so Mrs. Hale removes some stitches to destroy the evidence.

Mrs. Peters finds an empty bird cage with a broken door, and Mrs. Hale remarks on how lonesome the Wright house must have been. Mrs. Hale compares Mrs. Wright to a bird--"'real sweet and pretty, but kind of timid'"--and opens a box from the sewing basket to discover a bird, its neck broken. As the men return, Mrs. Hale hides the box under pieces of the quilt. The women say nothing of the bird and the men again leave the room, unable to find any evidence to suggest a motive. The women talk about Mrs. Wright's life with her husband and the men return, puzzled at their inability to establish a motive for the strange crime and unaware of the bird which had had its neck wrung just as Mr. Wright's neck had been wrung. After the men go outside to continue their investigation, Mrs. Hale stuffs the box containing the dead bird into her pocket. The men return, still mocking the women for worrying over trifles.

Susan Glaspell, the author of the play, revised it into short story form and it was published as such in a magazine called Every Week on March 5, 1917, with a new title: "A Jury of Her Peers." The play was adapted for Alfred Hitchcock Presents by James P. Cavanagh and aired under the short story's title on NBC on Tuesday, December 26, 1961. The TV show is stunning, a great adaptation that improves upon its source with a brilliant script, outstanding direction, and superb acting all working together to spellbinding effect.

Ann Harding as Sarah Hale
The show begins as a horse-drawn carriage pulls up in front of a small farmhouse on a snowy evening. A shot of a lantern hanging below the carriage and the creaking of the carriage itself tell us that the story takes place long ago, before cars and electricity were common in remote areas. Jim Hale enters the farmhouse and the camera pans over a stack of dirty dishes in the sink before slowly zooming in to focus on Mrs. Wright, haggard and shivering in her rocking chair. Cavanagh has taken the scene referred to in the play as having happened the morning before and made it the first scene of the show; instead of morning, it is night.

As they discuss Jim's suggestion that John Wright share in his telephone party line, the dialogue begins to demonstrate how isolated Mrs. Wright is from her neighbors. She sends Jim upstairs to see John but does not reveal that her husband is dead. Director Robert Florey's camera work and shot selection are brilliant; when Jim goes upstairs, there is an overhead shot of Mrs. Wright that emphasizes her isolation and also shows the quilt, foreshadowing its later importance.

Frances Reid as Mary Peters
Rather than claiming that her husband was strangled while she slept next to him, she explains that "'I found him like that when I came back from feeding the chickens this morning.'" Jim realizes that she has been sitting alone in the house all day while her husband was lying dead upstairs. Jim offers to take her to his house and she accepts; the scene then shifts to the Hale home, where Jim leaves to meet the sheriff and his wife Sarah is left with Mrs. Wright. The contrast between the Wright house and the Hale house is shocking--it is still lit with gas, but has modern furniture, drapes, and a Christmas tree, along with festive holiday decorations. The house seems like a place from another world, underscoring the misery of the life Mrs. Wright had been leading.

Mrs. Wright is concerned that her husband (even though he is dead) will be taken away from the farm, "'the only thing he ever really cared about,'" and Sarah asks her why she married the man. The next day, Henderson and Peters discuss Mrs. Wright's behavior as they watch her through a window in an adjoining room--the lawyer thinks she is putting on an act but the sheriff doubts it, and they plan to search her farmhouse to look for evidence pointing to a motive for the murder.

Philip Bourneuf as George Henderson
We now see Mary Peters and Sarah Hale together for the first time. Sheriff Hale asks his wife to accompany him and Henderson to the Wright farmhouse to bring back anything Mrs. Wright needs, and Sarah offers to go with her. At the farmhouse, the men go upstairs while the women stay downstairs; Cavanagh follows the action of the play generally but expands the scenes and dialogue, using lines from the original here and there but modernizing the expressions. The women find the dead canary, then there is a new scene upstairs in the bedroom, where Henderson puts the rope around Hale's neck to try to figure out how the murder was committed. Throughout the episode, Cavanagh has expanded the stage play by adding scenes both upstairs at the Wright house and also in two rooms at the Hale house.

The dialogue makes it clear what has happened, as Mary tells Sarah: "'He killed her bird. That's what made her angry.'" Mary realizes that this represents the motive the men seek and Sarah decides to hide it; dialogue between the women then focuses on Sarah arguing that Mrs. Wright's crime was justified while Mary struggles with the idea of helping conceal the motive. In a sense, this portion of the TV show represents the deliberation of the "jury of her peers" that quietly decides the fate of Mrs. Wright. This section is much expanded from the play, as Sarah tells Mary she has no idea what Mrs. Wright's isolated, miserable life must have been like with her husband, "'a cold, harsh man.'"

Robert Bray as Sheriff Peters
Mary says she "'can't lie'" but when the men return and mockingly ask the women if they are still discussing Mrs. Wright's quilt, Mary quietly makes a decision and conceals the evidence. In a clever bit of dialogue, Henderson says patronizingly that the women have been "'trying to make up their minds about a real important problem...was she going to quilt it or knot it?'" The camera cuts from one character to another and we, the audience, know the double meaning of his words: the women wrestle with their dilemma and the men are oblivious to their moral struggle; we see Mary silently conclude what she must do and then she puts the evidence in her bag, thus choosing to impede her husband's investigation in the service of a higher form of justice.

The Alfred Hitchcock Presents adaptation of Trifles is superb, but it was not the first time that Glaspell's play had been filmed, either under its original title or under the revised title used for the short story. A short film called Trifles was released in 1930, starring Jason Robards, Sr., as Henderson. There were then four television adaptations under the title "A Jury of Her Peers": on Fireside Theatre (July 24, 1951); on Omnibus (November 8, 1953); on a Canadian series called Shoestring Theater (May 22, 1960); and finally on Alfred Hitchcock Presents (December 26, 1961). The story was again made into a short film in 1980 as "A Jury of Her Peers," and it was filmed again as Trifles in 2009. According to IMDb, yet another short film of Trifles was in production as recently as 2017. The play and short story have also become staples of the school curriculum and the play has been performed many times on stage. There is quite a bit written about it online and it seems to be assigned regularly to students as an essay topic.

June Walker as Mrs. Wright
Susan Glaspell (1876-1948) was born in Iowa and was famous in her day as an author of over fifty short stories, nine novels, and fourteen plays. Though Trifles is her most famous work, she won a Pulitzer Prize in 1931 for a play called Alison's House, co-founded the Provincetown Players, and encouraged the playwright Eugene O'Neill when he was getting his start. Glaspell also worked as a reporter in Des Moines, Iowa, when she was younger, and one story she covered involved the 1900 murder of John Hossack, who was "struck twice in the head with an axe while he was sleeping." His wife said she was also sleeping and awoke when she heard a strange sound. She was arrested during her husband's funeral and a trial resulted in a guilty verdict, though this was later overturned on appeal and a second trial ended in a hung jury. Sixteen years later, in her play Trifles, Glaspell used her memories of the Hossack case to examine the relationship between men and women. She gives the wife a motive for killing her husband, allows women to solve the mystery without men's help, and lets them choose between revealing what they have deduced or keeping quiet.

Robert Florey (1900-1979), who does such a wonderful job of translating Cavanagh's script into moving pictures, was born in Paris, France, and came to Hollywood in 1921, where he began as an assistant director and soon was promoted to director, making films from 1927 to 1951. Some of his best-known movies are The Cocoanuts (1927), Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), and The Beast With Five Fingers (1946). He switched to television in 1951 and worked in that medium until 1964, directing episodes of The Twilight Zone, Thriller, and The Outer Limits, as well as five episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "The Changing Heart."

Ray Teal as Jim Hale
Playing Sarah Hale and receiving top billing in the cast is Ann Harding (1902-1981), who made her Broadway debut in 1921 and who was on screen from 1929 to 1965. This was her only appearance on Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Frances Reid (1914-2010) plays the morally-conflicted Mary Peters. She was onscreen from 1937 to 2009 and also appeared in an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. She mostly worked on TV, rather than in film, and her longest role was on the soap opera, The Days of Our Lives, where she appeared from 1965 to 2009.

Frances Reid's husband, Philip Bourneuf (1908-1979), plays George Henderson, the prosecuting attorney. A founding member of the Actor's Studio, Bourneuf had a long career on Broadway and was on screen from 1944 to 1976. He appeared in Fritz Lang's Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), he was on Thriller, and he was seen in three episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "A Dip in the Pool."

Robert Bray (1917-1983) plays Sheriff Peters. On screen from 1946 to 1968, he was seen in Bus Stop (1956) and on The Twilight Zone, as well as appearing in five episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "Not the Running Type." His most famous role was on the TV show Lassie, from 1964 to 1968.

The moment of truth!
The long-suffering Mrs. Wright is portrayed by June Walker (1901-1966) who, at age sixty, appears considerably older than her character, who is supposed to be about 37 years old (having married at age 17 and remained married for 20 years). Walker also had a long career on Broadway and was on screen from 1917 to 1964. She was seen on the Hitchcock show three times, and her last acting credit is for her role in the hour-long episode, "Return of Verge Likens."

Finally, Ray Teal (1902-1976) plays Jim Hale, Sarah's husband. He appeared in countless films between 1937 and 1970 and was often seen on TV between 1953 and 1974. He had a recurring role on Bonanza from 1960 to 1972, was on The Twilight Zone and Thriller, and can be seen in eight episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Revenge."

Read Susan Glaspell's play, Trifles, for free online here, or read her short story, "A Jury of Her Peers" for free online here. Watch the Alfred Hitchcock Presents version here. It is not yet available on DVD.

“A Jury of Her Peers.” Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 7, episode 12, NBC, 26 Dec. 1961.
Glaspell, Susan. “A Jury of Her Peers.” Annenberg Learner,
Glaspell, Susan. “Trifles.” Trifles - a One-Act Play by Susan Glaspell,
R, Darrien, and Poe. “A Jury of Her Peers The Hossack Murder.” GradeSaver,
Stephensen-Payne, Phil. Galactic Central,
The FictionMags Index,
The International Susan Glaspell Society,
Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation,

In two weeks: Our series on James P. Cavanagh ends with "Where Beauty Lies," starring George Nader and Cloris Leachman!

Listen to two great podcasts on Alfred Hitchcock Presents:

Presenting Alfred Hitchcock Presents (website here)

Good Evening: An Alfred Hitchcock Presents Podcast (website here)

Both are highly recommended!


Grant said...

I don't remember if you've ever reviewed it, but this story sounds like an ALFRED HITCHCOCK HOUR episode called "The Lonesome Place."

Jack Seabrook said...

I haven't worked on that one yet but I saw all the hours back in '88-'89 when USA network ran them. I look forward to reviewing it! I'm going to do a series of hour-long shows next.

john kenrick said...

Thanks for reviewing A Jury Of Her Peers, Jack. It was a very good and intelligently thought out episode. Definitely one for the ladies (female empowerment, and all that). It's all talk and no action,--unless I missed something--with the women dominant the entire time. In the drama, I mean. There was nothing grisly about the episode aside from what happened to the husband and the dead canary. In the end, justice was done, in my humble opinion, though nowadays there would be ways of finding out more of what actually happened, and the poor woman would likely be put in an institution or, if fortunate, a group home, likely under some kind of supervision. It was more humane the way the show ended, I think we can agree.

Jack Seabrook said...

I agree with you. It's a haunting episode and very well told. Justice does seem to have been served at the end.