Thursday, April 22, 2021

The Hitchcock Project-William Fay Part Nine: The Contest for Aaron Gold [6.4]

by Jack Seabrook

"The Contest for Aaron Gold" is based on an early short story by the renowned writer Phillip Roth. It contains no crime and may represent an attempt by the producers of Alfred Hitchcock Presents to dramatize works of fiction that were more literary than the show's usual sources; in fact, two short stories by John Cheever would also be adapted for the series in the sixth season, its first on the NBC television network.

The short story was first published in the fall 1955 issue of Epoch, a literary journal edited by the Cornell University English department. As the narrative begins, Werner Samuelson arrives at Camp Lakeside, a summer camp for boys where he has been hired to teach ceramics. Samuelson was chased out of Austria in 1940 by Germans and has spent the ensuing years running a ceramics shop in Philadelphia; the summer camp job is a way to earn extra money. He observes Lionel Steinberg, who runs the camp, berating Angelo, who is heading a crew that is paving the camp's roads.

"The Contest for
Aaron Gold" was
first published here

Werner also sees Lefty Shulberg, the camp's swimming instructor, dive from a tower into the lake. The boys arrive at camp and the road paving continues. Werner introduces the first dozen boys to the ceramics shop, where they begin to work with clay until the whistle blows and they run off to swim. Of the dozen boys, only one begins to demonstrate artistry, crafting a small figure that resembles a knight. A few days later, Werner meets the sculptor: eight-year-old Aaron Gold. That night, as Werner sees Lionel riding Angelo about the speed with which his paving is being completed, the camp boss tells the ceramics instructor that Lefty, the swimming coach, complained about Aaron Gold having been late for swimming.

Lionel is focused on the day that the boys' parents come to visit and insists that each boy have something completed in the ceramics shop in time for visiting day. Over the ensuing fortnight, Aaron Gold continues to develop his knight sculpture, a passion that makes him late for swimming. Werner is impressed by Aaron's work, but Lionel visits the ceramics instructor one night and chastises him for contributing to the boy's failure to be well-rounded. Though Werner is determined to do what it takes to keep his job, Aaron says that he cannot work any faster and the instructor does not pressure him. Two days before the parents are to arrive, Lionel visits the ceramics shop and complains about Aaron's unfinished knight sculpture.

Barry Gordon as Aaron Gold
After Lionel departs, Werner completes the sculpture himself. On visiting day, Aaron comes to the shop and is furious when he sees that Werner has completed his sculpture and given it arms. The boy accuses his teacher of ruining his work and runs off in distress. Werner destroys the sculpture, packs his bag, and leaves the camp, passing Lefty, who talks to the parents happily.

Roth's story pits an athlete (Lefty) against an artist (Werner) and contrasts both with a pragmatic businessman (Lionel) and a laborer (Angelo). The pull between the different paths open to the boys makes summer difficult for Werner, who tries to cultivate Aaron's artistry but ends up giving in to the exigencies of adult life and the need to keep his job. Aaron's reaction to Werner's attempt to finish the statue is unexpected and Werner reacts by destroying the compromised piece of art and withdrawing from the scene. The "contest" of the title is between the three adults at camp, with Lefty wanting to develop Aaron physically while Werner wants to develop him mentally. Lionel stands between the two, trying to create a balance between them both. Lefty appears to win out in the end, as Aaron's parents appear to listen to him happily while Werner leaves in disgrace.

Sydney Pollack as Bernie Samuelson
In adapting Roth's short story for television, William Fay does a superb job of turning narrative into dialogue, remaining faithful to the source for most of the episode's length before ending it with a significant change. In the short story, all of the characters are clearly Jewish, except for Angelo, who paves the roads. In the TV version, Lionel Steinberg has become Lionel Stern, Werner Samuelson has become Bernie Samuelson, and Lefty Shulberg has become Lefty James; as a result, the all-Jewish camp now has only two members who are clearly intended to be Jewish, and they are the kindred, artistic spirits of Bernie Samuelson, the ceramics instructor, and Aaron Gold, his protege.

Frank Maxwell as Lionel Stern
The show opens with a scene where Stern introduces Bernie to the camp and the contrast in their personalities is highlighted. A scene follows in the ceramics shop, as Bernie tries to show the rowdy boys the potter's wheel and they engage in making "'pancakes, snakes, and ashtrays.'" The repeated scenes with Angelo the paver in the short story have been removed, so the TV version spends little time focusing on the physical labor of the character who works with his hands in a non-artistic way. There is one particularly good shot, after Aaron has refined the knight's legs; Aaron's and Bernie's voices are heard on the soundtrack while the camera lingers on the sculpture, circling around it slowly in order to examine it from all angles as if it were being spun on a potter's wheel.

William Thourlby as Lefty
Fay begins to set up the new ending in the scene where Stern visits Bernie at night to chastise him. Stern ends by saying, "'As long as Lefty's not screaming and this whatchamacallit of Aaron Gold's has two arms on it when his parents come on Sunday...'" The sculpture is shown to have one arm that holds a shield; the other arm is missing. In the story, the focus is not on two arms; instead, Steinberg remarks: "'If Gold has a what-do-you-call-it with real pretty legs, that's all the better!'" The focus of the teleplay thus begins to shift attention to the fact that the statue is missing one arm.

In the next scene, Aaron tells Bernie that only his father is coming on visiting day: "'he isn't married to my mother anymore.'" This is a change from the story, where both of Aaron's parents show up for visiting day, and the TV version thus suggests a reason why Aaron is so focused on his father. The dialogue in this scene is expanded from that of the story, as Bernie tells Aaron that Stern will be unhappy if the knight sculpture is incomplete and Aaron assures Bernie that his father will not be unhappy. Aaron compares his father to Bernie, a comment that clearly has an effect on the ceramics instructor. Aaron adds that "'My father could lick Uncle Lefty,'" the swim instructor, further emboldening Bernie in his support of the boy's artistic endeavors.

John Craven as Herbert Gold
When Stern is examining the finished products in the ceramics shop, he tells Bernie that Aaron's father owns the "'Daisy Dooley chain of supermarkets--47 stores.'" Stern reasons that a successful man like Gold would not be pleased with a son who did not succeed at summer camp; Aaron has not earned his swimming badge, his woodcraft badge, or his softball stripe, so when Stern picks up the knight and sees that it lacks an arm, he angrily tells Bernie to finish the sculpture and threatens to fire him. To Stern, the businessman, the sculpture is the only thing standing between Aaron and utter failure in the eyes of his rich and powerful father.

Suddenly, Bernie speaks to Stern in a way similar to the way Aaron had spoken to Bernie in a prior scene, like a child to an adult, saying "'I couldn't do that.'" Bernie is not shown working on finishing the sculpture, as he is in the story, so when there is a dissolve to visiting day, suspense is created about what Bernie chose to do. After Aaron sees the completed figure and runs out of the shop, Fay's teleplay diverges from Roth's story. In the story, Werner destroys the statue, packs his bags, and leaves the camp, passing Lefty as he addresses the parents. In the TV version, Stern enters the ceramics shop and Bernie confronts him in anger. Stern claims that adding an arm was "'only a suggestion,'" and Bernie replies, "'I got a better suggestion.'" He snaps the new arm off of the sculpture and is about to tell Stern where he can stick it when a well-dressed businessman enters. "'Excuse me,'" the man says with a smile, "'my name is Herbert Gold. I'm looking for Aaron, my son.'"

Buddy Lewis as Angelo
Gold turns, revealing that his suit jacket sleeve is pinned up and he is missing an arm, just like Aaron's knight. The camera zooms in on the sleeve and the shot fades to black. This ending gives the show an entirely different meaning than the story on which it is based. In addition to being a contest between art and pragmatism, or the mind and the body, the love of a boy for his father is now highlighted. Aaron sees the knight as a representation of his dad, who can lick Lefty, who is kind and artistic like Bernie, and who is also a successful businessman, far more so than Stern. In essence, Gold becomes the adult version of the well-rounded boy that Stern seeks to cultivate; the combination of the three sides of manhood represented by Bernie, Lefty, and Stern. The fact that he is divorced and (presumably) raising Aaron alone suggests an even deeper connection between father and son.

In his teleplay for "The Contest for Aaron Gold," William Fay takes a good short story and adds more depth and emotional resonance, with a surprising last shot that makes the viewer re-evaluate everything that has gone before. A third-season episode, "The Return of the Hero," also ends with a surprise when the main character is revealed to be missing a leg, a revelation that suddenly explains his actions throughout the show. In an interview, Norman Lloyd credited Hitchcock with the idea for the new ending to "The Contest for Aaron Gold," but Fay’s script makes it work.

Robin Warga
Director Norman Lloyd (1914- ) was born Norman Perlmutter and was active in the theater in the 1930s. He had a long career as a film and television actor, from 1939 to 2015, and he appeared in Hitchcock's Saboteur (1942) and Spellbound (1945). He also directed for television from 1951 to 1984. He acted in five episodes of the Hitchcock series and directed 22, including "Man from the South."

Giving a memorable performance as Aaron Gold is Barry Gordon (1948- ), a child actor who also had success at a very young age as a singer. Gordon went on to a long career as both a character actor and a voice actor and was president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1988 to 1995. His screen career began in 1956 and continued until at least 2017; he was seen in two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (the other was "The Day of the Bullet") and one each of Thriller and The Night Stalker.

Phil Phillips as Henry
Sydney Pollack (1934-2008) plays Bernie Samuelson; he had a long and successful career as a director and sometimes an actor. He began as a TV director from 1961 to 1965, then switched to movies from 1965 to 2005, winning an Oscar for Out of Africa (1985). He directed two episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, including "The Black Curtain," and was one of a few people (including this episode's director, Norman Lloyd) to both act and direct for the Hitchcock TV show.

Frank Maxwell (1916-2004), with his distinctive streak of white hair, plays Stern. He was onscreen from 1951 to 2000 and appeared in many TV episodes, including roles on The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. His six appearances on the Hitchcock show include "Special Delivery" and "The Hatbox." He was president of AFTRA from 1984 to 1989.

In smaller roles:
  • William Thourlby (1924-2013) as Lefty; he modeled for the covers of pulp magazines and was the original Marlboro Man in the 1950s' cigarette ad campaign. He played various bit parts, often uncredited, on screen from 1951 to 1971.
  • John Craven (1916-1995) as Herbert Gold; he was in the original Broadway cast of Our Town and on screen from 1937 to 1970, appearing in three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (including "The Day of the Bullet," with Barry Gordon), as well as Thriller and The Twilight Zone.
  • Buddy Lewis (1916-1986) as Angelo; he was on screen from 1957 to 1981, mostly on TV, including an appearance on The Odd Couple.
  • Michael Adam Lloyd (1847- ) as one of the boys; this is his only screen credit--was he director Norman Lloyd's son?
  • Robin Warga (1949- ) as another boy; his brief screen career lasted from 1958 to 1962, with one last credit in 1975.
  • Phil Phillips as Henry, another boy; he was on screen, mostly TV, from 1956 to 1963.
Watch "The Contest for Aaron Gold" for free online here or order the DVD here. Read the GenreSnaps take on this episode here.


The FictionMags Index,

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



"The Contest for Aaron Gold" Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 6, episode 4, NBC, 18 Oct., 1960.

Roth, Philip. "The Contest for Aaron Gold."  Fifty Best American Short Stories. Ed. Martha Foley. New York, NY, Avenel Books, 1986. 549-62.

Stephensen-Payne, Phil. Galactic Central,

Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation,

In two weeks: Gratitude, starring Peter Falk!

Listen to Al Sjoerdsma discuss "The Gentleman from America" here!

Listen to Annie and Kathryn discuss "A Bullet for Baldwin" here!


Grant said...

I've only seen it once or twice but it always stays with me.
In a loose way it's kind of a companion piece to the movie "Bless The Beasts and children."

Todd Mason said...

Well, BLESS was based on a novel by a similarly-talented writer, Glendon Swarthout, even if the film lacked subtlety--I liked it a lot, even as it depressed me, as a kid.

I see you used my scan of the EPOCH issue cover! Here's the review post I wrote on that EPOCH issue (check out who else is in the issue), and ELLERY QUEEN'S and FANTASY AND SCIENCE FICTION issues of similar vintage. Seemed like a good idea at the time:

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, guys! Todd, I pulled the cover image from Galactic Central and credited it, but it did not say where it got the image from, so thanks for letting me know.