Thursday, June 2, 2022

The Hitchcock Project-Sarett Rudley Part Six: Bull in a China Shop [3.26]

by Jack Seabrook

"Bull in a China Shop"
was first published here
C.B. Gilford's short story, "Bull in a China Shop," opens as Detective Dennis O'Finn announces to a group of five little old ladies that he finds "'no evidence of foul play'" in the death of their friend, Mrs. Eloise Albertson. She accidentally took arsenic, he explains to her housemates, whom he identifies by their clothes: Miss Green Shawl, Miss Necklace of Pearls, and so on. They insist that he stay for tea and he agrees, unaware of how attractive he is to the women. O'Finn tells them that "'the case is closed,'" to their disappointment, and leaves after advising them not to "'leave that rat poison where someone can get hold of it again and take another lethal dose.'"

The next day, O'Finn tells his partner, Ginsberg, that he felt like a "'bull in a china shop.'" Three and a half weeks later, he returns to the women's house to investigate another suspicious death. Miss Old-Fashioned Bonnet lies dead on the kitchen floor and O'Finn questions her housemates, who are cooperative and anxious for him to return. The next day, the police determine that the victim died of arsenic poisoning. O'Finn suspects that she was not specifically targeted and Ginsburg suggests that the murder was committed to lure O'Finn back to the house. "'They're in love with you, O'Finn,'" he adds.

Dennis Morgan as O'Finn
Returning to the house to question the women, O'Finn begins to think that Ginsburg's assessment of the situation is accurate. He is unable to figure out which woman is at fault, so he announces that it must not have been murder and stays away from the house to see what happens. Three weeks later, another murder is reported. O'Finn rushes to the house and finds Miss Green Shroud dead, having been found by Miss Starched Apron, who dropped her "'tray of cups and things'" in surprise. O'Finn surveys the three remaining women and examines the broken china, deducing that Miss Starched Apron is the culprit, since she frugally brought less expensive cups into the room with the corpse, knowing that she would drop the tray in feigned surprise. O'Finn bids the last two women farewell, lying that he is being transferred to the Arson Squad and later lying awake, "listening for the sound of Fire Department sirens."

"Bull in a China Shop" was first published in the September 1957 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and was later chosen for the 13th Annual Collection of Best Detective Stories of the Year, edited by David C. Cooke and published in 1958. The title has more than one meaning; the straightforward meaning refers to "a person who breaks things or who often makes mistakes or causes damage in situations that require careful thinking or behavior," which seems to refer to O'Finn's place in the old women's home; "bull" is also slang for a policeman and it can also refer to "bull****," which the women could be said to provide to O'Finn in lieu of honest explanations.

Estelle Winwood as Hilda Lou
Gilford's story recalls Arsenic and Old Lace in that it features eccentric older women and arsenic and shares the humorous touch found in the earlier play and film. The women are only given names once they die; other than that, O'Finn identifies them by their outdated clothing. He is both "a magnificent Irish cop" and a caricature of the type.

The story was purchased for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and assigned to Sarett Rudley to adapt for television. It aired on CBS on Sunday, March 30, 1958, in the latter part of the third season. The TV version improves on the short story, adding some scenes, compressing others, and giving the story more depth. The age of the women's home is signified in the initial shots; there is a closeup of house number 909 above the front door before the camera pulls back to show O'Finn ringing an old-fashioned doorbell that requires him to turn a crank.

Unlike the story, the women are given names; Miss Hilda Lou welcomes him in, as coquettish as a 75-year-old woman can be. She joins Miss Birdie, Miss Bessie, and Miss Amantha, forming a foursome of spinsters who stand together, giggling like schoolgirls. In the TV version, O'Finn lives "'across the court'" from the women, which is how they got to know him and developed an interest in the detective. They have been watching him and know that he is 45 years old and single, with a strawberry mark on his left shoulder.

Elizabeth Patterson as Miss Bessie
The women stand together in front of a sofa, hiding it from sight, until they shuffle sideways as one to reveal the corpse of Miss Elizabeth, who is decked out in death with items that remain precious to the other women. O'Finn departs with no sense that she was poisoned; he first learns of the cause of death when he is back at the station, speaking with his partner, who has been renamed Kramer. Instead of a second death bringing him back, the news that the victim was poisoned sends O'Finn back to the house, where the women have set the table in anticipation of his return. He gives them back the items that had been placed on the corpse and sees that they have a spyglass with which they have been watching him through the window.

This scene corresponds to the first scene in the short story, but it is followed by one where the women watch O'Finn through their spyglass as he dresses; he even sings a few bars of a song about being Irish, until he realizes that he is being watched and pulls down the shade, disappointing his elderly neighbors. The second and third murders in the story are compressed into a single murder in the TV show; this time, it is Miss Amantha who is found dead, and O'Finn figures out the killer's identity by piecing together the broken teacup at the police laboratory, rather than at the women's home.

Ellen Corby as Miss Amantha
Returning to 909 Lexington, he identifies Miss Hilda Lou as the murderer and she is delighted by his cleverness. He explains his rationale and the women's reaction is priceless; Miss Hilda Lou puts on a hat and makes it clear that she is looking forward to being questioned, leaving with O'Finn as if going on a date. While the short story ends here, the TV show goes on, with a scene at the police station where Kramer teases O'Finn, who reveals that he asked to be transferred to Arson. His offhand remark to the women in the story becomes reality in the show, and it is followed by a brief, final scene: O'Finn is at home in the evening when he hears fire trucks outside. He turns on the police radio and hears cars being summoned to 909 Lexington to respond to a fire; in the final shot, he looks out of his window and the flames next door are reflected on his face. The fear that ends the short story has become reality in the TV show.

In adapting the story for the small screen, Rudley expands the dialogue and the scenes among the women; it remains a black comedy where murder is played for laughs and the loneliness of elderly women drives them to crime. Yet there is tragedy beneath the surface. Miss Hilda Lou compares Detective O'Finn to her fiancee Jonas, whom she could not succeed in bringing back to her long ago. Now, she succeeds in bringing O'Finn back by resorting to murder. "Bull in a China Shop" is a humorous treatment of a tragic story of a lonely old woman who once lost her love and is determined not to let it happen again.

The elderly women at 909 Lexington support each other, living together in a boarding house that is like a fortress, a bastion against advancing years. The house is a relic and inside it the women can maintain the illusion among themselves of being youthful. They act like young girls when O'Finn visits; he tolerates it, but it is ridiculous to the outside observer. There are only two ways out of the prison that is 909 Lexington: death or crime. At the end, Miss Hilda Lou bravely sets off into the real world, excited to resume the life that was put on hold many years ago when her fiancee failed to return. The other two women realize what she has done and set fire to the house, symbolically destroying their haven and crying out to join her.

Ida Moore as Miss Birdie
Top billing goes to Dennis Morgan 1908-1994) as O'Finn. Born Earl Stanley Morner, he began his career as a radio announcer and later began singing on the radio. He was initially billed in films as Stanley Morner, then as Richard Stanley, and finally as Dennis Morgan. He appeared on screen beginning in 1933 and his career lasted until 1980. He was often teamed with Jack Carson in film roles and this was his only appearance on the Hitchcock TV show.

Estelle Winwood (1883-1984) is superb as Hilda Lou. Born Estelle Ruth Goodwin in England, she appeared on stage there until coming to the U.S. in 1916. She appeared on Broadway for decades and made a few films before her TV debut in 1946. She was frequently seen on TV up to 1980, guest starring in five episodes of Batman as well as episodes of The Twilight Zone and Thriller. She was in one other episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, "There Was an Old Woman," where she plays a character similar to Hilda Lou.

Miss Bessie is played by Elizabeth Patterson (1874-1966), who was on Broadway from 1913 to 1954 and on screen from 1926 to 1961. She had a key role in one of my favorite films, Remember the Night (1940), and she also appeared on Alfred Hitchcock Presents in "The Blessington Method."

Ellen Corby (1911-1999) was decades younger than the other actresses in this episode, yet she convincingly portrays Miss Amantha. Born Ellen Hansen, she started out as a script girl in Hollywood and played many uncredited roles on film from 1928 until she got her first screen credit in 1948. Her career continued until 1997 and included appearances on Thriller, Batman, The Odd Couple, and Night Gallery. She was in Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) and she was featured in five episodes of the Hitchcock TV show, including "Party Line." She is best remembered for her role as Grandma Walton on The Waltons (1972-1980), for which she won three Emmy Awards.

Joseph Downing as Kramer
The last of the women in the boarding house is Miss Birdie, played by Ida Moore (1882-1964). She sang to accompany silent films and appeared in a few in 1925, then had a screen career from 1943 to 1959. This episode was the first of her two appearances on Alfred Hitchcock Presents; the other was "I'll Take Care of You."

Joseph Downing (1903-1975) plays O'Finn's partner, Kramer; he was on screen from 1935 to 1963 and also appeared in "The Big Switch" and "Place of Shadows" on Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Finally, the lab technician is played by Paul Maxwell (1921-1991), a Canadian actor who was on screen from 1957 to 1991. He was on Alfred Hitchcock Presents four times, including "The Equalizer" and "The Right Kind of House," and he also played a lab technician in "Backward, Turn Backward." He later provided the voice for Col. Steve Zodiac on Fireball XL-5.

"Bull in a China Shop" was directed by James Neilson (1909-1979), who had directed 33 episodes of Janet Dean, Registered Nurse in the 1954-1955 television season; that show's producer was Joan Harrison, who was also the producer of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and who probably brought Neilson along with her to her new assignment. This was one of 12 episodes he would direct for the Hitchcock series, including "On the Nose."

C.B. Gilford (1920-2010), who wrote the short story, was born in Kansas City, Missouri, and had early success as an author when his novelette "The Liquid Man" was published as the cover story in the September 1941 issue of Fantastic Adventures (read the story here). After this auspicious beginning, Gilford's name disappears from the lists of story credits until 1953; he was graduated from college in 1942 and served in the Army Air Corps from 1942 to 1945. He began work as a college teacher in 1947 and would continue teaching speech, English, drama, theatre, and creative writing for the rest of his career. He married and had four children.

Paul Maxwell
After earning an M.A. in 1947 and a Ph.D. in 1952, he became a prolific writer of short stories, with one source claiming that he wrote over 200 of them; publication dates for the short stories were concentrated in the years between 1953 and 1961. In addition to his own name, C.B. Gilford used pseudonyms such as Donald Campbell, Elizabeth Gregory, and Douglass Farr. He also wrote at least 11 short plays between 1957 and 1969, and at least four novels between 1961 and 1969. A handful of his works were adapted for television, including four episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and one of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. His short stories often have been anthologized, and he told Contemporary Authors that play writing was his first love and that, while he enjoyed writing short stories and novels, "they seem to be harder work, more words have to be gotten on paper. I have no great messages to communicate; just believe in a well-plotted story."

Gilford must have appreciated the TV adaptation of "Bull in a China Shop," because he adapted his own short story as a three-act play of the same title in 1958. In the notes that precede the play, it refers to the TV adaptation in the past tense, suggesting that the play followed the TV show. The play owes quite a bit to Rudley's teleplay; O'Finn lives next door to the women and they spy on him, his partner is named Kramer, and the women are given names. Scene changes are minimized and the majority of the action takes place at the house; there is a significant addition of a new character by the name of Jane Rogers, a female crime reporter who flirts with O'Finn and ignites jealousy in the elderly women. Jane nearly drinks poisoned tea but is spared; at the end of the play, she announces her engagement to O'Finn, and this spells her doom: she is given a box of candy laced with arsenic as an early wedding present and later is reported to have died!

The three-act play must have been successful, because Gilford adapted it once again in 1963 as a one-act play called Any Body for Tea? In this version, Gilford switches the order of events around so that the plays opens with O'Finn explaining to a police captain why he asked to be transferred to the Arson Squad. The story then unfolds in flashback as O'Finn tells the captain what happened. The fact that O'Finn lives across the street from the old women is again central, as is their surreptitious observation of the detective with binoculars, so Rudley's changes and additions to the story for the TV version remain important in the subsequent stage versions. Comparing the short story, the TV show, the three-act play, and the one-act play leads to the conclusion that Gilford had a great idea, Rudley made important changes, and then Gilford refined it over the course of two dramas in the years that followed.

Both versions of the play continue to be performed to this day.

Gilford also adapted two other short stories into plays after they had been adapted as episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents: "Whodunit" and "Guest for Breakfast."

Watch "Bull in a China Shop" online here or buy the DVD here.

Read the GenreSnaps review of "Bull in a China Shop" here.


"Bull in a China Shop." Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 3, episode 26, CBS, 30 Mar. 1958.


Galactic Central,

Gilford, C.B. Any Body for Tea?. Baker's Plays, 1963.

Gilford, C.B. Bull in a China Shop. Baker's Plays, 1958.

Gilford, C.B. "Bull in a China Shop." Best Detective Stories of the Year (13th Annual Collection), Dutton, New York, NY, 1958, pp. 151–164.

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


Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 

Listen to Al Sjoerdsma discuss "Kill with Kindness" here!

Listen to Annie and Kathryn discuss "Bull in a China Shop" here!

In two weeks: Our coverage of Sarett Rudley ends with "The Diamond Necklace," starring Claude Rains!


john kenrick said...

Fun, modest episode. I wasn't so charmed by Dennis Morgan as I suspect I and most viewer were supposed to be. Gender (male) likely a factor.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, John! You should read the one act play version. The women go pretty far in expressing how desirable they find O'Finn.

john kenrick said...

Sounds like fun, Jack, though I wonder just how ga-ga such elderly ladies would go for a man. Then again, maybe it's better not to get an answer on that one...