Thursday, November 3, 2022

The Hitchcock Project-Helen Nielsen Part Two: The Baby-Blue Expression [6.12]

by Jack Seabrook

Helen Nielsen's second teleplay for Alfred Hitchcock Presents was "The Baby-Blue Expression," which aired on NBC on Tuesday, December 20, 1960. It was based on a short story called "Sapphire Mink" by Mary Stolz; the story was published in the April 1960 issue of Argosy and has never been reprinted.

Mrs. James Barret, the beautiful, young wife of a wealthy man, has been having an affair with Phillip Weaver, who insists that she meet him in "a sort of meek disguise" in "out-of-the-way places." Phillip has decided that he must do away with her husband, so they haven't seen each other or spoken for a month. She misses him so much that she decides to disobey his instructions and telephone him at the office, but she relents when Raynder, the butler, offers to place the call for her. Initially angry at her inability to come up with a way to contact her lover, Mrs. Barret eventually resigns herself to silence.

"Sapphire Mink" was
first published here
In the morning mail, she receives an unsigned letter from Phillip, who flatters her and instructs her to write "a good smarmy letter" to her husband and mail it today. It will reach his client's office in Liverpool tomorrow and, after Phillip has killed James, the lovers can be together. She complies, writing a long letter to James, angry at the way Phillip treats her. Mrs. Barret gives the letter to Raynder to mail and, after lunch, invites friends over for cocktails. Remembering that she must destroy Phillip's letter, she looks for it and realizes that, in her anger, she stuffed it into the envelope with the letter to James.

Mrs. Barret tries to think of a way to retrieve the letter and faints. Ellen, the maid, puts her to bed and calls off the cocktail party. The next morning, Raynder tells Mrs. Barret that he brought the letter back because it had no stamp on it. When she asks for its return, however, he assures her that he added stamps and mailed it. Mrs. Barret realizes that her "baby-blue expression," which causes men to dote on her, has sealed her and Phillip's doom.

Sarah Marshall as Mrs. Barret
Never given a first name throughout "Sapphire Mink," Mrs. Barret is treated like an object by the men in her life, including her husband, her lover, and the butler. She becomes enraged by her inability to get what she wants, and the only people who have witnessed her fits of anger are her parents, "long ago," suggesting a childish tantrum. Phillips's letter to her is filled with language that is condescending and offensive, and when she writes the letter to her husband, "her resentment mount[s]." She does not love Phillip's "arrogance, his high-handedness," and thinks that "[b]ecause she had a face like a doll, he assumed she had the mind of one, could continually be treated like one." Yet for all of her mental resistance to being characterized as a doll, she makes a dangerous mistake by including Phillip's letter in the envelope addressed to James. This is done in an emotional moment, her hand shaking with "fury," and her carelessness suggests that she is closer to the "featherbrain" that her men believe her to be than the clever woman that she thinks herself to be. In the end, her power over men leads to her downfall when Raynder, the butler who is as smitten with her as are her husband and her lover, uses his own money to buy stamps and mail the fatal letter.

Peter Walker as Phillip
The point of the story is that Phillip has figured out a way to kill James without being suspected, and he thinks that the love letter from Mrs. Barret to her husband will serve to divert suspicion from her. Only her careless act will seal their mutual doom, since Phillip will have killed James before he learns of her mistake. And what of the story's title, "Sapphire Mink"? It refers to a fur color that was developed after 1940 by cross-breeding minks; the color is a light grey and, in 1960, would have represented a sought-after and expensive coat, the type of coat that the wife of a wealthy man would wear.

Stolz's short story runs just six and a half pages in the digest Argosy and has little dialogue, few characters, and minimal changes of scenery. In adapting it for television, Helen Nielsen retitled it "The Baby-Blue Expression" and added humor, perhaps to reflect the absurdity of the situation. Though James and Phillip are only mentioned in the short story, they are very much a part of the TV show, which opens with Phillip being called into James's office. James is rushing to fly to Toronto (the setting has been moved from England to the U.S.), and this scene gives the viewer the opportunity to see the age difference between Mrs. Barret's husband and her lover.

Richard Gaines as James
Mrs. Barret speaks with James by telephone and is seen lounging in bed with her small dog; James calls her "Poopsie" and she shows her lack of education by not knowing where Toronto is and asking if it's overseas. Mrs. Barret tells her husband that she'll "have lunch with one of the girls" and there is a dissolve to a shot of her entering a fine restaurant, wearing a mink coat and dark sunglasses. She joins Phillip at his table and he criticizes her "getup"--Nielsen has taken the opposite tack from the story, where Mrs. Barret only met Phillip in out of the way places, wearing a meek disguise. They have not seen each other for a month, unlike in the story, where they have been apart for that length of time when she receives his letter.

The effect of the woman's baby-blue expression is muted in black and white. Phillip explains his plan for James's impending demise, telling her to see James off and await further instructions by mail. Her reaction to the plan to murder her husband? "'I look lovely in black.'" Back at home, James speaks with Ellen, the maid, and Mrs. Barret gets up early to see her husband off to Toronto. Harry, the concierge, enters, bringing the mail and fawning over Mrs. Barret--he replaces the short story's butler, Raynder. Mrs. Barret sorts through the mail demonstrating her carelessness by tossing letters one by one onto the floor as she walks into the bedroom.

Leonard Weinrib as Harry
Phillip's voice is heard in voiceover reading the letter as she reads it to herself; much of what was in the letter in the story has already been covered in the TV show's earlier scene at lunch. Mrs. Barret sits at her desk and writes the letter to her husband, without any of the anger she displays in the story. Mrs. Barret has framed photos of James and Phillip on her desk and is only able to write the smarmy letter expressing her love for James when she gazes at Phillip's photo. The camera shows her carelessly folding the letter from Phillip in with her letter to James; in the story, the reader only learns of her mistake when she does, but in the TV show, the viewer witnesses it prior to her discovery of her error.

Edit Angold as Ellen
To further open up the TV show, Nielsen has Mrs. Barret take her dog out for a walk and mail the letter herself, turning down Harry's offer to mail it for her. At the mailbox, she encounters a solicitous man named Raymond (his name is similar to that of the story's butler), who knows her and who dotes on her. She does not recognize him, but she invites him to a cocktail party later that afternoon. A scene follows with Mrs. Barret and Ellen, where Mrs. Barret telephones people and invites them to the party. She realizes what happened to the letter and rushes outside to the mailbox, only to see the mail truck driving away.

Here, Nielsen expands the story considerably. Instead of fainting and having the party canceled, Mrs. Barret goes to the post office, where she discovers that she can't get the letter back without filling out a form, and the mail to Toronto has already left, in any case. Her interaction with the frazzled postal clerk adds humor to the situation, as does the moment when Mrs. Barret sees a wanted poster on the wall and imagines her own face on it. She returns home, morose, and tries to call James in Toronto, but she is interrupted by the arrival of party guests, led by Raymond, who is outgoing and attentive to her. He adds more humor to the show, sitting next to her on the bed, bouncing, and remarking, "'Alone at last!'" with a leer.

Chet Stratton as Raymond
Unable to reach James, Mrs. Barret joins the party, where Raymond and another man continue to dote on her. She finally gets through to Toronto, only to learn that James never arrived at his destination. She realizes that Phillip's plan to kill her husband has succeeded. Harry rings the doorbell and the show ends like the story, with him explaining that the letter came back and he remailed it. There is a fadeout on her baby-blue expression, just as in the story, which ends: "She was wondering what Phillip would say when he realised how far her baby-blue expression had taken them."

Despite portraying Mrs. Barret as a one-dimensional character, "The Baby-Blue Expression" succeeds in translating "Sapphire Mink" from page to small screen. Mrs. Barret is even more of a featherbrain than she is in the short story; she lacks the anger at the way she is treated by men and her mistake with the letter is due to carelessness rather than rage.

Liz Carr as Lotte
Viewing this episode over sixty years later, it's hard to take the character of Mrs. Barret seriously in light of the advances in women's rights in the interim years. However, perhaps the show has a feminist message buried deep beneath the surface. While Mrs. Barret could be charged as an accessory to murder, the police force and the court system were still overwhelmingly male, and her baby-blue expression, which had such an effect on every man she met, could surely have kept her out of prison!

"The Baby-Blue Expression" is directed by Arthur Hiller (1923-2016). Born in Canada, he had a long career as a director, from 1954 to 2006, starting out in TV and ending up in film. He was president of the Director's Guild of America from 1989 to 1993 and directed 17 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Disappearing Trick." He also directed three episodes of Thriller and the classic comedy, The In-Laws (1979).

Frank Richards as
the postal clerk
Mary Stolz (1920-2006), who wrote "Sapphire Mink," was born in Boston and, by 1949, she was homebound due to arthritis. She began to write and the first of her many novels was published in 1950. She wrote over sixty books in her career and was known as a skilled writer of books for children and young adults, winning various awards that included Newberry Honors. She wrote one adult novel and the FictionMags Index lists fourteen short stories of hers, most of which were published in women's magazines. A short story collection, The Beautiful Friend and Other Stories, was published in 1960 but does not include "Sapphire Mink." "The Baby-Blue Expression" is the only one of her works to be adapted for the screen.

Born in London, Sarah Marshall (1933-2014), who plays Mrs. Barret, was the daughter of Herbert Marshall and Edna Best. Best appeared in Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much the year after her daughter was born, and Herbert Marshall appeared in two of Hitchcock's films and two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Sarah Marshall acted on Broadway from 1951 to 1962 and on screen from 1954 to 2012, appearing on The Twilight Zone, Thriller, and Star Trek. She was on the Hitchcock show three times, including "The Twelve Hour Caper."

Charles H. Carlson
Peter Walker (1927- ) plays Phillip; he was on screen from 1952 to 2000, appeared on The Twilight Zone and Thriller, and was seen in two other episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Invitation to an Accident."

Richard Gaines (1904-1975) plays James; he was 29 years older than Sarah Marshall. Gaines was a character actor who appeared in Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944) and Ace in the Hole (1951), as well as making 14 appearances as a judge on the Perry Mason TV series. He also appeared on Alfred Hitchcock Presents in "The Case of M.J.H.," which is listed as his last acting credit.

In smaller roles:
  • Leonard Weinrib (1935-2006) as Harry, the doorman; he started on TV in 1959 and was seen on Alfred Hitchcock Presents three times, including "The Last Remains." He also had a long career as a voiceover artist, writing and starring as H.R. Pufnstuf in the Krofft TV series, as Scrappy Doo in Scooby Doo, and many others.
  • Edit Angold (1895-1971) as Ellen, the maid; she was born Edit Goldstandt in Berlin and had a career on the German stage and on film in Germany before coming to the US, where she was on screen from 1940-1967. This was one of four appearances on the Hitchcock series, including "Sylvia."
  • Chet Stratton (1910-1970) as Raymond; he performed in vaudeville as a child and had a busy career on stage and on radio; he also was seen on screen from 1949 to 1972, including episodes of The Twilight Zone and Thriller. This was his only role on the Hitchcock show.
  • Liz Carr as Lotte, the party guest who says she's "'going strictly on nerves and vitamin pills"; she has only four TV credits, from 1958 to 1960, and two are on Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
  • Frank Richards (1909-1992) as the postal clerk; he served in WWII and appeared on radio; his screen career lasted from 1940 to 1984. He was on The Twilight Zone and one other episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
  • Charles H. Carlson (1930-2013) as the party guest who joins Raymond in flirting with Mrs. Barret; during a seven-year TV career, from 1960 to 1967, he appeared on The Twilight Zone and was on Alfred Hitchcock Presents five times, including "Where Beauty Lies."
Watch "The Baby-Blue Expression" online here or order the DVD here. Read the GenreSnaps review here.


"The Baby-Blue Expression." Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 6, episode 12, CBS, 20 Dec. 1960.


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


Stephensen-Payne, Phil. Galactic Central,

Stolz, Mary. "Sapphire Mink." Argosy, Apr. 1960, pp. 101-07.

Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation,

Listen to Al Sjoerdsma discuss "Crack of Doom" here!

Listen to Annie and Kathryn discuss "Mother, May I Go Out to Swim?" here!

In two weeks: Our look at episodes written by Helen Nielsen ends with "You Can't Trust a Man," starring Polly Bergen!

No comments: