Thursday, June 1, 2023

The Hitchcock Project-Halsted Welles Part Two-The Silk Petticoat [7.13]

by Jack Seabrook

Eccentric London scholar Humphrey Orford spends his days translating a sixteenth-century Italian epic poem and writing essays that are never published. In 1733, he lives in a mansion near Covent Garden and has no relations; his ailing wife Flora died a few weeks after they moved to the city from Suffolk twenty years before. She was buried in the cemetery outside St. Paul's and has been long forgotten when Orford is betrothed to wed young Elisa Minden, whose father is a friend of her husband-to-be.

A week before the wedding day, Humphrey insists on showing Flora's grave to Elisa; when he remarks that his late wife is lying right beneath them and could stand up and grab the young woman's dress, Elisa is terrified. Humphrey calls Flora "'a wicked woman'" and tells his fiance not to be afraid of the dead. They return to Orford's home for tea with Elisa's father, aunt, and cousin Philip, a young soldier. Elisa dislikes the house and begins to wonder why she agreed to marry the older man. The guests tour the house and Elisa sees Humphrey's study, where his desk sits in front of a painting of a man hanging from a gallows. She also observes a silk petticoat draped over the back of a chair. The article of clothing has been mended and patched many times and Humphrey tells Elisa that it is a gift for her. All of the guests suspect that the petticoat had belonged to Flora, but Humphrey lies and says that it belongs to Mrs. Boyd, the housekeeper.

"The Scoured Silk"
was first published here
Elisa also observes a portrait of Flora before she and the other guests leave. At home, Elisa asks Philip to come with her to speak to Mrs. Boyd. Returning to Humphrey's house, the pair visit the old housekeeper in her basement room and ask her to tell them about Flora, who had been the pretty daughter of Humphrey's gamekeeper. After they wed, he caught her with a lover, shut up their house, and brought her to London. She died and no one saw her again. Humphrey had her lover arrested and the young man was hanged; it is his picture that adorns the wall in Orford's study. Mrs. Boyd reveals that Humphrey talks to the portrait, addressing Flora, and then imitates her voice, responding. As for the silk petticoat, Flora was wearing it when she was caught with her lover.

After an altercation between Humphrey and Philip, the soldier leaves with Elisa and tells her that she will not marry Orford. The next day, Philip comes home and announces that Humphrey has been murdered in his study. He was found sitting at his desk with a knife in his back; he had locked himself in the evening before to eat dinner and in the morning he was discovered dead, the door still locked. Everyone is mystified until Elisa insists on visiting the scene of the crime. She observes that the silk petticoat is gone and, as she looks around the room, she notices the corner of the garment sticking out from behind a door hidden in the wall behind the desk. A small, secret chamber is discovered, and inside it is the body of Flora, a white kerchief knotted fatally around her throat, wearing the silk petticoat. Her husband had kept her prisoner in the cupboard for twenty years and had cut out her tongue to prevent her from calling for help. Her coffin was exhumed and found to be empty; no one ever was certain why she finally chose to get her revenge.

Michael Rennie as Humphrey Orford
"The Scoured Silk" is a haunting story with one curious flaw: how did Flora die? Did she murder her husband and then strangle herself by knotting a kerchief around her own neck? Is that even possible? Other than that, it is a thrilling, well-told story featuring a young heroine who barely avoids marrying a man who treated his wife with unbelievable cruelty. The story was first published in the June 8, 1918 issue of All-Story Weekly, as part of a series called "Crimes of Old London." The author, Marjorie Bowen, was the pseudonym of Margaret Gabrielle Vere Long (1885-1952), a British novelist and biographer who wrote her first novel, The Viper of Milan, at age sixteen. When it was published it was a bestseller and she continued writing numerous stories and novels throughout the rest of her life, sometimes using the pseudonyms Joseph Shearing and George Preedy. In fact, "The Scoured Silk" was reprinted in the August 1951 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine under the byline, Joseph Shearing.

Antoinette Bower as Elisa Minden
When Bowen's short story was adapted for Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1961 it was retitled "The Silk Petticoat," and there may have been some difficulty in writing the teleplay, since it is credited to Halsted Welles and Norman Ginsbury, which may mean that one of the writers turned in a script that had to be rewritten by the other. The show aired on NBC on Tuesday, January 2, 1962, and is a fascinating example of how an old story was adapted for television in the early 1960s. The central plot elements remain, yet there are significant changes that deepen the narrative and clear up its one curious flaw.

The show begins with a title card that reads, "London 1817," so the events have been advanced 84 years from those of the short story. A horse-drawn carriage brings Humphrey and Elisa to the churchyard, where her bright, sunny disposition contrasts with his grim outlook. He shows her Flora's gravestone, which reads that she died in 1793, 24 years earlier and thus almost a quarter century before the events of the show; the 24-year gap in time makes the show's final scene even more horrible. Unlike the short story, where Elisa is not said to be unaware of her predecessor, in the TV show she is surprised by the revelation and, while in the short story Humphrey suggests to his young fiance that Flora could reach up from her grave and touch her, that thought comes from Elisa in the TV show.

In the following scene, Elisa's father arrives at Orford's house and is welcomed by Mrs. Boyd, the housekeeper. He describes himself as a "'country doctor'" who cannot "'afford to live so luxuriously,'" adding a financial motive to his daughter's upcoming marriage that is absent from the story. The other guests--Philip and the doctor's sister--are missing from the TV version; Philip does not enter the story until a later scene. Humphrey and Elisa return home and she asks to see his study, which she has yet to visit.

Whoever painted this could have
gone on to stock the Night Gallery!
When Humphrey brings Elisa and her father to see his study, he comments on his "'work on the early Christian martyrs,'" a change from the story, where he was translating an Italian Romantic poem, a pursuit made to seem rather frivolous. Humphrey shows them a book of the life of St. Sebastian and discusses the fate of the martyr, calling his agony "'exquisite'" in a curious moment that makes him seem odd and appears to raise suspicion in the minds of his guests. "'In that condition, the victim's pain becomes pleasure so that those who inflict it can hardly be called torturers or even sinners.'" This strange bit of dialogue makes sense at the end of the episode when Flora's captivity is revealed; looking back, one suspects that Humphrey thought of himself as a modern-day archer, whose decades-long torture of his wife was a kind of purification ritual justified by her sin. After she discovers the painting of the hanged man and Orford leaves the room, Elisa comments to her father about her fiance's change in demeanor when he discussed St. Sebastian and torture: "'he seemed to revel in it.'" This frightens Elisa but, when she shares her concerns with her father as they leave, he reveals that he is in debt to Humphrey and marriage to Elisa will settle the obligation.

In the next scene, Elisa returns to the Orford house alone to speak with Mrs. Boyd. Unlike the story, where Philip accompanies Elisa and her father on their visit to Humphrey's house and then returns with Elisa to interview Mrs. Boyd, the TV show finds Elisa having this discussion without him. Instead of discussing Orford's past and his first wife with Mrs. Boyd in her basement room, Flora insists on being allowed to inspect the study. At first, Mrs. Boyd resists, claiming that she does not have a key, but eventually Elisa's determination wins out, Mrs. Boyd takes out the key from its hiding place, and they enter. Elisa asks about the silk petticoat and confirms that it does not belong to the housekeeper, who tells the story of Flora's deception and death, which Mrs. Boyd ascribes to "'terror or hatred.'" The housekeeper shows Elisa the portrait of the hanged man, who was Flora's lover; instead of being tucked away, as it had been in the earlier scene, it is now displayed prominently on a wall. Suddenly, Humphrey enters the study, dismisses Mrs. Boyd, and tells Elisa the tragic tale that is told by Mrs. Boyd in the short story.

Jack Livesey as Dr. Minden
The TV version continues to change from its source in the next scene, where Elisa enters in a wedding dress, presumably on the day of her wedding. She is nervous but comes to life when a maid announces that Philip has arrived. Moving his entrance later in the sequence of events makes it more consequential than it is in the short story, where he accompanies Elisa and her father when they visit the house and view the study. Elisa rushes to see Philip and Humphrey is visibly threatened by the young man and by Elisa's reaction to his presence, leaving the room and later hiding when Philip is about to depart so he can witness the chaste kiss on the cheek that the soldier gives to his cousin, along with the look of disappointment on her face when he leaves.

The next scene takes place that evening in Humphrey's bedroom; he invites Elisa to toast their marriage, so the wedding must have gone forward as planned, something that never happens in the short story and an event that makes Orford a bigamist. He again brings up her cousin Philip and the viewer is reminded of his first wife, who betrayed him; it becomes clear that Humphrey is concerned that history will repeat itself when he provokes an argument with Elisa by accusing her of plotting to meet Philip on her return from her honeymoon. The scene ends as Humphrey roughly kisses Elisa, a kiss that has no tenderness and is not returned.

Doris Lloyd as Mrs. Boyd
The final scene of the episode begins with Dr. Minden pacing in the foyer of his daughter's new home; she rushes down the stairs and summons him to come up and help find out why Humphrey is locked in his study and not answering. In the short story, Elisa has not yet married Humphrey when Philip returns to her father's home and delivers the news that Orford has been found dead. The TV version takes this scene and makes it more exciting by showing the viewer the discovery of the corpse. Dr. Minden puts his shoulder to the door and breaks the lock; he, Elisa, and Mrs. Boyd burst into Orford's study and are shocked to find him lying dead on the floor, his chair overturned, rather than sitting at his desk with a knife in his back, as in the short story.

In the TV version, there is no knife in sight, but Dr. Minden announces that Orford has been stabbed. Immediately, Elisa notices the corner of the petticoat sticking out from behind the hidden door and, after a bit of wall-tapping and careful examination, her father presses a hidden button and the door swings open to reveal the haggard face of Flora, who is very much alive but obviously insane. Mrs. Boyd helpfully tells the viewer that "'she must have stabbed him with the paper knife'" and Dr. Minden takes the bloody weapon from her motionless hand.

David Frankham as Philip
The final shock is delivered when the doctor examines Flora's mouth (thankfully the camera cuts away from this) and, when Elisa asks why the woman never cried out for help, her father responds, "'He's thought of that. He cut out her tongue!'" The trio walk out of the frame and the music swells as the camera slowly moves in to focus on Flora, wearing the silk petticoat and displaying a look of puzzled, insane horror on her face as the screen fades to black.

"The Scoured Silk" is a great horror story, but "The Silk Petticoat" improves on its source by leaving Flora alive at the end of the show. The confusion of her apparent suicide by neckerchief in the short story is eliminated and the look of madness on her face expresses the horror of her decades-long confinement to grim effect. The acting in this episode is excellent. Michael Rennie plays Orford as coolly evil; his tall, thin frame and patrician face are perfect for the character. Antoinette Bower, as Elisa, is also strong, demonstrating a character that may be more consistent with the 1961 date of filming than the 1817 setting.

Mollie Glessing as the maid
As for the supporting players, Jack Livesey is convincing as the country doctor in debt to Orford who is happy to sell his daughter to an older man in order to cancel his obligation. Doris Lloyd is shaky as Mrs. Boyd, at one point calling Dr. Minden "'Dr. Lubin'" and at another flubbing her line and immediately repeating it; the speed of filming and budgetary constrictions must have prevented re-filming the scene. David Frankham makes a brief appearance as Philip and Mollie Glessing has a short stint as the maid. Shirley O'Hara is haunting as Flora; she has no lines, of course, but the expression on her face is unforgettable.

The show is directed by John Newland (1917-2000), of One Step Beyond fame, whose style--at least in this episode--is unusual in that he mostly eschews the standard shot-reverse shot sequences that are so often used to display conversations between two characters. Instead, he films each character saying their line in closeup, cutting from one to the other and not relating them to each other in space. Newland got his start in Vaudeville and was an actor before he became a director. He is best known for hosting and directing the TV series One Step Beyond (1959-1961) and its sequel, The Next Step Beyond (1978). Newland directed other classic episodes of favorite TV series, including "I Kiss Your Shadow" on Bus Stop and "Pigeons From Hell" on Thriller. "The Silk Petticoat" was one of four episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents that he directed, including "Bad Actor."

The teleplay is credited to Halsted Welles and Norman Ginsbury (1902-1991), a British playwright who has a couple of films and a number of TV shows to his credit, between the late 1940s and the early 1960s. I suspect that he wrote the original teleplay and Halsted Welles reworked it, since this was the only time Ginsbury's name appeared in the ten years of the Hitchcock TV show.

Shirley O'Hara as Flora
Michael Rennie (1909-1971) was born Eric Alexander Rennie in England. He started acting late, at age 26, and his first film role was as a stand-in for Robert Young in Hitchcock's Secret Agent (1936). He became a star after WWII and his best-remembered role is in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). He acted on TV starting in 1956 and appeared on Batman, as well as in two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and "The Long Silence" on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

Antoinette Bower (1932- ) had just started her career on TV the year before this episode was filmed. She would go on to appear in movies and on TV into the early 1990s, including two roles on Alfred Hitchcock Presents (the other is "A Woman's Help," where she plays the other woman in a love triangle), as well as appearances on The Twilight Zone, Thriller, Star Trek, and many other shows. She still lives in Los Angeles and has appeared at conventions, greeting fans of classic TV.

In smaller roles:
  • Jack Livesey (1901-1961) was on screen from 1917 to 1961, appeared on Thriller, and had parts in three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "The Last Escape."
  • Doris Lloyd (1896(?)-1968) was born in Liverpool, started out in Vaudeville in 1916, and appeared in over 150 films from 1920 to 1967, including Phantom Lady (1944). She was in four episodes of Thriller and nine episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "Dip in the Pool."
  • David Frankham (1926- ) worked for the BBC from 1948 to 1955 before coming to the U.S. and becoming an actor. He was on screen from 1956 until 2010 and wrote an autobiography titled Which One Was David? He was also seen in "The Impromptu Murder" on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and "Murder Case" on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.
  • Mollie Glessing (1891-1971) made a habit of playing maids and was in seven episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "The Orderly World of Mr. Appleby." always in small roles.
  • Shirley O'Hara (1924-2002) played small parts on film and TV from 1943 to 1980. She was on the Hitchcock show three times, including "Death of a Cop," and she appeared on The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits.
Read "The Scoured Silk" here or watch the TV version here.


Bowen, Marjorie. "The Scoured Silk." The Cold Embrace: Weird Stories By Women. Ed. S.T. Joshi. Mineola: Dover, 2016. 219-235.

Collected Twilight Stories, Vol. I, Accessed 21 May 2023.


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


"Marjorie Bowen." The Cold Embrace, p. 267.

"The Silk Petticoat." Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 7, episode 13, CBS, 2 January 1962.

Stephensen-Payne, Phil. Galactic Central,

Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation,

Listen to Al Sjoerdsma discuss "Crackpot" here!

In two weeks: Our series on Halsted Welles concludes with a look at "Strange Miracle," starring David Opatoshu!


Grant said...

I don't know how many of these demure characters she's known for, but Antoinette Bower is also famous for playing the flipside of that, a real "shrew" wife, in the COLUMBO episode "Negative Reaction."

Jack Seabrook said...

She was appealing and not your typical ingenue.

john kenrick said...

A fine review, Jack, of a well above average Hitchcock episode, nicely written and presented, with a level of sophistication that was unusual even on the usually more grounded (if you will) Hitchcock show.

The words that weren't used, the images we never saw, are huge factors in why The Silk Petticoat works so well, lingers in the mind; or in my mind anyway. In this, it's rather like a half-hour period version of Psycho with a different plot but a similar story trajectory, albeit not a visual shocker; nor does it feature any real action.

Miss Bower was lovely and effective in her role; while Michael Rennie worked wonders with what was in fact the rather little he had to do, in his use of his voice, face and posture. I like this one a lot even as I admit that it leaves a bad taste at the end, however wasn't that the intention?

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, John. I agree with you. The final scene is such a shock and so unexpected that it forces you to rethink everything that came before it.

john kenrick said...

I appreciate your quick response, Jack. The way The Silk Petticoat ends creates an air of mystery, already present in the course of the episode itself, now enlarged and expanded, compounded by issues of human nature, how humane we really are when he acquire power; and then, the cruelty of power, the ease with which those who hold it can punish those whom they regarded as transgressors of their (or so they believe) higher morals, which, as we see in the course of the story, even early on, Humphrey Ormond's fascination with cruelty and punishment, and a clear lack of empathy, which he cleverly hides behind his gentleman's facade.

One can't help but ponder these issues as the episode draws to a close, although it's worth a ponder that the first Mrs Ormond (if that's what she really was), in doing what she felt was just and necessary, essentially freed the second Mrs Ormond in her murder of her husband, giving the second wife the opportunity to live a life of full measure rather than the brutally truncated one she was forced to endure in her captivity.This episode is far more profound, and it goes deeper, as an exploration of the hearts of men, than its almost too easy to dismiss surface genre aspects of its story might suggest. There's so much more to it than that, as it's far more than a gruesome tale well told.

Anonymous said...

Great review .Had seen the episode years ago —knew it had an ending I did not want to see at 2 I came here to READ the ending.Just excellent description .

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks for reading and for leaving a comment!

Anonymous said...

I rather thought it reminded me very much of Jane Erye, but with a much sinister antagonist.

Jack Seabrook said...

That's a good comparison.