Thursday, July 26, 2012

Shatner Meets Hitchcock Part Two: Alfred Hitchcock Presents "Mother, May I Go Out To Swim?" PLUS Mini Episode Guide to Shatner Meets Hitchcock

by Jack Seabrook

The title of the short story, “Mother, May I Go Out to Swim?” is based on a nursery rhyme, but the story concerns themes that are decidedly adult. Told in the third person by an omniscient narrator, the tale follows John Tuthill Crane, a 36-year-old mama’s boy who is on vacation at a resort hotel in Maine, missing his mother. As he practices the piano in the resort’s large recreation hall, a young woman approaches and asks him why he plays “like an old woman.” She sits down and plays the same piece with virility. Crane, it seems, was stricken with polio at age 18, and his imperfect form is contrasted with that of the young woman, whose beauty “seemed too close, as if a figure in a canvas was leaning out of its frame.” She is an Austrian emigrant who works in the resort’s gift shop.

The young woman, whose name is Lotte Rank, represents the possibility of a life beyond his mother and wants to take him to see a waterfall up a nearby mountain. Afraid to miss his mother’s nightly call at 8:30, he agrees to go later. Together, John and Lotte climb to the waterfall. Crane views everything that happens to him with the perspective of the cultured education that his mother has directed—his looks are almost Byronic, he plays Prokofieff and Debussy, he mentally compares Lotte to a painting by Trepolo or Delacroix, and when he is with her he thinks of her as La Belle Dame Sans Merci, after the poem of the same name by John Keats.

Torn between the safety of his mother and the risk of Lotte, John thinks “how Claire would like this”; he refers to his mother by her first name, demonstrating an uncomfortable level of familiarity. When he tells Lotte about Claire, however, the young woman calls her a “cannibal mother” who eats her young. Lotte leads John into the water, nude, quoting the nursery rhyme of the story's title when she tells him to “hang your clothes on a hickory limb,” but this time, unlike the mother of the rhyme who tells her child to stay away from the water, Lotte draws John into the life-restoring pool.

William Shatner and Gia Scala
The next day, shame causes John to avoid Lotte as he waits for his mother’s telephone call. That night, he and Lotte return to the waterfall and he again thinks of the Keats poem, remembering the line “And then I closed her wild, wild eyes with kisses four” and applying it to his situation. To John, Lotte is the woman from the poem--an enchantress who enthralls a knight--but this flesh and blood woman does not leave John “alone and palely loitering,” as in “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.” Instead, her enchantment is delirious, not evil, and with her even his musical tastes change from the conservative Debussy to the more adventurous Schoenberg. John’s loyalties become divided and he begins to think of his mother as The Enemy. After a week of nights spent with Lotte, he misses his 8:30 PM call for the first time; when he returns to his room and his mother calls at 2 AM, she is angry and hurt. Lotte tells John that she wants to marry him but he fears his mother would disinherit him. Lotte begins to express her wish that Claire were dead; her devotion to John and her hunger for him seem to be prying him away from his mother’s emotional hold.

Claire telegraphs that she is coming to visit and Lotte suggests a trip to the waterfall, where they can push Claire over the precipice and it will look like an accident. Claire arrives the next day and, after dinner, the trio hike up to the waterfall. “For the first time in several days, [John] was reminded of his lameness” as his mother’s presence begins to sap his masculine will. At the waterfall, he pushes one of the women to her death. We only learn which one at the end of the story, as he relaxes in his room after an inquest has concluded that the death was accidental. Unfortunately for John, he killed Lotte and chose to stay with Claire, ensuring that he will never escape his mother’s domination.

Shatner and Jessie Royce Landis
The short story was written by Hugh C. Wheeler and Richard C. Webb and first published in the July 1948 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine under the pseudonym of Q. Patrick. James P. Cavanagh adapted it for television and it was broadcast on Alfred Hitchcock Presents on April 10, 1960, during the show’s fifth season. Cavanagh kept the basic plot of the short story but made significant changes in its form in order to build suspense and flesh out characters and details.

The program begins with a framing scene that it will return to at the conclusion, as John Crane sits at the inquest following the death of an unknown person. Unlike the story, the show is narrated in the first person by Crane, and we hear his thoughts as the action unfolds onscreen. He tells the viewer, “I am a murderer,” and the suspense begins as we are left to wonder who he killed and why.

The scene then flashes back to one in Crane’s apartment, which is actually a private section of his mother’s house, where Claire helps John pack for his first trip without her and they share a farewell drink. He and his mother banter and he kisses her cheek with an affection that seems overly loving for a son toward his mother. This scene shows the uncomfortably close relationship between the two but it also portrays John as much more of a vibrant bachelor than in the story, where he is an effete cripple when he first encounters Lotte.

Gia Scala
John meets Lotte in the resort gift shop on his second day there and they flirt; the first trip to the waterfall follows and screenwriter Cavanagh updates Lotte’s history to make it fit the date (1960) and her age—instead of having left Austria in 1938, as in the story, she remained in Germany during and after the war until she could save enough money to emigrate. She talks of the satisfaction of working for what she has, in contrast to John, who gladly takes everything his mother gives him. The teleplay is bereft of the sort of cultural references that pepper the story; John thinks of the waterfall as having “a kind of enchantment,” but there is no reference to the Keats poem. John’s relationship with his mother is once again suspect when he tells Lotte that she is coming to visit and he describes her as young, gay and pretty.

Lotte and John share a dance in the empty dining room at the hotel; he proposes marriage at the waterfall and returns to his room, only to find his mother there waiting for him. There is no angry telephone call, as in the story—in the show, she appears as if by magic. She tells John that she looks forward to meeting his friend Lotte but hides her stricken look behind his back. John returns immediately to the intimate relationship he had shared with Claire before he left on his trip. They share breakfast and he lights two cigarettes, giving one to her. The scene is presented as if they are lovers who have spent the night together.

By the waterfall
In a key scene absent from the story, Claire visits Lotte in the gift shop, knowing full well who the young woman is but not revealing her own identity as she obliquely insults the immigrant by suggesting that she wants to marry John in order to gain American citizenship. Lotte later joins John and Claire for tea and recognizes the woman from the gift shop as her lover’s mother; an awkward scene follows and Lotte excuses herself as Claire chats with John, who has no idea that his mother has already insulted his girlfriend. At the waterfall again, Lotte and John argue and she urges him to tell Claire of their engagement. Back at the hotel, John sits like a dog at Claire’s feet and does not have the nerve to tell her about his plans.

The problem comes to a head as Lotte tells John she intends to go away unless he tells Claire about their decision to marry. She suggests taking Claire to the waterfall to tell her the news; John thinks (in voiceover narration) that Lotte wants Claire killed there, but she does not express this directly. Back at the waterfall, the women lean over the edge to admire the view and John rushes forward to shove one of them to her death. We see a female body fall to its death in a long shot that is surprisingly graphic.

Jessie Royce Landis
The show then returns to the present and the frame story of the inquest; as the death is ruled accidental, the camera pulls back to reveal Claire comforting John as they head for home, his disabling limp more noticeable than ever before.

Despite a strong cast and crew, “Mother, May I Go Out To Swim?” is not terribly suspenseful because its ending is never in doubt. John is so weak and so devoted to Claire that it is hardly surprising when he chooses to murder Lotte.

Writer James P. Cavanagh (1922-1971) wrote 15 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and also adapted the first episode of Thriller,  “The Twisted Image.” “Mother, May I Go Out To Swim?” was directed by Alfred Hitchcock Presents regular Herschel Daugherty, who directed 24 episodes of the half-hour series (including “The Cream of the Jest” and “The Cure”) and three episodes of the hour series (including “A Home Away From Home”).

Hugh C. Wheeler (1912-1987) and Richard W. Webb (1901-1966), who wrote the story on which the show was based, used the pseudonyms Q. Patrick, Patrick Quentin, and Jonathan Stagge. They wrote many novels together and won an Edgar Award for The Ordeal of Mrs. Snow (1961), a collection of stories in which this one was included. Although the story had been published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine under the name of Q. Patrick, the collection was published under the name of Patrick Quentin. Wheeler also wrote the books for Broadway shows, winning Tony Awards for A Little Night Music (1973), Candide (1974), and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1979). “The Ordeal of Mrs. Snow,” the story that lent its title to the authors’ collection, was adapted for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and was broadcast on April 14, 1964.

The cast of “Mother, May I Go Out To Swim?” included William Shatner, who was born in March 1931 and was likely 28 years old when this show was filmed (the character of John Crane was 36 in the story). A look at Shatner’s hair (or lack thereof) in this episode can be found here, were the author posits that this is one of the first shows where Shatner wore a toupee. In Shatner’s autobiography, he mentions this episode, commenting that “On Alfred Hitchcock Presents I pushed my wife off a cliff instead of my mother-in-law,” a summary that is not entirely accurate. Shatner's performance in this episode does not fit the character very well; he is too much of the bon vivant/young bachelor and not enough of the sheltered young man. Lotte should bring him out of his shell, but his personality does not evolve in the course of the episode. His final thrust toward the women at the waterfall features the sort of overacting that would later become his trademark.

The lovely Gia Scala (1934-1972) appeared twice on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and once on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, in “The Sign of Satan.” She was in movies and on TV from 1955-1969 and she died tragically at a young age. Read more about Gia Scala here.

Finally, Jessie Royce Landis (1896-1972) plays Claire, John Crane’s mother. Landis was a delightful actress who is best remembered for her roles in Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief (1955) and North by Northwest (1959). She was in movies from 1930, on TV from 1951, and on stage for much of her career. In “Mother, May I Go Out To Swim?” she plays a role that is very similar to the one she played as the mother of Cary Grant’s character in North By Northwest, which had been released to great acclaim the year before. She did not appear in any other episodes of the Hitchcock TV series.

“Mother, May I Go Out To Swim?” is available on DVD or can be viewed online.

Shatner Meets Hitchcock Mini Episode Guide:

Episode title-“The Glass Eye”
Series-Alfred Hitchcock Presents
Broadcast date- 6 October 1957
Teleplay by- Stirling Silliphant
Based on-“The Glass Eye” by John Keir Cross
First print appearance-The Other Passenger: Eighteen Strange Stories (1944)
Watch episode
Available on DVD?-Yes

Episode title-“Mother, May I Go Out To Swim?”
Series-Alfred Hitchcock Presents
Broadcast date- 10 April 1960
Teleplay by- James P. Cavanagh
Based on-“ Mother, May I Go Out To Swim” by Q. Patrick
First print appearance-Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine (July 1948)
Notes-see above
Watch episode
Available on DVD?-Yes

COMING IN TWO WEEKS: An eight-part series on Ray Bradbury’s contributions to Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour!


"The FictionMags Index." The FictionMags Index. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 July 2012. <>.

"Galactic Central." Galactic Central. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 July 2012. <>.

Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.

IMDb., n.d. Web. 23 July 2012. <>.

Keats, John. "La Belle Dame Sans Merci." The Oxford Book of English Verse. Ed. Christopher Ricks. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999. 400-01. Print.

"'Mother, May I Go Out To Swim?'" Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 10 Apr. 1960. Television.

Quentin, Patrick. "Mother, May I Go Out To Swim?" Twentieth Century Detective Stories. New York: Popular Library, 1964. 112-26. Print.

Shatner, William, and David Fisher. Up till Now: The Autobiography. New York: St. Martin's, 2008. Print.

Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 23 July 2012. <>.


Grant said...

Jessie Royce Landis seemed to make a career out of playing mothers of adult characters, including the mothers of actors not all that much younger than she was (Cary Grant is the famous example, of course, but not the only one).

Jack Seabrook said...

Grant, I thought it was funny when I read about the publicity for North By Northwest. Landis had fudged about her age in PR materials and so it was reported that she was younger than Cary Grant, but it turned out she was actually older! Thanks for reading!

Harvey Chartrand said...

Sad to say, lovely Gia Scala came apart at the seams after her most successful picture, THE GUNS OF NAVARONE, was released in 1961. From then on her life turned in on itself: alcoholism, arrests and suicide attempts, periods of observation in psychiatric wards, sporadic employment (mainly television guest appearances) and eventually death from a combination of alcohol and sleeping pills in April 1972 (ruled as a suicide). Dead at 38, only two months after cancer took Jessie Royce Landis at age 75. Perhaps it's just my overactive imagination, but Gia Scala looks visibly unhappy in MOTHER, MAY I GO OUT TO SWIM? (1961), as if she can sense the horrible fate that awaits her. As for the episode itself, I’ve seen it twice but the details keep fading on me. It’s nothing special. A more frightening Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode involving a Norman Bates type is THE MORNING OF THE BRIDE (1959), with Don Dubbins and Barbara Bel Geddes.

Jack Seabrook said...

Strange, though, that she looked happier in The Sign of Satan, which was after Guns of Navarone.

Harvey Chartrand said...

Strange indeed. I'll have to put my thinking cap on, as Gia Scala looked absolutely ravishing and brimming with self-confidence in a 1965 episode of VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA. Like the fellow said, I guess that's why they call it "acting."

Harvey Chartrand said...

In 1961, Gia Scala co-starred in DEATHMATE, a particularly nasty episode of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS. But the acting honours go to Lee Philips as a gigolo/con man, Les Tremayne as a drunken businessman and Russell Collins as a creepy detective. Gia Scala is gorgeous in a (deliberately?) underwritten part – a supporting role even though she is given star billing. It's one of those episodes where nothing is as it seems and tables are turned this way and that and malice is the order of the day. Standout scene: a character is forcibly drowned in a bathtub. How did this get past network Standards & Practices? It's quite an unexpectedly vicious scene for a TV show made 51 years ago. Great episode scripted by Bill S. Ballinger, who wrote some of the best teleplays for AHP.

Jack Seabrook said...

I don't remember that episode, so thanks for the head's up! I'll get to it eventually.

john kenrick said...

Gia Scala was so lovely. She made the episode for me, Jack. I didn't find it otherwise engaging. Neither the Shatner character nor his mother were appealing human beings. Scala, in contrast, conniving though she was, got my sympathy, but then she was easy to empathize with. Her short, sad life draws me in somehow: she seemed too intelligent for the life she led. Also, she had an unaffected poise that seemed to come from within. I don't know her film work well, Guns Of Navarone aside, and of her TV work it's mostly the Hitchcock shows. I thought she was fine in Sign Of Satan, in which she was the voice of reason, and in which she didn't, blessedly, die in the end.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks for your comment, John. Gia Scala was lovely, but since I think Shatner is Our Greatest Living Acting Treasure, I have to say he made the episode for me! Jessie Royce Landis is always a treat, too.