Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Hitchcock Project-Christmas Special: "Santa Claus and the Tenth Avenue Kid" [1.12]

by Jack Seabrook

In "Santa Claus and the Tenth Avenue Kid," written by Good Housekeeping's assistant editor Margaret Cousins and published in that magazine's December 1943 issue, paroled thief Stretch Sears is gently pushed into the job of department store Santa Claus at Sampson & Cole. He is "not the happy, wistful bum," who elicits feelings of charity in passers-by on the street; rather, he is an embittered old man, who finds the idea of imitating the jolly old elf to be distasteful.

He takes up residence in "a white papier-mache mountain on the sixth floor, sprinkled with tinsel silver dust and banked with boraxed cornflakes" where, among the many toys on display was "a magnificent airplane model" costing $59.50. He survives his days at work, though he has nothing in common with the privileged children who visit him: "There could be between them and this weather-beaten old derelict no happy concourse of ideas or emotions." Three weeks of this experience seems "almost worse than prison."

On the day before Christmas Eve, as the work day ends, the Tenth Avenue Kid appears. He is a poor child, "completely out of place in the plush environment." The boy surprises Sears by speaking a language he understands: "'You can fool babies and dopes,'" he says, "'But I ain't no dope.'" The Kid asks Sears to prove that he is Santa Claus and points to the expensive toy airplane as the object of his desire; he admits that he wants to be a pilot when he grows up.

Barry Fitzgerald
Sears sees himself reflected in the boy and promises to "'get out my reindeer and stuff'" and deliver the toy the next night. He makes the Kid hand over various small items he had shoplifted from the store and the Kid leaves, chastened. On Christmas Eve, when the rest of the store's employees head for the after-hours store Christmas party, Sears grabs the airplane and climbs out a window and onto the fire escape, in his element at last. He walks through "a maze of alleys and courtyards and back streets," still dressed as Kris Kringle, and finds the "narrow, squalid house" on whose top floor the Kid lives.

Virginia Gregg
Picking the lock on the door to the Kid's apartment, he leaves the plane as promised and exits the building, only to be arrested two blocks away for stealing the Santa suit. At the police station, he takes out $60, which represents his pay for three weeks' work as Santa Claus, and lays it on the sergeant's blotter as payment for the airplane. As he is led away to jail, no one notices the new twinkle in his eye.

"Santa Claus and the Tenth Avenue Kid" is a charming story with gentle satire and warm humor. The portrayal of Sears and the kid as kindred spirits is classic, and there is real emotion when the older man recognizes himself in the Kid and takes action to try to prevent the boy from walking the same path in life.

In the ten-year run of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, there was only one episode that specifically focused on the Christmas holiday: "Santa Claus and the Tenth Avenue Kid." This episode aired on Sunday, December 18, 1955, on CBS, and was adapted for television by Marian Cockrell and directed by Don Weis. The TV version stars Barry Fitzgerald as Sears, with Virginia Gregg as Miss Webster, the woman who shepherds him back and forth between the men's shelter where he lives and the department store, and Bobby Clark as the Kid.

Bobby Clark
Weis chose to dramatize Sears's thoughts through voice overs by Fitzgerald, and the camera lingers on his aging, Irish face as his spoken thoughts contrast with the words he speaks to those around him. Sears spends much of the time with eyes downcast, chewing constantly. On first arriving at the department store, he is already misbehaving; when the store manager pats his tummy, a silver platter falls out and crashes to the floor--Sears explains that he couldn't find a pillow!

Unlike the Sears of the story, Sears on TV becomes lovable almost immediately when he begins interacting with the children, though he comments in voice over that "'I'd rather be doin' time. Look at the little monsters!'" The Kid visits him twice: first, as a member of the line of children waiting to see him, and second, at the end of the day as in the story. The Kid looks a bit like one of the Little Rascals and accuses Sears of being a fake in front of the other children. On Sears's last day of work, he goes to pick up his pay but instead receives a note from Miss Webster, who writes that she helpfully took his money and opened a bank account for him. This sets up the ending, which differs from that in the story.

After being denied his cash, Sears is disgusted and rude to the children who come to see him. The Kid returns, and one of the episode's best scenes follows as he and Sears argue until the Kid begins to believe in Santa Claus and his attitude changes. At the end of the episode, when Sears is taken to the police station, he is about to be booked when Miss Webster arrives. Sears is accused of stealing the $50 airplane and she takes his money out of her purse, claiming that she was too late to get to the bank. She explains that it is really her fault for forcing him to charge a purchase that he otherwise would have paid for in cash. Sears is let off because it is Christmas, and Miss Webster invites him home for dinner. They walk off arm in arm.

Perhaps the more downbeat ending of the story was deemed inappropriate for television; in any case, the episode is essentially a vehicle for Barry Fitzgerald, who turns in an effective performance as Sears. Virginia Gregg is also strong as Miss Webster, especially in a scene (not in the story) where she tells Sears that she sometimes has trouble keeping a positive attitude. Young Bobby Clark is believable as the Kid, going from a broad portrayal of a street tough to a more nuanced portrayal of a boy who is convinced to believe in something he did not expect.

Margaret Cousins (1905-1996), who wrote the short story, was a magazine and book editor who wrote over 200 short stories. At various times in her career, she was the editor of Good Housekeeping, McCall's, and Ladies Home Journal, slick magazines that published a large selection of popular fiction in the middle years of the twentieth century. She also wrote book-length biographies for children of such historical figures as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison, as well as editing the memoirs of President Lyndon Johnson. This was her only story to be adapted for the Hitchcock series.

The teleplay was by Marian Cockrell (1909-1999), a novelist who wrote for TV on occasion from the mid-1950s to the mid-1980s. She wrote eleven episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Wet Saturday," and her husband Francis wrote an additional 18.

Don Weis (1922-2000) directed the show, one of five episodes where he was behind the camera. He directed a smattering of movies in the 1950s and 1960s but most of his work was in episodic television, including episodes of The Twilight Zone, Batman, and Kolchak: The Night Stalker.

Beloved Irish actor Barry Fitzgerald (1888-1961) was born William Shields and started his career on the stage in Ireland in the late 1920s. He came to Hollywood in 1936 and appeared in many great films, such as And Then There Were None (1945), The Quiet Man (1952), and Going My Way (1944), for which he won an Oscar. He only made three appearances on television, all in the early to mid-1950s, and this was one of them.

Virginia Gregg (1916-1986), who comes to the rescue as Miss Webster, was born Virginia Burket and acted in countless radio shows, TV shows, and movies. She was one of three uncredited actors to play the voice of Mrs. Bates in Psycho (1960), and she appeared four times on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including supplying the voice of the doll in "And So Died Riabouchinska." She was also seen in three of the Alfred Hitchcock Hour shows, including "A Home Away From Home." A website devoted to her work may be found here.

Finally, Bobby Clark (1944- ), who plays the Kid, was on TV and in movies from 1951 to 1961. His most memorable role was in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).

"Santa Claus and the Tenth Avenue Kid is available on DVD or may be viewed online for free here. Merry Christmas!

Up next: we return to Henry Slesar with "The Throwback."


Cousins, Margaret. "Santa Claus and the Tenth Avenue Kid." 1943. Christmas Keepers: Eight Memorable Stories from the 40's and 50's. San Antonio, TX: Corona Pub., 1996. 158-79. Print.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb., n.d. Web. 20 Dec. 2013.
"Santa Claus and the Tenth Avenue Kid." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 18 Dec. 1955. Television.

Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 20 Dec. 2013.


Harvey Chartrand said...

Despite the presence of the lovely Virginia Gregg, SANTA CLAUS AND THE TENTH AVENUE KID is one of my least favorite episodes of ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS. But then I'm biased against such "heartwarming" tales. SANTA CLAUS AND THE TENTH AVENUE KID reminds me of Rod Serling's similar THE NIGHT OF THE MEEK, a 1960 episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE starring Art Carney as a broken-down department store Santa Claus who performs a miracle on Christmas Eve. (The 1985 TZ remake with Richard Mulligan as the drunken Santa was even more cringeworthy!)

Jack Seabrook said...

Maybe Serling saw this and forgot it before he wrote "Night of the Meek." There are a lot of similarities. If you don't like heartwarming tales, avoid the Margaret Cousins story, which is even more heartwarming than the TV show. Of course, I loved it for just that reason!

mikeandraph87 said...

Is it just me or does Santa look like a disguised Bob Hope?

Jack Seabrook said...

You know, you may have something there! Happy New Year!