Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Hitchcock Project-Henry Slesar Part Twenty-Three: "Servant Problem" [6.34]

by Jack Seabrook

Many of Henry Slesar's teleplays and stories for Alfred Hitchcock Presents deal with skeletons in the closet or with things from the past that suddenly come to light. In "Heart of Gold," "The Right Kind of House," and "Not the Running Type," characters have secrets about money that was hidden long ago. "Insomnia" and "Party Line" concern characters who committed cowardly or selfish acts in the past and caused harm to others. In "The Man With Two Faces," a mother discovers that her son has a hidden criminal past. In "A Crime for Mothers," a happily married couple must deal with the sudden reappearance of the real mother of their adopted child.

Jo Van Fleet as Molly
"Servant Problem" looks at the issue of the hidden past from a new angle. Kerwin Drake is a successful, middle-aged author who lives in a very modern and well-furnished apartment. One evening, as he readies himself to receive important company, his doorbell rings. He opens the door to see a part of his past come back to him in all its horror--his wife Molly, whom he had run out on 22 years before, has tracked him down. Molly is a blowsy, coarse woman who arrives at the door with suitcase in hand, wanting to reunite with her now-successful husband. She addresses him as Merwin Goff, his real name, rather than as Kerwin Drake, the name he has adopted as part of his new life.

The cocktail party
Having seen his photograph in the newspaper's society column, along with his young fiance, Sylvia Colton, Molly decided that the time was ripe for a reunion. Drake, nervous because his publisher and his fiancee are about to arrive for cocktails along with their families, agrees to let Molly stay upstairs in the guest room for the duration of the party, as long as she stays quiet and out of sight. At the party, Drake is nervous and preoccupied, though his guests hardly notice. Standish, the publisher, asks Kerwin about his next book, remarking that it is "hard to sell a book these days unless you can put a beautiful woman with an axe murderer on the cover." All conversation stops when Molly appears on the spiral staircase in the middle of the open apartment, clad in her best dress but looking like an embarrassment to her spouse.

Joan Hackett as Sylvia
Drake sends Molly to the kitchen, explaining hurriedly to his guests that she is his newly-hired cook and that she is all dressed up to wait for her boyfriend to pick her up for a date. Mrs. Standish remarks, "what an odd woman," and Drake tells his guests that "you can get used to the way she looks once you've tasted her food." Sylvia, Kerwin's fiance, is curious about the woman, commenting that Drake did not tell her he was hiring a cook. (This comment seems to contradict the episode's first scene, where it was suggested that Drake already had a cook but that she had gone home with a virus.) The guests all praise the hors d'oeuvres that the new cook supposedly made (in fact, they were made by Drake's secretary, whom we saw in the show's first scene) and, before they leave, Lydia Standish disappears into the kitchen and emerges, claiming that she went in to compliment the cook.

Mrs. Standish flees the scene of the crime
Sylvia and Kerwin have an awkward moment alone in which they discuss their engagement before she leaves, after which Drake summons Molly and tells her to pack her bag and go to a hotel. She tells him that her new apartment will be ready the next day and that he should come to see her at noon to talk about their situation. (The story takes place in mid-town Manhattan; Molly's apartment is at 411 48th Street, Apartment 3-B.) Kerwin arrives at her apartment the next day and she seems hesitant to let him in at first. Once inside, he offers her five thousand dollars to leave him alone, then ups the ante to ten thousand for a quick and quiet divorce. She refuses, yelling that she is his wife, he cannot push her around, and she will not divorce him. At this point, he snaps and brutally strangles her. Leaving her lifeless body on the floor, he is about the depart when he sees that his checkbook is lying on the floor next to the corpse. As he retrieves it, he hears the handle of the bathroom door jiggle. He pulls the door open and finds Mrs. Standish, his publisher's wife, hiding. She explains that she had come to hire Molly away from him to cook for her. She sees the woman's body on the floor and runs out of the apartment, screaming for help. Exhausted by his ordeal, Drake collapses in a chair to wait for the police.

A surprise guest emerges from the bathroom
Once again, lies compounded by more lies result in tragedy. Drake is embarrassed by his past and has tried to keep it hidden in order to construct his new life. He left his wife twenty-two years before and built a career as a successful novelist under a new name. Now, when he is confronted by Molly, who calls him by his real name, he must resort to deception and murder to try to hold on to what he values so dearly--fame, money, and the love of a much younger woman. He tells his party guests that Molly is a cook and that she made the snacks that they so enjoy. As a result, chubby Mrs. Standish seeks out Molly in order to steal her away from Drake. The coincidence of Mrs. Standish being at Molly's apartment when Drake murders his wife makes it inevitable that murder will out and Drake's entire house of cards will collapse.

Bringing "Servant Problem" to life is a cast of veterans under the direction of Alan Crosland, Jr. The most exciting and well-staged scene in the show is the murder and its aftermath. It begins with a two-shot of Drake and Molly, as she screams and he grabs her, his hands finding her throat. The camera then swings to the left so that we see the action reflected in a large mirror, as Drake violently pushes Molly to the floor. There is then a cut to him on top of her on the floor, followed by another cut to a shot of him from below. We see his face straining with the effort of strangling his wife, and we see only her hands and forearms reaching up in a vain effort to stop him. Both actors are very convincing in the scene, and as a result it comes across as a rather brutal murder.

One view of Kerwin's modern apartment
The conclusion of the scene is also well done, as Mrs. Standish emerges from the bathroom and carefully backs her way around the room toward the door, stealing glances at the body on the floor and letting out little, gulping shrieks of terror. These last few minutes of the episode are far more effective than the twenty minutes or so that precede them. As Drake, John Emery is believable, but Jo Van Fleet, as Molly, is miscast. Her character is similar to the one played by Claire Trevor in "A Crime for Mothers," in that both women do not fit in with the people around them. Van Fleet plays the part broadly, with a coarse voice and a lower-class manner of speech (she quips that Drake's apartment is "bee-yoo-tee-ful"), but the character comes off as a caricature rather than a real woman.

Another view of the apartment
The cocktail party scene goes on too long and the guests are little more than cardboard cutouts; worst is Grandon Rhodes as Standish, who speaks in a broad New England accent and overplays his role as the rich publisher. The most interesting aspect of this long scene is the decor in Drake's apartment, which represents the domain of a successful bachelor in New York City in 1961. The apartment might work well on an early episode of Mad Men, with a centrally located spiral staircase and a large, open fireplace.

"Servant Problem" is the third of four stories collected in Slesar's book, A Crime for Mothers and Others, that was not published before the TV episode aired. As with the last two, the credit onscreen says that the teleplay is based on Slesar's story, so it is not possible to know whether an actual story existed before he wrote the teleplay or whether he turned the teleplay into a short story to fill out the book. The printed story differs from the TV show in a few significant ways but the plot is the same. Drake is still a writer, like Henry Slesar, and the author uses the character to poke fun at his own profession. He is not engaged to be married to Sylvia, though her mother blatantly encourages his interest. Most notable in the story is the cruel way that Slesar describes Angela (Molly in the teleplay). She has "a gaping, near-toothless smile," and "terrible, misshapen lips." He describes "the great bulk of her body," contrasting her appearance with Kerwin's fine, expensive clothes and careful grooming. In the story, Angela ran out on Kerwin twenty-five years before, not the other way around. When she appears on the stairs, she looks so vile that Sylvia whispers "What is it?" She is said to have a "terrible gargoyle face and freakish body." She does not walk, she waddles. Slesar's brutal depiction of Angela's obesity is something that would not be acceptable today. It is reminiscent in a way of the casual racism that is found in novels and comic books of the 1940s (especially in regard to African-Americans) or in TV shows of the 1970s (for example, regarding Asian-Americans). Slesar's attack on Molly's weight is anything but subtle and it mars the story.

Alan Crosland, Jr. (1918-2001), who directed "Servant Problem," worked on episodic TV from the mid-'50s to the mid-'70s, directing nineteen episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "The Gloating Place" (which also featured a strangling scene), "The Money" (also by Slesar), and "The Big Kick."

Jo Van Fleet (1914-1996) played Molly. She was only 46 years old at the time, though in her career she often played characters who were older than she was. She won a Tony Award in 1954 for "The Trip to Bountiful" and an Oscar in 1956 for East of Eden. She was a member of the Actors Studio, appeared in many TV episodes and movies, including Cool Hand Luke (1967), and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She appeared in three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Shopping for Death."

John Emery as Kerwin
Appearing as Drake was John Emery (1905-1964), who was 55 years old at the time. Rumored to be the illegitimate son of John Barrymore due to their similar features, he was married to Tallulah Bankhead from 1937-1941. He appeared in movies and on TV until his untimely death; his films included Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945) and Rocketship X-M (1950). This was his only appearance on the Hitchcock series.

Alice Frost (1905-1998) played Mrs. Standish, who makes the unfortunate discovery at the end of "Servant Problem." She was a busy actress on radio in the 1940s but she is most recognizable today for her role as Aunt Amy in the Twilight Zone episode, "It's a Good Life."

Alice Frost as Mrs. Standish
Finally, Joan Hackett (1934-1983) played Sylvia, and she was only 27 years old at the time, just starting out in her acting career. Her nearly three-decade age difference from co-star John Emery makes one wonder what her character saw in the aging author!

Viewers who made it all the way through "Servant Problem," which aired on Tuesday, June 6, 1961, on NBC, were in store for a treat if they stayed in their easy chairs and did not get up to change the channel. Right after this episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Thriller  presented the classic horror episode, "Pigeons From Hell."

"Servant Problem" is available on DVD here or may be viewed for free online here.

Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb., n.d. Web. 1 Mar. 2014.
"Servant Problem." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. NBC. 06 June 1961. Television.
Slesar, Henry. "Servant Problem." A Crime for Mothers and Others. New York: Avon Book Division, 1962. 62-73. Print.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 1 Mar. 2014.


john kenrick said...

We're on the same page re The Servant Problem. The story, or maybe it was the Manhattan setting, reminded me of John Cheever. As to its characters, I mean. John Emery st struck me as a slightly odd choice for the lead. He was a competent actor but fairly obscure; and he looked his age. I can see his part working better with a more prominent player.

Emery's (relative to Jo Van Fleet) no-name status in films and television put him at a disadvantage in his playing opposite Miss Van Fleet, whose presence literally overwhelmed him. It was almost like a serious variation on Born Yesterday, with the Judy Holliday character in control, thus Van Fleet was playing Broderick Crawford character!

It didn't work. Worse, I too thought of Claire Trevor in the earlier episode, and Van Fleet seemed to be wearing the same loud clothing. The Hitchcock show, half-hour version, was winding down even as there were still some excellent episodes in the sixth season. Definitely a Mad Men vibe in this one, the time frame of which offers the viewer a New York and an America that had switched gears since the earlier Hitchcock seasons, into the swingin' cocktail ring-a-ding mode of Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack.

Anonymous said...

I disagree about the problem with Jo Van Fleet (if in fact there even was one): She wasn't miscast in the role, but misdirected. We're talking, after all, about a distinguished actress with an Oscar and Tony to her credit. She knew what she was doing in front of a camera.

It's pretty evident that Crosland wanted her to play the role of Molly very broadly to show how her character was out of her element with the estranged husband and his upper class associates. And it works in the context of the change Slesar made from his original conception to have Kerwin leaving her, instead of vice versa, as it's clear he realized he'd made a colossal mistake in marrying a social inferior with whom he lacked any compatibility whatsoever.

So, there was a certain comedic element set for much of the episode, one which would darken sharply at the conclusion. The shift of tone was pretty abrupt, but perhaps Crosland was only following the humor he found in Slesar's teleplay.

However, there are sloppy plot devicesy, such as Mrs. Standish explaining in the end that while at Drake's apartment she had gone in the kitchen to get Molly's address, so she could drop by to hire her as a cook. First, based on what we have learned about Molly, it doesn't seem plausible that she would want to get hired as a cook, not after she found out that Kerwin is well off and she could be living a life of luxury. On the other hand, it makes little sense that Mrs. Standish would risk ruining the successful business relationship her husband had with a best-selling author by stealing Kerwin's cook, which--pardon the pun--would be in really bad taste.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thank you both for commenting. I thought much of the episode was dull and that Jo Van Fleet was too young and played the part too broadly. I didn't care for Joan Hackett in her role in the Hitchcock Hour, either.

john kenrick said...

Some interesting insights here, Jack. Miss Van Fleet's star quality brought the only touch of real acting energy in the episode. She was like a character out of Guys & Dolls. It was difficult to picture her and John Emery's character having ever being married to one another.

Joan Hackett seemed out of her element in this. An attractive woman but not a knockout, she had a sedate, mature quality to her that were at odds with her "trophy" character. There was always something complex about her, a somewhat depressive quality that made her seem wrong for the chi-chi.

Dixie Burge said...

I agree with john kendrick about the incompatibility of Molly and Merwin. It makes me wonder what he ever saw in her that would have drawn him into a relationship with her in the first place. Merwin is obviously her social and intellectual superior, with more polished manners. I cringed every time I heard her say his name! They are truly an odd couple.