Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Hitchcock Project-Henry Slesar Part Thirty-Five: "Most Likely to Succeed" [7.31]

by Jack Seabrook

Henry Slesar's short story, "Beggars Can Be Choosers," was first published in the October 1961 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and has been reprinted in the collection, Death on Television: The Best of Henry Slesar's Alfred Hitchcock Stories as "Most Likely to Succeed," the title under which it aired on Alfred Hitchcock Presents on May 8, 1962, near the end of the half-hour series's seven-year run.

The story concerns Stanley Towers, a successful middle-aged businessman who is playing pool at home one day when the maid tells him that a man is at the back door, looking for odd jobs. Stanley tells her to let the man cut wood in exchange for a meal and three dollars. After killing time reading a magazine and watching TV, Stanley ventures into the kitchen for a snack and sees the tramp, suddenly recognizing him as Dave Sumner, a classmate of his at Washington and Lee.

Stanley badgers Dave into telling him the hard luck story of his downfall from college scholar to itinerant worker. Stanley bags about his success in business despite having had a mediocre college career and even boasts about how he cheats on his taxes. Stanley gives Dave $40 and sees him on his way. When his wife Deirdre returns home from a shopping trip, she finds Stanley looking at his college yearbook, where Dave was voted Most Likely to Succeed.

Howard Morris as Dave, dressed as a servant
Six months later, Stanley receives a summons to appear at the offices of the Treasury Department, and a week later he is arraigned. At trial, Stanley sees Dave Sumner walk into the courtroom and soon learns that he is "the most successful Treasury agent in the department."

"Beggars Can Be Choosers" displays Slesar's irony in its twist ending, where the man who appeared to be a bum is revealed to have been an investigator in disguise, and the man who was living the high life is brought down by his own boasting and pride. The story is brief and I don't think it is one of Slesar's best, despite its inclusion in Death on Television.

In adapting his own story for television, Slesar must have realized that significant changes needed to be made in order to fill out a half-hour time slot. The first big change comes right at the start, as a truck pulls up in front of the Towers' house and a man in a rumpled raincoat with no luggage hops out of the passenger seat, having hitched a ride. It appears he targeted Stanley's house and, when he goes to the door, he identifies himself to the maid as "an old friend of his, from college." Slesar thus takes the element of chance out of Dave's visit to Stanley.

Jack Carter as Stanley
A second big change in the televised version is the expanded role of Stanley's wife, Louise. From her first scene, she is complaining to Stanley that they never have any fun. She is beautiful and well-dressed but she is kept in the home without anything to do but eat while Stanley works day and night to make more money.

When Stanley chats with Dave in the kitchen, he quickly agrees to hire his old classmate to help out around the house, not just to chop some wood and be on his way, as he did in the short story. We then witness a business meeting held in Stanley's living room, where Louise signs papers making her the "sole owner of a million dollar business," even though she does not understand what is happening. Stanley, his lawyer, and another business associate joke about how they plan to sell the business in six months at a loss, and Dave is silent witness to it all.

Joanna Moore as Louise
Louise is portrayed as a woman who does not fit with her surroundings, seeming awkward and bored. Stanley has a slick veneer but seems seedy underneath his jocular exterior. He boasts to his wife that Dave was "top scholar in the whole school," while Stanley was merely "vice president of the Dance Committee"--Louise asks, "Is that all?" Dave, on the other hand, has a list of accolades after his name.

After the break, we see a long scene in the Towers' living room between Louise and Dave. She craves company and tries to engage him in conversation, yet he is reticent and she does most of the talking, admitting that "Stanley's not curious, but I am." Dave admits that his downfall began with a woman, the boss's daughter, whom he married and who then turned out to be "no angel." They divorced, he could not get another job, and he started to drink. This scene is interesting because of what does not happen, and I think it's due to the fact that this show was produced in 1962. There is a strong sexual tension between the voluptuous Louise and the straight-laced Dave, but it is never brought out into the open. She laughs about how her husband cheats at business and she lies back on the sofa in a low-cut dress, obviously desiring his physical attention. Finally, she asks him to fix her a hot fudge sundae, which seems to be a substitute for the sex she really craves.

Grams and Wikstrom think the yearbook's name is an
inside joke referring to associate producer Norman Lloyd
In the following scene, Stanley comes home drunk and complains to Dave about how government interference requires him to work hard to make enough money. In different scenes, Stanley and Louise each tell Dave that he has it easy because he does not have to worry about making a lot of money to support an extravagant lifestyle.

Next morning, Louise asks Dave to drive her somewhere far away, since she is fed up with Stanley and his phony business deals. She suggests that Dave come with her (which supports my reading of the earlier scene where she wants a hot fudge sundae) and Stanley walks into the room and thinks that Dave and Louise are together. Louise tells Stanley off, Dave is fired from his job, and Stanley informs his wife that she is not going anywhere because she is not willing to give up her lifestyle.

Jack Carter as Stanley
In the final scene, Stanley, his lawyer, and the business associate we saw earlier are joined by another man as they enter the Bureau of Internal Revenue. Stanley is confident and asks how long it will take, but his confidence fades when Dave walks into the office and Stanley is told that "the Treasury Department probably assigned him your case because he once knew you . . . he's the most successful agent in the Treasury Department." At this, Dave smiles for the first time in the episode and the screen fades to black.

Much expanded from the short story on which it is based, "Most Likely to Succeed" is far-fetched but fun, with more character development than the slight original story. (Did IRS agents ever really go undercover like this to catch tax cheats?) In his disguise, Dave plays on his knowledge of Stanley's ego, assuming correctly that Stanley can't resist hiring him and keeping him around in order to rub his nose in Stanley's success. Jack Carter is very good as Stanley, his somewhat seedy, low-class persona perfectly fitting the character who has cheated his way to a fortune.

Howard Morris's face is excluded from the frame
to add to the surprise as Jack Carter sits waiting
Howard Morris is also excellent as Dave: humble, quiet, somewhat embarrassed by his situation, yet all the while the smartest guy in the room, toying with Stanley and Louise. Finally, Joanna Moore is perfect as Louise, trapped in an unhappy marriage, unable to leave the money and jewels but miserable and bored. The only time Stanley shows affection toward her is when he starts to kiss her neck after he shows her the yearbook and revels in the reversal of fortune that he believes has affected him and Dave. The direction of this episode is competent and does not get in the way of the story. There is a brief bit of tricky camerawork in the final scene, as the camera stays focused on Stanley, who is seated, thus obscuring Dave's face from the viewer as he walks into the room.

Does she look like she wants a hot fudge sundae?
"Most Likely to Succeed" is a good example of a run of the mill short story with a good twist that was expanded into a much more interesting TV show. Slesar also seems to have written a radio play with the title "Beggars Can Be Choosers," which is presumably the same story. It was recorded live in New York on January 28, 2000, and broadcast on New York's WFUV, but no audio copy appears to be available online.

Richard Whorf (1906-1966) directed the TV adaptation, his only work for the Hitchcock series. He was a stage actor, a film actor, and a painter who began directing films in 1942 and TV shows in 1952. He directed episodes of various TV series, including 67 half-hours of The Beverly Hillbillies.

Jack Carter (1923- ), who plays Stanley, was born Jack Chakrin in Brooklyn, New York. He has been a popular stand-up comedian and TV personality since the late 1940s and he is still working today at age 91! This was his only appearance on the Hitchcock series.

Joanna Moore
Joanna Moore (1934-1997), who plays Louise, was born Dorothy Joanne Cook. She was orphaned as a child when her parents and sister were killed in a car accident. She grew to be a beautiful young woman and won a beauty contest in Georgia, then headed for Hollywood, where she began appearing in movies and on TV in 1956 and 1957. She had roles in films that included Touch of Evil (1958), Monster on the Campus (1958) and Walk on the Wild Side (1962). She had a recurring role on The Andy Griffith Show and appeared in six episodes of the Hitchcock series. She was married to Ryan O'Neal from 1963 to 1967 and one of her children was Tatum O'Neal. Her later years were unhappily marred by bouts of addiction to drugs and alcohol and she died of lung cancer, as did so many actors and actresses of her era, in 1997. Like many beautiful women who led tumultuous lives, she has received a lot of attention online, and a good summary may be found here.

Howard Morris, dressed as a tramp
Howard Morris (1919-2005) plays Dave. Born in the Bronx, he entertained troops in the South Pacific in WWII and first became famous as a cast member on Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows in the 1950s, but he is best remembered today for his recurring role as Ernest T. Bass on The Andy Griffith Show. He later did an enormous amount of voiceover work for cartoons. He appeared just this once on the Hitchcock show and, even though he died in 2005, his voice continued to show up in cartoons for years after that. His son maintains a website about Morris here.

"Most Likely to Succeed" also features some character actors who have popped up before on the Hitchcock show: King Calder, last seen in "The Right Kind of Medicine" and John Zaremba, last seen in "The Kerry Blue."

King Calder as Stanley's lawyer

"" ErnestTcom RSS. Web. 16 Aug. 2014.
"Galactic Central." Galactic Central. Web. 16 Aug. 2014.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb. Web. 16 Aug. 2014.
"Joanna Moore Profile." Joanna Moore. Web. 16 Aug. 2014.
"Most Likely to Succeed." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. NBC. 8 May 1962. Television.
Slesar, Henry. "Most Likely to Succeed." 1962. Death on Television: The Best of Henry Slesar's Alfred Hitchcock Stories. Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 1989. 140-45. Print. Originally published as "Beggars Can Be Choosers."
"" Web. 16 Aug. 2014.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 16 Aug. 2014.

COMING IN TWO WEEKS: Richard Long and Coleen Gray in "The Opportunity"!


john kenrick said...

It was an okay episode, Jack. The best things about it for me were the three leads: Jack Carter, Joanna Moore and Howard Morris, all perfectly cast, and all of them at the top of their games. I found the writing and especially the storytelling not so great. The payoff ought to have been built up to brilliantly, and it wasn't. I was drawn into the episode by the players more than by the play, which could have used some smoothing out and better plotting.

Jack Carter might have made a good Oscar Madison for a production of The Odd Company, and if Jack Klugman had dropped dead after the first season of the TV series I can see Carter as the ideal man to replace him . Joanna Moore was sultry. She never struck me as terribly ambitious as an actress, although I sense some Tennessee Williams potential in her work in this episode. Howard Morris proved to be a fine straight actor, and of the three I thought he gave the best performance: disciplined, rather polished but never slick.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, John. Reading back over my review, I can see I liked it more than you did. I am a big fan of Howard Morris, especially on the Andy Griffith Show, and I think Joanna Moore was very talented.

Gail Jarvis said...

I agree about the missed shot at the end when the audience was deprived of Dave's facial expression when he entered the room to face Jack Carter. Morris' work throughout was subtle, in control, teasing because you couldn't really tell if he was an out of luck former success. Very sexual interaction with Louise, without any overt action on anyone's part.

Jack Carter's drunk scene was perfection. That's the measure of an actor - acting drunk. It's so hard to do. He played a drunken ass and Morris' stoic controlled anger was a perfect foil.

Joanna Moore was a loss for everyone. I read that she had to endure domestic physical abuse from Ryan O'Neill. No surprise. He helped shorten Joanna's life span. She had a unique quality about her and was one talented lady.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Gail. I think it was intentional that Dave's face was cut out of the frame, so the suspense could be prolonged about who was entering the room.

Gail Jarvis said...

You know Jack, you're right. I watched it again and that's why they had Jack Carter hold that long shot just staring out at the camera, waiting. When he glanced up and saw Dave, the viewer also shared in his suspense reaction. We only saw the back of Dave first - imposing with broad shoulders in a "good suit".

It was actually set up so Dave's character sits firmly on the desk, arms crossed, confronting Jack, and that's all the viewer saw. The last few expression takes on Howard Morris face were perfect final frames. (His whole characterization realized.) The look of steely triumph and "Fake out on you, I'm not an impotent fool "sucker". "The Most Likely to Succeed", wasn't the character so aptly portrayed by Morris, but the most successful agent in the Treasury."

Again, thanks for the wonderful insights. Victoria

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Victoria! You make good observations.