Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Hitchcock Project-Robert C. Dennis Part Four: "The Older Sister" [1.17]

by Jack Seabrook

When Lizzie Borden's parents were brutally murdered in their home at Fall River, Massachusetts, on August 4, 1892, the case became one of the most celebrated in American history. Borden was tried and acquitted but her name is still associated with violence. She died in 1927 and many books have been written that studied the murders and proposed solutions to the crime.

One of those to tackle this subject was American mystery writer Lillian de la Torre (1902-1993). Born in Manhattan as Lillian McCue, de la Torre wrote many historical mystery stories, some featuring Dr. Sam Johnson, as well as a four-play series of crime thrillers with the omnibus title, Women Don't Hang. One of those four plays was Good-Bye, Miss Lizzie Borden, written in 1947 and performed onstage in 1948 in de la Torre's hometown of Colorado Springs, CO. The one-act play was published that year in the Baker's Plays series and it is similar to Marie Belloc Lowndes's What Really Happened, which was adapted for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and broadcast in 1963, in that both take true crimes and posit solutions in the guise of fiction. Ms. de la Torre's play takes place one year after the murders, on August 4, 1893, at the Borden home as Emma Borden, Lizzie's older sister, readies herself to leave home and encounters Maggie, an Irish maid, who is also taking her leave. They both want to escape Lizzie.

Joan Lorring as Emma Borden
Nellie Cutts arrives, a reporter hoping to write a newspaper story on the murders. Emma resists discussing the crime but Nellie pushes for details, eagerly copying down the famous rhyme when she hears it chanted by a child outside. Emma explains that Lizzie was acquitted because of the lack of blood on her clothes and Nellie questions why the fireplace flue was never searched for the murder weapon. Nellie begins to reenact the murder with a fireplace poker when Lizzie appears from upstairs and sharply dismisses the reporter. Emma has missed her train and Lizzie removes an axe wrapped in a bloody apron from a secret compartment in the fireplace. Emma realizes that her sister knew she was the killer and protected her.

Carmen Mathews as Lizzie Borden
Emma discusses the murders and fears that Lizzie will have her committed. She advances on Lizzie with the axe when Nellie returns and resumes her questioning. Emma leaves to catch her train, not realizing that it has already left. Nellie finds the murder weapon and suspects that Emma was the killer, so Lizzie confesses to the murder to protect her sister, threatening Nellie with a lawsuit if she publishes the story. Lizzie holds the axe menacingly and Nellie flees in fear. Lizzie hears the child chanting the rhyme about her outside the house and angrily buries the axe in a table.

Good-Bye, Miss Lizzie Borden was first adapted for television as part of the Actors Studio series. It was broadcast live on Sunday November 21, 1948, on ABC. This version featured Mary Wickes and, if it survives, I have not found it online.

Polly Rowles as Nell
The second adaptation was for radio, airing on Suspense on October 4, 1955. Like the prior TV version, it used the same title as the play. The radio script was written by Lillian de la Torre and does not follow the play word for word. The cast this time included Irene Tedrow, Paula Winslowe and Virginia Gregg; this episode may be listened to for free online here.

The final adaptation to date of de la Torre's play was written by Robert C. Dennis and was broadcast during the first season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents under the title, "The Older Sister." Broadcast on January 22, 1956, less than four months after the radio version, it was directed by Robert Stevens and starred Joan Lorring as Emma, Carmen Mathews as Lizzie and Polly Rowles as Nell.

Dennis's script follows the outline of the play closely, but he has rewritten the dialogue and moved events around within the scenes. The show opens with a little girl walking down the sidewalk chanting the famous rhyme; her clothes tell us that we're back in the nineteenth century and Stevens uses a smooth tracking shot to follow her progress. A woman chides her and tells her to "stop annoying Miss Lizzie," at which point the scene shifts to the inside of the Borden house, where virtually the entire show takes place, betraying its origin as a stage play.

A low angle shot of Lizzie
Hitchcock's daughter Pat sports an Irish accent as the maid and the story follows the play faithfully, with revised dialogue. Nell enters, dressed like a man in straw hat, suit and necktie, and her personality is brassy and bold. Lizzie appears on the stairs, strong and stern, and Stevens uses low angle shots on more than one occasion to make her appear powerful. In a slight change from the story, she removes only the axe from the hidden compartment, later admitting that she burned the apron in the fireplace.

The final shot shows Lizzie's isolation
Throughout the show, Emma walks a fine line between flighty and crazy, seeming fragile except for the moments when she threatens her sister with the axe. Near the end of the show, the camera travels briefly outside the stifling confines of the house into the street outside as Emma tells a passing woman goodbye. The wooden sidewalks and dirt street remind us of the Gay Nineties setting, yet the viewer realizes that Emma is insane and that her train has already left.

A rare moment outside
The show's final scene differs from that of the play. In the play, Lizzie angrily swings the axe down and buries it in a table; one can imagine the lights going out in the theater. In the TV show, she drops the ax on the table in a gesture of resignation and walks into the parlor, another low angle shot making her appear dominant, but then the camera slowly pulls back as she sits on the sofa and the screen fades to black. This ending emphasizes her loneliness and is not terribly effective, but Dennis presumably thought that the sudden ending of the play would not work on TV.

Emma menaces Lizzie
Robert Stevens's direction is rather straightforward in this episode, with none of the trick shots we have seen in some of his other episodes. In addition to the shots already mentioned, he does a nice job of staging the scenes between Emma and Lizzie, positioning the two women in different ways relative to each other onscreen to demonstrate the shifting balance of power.

Stevens (1920-1989) directed 49 episodes of the Hitchcock series; the last examined here was "Guilty Witness," with a teleplay by Robert C. Dennis.

Pat Hitchcock
Joan Lorring (1926-2014), who plays Emma and receives top billing, was born Mary Magdalene Ellis in Hong Kong and came to the U.S. with her family in the late 1930s as the war in the Far East began. She began as a child actress on radio and in film; her stage career began in 1950 and she started on TV in 1952. This was her only appearance on the Hitchcock show.

Playing Lizzie is Carmen Mathews (1911-1995), who was born in Philadelphia and appeared on TV from 1950 to 1992. She also made films, starting in 1960, appeared once on The Twilight Zone and was seen six times on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including Henry Slesar's "The Kerry Blue."

The brassy reporter is played by Polly Rowles (1914-2001), who was in movies from 1936 to 1982 and on TV from 1951 to 1982. She was also in many Broadway shows from 1937 to 1983. This was her only appearance on the Hitchcock series; her most famous role came in the 1980s, when she played Inspector 12 on a series of TV commercials for Hanes underwear.

Finally, Patricia Hitchcock (1928- ) plays Margaret, the Irish maid. She appeared in three of her father's films and ten episodes of his TV series, including "The Glass Eye" and "The Cuckoo Clock."

"The Older Sister" is available on DVD here or may be watched for free online here.

"Biographical Notes." Mistresses of Mystery: Two Centuries of Suspense Stories by the Gentle Sex. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1973. 364.
Brooks, Tim and Earle Marsh. The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable Shows, 1946-Present. New York: Ballantine Books, 2003. 11-12.
de la Torre, Lillian. "Good-bye, Miss Lizzie Borden." 1947. Mistresses of Mystery: Two Centuries of Suspense Stories by the Gentle Sex. 146-200.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville: MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb. Web. 24-25 Aug. 2015.
Kabatchnik, Amnon. Blood On the Stage, 1925-1950 : Milestone Plays of Crime, Mystery, and Detection : An Annotated Repertoire. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2010. 806.
"Lillian de la Torre." Mistresses of Mystery: Two Centuries of Suspense Stories by the Gentle Sex. 143-145.
"Suspense - The Fall River Tragedy/Goodbye, Miss Lizzie Borden." Escape and Suspense! 24 Aug. 2015.
"The Older Sister." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 22 Jan. 1956.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 24 Aug. 2015.


john kenrick said...

Thanks for the detailed review of the Hitchcock half-hour The Older Sister. I've only seen it once, decades ago, but it stayed with me. It's mostly talk but the dialogue sort of is the action in this one. I agree that the period atmosphere was well done. Carmen Mathews gave an excellent performance, I thought.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, John! I agree with you about Mathews. Lorring may receive top billing but Mathews holds the show together.

Grant said...

I seldom get caught up in true crime stories, but this one is a big exception, and I've always liked this "take" on it.
Yes, Carmen Matthews really holds it together. And of course this version has Lizzie becoming a martyr to Emma, two different times.

Jack Seabrook said...

Good point, Grant. By the end of the show, I felt sorry for Lizzie.

john kenrick said...

I watched The Older Sister again this A.M., Jack, and it played well, had a depth of feeling that seemed closer to literature, almost like Willa Cather or Edith Wharton might have written at the turn of the last century; and not necessarily true to life, just a short story about a couple of sisters living in a New England mill town at the tail end of the 19th century, and how they are haunted by a crime one of them was accused of and acquitted for.

Of course it's all about Lizzie, but the "speculative" version might have worked nicely, too. The basically serious acting in this one,--Polly Rowles excepted, and I think she was just grand as a pushy west coast newspaperwoman--gave the story an air of tragedy that went beyond the actual event it was based on and played out as more drama than melodrama. There's a haunted quality to the episode that makes it play differently from most other Hitchcock entres.

Jack Seabrook said...

Good points, John. The first season definitely has a different feeling than later seasons. It seems like they were freed from the constraints of live TV and were able to make little films, though they used many of the same stories that had been kicking around radio & TV anthologies for years.