Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Hitchcock Project-Robert C. Dennis Part Eleven: "John Brown's Body" [2.14]

by Jack Seabrook

Leora Dana as Vera Brown
In the opening scene of "John Brown's Body," two businessmen discuss furniture in a contemporary office setting and, with this episode, Alfred Hitchcock Presents suddenly looks much more modern than it did during its first season; the story is set in present day (1956) and concerns a battle waged between a crafty, older man and his ambitious young rival.

John Brown is the owner of John Brown and Company, a furniture manufacturer that has had years of success making and selling good quality furniture. Brown is played by Russell Collins, who was born in 1897, making him almost 59 years old when this episode was filmed in the summer or fall of 1956. His rival is Harold Skinner, played by Hugh Marlowe, born in 1911 and thus about 14 years younger than Collins. Skinner is a junior partner in the company and, as the show opens, he is showing Brown drawings of modern furniture that he thinks the company should manufacture and sell. Brown refuses, determined to stick to doing things the old-fashioned way, since this has always been profitable.

Russell Collins as John Brown
A love triangle requires a third person, so Vera Brown enters the office, hoping to have lunch with her husband John. Vera is played by Leora Dana, born in 1923 and attractive; the actress is 26 years younger than the actor playing her husband and twelve years younger than the actor playing his junior partner. John says that he is too busy to take his wife to lunch, so she prevails on Harold to escort her; at lunch she is impressed by the sketches of modern furniture but draws her hand away coolly when Harold gently places his hand on top of hers. "No wonder my husband thinks your ideas are too advanced," she tells him; on the surface she seems to refer to the drawings but the underlying meaning is clear: his romantic advances are unwelcome.

Or are they? The next scene takes place five weeks after the lunch, when Harold visits John at home only to discover that he is away. Vera welcomes him and, once the maid is out of earshot, the doors are closed and it is apparent that Harold and Vera have become lovers. He calls her "darling" and remarks that they are running out of secret ways to meet. They kiss passionately but Harold wants to talk about how to get John out of the way so he can begin to implement his new ideas for the business. Harold comes up with a scheme to make John think that he is becoming forgetful with age and Vera responds, in a turn of phrase that would fit the Grinch Who Stole Christmas, that Harold has a "wonderful, horrible idea!"

Hugh Marlowe as Harold Skinner
Harold and Vera begin to implement their plan. At the office, Harold convinces John that he is forgetting important business matters and the episode's director, Robert Stevens, uses camera angles to show the balance of power beginning to shift in Harold's favor. The camera is set low to look up at Harold, making him appear dominant, while it films John from a higher angle to show his diminishing sense of self worth. Russell Collins gives an excellent performance as Brown, starting the show strong and self-confident, then demonstrating doubt as he starts to think he's having memory problems.

Vera speaks with John's doctor, who suggests that he be examined by a psychiatrist. John and Vera then visit Dr. Croatman, and when John realizes that the doctor is a psychiatrist, he imagines himself lying on the doctor's couch with the doctor sitting beside him, analyzing his problems. Stevens inserts an imaginary shot in this scene to show what John is thinking. At this point, the show veers into comedy as John runs out of the office yelling "He thinks I'm insane!" and the doctor tells Vera that she should place her husband in a rest home. Humorous musical cues underline the intent that the story is not to be taken seriously.

John's vision of what happens
in the psychiatrist's office
Some unspecified amount of time has passed before the next scene, when Vera visits Harold at the office. He is now the man in charge and his priorities appear to have shifted. He is late for their lunch date, gives her a peck on the cheek instead of a passionate embrace, and tells her that he has to keep lunch short because he has another appointment. Has Vera erred in turning her back on her husband and making Harold her business partner and lover? It would appear so from his behavior in this scene; now that he has what he really wanted (control of the business) he can pay less attention to Mrs. Brown.

Meanwhile, John Brown himself seems quite happy in the rest home. He is full of smiles and spends his time painting abstract pictures. When Dr. Croatman visits and asks John what he is trying to interpret in one spot on his painting, John says: "How do I know? I'm loony!" John is not as dumb as he looks, however; the accountant for the furniture company tells Harold that the firm is on the verge of insolvency, undoubtedly due to the change in product line from carefully crafted traditional furniture to mass produced contemporary furniture. Now Harold needs Vera's help once again and meets with her to tell her that they need to secure a loan of $50,000 to keep the business afloat. Vera visits John at the rest home and sees that he is happy and relaxed, wearing sunglasses and an open collar. When she tells him that the business needs him to come back he replies that he has been out of touch for nearly a year and no longer has the skills to run the company. John agrees to let Dr. Croatman perform another psychiatric exam but doubts that it will result in his discharge.

Relaxing at the rest home
On the day of the exam, Harold and Vera await the news from the doctor. There is another subtle hand clasp between them, recalling the one at the restaurant early in their relationship, but this time their hands signal their shared hope that John will return to being an active part of their lives and save the company. The news is good, and John is ready to be let out of the rest home. John and Vera arrive there to collect him and find him happily cutting flowers in the garden. John smiles broadly, seeming ready to rejoin the world of business and marriage, and his things have all been packed up when the doctor gives him a paper to sign before he can leave. He sits at his desk and signs, but when the doctor reviews his signature he tells Vera and Harold that John is not ready to go. John has signed his name as "George Washington" on the paper and Dr. Croatman tells his wife that "You'd only be taking his body. His mind is . . ." A musical phrase from "Yankee Doodle Dandy" plays on the soundtrack as the camera lingers on John, who smiles as he sniffs a flower, and the picture fades to black.

The troublesome discharge order
Is John Brown really crazy? I don't think so. I think that he is playing a game and that he likes his life of leisure at the rest home. He is as sane as ever and does not seem to care that his wife and his junior partner are lovers who are running his business into the ground. "John Brown's Body" is a comedy, so it does not pay to delve too deeply into the characters' motivations, but the twist ending is satisfying in that it prevents the cheaters from profiting and allows the honest character to continue to enjoy his life. The lyrics of the famous song whose title is the same as that of this episode state that "John Brown's body lies mouldering in the grave . . . His soul is marching on." In the version on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, John Brown's body is dead to the modern world, yet his spirit thrives once it has been set free from a loveless marriage and the obligations of running a business.

The story was first
published here
"John Brown's Body" first aired on CBS on Sunday, December 30, 1956. Robert C. Dennis based the script for this episode on a story of the same name by Thomas Burke; the story was originally published in the May 1931 issue of Vanity Fair. It was then collected in the author's 1931 collection of short stories titled The Pleasantries of Old Quong in England and A Tea-Shop in Limehouse in the U.S. Burke was an English author who wrote short stories, novels, poems and essays; he became famous due to his 1916 book Limehouse Nights, which featured stories set in the working-class Limehouse District of London, where many Chinese immigrants lived. Only a handful of films and TV shows have been made from his works, but one of them was D.W. Griffith's famous silent feature, Broken Blossoms (1919), adapted from Burke's story, "The Chink and the Child." Three of his stories were adapted for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including the famous tale, "The Hands of Mr. Ottermole," which was voted the best mystery story of all time in 1949. A 1950 collection entitled The Best Stories of Thomas Burke was published in London and included "Ottermole" and "Father and Son," the other two Burke stories adapted for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, yet I have been unable to find a reprint source for "John Brown's Body" around the time the program aired; A Tea-Shop in Limehouse was later reprinted in 1969.

Burke's story is told by Old Quong, a Chinaman who lives in Limehouse, and is introduced as a story of revenge, which supports my reading of the intent of Dennis's script. Quong is reminded of the tale when he sees a newspaper clipping "announcing the death in a lunatic asylum of John Brown" and the story if almost entirely narrative, with little dialogue. It has the same plot as the TV show, though the younger partner is named Skimpole, not Skinner, and it is clear that Brown is not crazy: "the completely sane Mr. Brown was taken away from his home and away from his business, and carried to a large country house." His business is never identified; it is simply referred to as a large business and he runs it personally. Most notable is the concluding line where, instead of "George Washington," John signs the discharge book with the name, "Jesus Christ." One can see why Robert C. Dennis chose to change this to a historical figure who would be less offensive to TV viewers.

Dennis's script is a clever updating of Burke's story. He brings it into the 1950s without changing the overall plot in any significant way and adds enough humor to make the show a light comedy instead of a story of revenge. Perhaps the source story was thought to be too flimsy to support a serious script; in any case, the TV adaptation is most enjoyable.

"John Brown's Body" is directed by Robert Stevens (1920-1989), who directed 49 episodes of the Hitchcock series; the last one reviewed in this series was "Place of Shadows."

Harold and Vera learn that John
won't be coming home soon
Top billing in the episode goes to Leora Dana (1923-1983), who plays Vera Brown and whose career on stage and screen lasted from the late 1940s to the mid-1980s. She won a Tony Award in 1973, appeared thrice on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and was in the 1957 film, 3:10 to Yuma.

John Brown's body is inhabited by Russell Collins (1897-1865), a wonderful actor whose stage career began in the 1920s. He followed this with film roles starting in the 1930s and with TV roles starting in the early 1950s. Most of what we see of him today is from later in his career, such as his role on "Kick the Can" on The Twilight Zone and his ten appearances on the Hitchcock show, including Fredric Brown's "The Night the World Ended."

Hugh Marlowe (1911-1982) plays Harold Skinner in a role probably meant to be younger than the actor's real age at the time. Born Hugh Herbert Hipple, Marlowe had a long and successful career that started on stage and radio in the 1930s. He was on screen from the mid-1930s to the late 1960s and went through a period where he played Ellery Queen in series on radio and TV. He was in All About Eve (1950), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), six episodes of the Hitchcock series, and nearly 2000 episodes of the soap opera Another World, from 1969 to 1982.

Edmon Ryan as Dr. Croatman
Finally, playing the psychiatrist, Dr. Croatman, is Edmon Ryan (1905-1984). A familiar character actor, Ryan was born Edmon Mossbarger and was on screen from the mid-1930s until 1970. He was on the Hitchcock series four times, including "Isabel," and also appeared on Thriller in the classic episode, "Your Truly, Jack the Ripper."

"John Brown's Body" is available on DVD here or may be viewed for free online here.


Burke, Thomas. "John Brown's Body." [1931.] Rpt. in A Tea-Shop in Limehouse. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1969. 145-157.

IMDb. 25 Nov. 2015.

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

"John Brown's Body." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 30 Dec. 1956.

Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. 25 Nov. 2015.

In two weeks: "Nightmare in 4-D" with Henry Jones and Barbara Baxley!

The last shot of John Brown


RTWhite said...

Russell Johnson?

Jack Seabrook said...

Whoops! Thanks. The Professor was too busy trying to save Abraham Lincoln to appear in this episode.