Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Hitchcock Project-Robert C. Dennis Part Sixteen: "Mail Order Prophet" [3.2]

by Jack Seabrook

In the days before television and the internet, the popularity of newspapers and magazines was such that advertisements reached millions of readers every week. One man who had great success advertising in periodicals was Frank Robinson (1886-1948) who, in the late 1920s, founded Psychiana, a religious movement. He advertised heavily in print in the 1930s and 1940s and sold his lessons and books by mail. He was so successful that he became known as the "mail-order prophet."

Was Robinson the inspiration for the title of "Mail Order Prophet," an Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode adapted by Robert C.Dennis from a story by Antony Ferry (1930-1970)? According to Hans van Maanen, Ferry emigrated "from London to Canada in World War II, and in the fifties he made a living as a journalist for the Quebec Chronicle-Telegraph . . . he [also] wrote a few stories for Canada's largest magazine, Maclean's." Ferry's widow, Joan, wrote here about their years together working in experimental theater in Canada prior to her husband's untimely death.

The story was first
published here
One of the stories that Ferry wrote for Maclean's was "The Strange Case of the Mail-Order Prophet," and it was this story, published in the magazine's April 15, 1954 issue, that served as the basis for Dennis's teleplay.

In the story, Ronald Gubbins, a financial advisor, waits anxiously to find out if J. Cristiani's prophecy will come true. Gubbins has embezzled $15,000 from his employer and plans to kill himself if he is disappointed. He considers explaining his predicament to George Benedict, his co-worker, but decides to keep quiet.

Gubbins recalls having received the first letter from Cristiani four weeks before. Cristiani promised to make him rich if Gubbins believed in him and Cristiani made a prediction about an upcoming election. Gubbins thought about the offer but tore up the letter. A second letter followed a few days later, predicting the outcome of a boxing match. Gubbins thought the letters were a scam until he overheard someone talking about the unexpected outcome of the election. Cristiani's prediction of an upset came true! When the prediction of an upset in the boxing match also came true, Gubbins was hooked. He started placing bets based on predictions he received in the mail and won three in a row.

The sixth letter came and this time Cristiani wanted money before he would divulge a stock market tip that would make Gubbins rich. Gubbins spent three days thinking it over before deciding to steal money from his employer, sure that he could return it after he won the bet and before anyone noticed that it was gone. He sent Cristiani $200 and the stock tip arrived in the mail.

Cogs in the machine
Late on a Friday afternoon, he used $15,000 of his employer's money to buy stock in a mining company. He spent the weekend in "nightmarish doubt" and even prepared a bottle of dissolved sleeping pills that he planned to drink and commit suicide if the prophecy did not come true. At the end of the day on Monday, he calls his broker and learns that the stock soared and he made a profit of $125,000!

The next day, Gubbins visits the post office to try to locate Cristiani. He discovers that the man has been jailed for fraud! He would send letters to a large number of people, with half of the letters predicting one outcome and half the other. Subsequent letters would be sent to the winners, the number of people being halved each time. After the list was winnowed down to a manageable amount he would ask for money. Many people have been duped and Gubbins, embarrassed, does not disclose his personal windfall.

Joan Ferry commented that her husband's story was a success and that he did well with royalties, though I have been unable to find anywhere that it has ever been reprinted. It was purchased by the producer of Alfred Hitchcock Presents  and assigned to Robert C. Dennis to adapt for television. A copy of the script is in the Writer's Guild Foundation Archives and bears a draft date of April 2, 1957. It was filmed and aired as the second episode of the series's third season on CBS on Sunday, October 13, 1957; the onscreen title card shortens the title to "Mail Order Prophet."

Jack Klugman as George
As he often did, Dennis made important changes in dramatizing the story yet kept the plot intact. While Ferry's tale begins at a moment of crisis for Gubbins and then proceeds to go back in time to explain the events leading up to that moment, Dennis straightens out the events and presents them in a linear fashion from start to finish. Though the short story is mainly narrative, with little dialogue, Dennis turns it into a show almost completely driven by dialogue by building up the character of George Benedict, who probably has more lines than Ronald Grimes (Gubbins's name is changed to Grimes in the script)!

There are nine scenes in this episode, which alternates among five locations. It begins at the office, where Ronald sits at a desk in front of George's desk. They complain about beings cogs in a machine and George receives the letter from Cristiani; both men share a laugh about it and Ronald tears it up. The second scene takes place in a restaurant, as Ronald meets George for a meal. The second letter has come and Ronald comments that Cristiani's first prediction had come true. They discuss the second prediction.

Linda Watkins at the bar
Scene three occurs in a bar, where Ronald goes to watch the boxing match on television among a group of patrons. A loud woman at the bar narrates the fight for Grimes, who appears to know little about boxing. The office is the setting for scene four, and now Grimes is keeping his latest letter private. Some time has passed, since he admits that it's the fourth or fifth that he has received; George asks him about it and is skeptical, though now Ronald has come to believe that Cristiani can predict the future. In scene two, Grimes had complained about the winter weather and expressed a desire to go to a tropical climate; now, he calls the series of letters with predictions "a chance to escape." In this way, Dennis creates a motive for Grimes that explains his willingness to believe in the mail order prophet--he wants to escape his dreary office life in New York City and travel to a warmer climate.

Grimes and Benedict are back in the restaurant again in scene five, as Ronald asks George for advice about the latest letter he has received. This time, Cristiani wants a donation and promises a stock market tip in return. Ronald wants to retire but George warns him against taking company funds and says he'll end up in jail. At the office again in scene six, Ronald steals bonds as George watches; he calls a stockbroker and places a large order. In scene seven, we see Ronald at home over the weekend; he is unshaven and distraught and reads aloud a suicide note that he has written.

Anxiously waiting
The office is again the setting for scene eight, as Ronald confesses to George what he has done and we see him nearly swallow pills from a bottle labeled "Poison." As the afternoon wears on, he and George watch the clock until Ronald makes the final telephone call to the stockbroker. We are not told what the man on the other end of the line says; Ronald simply hangs up the phone, gets up from his desk and walks into the Men's Room, followed by George. Ronald empties his bottle of poison pills into the sink and tells George the good news, delivering a lecture on George's lack of faith and promising that he will not return to the office the next day.

In the final scene, George visits the Postal Inspector to find out about Cristiani and learns about the fraud scheme. George says that Ronald will never be convinced that Cristiani was anything but a prophet and, in the final shot, we see Ronald sitting happily in a ship's deck chair, superimposed over a shot of the ocean. Presumably, Ronald has made good on his promise to retire and head south.

In adapting Ferry's story for the small screen, Dennis chose to make the character of George Benedict both a foil for that of Ronald Grimes and also a stand in for the viewer. George is skeptical about Ronald's likelihood of success, tries to talk him out of embezzling money and, in the end, realizes too late that he, too, should try his luck with Cristiani's predictions.

Ken Christy as the office manager
And what of the nature of faith? Is Grimes a fool for believing what any rational person would realize was a fraudulent scheme? Perhaps the proof is in the pudding, since the repeated success of Cristiani's predictions reinforces Ronald's belief in the man's ability to see the future. Though George asks Ronald at one point if he bought a seersucker suit, joking that "for every seer there's got to be a sucker," it is Ronald whose faith is rewarded in the end, as the Mail Order Prophet becomes a source of great profit and allows Grimes to follow his dream.

In addition to the solid teleplay by Robert C. Dennis, "Mail Order Prophet" features strong acting from its two stars, E.G. Marshall and Jack Klugman, who play Ronald and George. They had appeared together as jurors #4 and #5 in the film version of 12 Angry Men that was released on April 13, 1957, though they had not been in the original TV version, broadcast on Studio One on September 20, 1954. "Mail Order Prophet" likely was filmed in summer 1957.

E.G. Marshall (1914-1998) was born Everett Grunz and had a long and distinguished career on stage, screen and television; he started in movies in 1945 and moved into TV in 1949. He starred in the TV series The Defenders from 1961 to 1965, hosted the CBS Radio Mystery Theater from 1974 to 1982, and made a memorable appearance in Creepshow (1982). This was his only appearance on the Hitchcock show.

Judson Pratt as the Postal Inspector
Jack Klugman (1922-2012) also had a long and successful career on screen, though his success came more on television than in film. He broke into TV in 1950 and his last film role was 60 years later, in 2010. Although this was his only appearance on the Hitchcock show, he would go on to make four memorable appearances on The Twilight Zone and to star in four TV series: Harris Against the World (1964-65), The Odd Couple (1970-75), Quincy, M.E. (1976-83) and You Again? (1986-87). He won three Emmys in his career and also made appearances on Broadway.

Marshall and Klugman carry the show, but among the character actors playing small, supporting roles are Ken Christy (1894-1962) as the office manager; among his other two appearances on Alfred Hitchcock Presents was his role as the boss in "Momentum" who is killed when his employee robs his house.

Happy at last!
Judson Pratt (1916-2002) plays the Postal Inspector in the show's final scene. He had a 30-year career onscreen and made an uncredited appearance in Hitchcock's I Confess (1953). "Mail Order Prophet" was his only appearance on the Hitchcock TV series.

Linda Watkins (1908-1976) makes the most of her brief role as the woman at the bar watching the boxing match next to Grimes. Her film career began way back in 1931 and, after a 17-year break from appearing on screen, she started working on TV in 1950. She also appeared in Henry Slesar's "On the Nose" as Lila, another instance of her doing a lot with a little time on screen.

This episode was directed by James Neilson (1909-1979), who directed twelve episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents; the last one reviewed here was "Crack of Doom."

"Mail Order Prophet" is available on DVD here or may be viewed for free online here.


Ferry, Antony. "The Strange Case of the Mail-Order Prophet." Maclean's Magazine. 15 Apr. 1954. 24-25, 90-94.

"Frank B. Robinson (1886-1948) The 'Mail Order Prophet.'" 5 Feb. 2016.

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

IMDb. 5 Feb. 2015.

"Mail Order Prophet." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 13 Oct. 1957.

von Maanen, Hans. "Letters from a clearvoyant." 5 Feb. 2016.

Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. 5 Feb. 2015.

Writers Guild Foundation. 5 Feb. 2016.

In two weeks: "Silent Witness," starring Don Taylor and Dolores Hart!


Grant said...

The first time I saw it, I really expected an all-out unhappy ending. Maybe funny in a very dark way (like so many AHP endings), but still unhappy. So that scene of Marshall dumping the pills, followed by the scene of him in the deck chair, really surprised me.

Jack Seabrook said...

That's the twist ending of the story and you're right that it's unusual. We are so used to having things go wrong at the end that when they go right we are surprised. I think Robert C. Dennis did a great job of fleshing out the story, especially by building up Klugman's character, who barely rates a mention in the short story. Thanks for reading!