Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Hitchcock Project-Robert C. Dennis Part Twenty-Two: "Guest for Breakfast" [3.21]

by Jack Seabrook

After "The Equalizer," Robert C. Dennis's next script for Alfred Hitchcock Presents was "Guest for Breakfast," which was adapted from a story by C. B. Gilford, who also wrote the story on which "The Equalizer" was based.

Broadcast on CBS on Sunday, February 23, 1958, "Guest for Breakfast" is a tale of marital discord, where an unhappy couple's problems are brought into sharp focus when a crisis erupts. The show begins as Jordan and Eve Roth bicker over breakfast in what looks like just another day in a long-running argument. Eve taunts Jordan about Sylvia Lester, who has been his lover for a year, and Jordan responds with cruel remarks about Eve. The doorbell rings and a disheveled man enters; he knocks Eve down and pulls a gun out of his pocket. He is Chester Lacie, on the run without much to lose.

Scott McKay as Jordan
Jordan emerges from the kitchen and assumes that the man is Eve's lover--until he sees the gun. The three go into the kitchen, where Lacie reveals that he killed two people the day before. He plans to stay until dark and then take their car. Jordan says that he will be missed at work. He works for a publishing company and, when Lacie asks him to name some of the books that his company has published, Jordan says that the names would not mean much to Lacie, since they don't publish comic books. (Recall Fritz Lang's While the City Sleeps, released in 1956, in which a psychotic killer is seen reading a comic book. In the mid-'50s, if an adult male read comics he must have been mentally disturbed!)

Jordan is impressed with his own wit and is smooth in speech and appearance, in contrast with the rumpled, plain-spoken gunman. Lacie tells Jordan to go to work, but Eve says that if Jordan leaves, he won't be back--he hates Eve and would be happy if Lacie killed her. Jordan and Eve argue until the gunman tells Jordan to call in sick to work.

Joan Tetzel as Eve
Jordan and Eve each try to convince Lacie to take them with him when he leaves in their car. They continue to fight, dredging up years-old arguments in the midst of the current crisis. Lacie decides to take Eve with him, so Jordan convinces Lacie that he'll need money to escape. Eve reveals that Jordan keeps money in a box in his bedroom upstairs. Jordan distracts Lacie and runs and locks himself in the bedroom. Lacey blames Eve and holds her captive; he grabs her by the hair and drags her downstairs.

Jordan emerges from the bedroom and leaps on Lacie, overpowering him. Later, after the police have gone, Jordan and Eve resume their bickering. Eve admits that she pushed Lacie's arm and saved Jordan from being shot. Nether Jordan nor Eve can explain why each acted to help the other at the peak of the crisis. Jordan surmises he might not have acted boldly for anyone but Eve. She bursts into tears and he comforts her in an unexpectedly tender moment. Schmaltzy music begins to play on the soundtrack and the episode ends with this dialogue:

Richard Shepard as Lacie
Jordan: "Why did you pull his arm?"

Eve: "You Jordan, me Eve."

They are man and his mate, linked by marriage despite their mutual disappointment, and they acted on instinct to save each other in a time of crisis.

Needless to say, the ending of "Guest for Breakfast" is unsatisfactory. The rest of the episode develops a good sense of tension and the story adheres to Aristotle's three unities for rules for drama in that it follows one action, occurs in no more than 24 hours, and exists in a single physical space. The film is directed by Paul Henreid, who uses some deep focus shots to keep all three characters in focus even when they are on different planes of a shot. The performances by all three actors are strong and, were it not for the ending, it would be a very good show.

A deep focus shot
Gilford's story was first published in the October 1956 issue of Michael Shayne Mystery Magazine. Dennis's script follows the story closely. Joan Tetzel plays Eve as a much more attractive and stylish woman than she is described on paper; the Eve of Gilford's story has "gone to seed," according to Jordan, "wearing a wrapper [with] a scarf knotted around her head." In the story, when Jordan barricades himself in the bedroom, he calls out to Lacie and tells him to shoot Eve, which Dennis must have thought was too cruel to include in the teleplay. Gilford handles the ending better, the subtlety of the story's conclusion eclipsing the overly romantic turn that the television version takes. Gilford writes that, after the police leave, Eve has transformed herself: "She had changed her clothes. She was wearing a neat, dark dress, her hair was well-groomed, her mouth was bright with lipstick" She comments on the "turnabout when the chips were down" and Jordan replies that "We've had quite an emotional day and solved absolutely nothing." They are the same two people in the same marriage. "The same?" asks Eve, and Jordan replies: "I'll have to think it over."

Gilford's ending fits much better with the relationship that has been established between Jordan and Eve Roth. The crisis and their unexpected defense of each other makes them reconsider their marriage, but no sudden conclusions are reached. This is much more believable than the televised version, with its corny evocation of Tarzan and Jane and its suggestion that the Roths reverted to the law of the jungle.

A stuntman stands in for McKay
Paul Henreid (1908-1992) directed 29 episodes of the Hitchcock series; the last one examined here was "The Diplomatic Corpse."

C. B. Gilford (1920-2010) wrote stories that served as the basis for five episodes of the Hitchcock series; the last one discussed here was "The Equalizer."

Playing Eve Roth is Joan Tetzel (1921-1977), who performed many parts on the Broadway stage from the 1930s into the 1960s. She was married to Oscar Homolka from 1949 until her death, appeared in movies from 1946 to 1965 and on TV from 1953 to 1976. She was in Duel in the Sun (1946) and Hitchcock's The Paradine Case (1947). She was on Thriller twice but this was her only appearance on the Hitchcock show.

"Guest for Breakfast" was
first published here
Her husband Jordan is played by Scott McKay (1915-1987), who was born Carl Gose and who was also a stage actor for 35 years. He was in movies from 1944 to 1980 and appeared with Joan Tetzel in Duel in the Sun. On television from 1950 to 1977, he appeared in another Hitchcock episode, Henry Slesar's "A Woman's Help." He was married to Ann Sheridan for a year prior to her death.

Finally, Richard Shepard plays Lacie. He has nine credits on TV between 1956 and 1963 but I have not been able to find any other information about him.

In 1964, C. B. Gilford adapted his own short story as a one-act play, published under the same title. The story is completely rewritten though the key events are the same. In this version, Jordan and Eve's roles are reversed--he works a dull job as a bookkeeper while she has just landed a job as an advertising executive and makes more money than he does. This is the source of the friction between them and there is no mention of an adulterous affair.

Lacey broke out of prison and killed a guard; here, he did not kill his wife and her lover and does not compare the situation at his home to that of Jordan and Eve. This time, Eve also works in an office and has to cancel her appointments; she has more cash on her than Jordan does! The balance of power and motivations of the characters are much different than those in the original story or the TV version. As a result, the ending seems to work better, since they are not as estranged in the beginning. The play runs just twelve pages and was published for amateur theater companies to perform.

In the original story, Jordan and Eve have the surname "Roth" and Chester has the surname "Lacie." These are changed to "Ross" and "Lacey" in the play. The TV version does not identify the characters' names in the credits, but it may be the case that Robert C. Dennis changed the names for TV and C.B. Gilford followed suit in his play.

"Guest for Breakfast" is available on DVD here or may be viewed for free online here.

Thanks to Peter Enfantino for a copy of the story.

Read the GenreSnaps review of "Guest for Breakfast" here.

"Galactic Central." Galactic Central. Web. 01 May 2016.
Gilford, C.B. Guest for Breakfast. Kansas Cty, MO: The Play House, 1964.
Gilford, C. B. "Guest for Breakfast." Michael Shayne Mystery Magazine Oct. 1956: 102-12.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
"Guest for Breakfast." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 23 Feb. 1958. Television.
IMDb. Web. 01 May 2016.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 01 May 2016.

In two weeks: "Fatal Figures," with John McGiver!


Grant said...

I don't think I'm familiar with him, but Richard Sheperd looks a little like Richard Baeshart, or maybe more than a little in that top photo.

Jack Seabrook said...

Maybe it's the hair? I didn't note the resemblance when I was watching the episode but I see what you mean.

john kenrick said...

I liked this one better than you did, Jack. The married couple behaved so superficially, faux jokingly needling one another with nasty cracks. This is what the Existentialists called something like inauthenticity (sp?). In other words, they weren't being true to one another. Sincerity was absent from their marriage.

The intrusion of the murderer, a desperate, somewhat younger man, did not drastically alter their behavior early on, with Jordan continuing with his one liners even after being smacked in the face. It was nearly impossible to discern who,--husband or wife--was more dissatisfied with the marriage. Husband and wife were still wearing their masks. It's like THEY were the real actors, not the actors portraying them (yes, I know this likely sounds absurd, but it's how it played to me).

Then a funny, as in unexpected, thing happened near the end: as things turned out, this seemingly mismatched pair each, in his own way, rallied, and in the end they discover and prove to one another how they really felt about their marriage, their roles (husband and wife); and while it might be a stretch to say they lived happily ever after, their encounter with the desperate "guest for breakfast" changed them and the nature of the marriage. As to how long this shall last is an issue not dealt with in the play.

Good as I thought this episode was, I felt in some ways put off by the presentation even as I liked the principal players. They needed better direction. Maybe because this was a television show and not a movie there may not have been time for much rehearsal. Scott McKay and Joan Tetzel played their parts smoothly. The moments, the line readings, of reconciliation and resolution didn't ring true in the final scene. This brought the show down for me, as I was hoping that the story would turn around and become more serious. I could seem some effort put into this, but it didn't come off.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, John. That's an interesting approach. I read back over my article and think my real problem was with the end of the TV show, and it looks like you felt that way, too.