Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Hitchcock Project-Robert C. Dennis Part Twenty-Five: "Mrs. Herman and Mrs. Fenimore" [4.12]

by Jack Seabrook

Doro Merande as Mrs. Herman
The final script that Robert C. Dennis wrote during the third season of Alfred Hitchcock Presents was "Dip in the Pool," an episode directed by Hitchcock that I discussed here in my series on Roald Dahl. Dennis would only write three more scripts for the series; the first of these was "Mrs. Herman and Mrs. Fenimore," which was broadcast on CBS on Sunday, December 28, 1958. Based on a short story by Donald Honig called "Mrs. Herman and Mrs. Kenmore," the title was probably changed for TV to avoid mention of a competing sponsor (Kenmore Appliances), since the Hitchcock series was sponsored at the time by Bristol-Myers.

"Mrs. Herman and Mrs. Kenmore"
was first published here
Honig's story was first published in the May 1958 issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and concerns Mrs. Herman, a woman who is particular about whom she selects as a new boarder in her home. She welcomes Mrs. Kenmore, "a widow in her late forties, tall and attractive." Mrs. Herman tells her Uncle Bill, who also lives in her house, that Mrs. Kenmore will move in the next day. After some time spent in the company of the new boarder, Uncle Bill, "for the first time in years, was actually civil to people."

One evening, Mrs. Herman tells Mrs. Kenmore that Bill is quite wealthy and that she is his only relative. Soon, the idea of murdering the old man for his money comes up and Mrs. Kenmore remarks, "You almost make it sound like an act of charity." Mrs. Herman promises Mrs. Kenmore $1000 for helping her to carry out her plan. In the months that follow, Uncle Bill and Mrs. Kenmore spend quite a bit of time together. Eventually, Mrs. Herman reveals that her plan to murder her uncle involves leaving the gas turned on at the kitchen stove.

The plan is carried out successfully. A day later, Mrs. Kenmore prepares to leave and reveals to Mrs. Herman that she and Uncle Bill had been married a month before. She promises to send Mrs. Herman $1000 after the will is read.

"Mrs. Herman and Mrs. Kenmore" is a slight tale with an ending that is not a big surprise. Yet in adapting it for the small screen, Robert C. Dennis wrote a script that allowed director Arthur Hiller and the cast to transcend the source material.

Mrs. Herman with her RCA phonograph
While he did not make major changes to the plot, Dennis changed some important details. First and foremost, the TV show takes place around the turn of the century, something that is underlined in the very first scene, as we see Mrs. Herman, an aging spinster, puttering around her parlor in an old-fashioned dress and playing a disc on her RCA phonograph. We get a hint that the story takes place in the Midwest, since Uncle Bill is seen reading the St. Louis Press-Herald, a newspaper that never existed (though there was a St. Louis Park Herald briefly in 1915). Mrs. Herman sneaks a sip of sherry from a bottle hidden under the phonograph and an exchange between her and her uncle sets up the situation; Dennis does a good job of taking the story's narrative sections and transforming them into dialogue.

Mary Astor as Mrs. Fenimore
Mrs. Fenimore arrives and is dressed much more impressively than Mrs. Herman, who wears a plain frock. Mrs. Fenimore sports a veil over her face and speaks in a cultured voice; in the TV version, she is an actress whose company has folded. Doro Merande, as Mrs. Herman, is wonderful, offering Mary Astor, as Mrs. Fenimore, "a little refreshment" in the form of a glass of sherry and cautioning: "unless you have scruples?" to which Mrs. Fenimore responds, "Scruples, my dear?" The two seem to complement each other. Russell Collins is perfect as Uncle Bill, and he and Mrs. Herman clearly cannot stand each other. He slurps his tea loudly from the cup while seated at the dinner table, and when he gets up from a chair he walks like someone suffering from a lifetime of lower back problems.

A Robert Stevens-like shot
Hiller's direction of this episode is outstanding and he even includes a shot reminiscent of one that Robert Stevens might use, where we see the hands of Mrs. Fenimore and Uncle Bill meet over the table as she pours his tea, with Mrs. Herman framed behind them, watching their interaction. Merande's performance is unforgettable. She punctuates most of her lines with a little sigh of affirmation at the end and is quite funny without attempting broad humor. Hiller's shot choices are always good and serve to reinforce the plot points, as well as to show us the emotions of the characters even when they are not speaking.

Another slight change from the source story concerns the murder of Uncle Bill. Instead of having it take place in the kitchen, Mrs. Herman insists that Mrs. Fenimore find a way to get herself invited into his bedroom, where she can read to him until he falls asleep and then she can exit, leaving the door unlocked for Mrs. Herman to come in and make sure the flame goes out on his little gas burner. As Mrs. Herman puts it, "What has he to look forward to but the lingering agony of a helpless old age?" This is part of her justification for her murder plot, and the promised payment on the TV show has been increased to $2500, a much larger sum than the $1000 in the story, especially considering that the events have been moved about a half century earlier in time.

Up in Uncle Bill's room
There is a lovely, funny scene where Mrs. Fenimore reads poetry to Uncle Bill in the parlor as Mrs. Herman sits at her desk in the same room, looking at stereoscopic photographs and interrupting just often enough to ensure that she is annoying. Another entertaining scene concerns Mrs. Fenimore trying to teach Uncle Bill to dance in the modern fashion; she drags him around the floor as he writhes in obvious pain. On the night of the murder, Mrs. Herman sits on the sofa knitting, an American Madame Defarge who seems harmless while actually planning to carry out a murder. Mrs. Fenimore goes up to Uncle Bill's room to read to him and we see the inside of his private quarters for the first time and only briefly. The scene is lit like something from a film noir, as Bill lies on his bed in a pose that makes it look as if he is dead already.

Noir lighting with a suggestion of prison cell bars
The next shot also features noir lighting, with Mrs. Herman in the front of the frame and Mrs. Fenimore behind and above her on the stairs, shadows crisscrossing her like the bars of a jail cell. The show features two middle-aged women conspiring to murder an old man, yet their discourse is at all times civil. In Honig's story, we read of Mrs. Herman turning off the gas with "a sudden wild exhilaration" and a "vengeance," but in the show she merely walks slowly up the stairs and we do not see her commit the crime. At the end, the look of shock on Mrs. Herman's face when she learns of the secret marriage is priceless, and the twist ending works better on the small screen than it does on the printed page, providing the perfect finish to an outstanding episode.

Brushing up on modern dance skills
Donald Honig (1931- ), who wrote the original story, wrote about 200 stories and articles for various magazines, though most of his crime stories seem to have been published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. He also wrote novels, and in the mid-1970s he changed the focus of his writing and began to write extensively about the game of baseball. IMDb lists five TV episodes based on his stories, two of which were filmed for the original run of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He has a website here with more information.

The director of "Mrs. Herman and Mrs. Fenimore" was Arthur Hiller (1923- ), who directed TV shows from 1955 to 1974 and then directed movies exclusively until 2006. He was behind the camera for 17 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents; the last one I wrote about was Cornell Woolrich's "Post Mortem."

Mary Astor, veiled
Top billing in the cast belongs to Mary Astor (1906-1987), the great Hollywood actress whose screen career began in silent films in 1921. Born Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke, Astor's most memorable role on film came in John Huston's 1941 adaptation of The Maltese Falcon, with Humphrey Bogart. She began appearing on TV in 1954 and her screen career ended in 1964. This was one of her two appearances on Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

As I read "Mrs. Herman and Mrs. Kenmore," I found myself thinking that the role of Uncle Bill would be perfect for character actor Russell Collins (1897-1965) and I was delighted to watch the episode and see that he was cast. Collins was onscreen from 1935 to 1965 and appeared in ten episodes of the Hitchcock series; the last one I wrote about was "John Brown's Body."

Rusell Collins as Uncle Bill
Doro Merande (1892-1975) makes such a strong impression as Mrs. Herman that I was surprised to discover that this was her only appearance on the Hitchcock series. Even more surprising is the fact that she was five years older than the actor who plays her uncle! Born Dora Matthews, she was onscreen from 1928 to 1974, a long career where she played many character roles. She was also seen on Thriller and The Twilight Zone and she made many appearances on stage.

Finally, in a brief appearance at the end of the show as the detective, Wesley Lau (1921-1984) does not make much of an impression. He was onscreen from 1952 to 1981, appearing thrice on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and twice on The Twilight Zone. He also appeared in 81 episodes of Perry Mason as Lt. Anderson.

Wesley Lau as the detective
"Mrs. Herman and Mrs. Fenimore" is available on DVD here or may be viewed for free online here. Read the GenreSnaps take on this episode here. Thanks to Peter Enfantino for providing a copy of the story!

"Donald Honig." Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2010. Contemporary Authors Online. Web. 11 June 2016.
"The FictionMags Index." The FictionMags Index. Web. 11 June 2016.
"Galactic Central." Galactic Central. Web. 11 June 2016.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
Honig, Donald. "Mrs. Herman and Mrs. Kenmore." Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine May 1958: 104-09.
IMDb. Web. 11 June 2016.
"Mrs. Herman and Mrs. Fenimore." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS. 28 Dec. 1958. Television.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 11 June 2016.

In two weeks: our series on Robert C. Dennis ends with "Invitation to an Accident," starring Gary Merrill and Joanna Moore!


Genre Snaps said...

Thanks for another great post.

This morning I needed to know the name of the Outer Limits episode that I only recalled as "the killer tumbleweed" episode.

Cry of Silence . . . teleplay by Robert C. Dennis. That guy was everywhere!


John Scoleri said...

Hi Don -

We hope you found your way to our sister-blog, We Are Controlling Transmission, and if not, you can certainly get your fill on Cry of Silence:

Grant said...

Coincidentally, I just finished seeing the Twilight Zone you mean, "The Bard." To some of us it's definitely one of the best comical ones, and Doro Merande is very good as the eccentric bookseller.

I also just saw "Cry of Silence" again, and I liked it as much as always.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, Grant! I'll have to watch "The Bard" again. I haven't seen it in ages.

Grant said...

My only problem with The Bard is that overwrought "whacky" music on and off all through it. That's something to try to be ready for, but again, it's just about my only complaint.

Unknown said...

I'm trying to find out the book Mary Astor was reading in this episode. If anyone knows I would most appreciate it.

Unknown said...

I'm trying to find out the book Mary Astor was reading in this episode. If anyone knows I would most appreciate it.

Jack Seabrook said...

In the parlor, she reads from a poem by Sir Walter Scott called "The Lay of the Last Minstrel." You can find it online. In the bedroom, she reads from Scott's "The Lady in the Lake," also easily found online.