Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Hitchcock Project-James Bridges Part Nine: The Gentleman Caller [9.24]

by Jack Seabrook

Veronica Parker Johns (1907-1988) was a mystery writer who was born Veronica Parker Johnson in New York and who attended the Columbia School of Journalism from 1925 to 1926. She wrote five novels, published between 1940 and 1963, as well as one non-fiction book, published in 1968. Two of her novels feature amateur detective Webster Flagg, while two others feature amateur detective Agatha Prentiss. Johns also wrote a handful of short stories, the most well-known of which is "The Gentleman Caller," first published in the May 1955 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

The story begins as elderly Emmy Rice prepares dinner for Gerald Musgrove, a young man she met on a park bench. Lonely, forgetful, and confused, she welcomes a rare visitor. By his third visit, Gerald is calling her "Aunty" and talking about having her make out a will to leave him her gold watch and any spare cash found hidden in her room. She wakes up the next day, feeling ill and smelling a funny smell.

The next time Gerald visits, he is accompanied by a young woman he calls his Cousin Mildred, who turns on the gas at the stove when Emmy falls asleep. After she wakes up, Emmy discovers the gas leak and thinks Mildred was being wasteful and trying to run up her bill, so she pays a visit to the gas company. Emmy returns home and finds small amounts of cash tucked in various hiding places around her room. That evening, a man waits outside her door and she invites him in. She thinks he is from the gas company but he is really a detective, who explains that the police have had their eye on Gerald and will now arrest him for attempted murder.

Gerald arrives and is arrested, but Emmy does not understand what is happening. She shows the detective that her purse is filled with money she collected from around her room and he realizes that it is the money from a factory robbery that previously had landed Gerald in jail. Emmy admits having used most of it to purchase the rooming house where she lives, and Gerald is taken away.

"The Gentleman Caller" is a funny, clever story with insight into "the world of the elderly," as the editor notes in the introduction. The tale was purchased for TV and adapted for the live, half-hour ABC anthology series, Star Tonight, where it aired on August 2, 1956, starring Don Hanmer and Ruth McDevitt. The teleplay was by Robert Shaw. The script is in the archives at Duke University but I do not know if a print of the show survives.

The story by Ms. Johns was later adapted for TV by James Bridges for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. It aired on Friday, April 10, 1964, on CBS and starred Roddy McDowall as Gerald and Ruth McDevitt again as Emmy. McDevitt was born in 1895 and so would have been 60 when the 1956 version aired and 68 when the 1964 version aired. She is wonderful and wholly believable playing a 75-year--old woman on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

Ruth McDevitt as Emmy
It was necessary for Bridges to expand the short story to fill the hour format, and he did so by adding a number of key scenes and revising the ending. The show begins with an atmospheric, nighttime robbery in which Gerald blows the door off of an office safe and shoots and kills a night watchman. Mildred drives the getaway car, which they abandon near a public park, where a group of old folks are participating in a sing-along. As Emmy joins in on the 1909 favorite, "Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland," Gerald comes up alongside her and sings himself; there is tension when she calls over a policeman to sing with them, but soon the cop leaves and Gerald and Emmy get to know each other on a park bench. She is eccentric, donning a pair of ear muffs to block the sound of a police car's siren, and Gerald appears charming and kind as he convinces her that she has invited him home for dinner.

At her room in a boarding house she has a couple of Christmas trees and stacks of old magazines lying about; she interacts with her black neighbor, Mrs. Jones, and her Jewish landlady, Mrs. Goldy, who encourages her to declutter. Emmy has a habit of misplacing things and finds a head of cabbage in her purse.

Roddy McDowall as Gerald
Meanwhile, at Gerald's apartment, Mildred reads about his crime in the newspaper and complains that they cannot go out and spend the money from the robbery. She is portrayed by Diane Sayer as an attractive young woman in tight shorts who affects a childish persona and clutches a stuffed animal. When she hits Gerald with the toy, he begins to pull it apart and then slaps her with the back of his hand. His behavior with his girlfriend is much more violent than his behavior with Emmy, with whom he is gentle, kind and patient. Gerald locks Mildred in their apartment and goes back to the park, where he woos Emmy with flowers and a bottle of wine. They walk back to the boarding house, singing "Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland," which becomes a musical theme that runs through the show. For Emmy, meeting Gerald was like something out of a dream, and as long as he remains a part of her life she is happy to reside in Dreamland.

Emmy climbs the long flight of stairs to her room and tells Gerald that she is afraid of falling, which leads him to cast a knowing glance at the staircase. In her apartment, she dozes off and he gets an idea while looking at the stacks of magazines. Gerald returns home to find Mildred playing with the money. She lights a cigarette with a bill and he slaps her again before telling her his plan to hide the money in magazines so it will be theirs when Emmy dies. He then convinces the old woman to draw up a will and, when she goes downstairs to have it witnessed by Mrs. Jones and Mrs. Goldy, he hides his stolen cash in the pages of her magazines.

Diane Sayer as Mildred
As Gerald and Emmy embark on a picnic in the country, he endeavors to push her down the stairs but falls himself when she unwittingly steps aside. As Mildred tends to his wounds, he tells her that he has hidden over $100,000 in Emmy's room. The will signed and the money hidden, Gerald takes Mildred to meet Emmy. They take an after-dinner stroll along the busy city street and the young couple entices the old woman to rush out into traffic at an intersection; she is hit by a car but not killed, sustaining only a broken leg. Gerald and Mildred then look after her as she sits in a wheelchair with her leg in a cast. When she dozes off, they adjust the gas stove to try to kill her.

The next day, the junk collector comes and takes away Emmy's magazines and Christmas trees while a man from the gas company repairs the stove. Realizing Emmy is in danger, he calls the police from the hall phone. Later, when Gerald and Mildred arrive with flowers and wine, they are disappointed to find Emmy still alive and they are even more surprised to find the police waiting for them in her room. Mildred immediately turns on Gerald, who gets in one more slap before he is grabbed by the cops. Noticing the lack of clutter, he demands to know what happened to the magazines; Emmy explains and, as he is taken away, he tells her to "Drop dead."

After everyone is gone, Emmy pulls a small stack of magazines out of her freezer and begins to remove thousand dollar bills from between the pages. It is unclear whether she knew the money was there or not, but she ends up benefiting from Gerald's crime.

Juanita Moore, Ruth McDevitt, Naomi Stevens
"The Gentleman Caller" expands and changes the events of the story but essentially follows the plot closely, with a few notable exceptions. Bridges expands the role of Mildred and alternates scenes at Emmy's room with scenes at Gerald and Mildred's room. Instead of just having the young couple try to gas Emmy, he adds two more murder attempts, as Gerald tries to push her down the stairs and then as they entice her into walking in front of a car. For a seventy-five year old woman, Emmy is surprisingly resilient. The biggest change comes at the end. In the story, Emmy finds the cash by accident and uses it to purchase the rooming house. In the show, she has the magazines taken away by the junk collector but then reveals that the cash is hidden in her freezer.

"The Gentleman Caller" works as well as it does mainly due to the performances of the two leads. Roddy McDowall (1928-1998) plays Gerald and portrays a complex character who can be charming one minute and violent the next. Born in England, McDowall was a model as a baby before becoming a child actor on film. His family moved to the U.S. in 1940 to escape the war and he quickly became one of the biggest stars of the Classic Hollywood period, appearing in films such as How Green Was My Valley (1941). He made the transition from child star to adult star and began appearing on TV in 1951. Among his many roles were appearances on The Twilight Zone, Batman, and Night Gallery; he was on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour twice. Other great films where he played memorable roles include Planet of the Apes (1968) and The Poseidon Adventure (1972). He worked on TV and film right up until his death in 1998.

Frank Maxwell
The delightful Ruth McDevitt (1895-1976) makes her second and last appearance on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour as Emmy. Born Ruth Shoecraft in Michigan, she was on Broadway and Old Time Radio before beginning a career on TV and in movies that lasted from 1949 to 1976.

As Mildred, Diane Sayer (1938-2001) is a bit grating but very attractive as Mildred. She had a fairly brief career on screen from 1962 to 1971 and was on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour three times. I think there has been a mistake in the print and online credits for "The Gentleman Caller" in that Sayer's character is listed as "Millie Musgrove." Since Sayer is one of the three leads, her character's name is not written out in the closing credits onscreen and, in the show, Gerald introduces her as his "Cousin Mildred" and later refers to her as "Millie." It seems clear that she is his girlfriend and thus would not share his surname. In the story, the detective refers to her as Gerald's girl.

There are several notable actors in small roles. Naomi Stevens (1926- ) plays Mrs. Goldy, the landlady, as a broad Jewish stereotype. Stevens specialized in ethnic roles and was onscreen for about 30 years, from the mid-fifties to the late eighties.  Juanita Moore (1914-2014), who plays Mrs. Jones, had a much longer career on screen, from 1939 to 2001, and was nominated for an Oscar for Imitation of Life (1959). She appeared on three episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

Marjorie Bennett
Officer Petrie, who stands with Emmy and Gerald in the park during the sing-along, is played by Frank Maxwell (1916-2004), who was onscreen from 1951 to 2000 and appeared in six episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "Special Delivery." He was president of AFTRA from 1984 to 1989. The park sing-along is led by Marjorie Bennett (1896-1982 and here credited as "Plump Lady"), who was born in Australia and who was in four episodes of the Hitchcock series. She started out in silent films in 1917 but took a break from cinema from 1918-1946, returning as a character actress. Her career lasted till 1980 and she was on both The Twilight Zone and Thriller.

Norman Leavitt
Finally, Norman Leavitt (1913-2005) is seen as the gas company man. He was onscreen from 1946 to 1978 and can be seen in seven episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "John Brown's Body." Like Marjorie Bennett, he was also on The Twilight Zone and Thriller.

"The Gentleman Caller" was directed by Joseph Newman (1909-2006), who directed ten episodes in all of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour; the last one examined here was "Beast in View."

Thanks to Peter Enfantino for providing a scan of the original story from Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

The FictionMags Index. Web. 14 Apr. 2017.
Galactic Central. Web. 16 Apr. 2017.
"The Gentleman Caller." The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. CBS. 10 Apr. 1964. Television.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
IMDb. Web. 14 Apr. 2017.
"Johns, Veronica Parker 1907-1988." Contemporary Authors. Web. 14 Apr. 2017.
Johns, Veronica Parker. "The Gentleman Caller." Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. May 1955. 81-94. Print.
Norris, J. F. "Pretty Sinister Books." FFB: Murder by the Day - Veronica Parker Johns. Web. 11 Apr. 2017.
Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 14 Apr. 2017.

In two weeks: "Bed of Roses," starring Patrick O'Neal and Kathie Browne!


Grant said...

I've only seen this one about one time, so I didn't remember half the people in it.
Juanita Moore was very good in the supernatural AHH episode "Where The Woodbine Twineth." (It's maybe one of the few episodes partly about race relations, although it's such a strange story that it's hard to tell exactly what it's trying to say about the subject (at least to me).

I mainly know Diane Sayer from KITTEN WITH A WHIP, with John Forsythe and Ann-Margret, which I and a lot of others know mainly from an episode of MST3K. But it's such a wild story that it's very entertaining with or without MST.

John Scoleri said...

Did someone say Ann Margret?


Jack Seabrook said...

I've never seen Kitten with a Whip but I guess I'd better put it on the list!

Grant said...

Even putting the other actors and characters aside, it's worth seeing for Peter Brown's "pseudo-intellectual" character.

Unknown said...

Who was the actress on the intro & closing scene with Hitchcock (the look alike contest)

Jack Seabrook said...

I don't see a credit for her anywhere and I don't recognize her.

Anonymous said...

Excellent Review As Usual!

Jack Seabrook said...

Thank you!