Thursday, March 28, 2019

The Hitchcock Project-James P. Cavanagh Part Six: Father and Son [2.36]

by Jack Seabrook

Edmund Gwenn as Joe Saunders
Edmund Gwenn made his last screen appearance in "Father and Son," a moving episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents from 1957 that is based on a short story by the English author, Thomas Burke, that first appeared in the August 1934 issue of Vanity Fair.

The story, just a page long in the magazine, concerns a 17-year-old named Sam Swote, who needs money and who looks for an easy way to get it. His father, Joe, has become "reluctant in handing out shillings" in the belief that it is time for his son to start earning a living. Sam thinks about the illegal tobacco sales occurring in the neighborhood and the police's interest in finding the man responsible. Wanting to "do his duty as a citizen" and perhaps earn a small reward to spend on a girl, Sam visits the police station, makes his report, and receives a reward.

"Father and Son" was first published here
The next evening, he is summoned to the police station to identify the man he had reported. He identifies Joe Swote, his own father, as the criminal, after which the police dismiss him and he senses that others look on him with disdain. As Sam slouches out of the police station, he trips and falls down the steps. His father leaps up and runs to the doorway, calling down to ask if his son is hurt.

Burke uses few words and little dialogue to draw a clear portrait of two characters whose relationship is tragic: the loving father who indulges his son, and the ne'er-do-well son who takes advantage of his father. The concern shown by Joe at the end when Sam falls, even after the betrayal, is heartbreaking and true to life. Each character's personality is consistent throughout the story: Sam is selfish to the end, while his father is compassionate. Thomas Burke holds back the identity of the tobacco seller and reveals it subtly, as Sam goes to the police station and sees what are described as two civilians and "a third civilian, his father ..." This withholding of the identity of the illegal tobacco seller creates suspense and allows Burke to surprise the reader; to this point in the story, there was no suggestion that the person Sam planned to turn in to the police was his own father.

The story's brevity and lack of dialogue presented a challenge to James P. Cavanagh when he adapted it for the small screen; the show was first broadcast on CBS on Sunday, June 2, 1957, and it is a model of adaptation in which the themes of the story are enhanced.

Charles Davis as Sam Saunders
The show begins with establishing shots: first, a foggy London street with a superimposed title card that reads, "London 1912"; next, the familiar three-ball symbol of a pawn shop. We then see a display case of rings on the pawn shop counter before the camera pulls back to reveal Sam and Joe Saunders, the father and son of the story. Joe owns the pawn shop and Sam asks him for money, but he refuses. Right away, we see that Sam is considerably older than the 17-year-old of Burke's story--Charles Davis, the actor playing Sam, was born in 1925, making him about 32 at the time of the TV show, though the character is revealed through dialogue to be 35. His father is played by the 79-year-old Edmund Gwenn. By aging both characters significantly, Cavanagh deepens the pathos of the situation, since it is one that must have been playing out over and over for many years.

Joe blames himself for helping Sam along so that Sam cannot hold a job; the dialogue establishes their history and their relationship and we learn that Joe has a drinking problem. After Joe refuses to give Sam two pounds, Sam says that Joe might not like what Sam has to do to get the money: this foreshadows the later betrayal at the police station.  Joe walks out of the shop and into the London fog and, moments later, a new character, Gus Harrison, enters the shop and collapses.

Pamela Light as Mae
In a pub, we see Sam talk to a pretty singer named Mae, who tells him that she is leaving the next day for a holiday in Brighton. Sam desperately wants her to stay with him and tells her he will get money, even offering to marry her, but she dismisses him until he has cash in hand. Sam tries to borrow fifty pounds from a man named Schiller, who refuses the loan. Schiller knows that Sam is harmless and when Sam picks up a heavy object with which to hit Schiller from behind, the lender's assessment of the young man proves true when Sam decides to replace the object on Schiller's desk.

The scene shifts back to Joe's home, where he and Gus sit at the kitchen table. Gus, a character not in the short story, is starving, after having been trying "to keep one jump ahead of the police," since he has been wrongly accused of murder. Joe and Gus are old friends and Gus reveals that there is a fifty-pound reward for his arrest; he is unaware that Sam has entered the pawn shop and stands listening behind the curtain that separates the shop from Joe's residence. Joe sends Gus to the cellar to hide and then goes to the front door of the shop to let in Sam, who had snuck out and who pretended to arrive just then. Sam spins a story to Joe about a business opportunity, claiming that he needs fifty pounds that night to buy in, but Joe does not believe him and refuses to lend him the money. Sam says he will do anything to get the cash and leaves, going back to the pub, where he tells Mae that he plans to turn Gus in to the police to collect the reward. As Sam leaves the pub, Mae picks up a telephone to make a call.

Frederic Worlock as Gus Harrison
The show's final scene takes place at the police station. Sam has already told the desk sergeant where to find Gus and is waiting for the fugitive to be brought in before he can collect his reward. Instead of Gus, the police bring in Joe, Sam's father, who looks distraught, especially after his son identifies him as the man who was hiding Gus. Gus escaped before the police arrived and the sergeant, clearly disgusted by Sam's behavior, reluctantly gives him the reward money after Joe admits that Sam was telling the truth and that he had been harboring the fugitive. Joe tells the sergeant that Mae, the singer at the pub, telephoned him to tip him off that Sam was going to tell the police about Gus. Sam takes the money and looks at Joe, who is crying. Sam rushes outside and falls down the stairs in front of the station, at which point Joe follows him out and calls down to ask if his son has hurt himself.

James P. Cavanagh's teleplay for "Father and Son" is a model of how to adapt a short, nearly dialogue-free story into a longer, dialogue-driven television show. Instead of having the story revolve around Sam and only introducing the father in the final scene, Cavanagh makes the father a central character, whose differences with his son are on display from the start. The girl referred to in the story becomes Mae, a character who serves as a tangible motivation for Sam's behavior, yet whose unexpected call to Joe allows Gus to escape. It is ironic that Sam's act of telling the police the truth about where to find a man thought to be a murderer seems to be the most unsavory act in the episode; Joe, Mae, and Gus all stick together on the wrong side of the law, yet their loyalty to each other seems more admirable than Sam's selfishly motivated adherence to the law.

Dan Sheridan as Schiller
Unlike Burke's story, where Joe is engaged in an illegal enterprise, Cavanagh is careful to make the old man's transgressions less egregious: he shows loyalty to an old friend who says he has been wrongfully accused. Finally, in the TV version, there is no surprise when Sam turns his father in to the police; in Burke's story, this is a shocking moment, since the author had not to that point revealed the identity of the seller of black-market tobacco.

"Father and Son" is brought to the small screen by the talented Herschel Daugherty (1910-1993), a director who worked almost exclusively in television from 1952 to 1975. He directed 27 episodes of the Hitchcock series, including Cavanagh's "Fog Closing In," and he also directed sixteen episodes of Thriller.

Starring as Joe Saunders is the great Edmund Gwenn (1877-1959), who was born Edmund Kellaway in London and who began acting on stage in 1895. He served in World War One and began his film career in 1918. Gwenn appeared in many classic movies, including four directed by Alfred Hitchcock: The Skin Game (1931), Waltzes From Vienna (1934), Foreign Correspondent (1940), and The Trouble With Harry (1955). His most famous role was as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street (1947), for which he won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. "Father and Son" was his last screen credit before he died two years later.

John Trayne (?)
Charles Davis (1925-2009) plays Sam, Joe's son. Born in Dublin, Ireland, Davis had a long career on stage in Ireland and on Broadway and appeared on large and small screens from 1951 to 1987. He was on Night Gallery twice and he appeared in seven episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including the three-part "I Killed the Count."

Gus Harrison, on the lam for a murder that he says he did not commit, is played by Frederic Worlock (1886-1973), a British actor who was on stage in London and New York from 1906 to 1954. His first film was in 1914 and he was seen on screens large and small up to 1970. Worlock was on Alfred Hitchcock Presents four times, including "The Crocodile Case."

In smaller roles:
  • Pamela Light as Mae; she had a short career on TV and film from 1956 to 1966 and this was her only role on Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
  • George Pelling (1914-2008) as a policeman; he was on screen from 1946 to 1966 and he was in eight episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "I Killed the Count"; he was also seen on Thriller and The Outer Limits.
  • John Trayne (1918-2004) as a policeman; he was seen mostly on TV from 1956 to 1973 and he was in three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "The Hands of Mr. Ottermole."
  • Dan Sheridan (1916-1983) as Schiller; born in Ireland, he was a busy character actor from 1945 to 1963 and he was also seen in the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, "The Crocodile Case."
George Pelling (?)
Thomas Burke (1886-1945), who wrote the short story, "Father and Son," was an English author of 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." "Father and Son" was also collected in Burke's Night-Pieces (1935), which was reprinted in 2016 and is available in print or on Kindle.

Read "Father and Son" for free online here or watch the TV version for free online here. It is also available on DVD here. Read the GenreSnaps take on this episode here.

Burke, Thomas. “Father and Son.” Vanity Fair, Aug. 1934, p. 21.
“Father and Son.” Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 2, episode 36, CBS, 2 June 1957.
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. OTR Pub., 2001.
Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation,

In two weeks: Sylvia, starring Ann Todd and John McIntire!


Grant said...

I know "The Chink and the Child" is a very disturbing title, and I've never read it, but I once saw BROKEN BLOSSOMS, and the Chinese character is treated in a really dignified way.
(As usual, he wasn't played by a Chinese actor, but that isn't everything.)

Jack Seabrook said...

I haven't seen Broken Blossoms but I'm not surprised to hear you say the character was treated with dignity. Griffith is now so vilified due to Birth of a Nation that his genius is overlooked.