Thursday, May 9, 2019

The Hitchcock Project-James P. Cavanagh Part Nine: Coming, Mama [6.26]

by Jack Seabrook

Poor Lucy! Her bedridden mother is very demanding, insisting that her daughter tend to her every need and complaining all the while. Lucy would like to spend more time with her boyfriend, Edward, who complains that Lucy's mother's habit of cutting news items out of the paper makes it hard to read and sometimes changes the meaning of what words remain. Edward proposes marriage, not for the first time, suggesting a honeymoon at Niagara Falls. He also lives with his aging mother, and he suggests finding boarders for her so that she can support herself and he and Lucy can have their own home together.

"Coming, Mama" was first published here
Dr. Larson makes a house call and notices that Lucy looks tired from constantly attending to her mother. Feeling like a prisoner, Lucy thinks that she will only be free when her mother is dead. The doctor gives her medicine to help put her mother to sleep so Lucy, nearly 40 years old, can get some rest, and he encourages her to accept Edward's marriage proposal.

In the days that follow, as she takes care of her mother's every need, Lucy begins to fear that she will miss her chance at happiness with Edward. Her mother threatens to cut Lucy out of her will, and Lucy asks her mother to write a letter to Edward, as follows:

My daughter Lucy has told me she will never marry while I live. I am not well and my days are numbered. I love my daughter and want her to be happy.

Lucy then gives her mother twice the recommended dose of sleeping medicine and invites her neighbor, Mrs. Evans, to come over for lemonade. Lucy tells Mrs. Evans that her mother wants her to marry Edward but Lucy says that she will never stop caring for her parent. After Mrs. Evans leaves, Lucy falls asleep, waking at dawn and rushing upstairs to find her mother dead. She screams, Mrs Evans comes running over, and Dr. Larson later arrives to pronounce the death a suicide, based on the mother's note.

Madge Kennedy as Mrs. Baldwin
In the weeks that follow, the estate is settled, the house is sold, and Lucy prepares for a prompt wedding. They are married, but before they leave he reveals that his mother fell a few days before and is now an invalid. Knowing Lucy to be a skilled caretaker, he brought his mother to the new home that he had bought for himself and his bride. He tells Lucy that they must postpone their honeymoon and she enters the house to hear her new mother-in-law calling her impatiently. Lucy tells Edward that she will need to get Dr. Larson to prescribe some strong sleeping medicine and she heads upstairs.

"Coming, Mama" was first published in the September 1960 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and Frederic Dannay writes in his introduction that the story was written by Henriette McClelland as part of a creative writing course taught by the editor. He remarks on the story's "cleanness and clarity, both of characterization and content, not found too often in 'first stories.'" He adds that Ms. McClelland is married and has two children, and that this is her first published story. The FictionMags Index lists two other stories by McClelland, one each in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in 1961 and 1962, but other than that she does not seem to have any published writing.

Don DeFore as Arthur
James P. Cavanagh adapted "Coming, Mama" for Alfred Hitchcock Presents not long after it was published, and the episode aired on NBC on Tuesday, April 11, 1961, near the end of the sixth season of the half-hour series. The teleplay follows the general outline of the short story, with one major change. The show opens ominously, as Lucy and Arthur (as Edward has been renamed) rush back to her house in the dark, with suspenseful music on the soundtrack creating a sense of urgency. Once inside, however, the lights are bright and there is no crisis. Both Mrs. Evans, the neighbor, and Dr. Larson are present, and Mrs. Baldwin (Lucy and her mother have been given a surname) reassures her daughter that she is fine.

We first see Mrs. Baldwin reflected in a dresser mirror next to Lucy as the daughter enters her mother's bedroom. Dr. Larson does not disguise his disdain for the mother's behavior, telling Lucy that her mother staged an attack for her benefit to punish her for going out. In a seemingly unimportant comment, Mrs. Baldwin sets up the show's final scene by asking about Arthur's mother and commenting that she's "'such an active woman.'" Dr. Larson gives Lucy the medicine to help her mother sleep and tells her, "'One teaspoon only--it's strong stuff.'"

Eileen Heckart as Lucy
After the doctor leaves, Arthur gives Lucy an ultimatum, telling her that she must decide by tomorrow if she wants to marry him or not. Lucy brings tea to her mother and they argue; Lucy is 34 years old and she is tired of her mother's selfishness and controlling behavior. Mrs. Baldwin responds by telling her daughter that Arthur does not love her and is only after the money she stands to inherit when her mother dies. After her mother threatens to cut Lucy out of her will, the younger woman leaves the room and looks at the bottle of medicine the doctor gave her.

Arthur telephones and, as she speaks to him, we see two images of the conflicted woman, one straight on and one reflected in a mirror next to where she stands. Lucy is being pulled in two directions by her boyfriend and her mother and the dual image illustrates her internal conflict. After Arthur repeats the next-day deadline, Lucy hangs up and returns to her mother's room, where she apologizes and administers the fatal dose of sleeping medicine. Unlike the story, Cavanagh's teleplay does not include the incident where Lucy asks her mother to write a letter to her boyfriend explaining that she cannot marry him. In fact, the idea of the written word having two meanings is absent from the TV show.

Jesslyn Fax as Mrs. Evans
In another meaningful shot, on the pillow next to Mrs. Baldwin's head we see the shadow of Lucy's hands pouring the medicine. There is then a close up of Lucy pouring "'two tablespoons,'" followed by ominous music on the soundtrack as we observe her mother drink the spiked cup of tea. Lucy starts to put the cap back on the bottle but then stops and leaves it off. Next morning, Lucy takes a tray of breakfast up to her mother as Mrs. Evans visits downstairs. Mrs. Evans hears the tray crash and rushes up to the bedroom, where Lucy's mother lies dead. Lucy notices that the cap is off the bottle and says that she gave her mother one teaspoon and then closed the bottle. She asks, "'Why would she take more? I warned her not to...Why would mother want to die?'" Mrs. Evans concludes that Mrs. Baldwin ended her own life so that Lucy could marry Arthur and be happy.

Robert Karnes as Mr. Simon
Why did James P. Cavanagh make such a significant change to the story? In McClelland's tale, the idea of a note that can have two meanings is set up early by Edward's complaint about Lucy's mother's habit of clipping items out of the paper. He says that missing words can change the meaning of what is left. In much the same way, Lucy dictates the letter for her mother to write and, to her mother's ears, it clearly tells Arthur that Lucy does not intend to marry him because she must care for her mother. However, after she is found dead, the same sentences are clearly interpreted as a suicide note.

The plot point in the story seems forced, making Lucy ask her mother to deliver the answer to Edward's question in the form of a missive that Lucy dictates. Perhaps Cavanagh, either on his own or at the behest of the producers, decided that having Mrs. Baldwin write a suicide note was something that might not pass muster with the censors in early 1961. In any case, the TV script works better and handles the situation more adeptly.

Arthur Malet as Dr. Larson
After Lucy's mother is found dead, Lucy speaks with a man named Mr. Simon at some later date. He reveals that her mother had been living off an annuity that stopped at her death, so Lucy inherits nothing. Lucy (and the viewer) now realize that her mother's threat to cut off her inheritance was a lie, since there was no money to pass on after the mother's death. Arthur arrives and cheers Lucy up by telling her that he has arranged for them to be wed that Saturday. Lucy admits that she is broke and he responds by reassuring her that he loves her and that the money makes no difference. They plan to enjoy their honeymoon together.

Unfortunately, Saturday comes and, after they are wed, Lucy and Arthur return to his home, where she is surprised to find his mother bedridden from a fall down the cellar steps. Arthur's mother, Mrs. Clark, thanks Lucy for giving up her honeymoon in order to care for her. Lucy learns that Mrs. Clark fell a day or so before Lucy's mother died, suggesting that, when Arthur made his ultimatum, he knew that his mother would need care, even if he could not have known of Mrs. Baldwin's impending death. Lucy says that they will need to get some sleeping medicine from the doctor and the show ends on a close up of Lucy's face, a knowing smile spreading across her features.

Gail Bonney as Mrs. Clark
"Coming, Mama" is a fairly entertaining short story that is improved by James P. Cavanagh's revisions for the TV version. It is unusual in that none of the characters are particularly likable or honorable. Mrs. Baldwin is a selfish, controlling old woman who puts her own needs ahead of those of her daughter and who threatens to cut the young woman out of her will, all the while lying about money that she does not have. Her daughter, Lucy, is a murderer and a liar, and at the end of the show it is suggested that she will commit a second homicide. Arthur is a middle aged man who conceals important facts from the woman he professes to love, lies to her, and conspires with his mother behind her back in order to save money on hiring a private duty nurse.

"Coming, Mama" is directed by George Stevens, Jr. (1932- ), son of director George Stevens and an important Hollywood figure in his own right. He started out as a production assistant to his father, directed training films while in the Air Force, and directed a few TV shows, including two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, before being put in charge of film and TV output in 1961 for the U.S. Information Agency. Stevens later founded the American Film Institute in 1967 and served as its director until 1980.

Lucy's dual nature is suggested by this mirror shot
Starring as Lucy is Eileen Heckart (1919-2001). Born Anna Eileen Herbert, she had a long career on Broadway, from 1943 to 1990, as well as on film and television. She won an Oscar for her role in Butterflies Are Free (1972) and she also won two Emmys. Though she was on screen from 1950 to 1998, this was her only appearance on the Hitchcock show.

Familiar-faced Don DeFore (1913-1993) plays Arthur; he was on film beginning in 1934 but is best remembered for his TV roles on two long-running sitcoms: The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (1952-1957) and Hazel (1961-1965). He managed to fit in this one episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in between those two series. A website devoted to DeFore is here.

Madge Kennedy (1891-1987) plays Lucy's mother and gives a strong performance as a manipulative, bedridden harridan. Kennedy was on Broadway from 1912 to 1932 and appeared in films from 1917 to 1928. She retired for two decades, then returned to acting in 1952 and made many appearances on TV and film until she returned for good in 1976. In addition to parts on The Twilight Zone and The Odd Couple, she was seen in no less than six episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "A True Account."

In smaller roles:
  • Jesslyn Fax (1893-1975) as Mrs. Evans, the neighbor; she was on screen from 1950 to 1969, had a small part in Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954), and was seen in five episodes of the Hitchcock TV show, including "The Woman Who Wanted to Live."
  • Robert Karnes (1917-1979) as Mr. Simon, who speaks to Lucy about her mother's estate; he was on screen from 1946 to 1979 and played countless bit parts. He was on The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery, and The Night Stalker, and he can be seen in eight episodes of the Hitchcock TV show, including "A Little Sleep."
  • Arthur Malet (1927-2013) as Dr. Larson; he was on screen from 1956 to 1997 and played many small roles, including one in Mary Poppins (1964). He was on Night Gallery and appeared on the Hitchcock TV show twice.
  • Gail Bonney (1901-1984) as Arthur's mother; born Goldie Bonowitz, she was on screen from 1948 to 1979 and played many bit parts. In addition to roles on Night Gallery and The Night Stalker, she was one of the most prolific actresses on the Hitchcock TV show, appearing in eleven episodes in all.
Thanks to Peter Enfantino for providing a copy of the story, which does not appear to have been reprinted. Watch "Coming, Mama" for free online here or buy the DVD here.

"Coming, Mama." Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 6, episode 26, NBC, 11 Apr. 1961.
Galactic Central,
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. OTR Pub., 2001.
McClelland,Henriette. "Coming, Mama." Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, September 1960, pp. 73-80.
The FictionMags Index,
Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation,

In two weeks: A Jury of Her Peers, starring Ann Harding and Philip Borneuf!


QuatreMasques said...

I love this episode as much as I do any in the seven-year run of this series, including any of the ones directed by (gasp) the Master himself. Yes, it's quite entertaining, and no, none of the characters are particularly lovable, but the actors' performances are! Just one correction for now... Arthur does NOT live with his mother. If you recall, Lucy explains to her own mother that "[Mrs. Clarke] lives so far out in the country, Arthur scarcely ever sees her himself."

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks for stopping by! I'll make that correction.

Grant said...

Eileen Heckart is also great as the victim's mother in THE BAD SEED. Her scenes are nearly the only ones that feel completely sad, as opposed to rest of the film, which feels more like a dark comedy.

john kenrick said...

It's a decent episode, well made, nicely acted, and yet it felt like a trope from the start, which is to say the viewer shall find the ending to be wildly different from what he might expect or believe, regardless of how one feels about Miss Heckart and her mother: the sting in the tail is this one's raison d'etre. This is a problem I have with all the generic Hitchcock episodes, no matter how well done; seldom do they explore human nature in any depth; nor do we (much of the time) come to understand the characters. They're basically set-up, second act, the journey to the ending till the trap snaps shut.

Jack Seabrook said...

I am surprised by the level of interest in this episode. I thought the direction was kind of boring but did not want to be critical of George Stevens, Jr., who has done so much for the business we all love. Analyzing the Hitchcock TV show by looking at it from the writers' perspective has made me appreciate how much of a repository it was for great mystery short stories. Not many other shows adapted so many stories for the small screen and then did so with such a consistent level of quality. So many anthology shows from the early days of TV have not survived, or if they have, they are not readily available. Yet the Hitchcock show is always there, and allows us to see and enjoy hundreds of filmed versions of mystery stories. There may sometimes be a formulaic aspect to it, but overall it's a treasure.