Thursday, February 27, 2020

The Hitchcock Project-Stirling Silliphant Part Seven: Little White Frock [3.39]

by Jack Seabrook

Stacy Aumonier's short story, "Little White Frock," was first published in the British magazine, The Story-Teller, in November 1920. The tale is told in the first person by a narrator who recalls meeting an old actor named Colin Brancker. After the two run into each other a number of times, Brancker invites the narrator over to dinner, where the narrator meets Mrs. Windsor, the middle-aged woman who takes care of the old actor. There are souvenirs and signed photographs scattered around the house and the narrator begins to enjoy visiting every Thursday for dinner, when the old actor would regale him with tales connected to his various keepsakes.

"Little White Frock"
was first published here
On one visit, the narrator finds a child's little white frock, but Brancker's reaction to being asked about it is one of "utter dejection and remorse." The next night, the narrator brings his young wife, Alice, to dinner at the home of the old actor, and the two hit it off famously. Alice asks to see the frock and to hear the story behind it. Brancker recalls his old friend and fellow actor, Terry O'Bane, with whom he toured the provinces. They both fell in love with a beautiful actress named Sophie Wiles, who seemed to favor O'Bane over Brancker. However, when O'Bane inherited a fortune, Wiles refused to marry him for fear that she would be thought to have done it only for the money. O'Bane married another woman and she bore him a child named Lucy; unexpectedly, Wiles became devoted to that child and Brancker became devoted to Wiles. O'Bane died tragically and Lucy grew up to be a spoiled young woman, for whom Sophie made many frocks. One year, as the Christmas season approached, ten-year-old Lucy wrote to Sophie asking her to make a special frock that she could wear to a Christmas Eve ball. Sophie sewed a plain, white frock, intending that Lucy should stand out among the other gaudily-dressed girls at the ball in her lovely simplicity. Sophie took ill but worked to finish the frock in time.

Herbert Marshall as Colin Brancker
The narrator and Sophie arrived in London on Christmas Eve and Sophie, sick as she was, completed the frock early that evening. The narrator rushed out and delivered it to Lucy, who scorned it. The narrator left Lucy's house and suddenly realized that he did not know the address where Sophie was staying. He reasoned that it was better that he not find her, instead allowing her to die in the belief that Lucy had been delighted with her gift.

Brancker ends his story with a sob and, just then, Mrs. Windsor enters and asks if he has seen that little white frock she made for her niece the week before. Later that night, back at home, the narrator's wife calls him a "'boob'" and suggests that she knew all along that the old actor was pulling their legs.

Tom Helmore as Adam Longsworth
"Little White Frock" is a delightful story of performance, told in the first person by an unnamed man but dominated by the tale told by the old actor, Colin Brancker. Published in 1920, it shares characteristics with two famous stories by Charles Dickens from the mid-nineteenth century: A Christmas Carol (the climax on Christmas Eve) and Great Expectations (the sudden and unexpected inheritance of a fortune from a man in Australia). It is not surprising that Aumonier, the story's author, should look to Dickens for inspiration, since the main character in the short story is an aging actor, who surely was familiar with the works of the British writer.

Julie Adams as Carol Longsworth
The story depends on the believability of Brancker's tale, which captivates the narrator and his wife, and upon the discovery that it was all a performance, something that seems clear to the reader in retrospect. The narrator describes his wife as "younger than I ... less critical and introspective ... out to have a good time." Is this why she seems to see through the old actor's tale? In the story's final paragraphs, Aumonier has the narrator suggest that his wife realized all along that not only was Brancker's story a fabrication, but many of his keepsakes were invented as well. The narrator asks, rhetorically, "'what is the line of demarcation between what we call reality and what we call imagination ... What is reality? Indeed, what is life?'" His wife, discounting his high-minded speech, replies, "'I don't know what life is ... But I know what you are. You're a dear old--perfect old--BOOB!'" Her amused mockery of her husband also pokes fun at the readers of the story who were taken in by Brancker's performance.

Jacqueline Mayo as Lila Gordon
in a flashback, playing Desdemona
Stacy Aumonier (1877-1928) was a British author best known for his short stories. He began writing them in 1915 and served in WWI briefly in 1917-18 when he was 40 years old; he later developed tuberculosis and died at the relatively young age of 51. A handful of short films and a few television shows have been adapted from his stories; among them are three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including the delightful, "Miss Bracegirdle Does Her Duty."

When Stirling Silliphant was given Aumonier's story to adapt for the small screen, he had several challenges. Should he update the story from 1920, when it was published, to 1958, when it first aired on CBS on Sunday, June 29, as the final episode of the third season? And what to do with the structure, where an unnamed narrator relates a tale told by an old actor, who relates events supposedly from the past? Working with director Herschel Daugherty and the superb actor, Herbert Marshall, Silliphant succeeded in transforming the short story from the page to television in thoroughly entertaining fashion.

Roy Dean as Terry O'Bane
The first scene takes place in a theater, as Adam Longsworth (the name given to the character who narrates the short story) and a colleague named Robinson sit alone in the audience watching as an old actor gives a halting audition on stage. The speech the actor reads is one in which an aging character talks of expecting gratitude from one's children when one has grown old; this reflects the episode's theme, that of old people trying to gain the respect of the young. The lines the actor reads are supposedly lines from a play that Adam has written; he has a week to finish assembling a cast.

The second scene takes place at "the club," where Brancker approaches Longsworth and Robinson. The playwright recognizes the old thespian and remarks, "'I saw you play Othello when I was a kid.'" Brancker returns the compliment by calling Longsworth "'the most brilliant young playwright of this new generation.'" Brancker asks Longsworth to dine with him but Longsworth dodges the invitation by saying that his wife handles his social affairs. Silliphant thus compresses the events in the story's opening pages, where the narrator tells how he met and became acquainted with the old actor. The teleplay gives the narrator a name, changes the narration from first-person to third-person, updates the time to the present, and moves the location from London to New York City. After Brancker walks away, Longsworth and Robinson discuss the faded star's transparent effort to secure a role in the new play, continuing the theme of age discrimination.

In scene three, Adam returns home to his modern apartment and his beautiful, young wife, Carol, who tells him that they are dining with Brancker the next evening. Longsworth laments that the old actor's "'style is passé, you just can't believe him anymore.'" Longsworth is more cynical than his counterpart in the short story, who is not a playwright and who thus holds no economic power over the old actor. The show's first three scenes quickly set the stage for the visit to Brancker's home, which comprises the rest of the episode.

Bartlett Robinson as Robinson
The Longsworths are next seen at Brancker's dinner table, where he offers a heartfelt toast to forgotten actors after telling his guests that he started acting before they were born. Carol is forthright, making no secret of her recent good fortune and her husband's newfound success, and when she starts to pick up her dinner plate to clear it away, Brancker tells her that he has a woman who cleans up and who will arrive soon, thus setting up the maid's unexpected entrance at the end of his tale. Brancker denies wanting a part in Longsworth's new play and instead says he is leaving the theater. He wants to leave his collection of theatrical souvenirs to Longsworth, who can appreciate their importance. Carol points out the little white frock and Brancker begins to tell his story.

Sophie Wiles of the short story is renamed Lila Gordon and Brancker recalls that she joined the touring company of which he was a part when he and Terry O'Bane were alternating roles as Othello and Iago in Buffalo. In retrospect, knowing how the episode ends, one can surmise that the wily old actor intentionally chose the play Othello as the background for his story, since Longsworth had said at the club that he saw Brancker perform the role decades before. In the first of three flashbacks, we see Lila as Desdemona and Terry as Iago, both shown from Brancker's point of view, but we do not yet see Brancker as he would have appeared 40 years before.

Edwin Jerome as Andrews
By this point, Herbert Marshall, as Colin Brancker, has taken over the show completely, telling the story with his magnificent voice as his two guests look on, captivated. Years later, Julie Adams, who plays Carol, recalled that "'I think I did make real tears ... Herbert Marshall was an utterly charming man.'" He continues to tell the story while sitting in his chair, and there is a second flashback, which again begins from Brancker's point of view as he watches an old stagehand deliver a telegram to O'Bane in his dressing room. Brancker enters and sits next to Terry and we see them in the mirror. Colin Brancker as a man 40 years younger is played by none other than 68-year-old Herbert Marshall, in makeup as Othello. The makeup somewhat hides his obvious age and we can also accept this choice as portraying the way the old actor recalls the scene in his memory; additional distance from reality is provided by the fact that the scene between Brancker and O'Bane plays out in reverse, as reflected in the large, dressing-room mirror.

Otto Waldis as Koslov
In a slight change from the short story, Brancker relates that Lila accepts O'Bane's marriage proposal, though they never get married because he falls in with "'loose characters'" in New York (the way Marshall pauses between "loose" and "characters" is wonderful). The tale continues as it does in Aumonier's story, with Lucy's name changed to Jeanine, and concludes in a third flashback. This time, Brancker tells his listeners that he had just opened on Broadway in The Slap, a fictional play that recalls a real play, He Who Gets Slapped, that ran on Broadway in 1922 and that was made into a film starring Lon Chaney in 1924. As in the Chaney film, we see Brancker in flashback in his dressing room after a performance, dressed as a clown/tramp, with clown face paint and a bald cap; once again, we see him reflected in a mirror. He is called to see Lila on an urgent basis; he finds her ill and looking older and the face paint he still wears from his stage role in The Slap underscores the tragedy of the events that unfold, since he has tears painted below each of his eyes.

Kitty Kelly as Marie
Lila gives him the frock to take to the child and, in another slight change to the short story, he tells the Longsworths that he returned to find her dead, eliminating the needlessly complicated and rather incredible business of his not knowing her address and being unable to find his way back to her. The surprise of the maid's entrance is the same as in the short story, though on screen we get the benefit of seeing the shocked looks on the faces of the Longsworths and the look of mild embarrassment on the face of Brancker. Rather than end the trio's interaction there, however, as in Aumonier's story, Silliphant extends the final scene and has Longsworth confront the old actor. Was it "'All an act?'" he asks, and Brancker admits that this was the only way he could think of to audition for the playwright. In response, Longsworth admits he was wrong and asks the thespian to be at the theater at eleven o'clock the next morning.

"Little White Frock" ends happily, with no crime or murder in sight. Yet one question remains: did Colin Brancker plan the maid's sudden entrance as part of his performance? It seems that this must be the case, since had she not come in and revealed the artifice of his tale, how would Longsworth have known that it was all an audition conducted for his benefit? What in the short story was presented as an embarrassing surprise has become, in Silliphant's adaptation, the final piece of a puzzle carefully constructed to demonstrate Brancker's skill to the upstart playwright.

Joe Hamilton as the stage hand
"Little White Frock" is a superb episode, where a skilled translation of the story from page to small screen is brought to life by a great performance by the lead actor, solid supporting performances, effective direction, and appropriate lighting.

The great Herbert Marshall (1890-1966) plays Colin Brancker. Born in London and the child of two stage actors, Marshall fought in the trenches in WWI and lost his right leg after being shot in the knee in 1917. His long stage career had begun back in 1909 and he overcame his disability to become a respected and beloved actor on film, starting in 1927, on radio, starting in 1936, and on television, starting in 1950. His many film roles included Hitchcock's Murder! (1930), Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise (1932), Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent (1940), Crack-Up (1946), which was based in part on a Fredric Brown novelette, and The Fly (1958). "Little White Frock" was one of his two appearances on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The other was "A Bottle of Wine," also with a teleplay by Stirling Silliphant.

Olan Soulé
Perhaps a bit long in the tooth to be playing brilliant young playwright Adam Longsworth is Tom Helmore (1904-1995) who, like Herbert Marshall, was born in London and whose career on screen lasted from 1927 to 1972. He also appeared on Broadway from the 1940s to the 1960s. Helmore was in three Hitchcock films: The Ring (1927), Secret Agent (1936), and Vertigo (1958), in which he played a key role in Hitchcock's masterpiece that was released the month before "Little White Frock" aired. Helmore was in one other episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and he also appeared on Thriller and on Night Gallery, which was his last credit.

Julie Adams (1926-2019) is lovely as Carol Longsworth; she was on screen from 1949 to 2018 and her most famous role was in Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). She was in three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, as well as episodes of Night Gallery and The Night Stalker. There is a website devoted to her here.

In supporting roles:
  • Jacqueline Mayo (1933- ) as Lila Gordon in the flashbacks; resembling Tuesday Weld or Mia Farrow, she had a short career on TV from 1958 to 1969 and was in one other episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, "The Deadly."
  • Roy Dean (1925-2002) as Terry O'Bane, Brancker's fellow thespian in the flashbacks; he was on TV from 1947 to 1972 and had bit parts in films; he was also a successful athlete, photographer, and writer. This was his only appearance on the Hitchcock show.
  • Bartlett Robinson (1912-1986) as Robinson, who joins Longsworth in the early scenes; his long career included a stint in the 1940s as Perry Mason on radio, stage work from the 1930s to the 1950s, TV roles from 1949 to 1982, film work from 1956 to 1973, parts on The Twilight Zone and Thriller, and eleven appearances on the Hitchcock show, including "Bad Actor."
  • Edwin Jerome (1885-1959) as Andrews, the old actor who auditions in the show's opening scene; born Edwin Jerome Rath, he was on screen from 1929 to 1959 and he was in one other episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. His wife Helene was the victim in a celebrated murder case in 1958.
  • Otto Waldis (1901-1974) as Koslov, who speaks to Longsworth and Robinson at the club in the show's second scene; born Otto Glucksmann-Blum in Vienna, he was in Fritz Lang's M (1931) and had many other roles on film and television from 1947 to 1970; he was also in the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, "Lamb to the Slaughter."
  • Kitty Kelly (1902-1968) as Marie, the maid; born Sue O'Neil, she was a member of the Ziegfeld Follies and had parts on screen from 1925 to 1968. She was also in "Listen, Listen.....!" on Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
  • Joe Hamilton (1929-1991) as the stage hand who delivers the telegram in the second flashback; his brief screen career lasted from 1954 to 1965 but in that time he appeared on The Twilight Zone and in five episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "The Five-Forty-Eight."
  • Olan Soulé (1909-1994) can be glimpsed briefly in an uncredited role in the show's first scene as the man sitting at the table on the right side of the stage, presumably feeding lines to Andrews, who gives the audition; he had a long career: on radio from the 1920s to the 1940s and on screen from 1949 to 1991, he was on The Twilight Zone and in eight episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "The Faith of Aaron Menefee." 
Director Herschel Daugherty (1910-1993) worked mostly in television from 1952 to 1975, directing 27 episodes of the Hitchcock show and 16 episodes of Thriller. He also directed "The Return of the Hero," from a teleplay by Stirling Silliphant.

Read "Little White Frock" for free online here or watch the TV adaptation here. Order the DVD here. Read the GenreSnaps take on this episode here.

Aumonier, Stacy. "Little White Frock." The Golden Windmill and Other Stories, Macmillan, 1921, pp. 109-133.
The FictionMags Index,
Galactic Central,
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. OTR Pub., 2001.
"Little White Frock." Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 3, episode 39, CBS, 29 June 1958.
Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation,

In two weeks: "The Crystal Trench," directed by Alfred Hitchcock!

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