Thursday, May 6, 2021

The Hitchcock Project-William Fay Part Ten: Gratitude [6.28]--Our 250th Episode!

by Jack Seabrook

"The Thing Called Gratitude," by Donn Byrne, was first published in the January 1922 issue of Hearst's International. It was collected in Byrne's book of short stories called Rivers of Damascus and Other Stories, which was published in 1931. The story was adapted for the small screen by William Fay, and the episode, titled simply "Gratitude," premiered on NBC on Tuesday, April 25, 1961.

The short story tells of Meyer Fine, who worked his way up from a poor beginning on the streets of Manhattan to owning his own gambling joint, a place many reputable citizens are known to frequent. Fine falls in love with a beautiful actress named Minna Fenton and, when he proposes marriage, she accepts. She moves into his home above the gambling den and worships her husband like he is a hero.

"The Thing Called Gratitude"
was first published here
All his life, Fine has had an extreme fear of death. When young Patrick Hennessy gambles away his fortune and commits suicide, his rich, powerful father decides to ruin Fine. Hennessy sends a detective to observe the goings-on at the casino and, to prevent the man from reporting on the important men who were present, gangsters shoot and kill the detective outside his home.

Fine's valet is an ex-con named John Lardner, who waits on the gambler hand and foot and understands his employer's inner demons. One night, the district attorney visits Fine and tells him that he is implicated in the detective's murder. Fine is given one day to decide if he will inform on his colleagues or face the electric chair. The next day, the gambler is torn between his fear of death and his code of not being an informer. Lardner discovers Fine sitting at his desk, holding a revolver, unable to shoot himself but saying that "'it's the only way out.'" The valet calmly picks up the gun and shoots his employer in the back, killing him. When he is arrested, Lardner lies and says that he never liked Fine, and the detective chides him for his ingratitude.

Peter Falk as Meyer Fine

Very dated when read today, a century after it was written, "The Thing Called Gratitude" depicts a world of gangsters running a gambling casino in a house in a Midtown Manhattan that seems hopelessly remote. The prose is stilted, with long, flowery descriptions of the characters and their emotions, and the casual racism of the times is jarring. Meyer Fine, the Jewish gangster, is referred to as "Oriental," and one of his colleagues suggests that he replace his valet with "'a decent Jap.'" The surprise ending demonstrates that Lardner, who is said to understand Fine best, knows what his employer wants and needs and provides it by shooting and killing him. This spares Fine the terror of impending death in the electric chair and preserves his heroic image in the eyes of his widow. The final words spoken by the detective are ironic; in accusing Lardner of lacking gratitude, he misunderstands the amount of loyalty required for the valet to execute his employer.

Paul Hartman as John Ingo

The television version is set in 1916, but the viewer only knows the exact year because Alfred Hitchcock mentions it during his introductory remarks. The story begins at Christmastime, as a horse-drawn carriage drives past a Manhattan home in light snow and "O Come, All Ye Faithful" plays on the soundtrack, perhaps setting up the episode's concluding demonstration of faith and loyalty by John Ingo (as Lardner has been renamed). Inside the house, a casino employee named Otto asks John where Fine is, since a blackjack dealer is unavailable for work that day. Fine emerges and John helps him dress; Fine tells John that he placed a bet on a horse that won and that he has placed the winnings in an envelope for John. This first scene thus establishes the time and the place, as well as showing the viewer the relationships between the characters and providing a basis for John's devotion.

Adam Stewart as Avery H. Combs, Jr.

Fine descends the stairs inside his house to the casino, where young Avery H. Combs, Jr. (Hennessy in the short story) is wagering heavily and losing badly. Back upstairs in Fine's home, the casino owner remarks that his valet sees him as he is: "'tired, uncertain...much of the time afraid.'" It is revealed that Fine did not attend a recent wake or funeral due to his fear of death, but John breaks the mood with a light remark. Another casino employee, this one named Hubert, enters to report that Combs "'just blew his brains out'" in the subway a block and a half away from the casino. Earlier, Fine had said that Combs's rich and powerful father would start an investigation if he learned how much money his son was losing at the gambling tables.

Edmund Hashim as Frank Mazzotti

In the following scene, a policeman (rather than the district attorney) talks to Fine and two other casino owners, Mazzotti and Dunphy, in the downstairs room, from which all traces of gambling have been removed. He assures them that the gambling dens' days are numbered and warns that Combs will see them all in jail. When John enters and pours a cup of tea, the lieutenant remarks that he knew John when the valet was just a common criminal. Later, when the casino is again up and running, Dunphy visits Fine and points out the respectable citizens in attendance. Fine notices a young man at the bar whom he does not recognize and asks Hubert to identify him. The stranger walks away from the bar, pulls a camera out of a parcel, and photographs important members of society at the gambling table.

John Dennis as Joe Dunphy

Fine orders Otto to follow the man, take care of him, and destroy the film. In the following scene, the man approaches the door of the Sheldon Detective Agency and is suddenly gunned down on the sidewalk. A hand reaches down and takes his camera. Back at the casino, Fine discusses what happened with Mazzotti and Dunphy and admits that it is a bad situation. Fine insists that he did not tell Otto to kill the detective; Otto lost his head and, as a result of his rash act, was himself killed an hour ago. Fine insists to his colleagues that they are all in it together, but they leave him alone and head for a meeting with another criminal known as the Dutchman, a meeting to which Fine is pointedly not invited.

Left alone with his valet, Fine telephones the Dutchman, who hangs up on him. Fine steps outside, intending to visit the Dutchman to clear up matters, but only takes a few steps along the sidewalk before he is shot in the arm by a gunman in a passing black car. John brings Fine back inside and tends to his wound. Fine says that one of the Dutchman's boys shot him.

Bert Remsen as Lt. McDermott

Later, John keeps watch at the window and Fine is afraid to venture outside. John suggests hiding out in New Jersey, but Fine is distraught and refuses to consider that as a solution. John leaves the room and Fine takes a gun from his desk drawer, then tries to point it at his own head but cannot. John rushes in and Fine laments his own lack of courage, begging John to help him. John picks up the gun and shoots Fine, then lays the weapon down on the desk and calls the police. In the final scene, the same policeman who had earlier spoken to the trio of gambling bosses asks why John killed Fine and the episode ends in the same manner as the short story, with the policeman asking, "'Didn't you ever hear of a thing called gratitude?'"

Karl Lukas as Otto

The plot and ending of "Gratitude" are close to those of the short story, with one significant change: the character of Minna, who falls in love with Fine, accepts his marriage proposal, and worships him, has been completely eliminated. She is a major character in the short story, and Fine's agony at the end is, in part, driven by his desire to live up to her image of him as a great man. Instead, Fay focuses more on the organized crime aspects of Fine's world. The character of the Dutchman, who is absent from the short story, is added as an unseen but feared crime boss, and it is Fine's fear of being killed that drives him to assisted suicide. In the short story, he is torn between becoming an informant and dying in the electric chair. In the TV show, the ethical question does not arise, and Fine instead fears his own murder by the gang.

As a result, the TV version is somewhat more dynamic than the short story, though it is hardly a captivating thriller. The acting is good and Fay's plotting is solid, but the story that served as the basis for the teleplay can only be livened up so much. In the end, neither is particularly memorable, and one wonders why the decades-old story appealed to the producers of the TV show.

Phil Gordon as Frank the bartender

"Gratitude" was directed by Alan Crosland, Jr. (1918-2001). He started out as a film editor, working on features from 1944 to 1954 and on TV from 1955 to 1957, then began directing episodic television in 1956. He directed 16 half-hours and three hours of the Hitchcock series, including "The Woman Who Wanted to Live," as well as episodes of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. Crosland directed a handful of movies, but his main focus was on TV, and he directed his last show in 1986.

The short story, "A Thing Called Gratitude," was written by Donn Byrne (1889-1928). Born Brian Oswald Donn-Byrne in New York City, the author grew up in Ireland and returned in 1911 to New York, where he began selling fiction. He wrote short stories, poems, and novels, and eventually returned to Ireland, where he died in a car accident before the age of 40. Some of his works were adapted on film from 1918 to 1929 and he had a revival when his works were adapted for television from 1951 to 1961.

Clegg Hoyt as Hubert
Peter Falk (1927-2011) stars as Meyer Fine. Born in New York City, he started out on Broadway in 1956, began appearing on TV in 1957, and on film in 1958. He appeared in one episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour ("Bonfire"), and he also was seen on The Twilight Zone. He will always be remembered as Lieutenant Columbo, from the long-running series of TV mysteries that aired, on and off, from 1968 to 2003. He won five Emmy Awards during his career, has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and wrote an autobiography, Just One More Thing (2006).

In the role of John Ingo, Fine's valet, is Paul Hartman (1904-1973), who started in vaudeville as a dancer and had a successful career on Broadway, in movies, and on TV. He appeared on Thriller and The Twilight Zone and his five appearances on the Hitchcock series also included "Not the Running Type."

In supporting roles:

  • Edmund Hashim (1933-1974) as Frank Mazzotti, one of the other gambling bosses; he was on TV from 1955 to 1970 and was seen on the Hitchcock show three times, including "Maria."
  • John Dennis (1925-2004) as Joe Dunphy, the other gambling boss; born John Grover Sauer, he was on film from 1953 to 1979 and appeared in countless TV shows between 1953 and 1983. This was his only appearance on the Hitchcock show, but he was seen on Batman, The Night Stalker, and in two Mel Brooks films, Young Frankenstein (1974) and High Anxiety (1977), a spoof of Hitchcock's films
  • Bert Remsen (1925-1999) as police Lieutenant McDermott; he served in WWII and fought at Okinawa. His screen career lasted from 1952 to 1999 and included appearances in five episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "Annabel." He was also seen on Thriller and The Outer Limits.
  • Karl Lukas (1919-1995) as Otto; born Karol Louis Lukasiak, he was on screen from 1951 to 1991 and had roles on Batman, Night Gallery, and The Odd Couple. He had begun his career on Broadway in the 1940s and was a semi-regular on The Phil Silvers Show (1955-58). He was in five episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "Bang! You're Dead."
  • Adam Stewart as Avery H. Combs, Jr.; his credits include six TV shows between 1949 and 1962.
  • Phil Gordon (1916-2010) as Frank, the bartender; born Phil Gulley, he served in the Navy in WWII and worked as a jazz musician in the 1940s and 1950s. He acted on TV from 1959 to 1969 and also worked as a dialogue coach on Green Acres from 1966 to 1969. He was in three episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "Man From the South."
  • Clegg Hoyt (1910-1967) as Hubert; he was on screen from 1955-67 and he was in six episodes of the Hitchcock series, including "The Day of the Bullet." He was also on The Twilight Zone, Thriller, and Star Trek.
A trivia note on this episode's IMDb page states that the character of Meyer Fine is named after the real mobster Meyer Lansky, but I doubt this is true. Donn Byrne wrote this story in 1921 and Meyer Lansky was just 19 years old at the time. While he may well have been involved in crime in New York City at that point, I doubt he was the basis for the sophisticated gangster of Byrne's story. Both men were Jewish, both were named Meyer, and both were successful in gambling and organized crime, but I don't think the fictional character was based on the real person.

Order "Gratitude" on DVD here or watch it for free online here.

Sources:

AllMovie, www.allmovie.com/.

Byrne, Donn. "The Thing Called Gratitude."  Hearst's International. Jan. 1922, 41-43, 70.

The FictionMags Index, www.philsp.com/homeville/FMI/0start.htm.

Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. OTR Pub., 2001.

"Gratitude." Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 6, episode 28, NBC, 25 Apr., 1961.

IMDb, IMDb.com, www.imdb.com.

Stephensen-Payne, Phil. Galactic Central, philsp.com/.

Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, www.wikipedia.org/.


In two weeks: Ten O'Clock Tiger, starring Robert Keith and Frankie Darro!

Listen to Al Sjoerdsma discuss "The Baby Sitter" here!

Listen to Annie and Kathryn discuss "Mrs. Herman and Mrs. Fenimore" here!

3 comments:

Grant said...

I've only seen it once, but I kind of liked it in a sad way. Of course, Peter Falk can cause me to watch almost anything.
I always seem to associate Paul Hartman with light comedies, so it's strange to see him not only in something dramatic, but in such a heavy role.

Jack Seabrook said...

I agree about Falk, though I thought "Bonfire" was a much better episode. I haven't seen much of Hartman, at least in recent years, but I wasn't impressed with him here or in his other AHP roles.

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