Thursday, July 14, 2022

The Hitchcock Project-Victor Wolfson Part Two: Toby [2.6]

 by Jack Seabrook

Around the year 1890, a poor young man in the upstate New York city of Canandaigua fell in love with a wealthy young woman, who returned his affections. He went away to college hoping to become a lawyer but ran out of money and ended up moving to New York City, where he became a bookkeeper in a department store. Certain that his lack of money and social position would prevent his former love from agreeing to marry him, he never returned home and lost contact with the young woman.

To his surprise and delight, twenty years after leaving Canandaigua, the man, now living in an apartment in lower Manhattan in 1910, sees an ad in a newspaper's personal column from the young woman, who is looking for him. He responds and she travels from upstate New York to New York City, where he has arranged for her to rent the basement apartment in the same building where he lives, intending that they will soon marry and share a flat.

Jessica Tandy as Edwina Freel
This is the background of "Toby," an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents adapted by Victor Wolfson from a story by Joseph Bates Smith. The show aired on CBS on Sunday, November 4, 1956, and the year in which it is set, 1910, is revealed by Alfred Hitchcock in the show's introduction, but not specified at any point during the story that follows. The show opens with a scene that depicts the landlady, Mrs. Foster, getting the apartment ready for the arrival of the man's old flame. She is assisted by Mrs. McGurk, another tenant, and they are soon joined by the lovestruck Albert Birch, who remains young at heart but who is now a bit heavy around the middle and balding on top.

As Birch reveals details of his past with Edwina Freel, the object of his affection, to the two women, the sounds of a horse clip-clopping by in the street outside are heard, along with a cat meowing, a sound that seems innocuous at the time but which turns out to foreshadow the story's shocking conclusion. Birch brings roses and the vase that Mrs. Foster offers to hold them is chipped, a detail that will later become evident as a symbol of Edwina's fragile mind. Even worse, Mrs. Foster drops the vase and a handle breaks off, which Albert sees as a bad sign--and how right he is.

Robert H. Harris as Albert Birch
There is a cut to the front stoop and sidewalk outside the building, where people seek relief from the summer heat in the days before air conditioning kept city residents inside. Children play on the sidewalk and a woman stands beside a baby carriage, another example of foreshadowing. Soon, a well-dressed woman wearing a hat approaches the front stoop and the camera only shows her from behind. Her clothes and bearing are contrasted with those of the other women who live in the building. Birch is inside the basement apartment, still arranging flowers, when the woman knocks on the door; his eyes light up when he sees her for the first time in two decades, but to his surprise she holds a baby wrapped in a checkered blanket.

Edwina puts the baby in a bedroom and tells Albert that she keeps his face and head covered because he is just getting over scarlet fever; the baby, whose name is Toby, must remain in the dark for several weeks, according to Edwina. Albert is at first taken aback, thinking that the baby is hers, but she quickly explains that it was the child of her sister, who was killed with her husband when a train hit their carriage. Edwina became Toby's guardian after the death of his parents and Albert is puzzled when she will not let him feed the baby or even see its face.

George Mathews as Matt McGurk
The tension between the two former lovers is reflected in the weather outside, as thunder rumbles and threatens to bring rain that will break the punishing heat. Three weeks have passed and Edwina's behavior toward her neighbors has become a source of speculation; Matt McGurk, the boorish husband of Marie, who was helping to set up Edwina's apartment in the show's first scene, bullies the new tenant, blocking her way and demanding to see the baby. Thunder continues to rumble, symbolizing trouble approaching for the characters. Inside Edwina's apartment, her relationship with Albert is tense since he is anxious to know when they will be wed. The two characters have an emotional exchange as thunder continues to rumble outside, an external manifestation of their inner feelings for each other. Edwina assures him that they will be married soon and suggests dinner and a walk along the Battery to watch the ferry boats crossing the harbor.

Albert leaves her apartment and the McGurks enter; when Matt insists that there is no baby and makes a move toward the bedroom, Edwina picks up a knife in a threatening manner. Just in time, Albert enters and lies that he has seen Toby. The McGurks leave and the thunder continues. Edwina opens the apartment's front door and a baby is heard crying outside, emphasizing the eerie silence that comes from Toby's bedroom. Edwina begs for rain as the baby wails in the distance and the thunder rolls. Albert looks at her strangely, unhappy that she encouraged him to lie and wondering why the reality of the return of his lost love after twenty years is not matching his imagination.

Mary Wickes as Mrs. Foster
Edwina turns on Albert, expressing anger that he left her years before. She says that she never got over him and she blames him for depriving her of her dream of having a family. Edwina calls it a miracle that Toby was given to her and, in another symbolic gesture that foreshadows the show's conclusion, Albert gives her an artificial rose and remarks that "'it's not real, but it certainly looks real, doesn't it?'" He may only be referring to the flower, but his comment applies to so much about Edwina, Toby, and the woman's relationship with her former lover.

Albert kisses Edwina's cheek and her demeanor immediately changes. She forbids him to touch her and says she can't trust him, turning suddenly from loving to cruel and threatening to leave. Just then, she remarks that "'the gentlemen have arrived.'" A man in a bowler hat and an attendant in a white coat stand in the hallway and Edwina does not resist them; in fact, she seems relieved to see them. Ben, the man in the hat, tells Albert that Edwina has been in the county asylum for many years and likes it there. They were surprised that she wanted to escape, especially when the roses were blooming outside. Through the bedroom door, Edwina is seen saying goodbye to Toby. She then tells Albert goodbye, tenderly, and tells him that she is leaving Toby in his care. She kisses his cheek, no longer afraid of a display of affection, and leaves with the men.

Ellen Corby as Marie McGurk
Albert, in tears, gathers himself and enters Toby's bedroom, where he sees a black cat lying on the bed. Around his neck is a tag that reads, "Toby." Albert's eyes widen in surprise before he collapses in tears.

"Toby" is well-directed by Robert Stevens, who creates a sense of unease and impending doom in a story that is confined to only a couple of sets: the interior of Edwina's apartment and the sidewalk and front stoop outside the building. The most effective technique is the use of sound, with a cat meowing, a baby crying, and thunder rumbling on the soundtrack representing the episode's big surprise and the interior turmoil of the characters. When Edwina first arrives on the scene, Stevens's camera follows her from behind, delaying the viewer's impression of her face and the bundle that she carries until Albert opens the door and sees her for the first time.

Penny Santon as Mrs. Swartz
Yet the episode's central conceit, that of the baby actually being a cat, fails to stand up to examination. It seems unlikely that a cat would remain quiet and still while wrapped in a blanket, as Toby does when Edwina first arrives. Even worse, no cat would remain quiet in a bedroom for three weeks! Perhaps a more effective conclusion would have been to find a doll in Toby's place, as in "The Lonely Hours." Still, Jessica Tandy (as Edwina) and Robert H. Harris (as Albert) give it their all and are convincing as the doomed lovers.

The credits for "Toby" say that it is based on a story by Joseph Bates Smith, but an exhaustive search has revealed no such story. Smith does not appear to have published any short stories or novels, so the story was likely unpublished or else a lost radio or TV show. Born in 1907 in Sandusky, Ohio, Smith attended the University of Michigan and moved to New York City in 1932, where he had success acting in Broadway plays and, later, writing them. He served in WWII and, in the 1940s, wrote comic books (including The Shadow) and radio plays, including episodes of Death Valley Days, Young Dr. Christian, and The Shadow. More often credited as Joe Bates Smith, he also wrote for television, starting in 1949, including episodes of Kraft Theatre, a pilot for Mandrake the Magician, and episodes of a series called Modern Romances. "Toby" is his final credit and he died in Sandusky in 1968.

One possibility is that "Toby" is adapted from the soap opera Modern Romances, which ran from November 1954 to June 1958. Joe Bates Smith is credited as writer on several of the week-long serials (five 15-minute episodes per week completing each story), but I have not been able to identify any one as a source for "Toby."

Director Robert Stevens (1920-1989) worked in television from 1948 to 1987 and directed 44 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and five episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. He won an Emmy for "The Glass Eye." He also directed 105 episodes of Suspense in the early 1950s.

James Nolan as Ben
Jessica Tandy (1909-1994), who plays Edwina, was born in London and began acting on the stage in 1927; her screen career lasted from 1932 to 1994. She emigrated to the United States in 1940 and played many roles on Old Time Radio. She won Tony Awards for her performances in A Streetcar Named Desire (1948), The Gin Game (1978), and Foxfire (1983), an Emmy for the TV version of Foxfire (1987), and an Oscar for her late-career role in Driving Miss Daisy (1989). She appeared in Hitchcock's The Birds (1963) and in two other episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "The Glass Eye."

The great character actor Robert H. Harris (1911-1981), who was born Robert Hurwitz, plays Albert Birch. He began in Yiddish Theater and moved on to roles on Broadway before embarking on a screen career that lasted from 1948 to 1978. His special brand of creepiness can be seen in nine episodes of the Hitchcock show, including "The Dangerous People," and he was also on Thriller.

In smaller roles:
  • George Mathews (1911-1984) as Matt McGurk; his career began with the WPA Theatre during the depression. He started in movies in 1943 and on TV in 1949 and worked into the early 1970s. He was in The Man With the Golden Arm (1955) and two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "The Big Switch," but he will best be remembered as Harvey, the pool hall bully in the episode of The Honeymooners called "The Bensonhurst Bomber." Mathews was born--where else?--in Brooklyn.
  • Mary Wickes (1910-1995) as Mrs. Foster, the landlady; born Mary Wickenhauser, she had a long career on big and small screens from 1934 to 1995. She was also in many Broadway shows, mainly from 1936 to 1948. She was a regular on Father Dowling Mysteries (1989-1991) and she appeared on The Night Stalker. This was one of her two appearances on Alfred Hitchcock Presents; the other was "The Baby Sitter."
  • Ellen Corby (1911-1999) as Marie McGurk; born Ellen Hansen, she started out as a script girl in Hollywood and played many uncredited roles on film from 1928 until she got her first screen credit in 1948. Her career continued until 1997 and included appearances on Thriller, Batman, The Odd Couple, and Night Gallery. She was in Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) and she was featured in five episodes of the Hitchcock TV show, including "Party Line." She is best remembered for her role as Grandma Walton on The Waltons (1972-1980), for which she won three Emmy Awards.
  • Penny Santon (1916-1999) as Mrs. Swartz, the woman on the sidewalk with the Italian accent and the baby carriage. Born Pierina Burlando in New York City, she played countless roles on TV from 1952 to 1998 and appeared in movies as well. She had a bit part in Hitchcock's The Wrong Man (1956).
  • James Nolan (1915-1985) as Ben, the man wearing a bowler hat who comes from the asylum for Edwina; he was on film from 1937 to 1982 and on TV from 1950 to 1982. He also appeared on The Twilight Zone and on one other episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, "Number Twenty-Two."
Watch "Toby" online here or buy the DVD here.

Thanks to Ron Davidson, Special Collections Librarian at the library in Sandusky, Ohio, for information about Joseph Bates Smith.



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


"Joe Bates Smith Writes Songs for All-Soldier Show." Sandusky Register Star News, 5 June 1943, p. 2. 

"Joseph Bates Smith (1907-1968) - Find a Grave..." Find a Grave, 

"Local Author-Actor Joe Bates Smith Dies." 14 Mar. 1968. 

Sandusky Register Star News, 24 Nov. 1947, p. 86. 

"Toby." Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 2, episode 6, CBS, 4 Nov. 1956. 

Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 

In two weeks: "Malice Domestic," starring Ralph Meeker and Phyllis Thaxter!

Listen to Al Sjoerdsma discuss Alfred Hitchcock Presents here!

Listen to Annie and Kathryn discuss "The Legacy" here!

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