Thursday, May 16, 2024

The Hitchcock Project-The Cheyney Vase by Robert Blees [1.13]

by Jack Seabrook

The question of what to do with ancient artifacts that are taken from one country to another and either kept by collectors or displayed in museums is one that is often in the news today. The issue goes back at least to Ancient Rome, when Pliny the Elder wrote that Augustus Caesar returned works of art to the place where they had originally been exhibited. In "The Cheyney Vase," the title artifact becomes an object of desire for several characters, yet the question of where it really belongs is only alluded to obliquely.

The show begins as Herbert Koether, curator of the Manhattan Museum of Art in New York City, fires his assistant, Lyle Endicott, after only three months, for poor performance. Endicott is romantically involved with Koether's secretary, Pamela Waring, and he presses her to come up with ideas for a new job. Before Lyle leaves the museum, he encounters Martha Cheyney, an older woman in a wheelchair who shows him a small sculpture of a horse that she has modeled. The horse resembles primitive statues of the type that might be found in the museum and Lyle flatters her with praise. After he's out of the room, Koether approaches Miss Cheyney and asks her about purchasing the Cheyney vase for the museum, but she defers, telling him that it was the last thing of her father's and that she'll keep it as long as she lives.

Patricia Collinge as Martha Cheyney
Lyle overhears the conversation and learns that Miss Cheyney's aide is leaving her and that Koether is taking a trip to the West Coast. After convincing Pamela to write a fake letter of recommendation from Koether, Lyle is next seen at Miss Cheyney's house, where he offers to care for her while continuing his research in her library. He charms her into agreeing to a one-month trial period and, as time passes, she is seen giggling like a schoolgirl as Lyle energetically pushes her around in her wheelchair.

Lyle reads a letter to Miss Cheyney from Max Reisenweber, a German art collector who wants to buy the famous Cheyney vase. He sees to it that the maid, Bella, is blamed for breaking a China cup; she leaves her job and soon Lyle is asking Miss Cheyney about the vase. The woman is so distressed by his question that she clutches her chest and takes a pill, appearing to have a heart attack. As Lyle reminds her that he would not think of leaving her because she needs someone to care for her, Miss Cheyney looks at him as if she's seeing his real nature for the first time.

Darren McGavin as Lyle Endicott
Sometime later, Martha looks tired and remarks that she hasn't been out of the house in three weeks. Lyle continues his flattery and helps her into her wheelchair. A new, much younger maid has replaced Bella, and when Miss Cheyney whispers to Lyle that she doesn't like the blonde bombshell, he reminds her that Bella wrote to say she would not be back. Miss Cheyney seems significantly weaker than she did at the start of the story and expresses gratitude to Lyle. His duplicity is clear when he visits Pamela at the museum and insists that he will get the valuable vase from his new employer. He shows Pamela the letter from Reisenweber, who has offered up to $45,000 to buy the artifact; Pamela shows Lyle a picture of the vase in a book and a caption explains that it was discovered by archaeologist William Cheyney in 1881. The implication here is that Miss Cheyney's father was the archaeologist and that he found the vase on an expedition to an ancient land and brought it back to the U.S. 

Back at the Cheyney house, Ruby brings Miss Cheyney a cup of tea in her art studio and the older woman gives the maid a letter to send to Miss Cheyney's lawyer, confiding that Lyle is keeping her prisoner in her own house. Later, Miss Cheyney is alone in her studio when Lyle visits; he brushes off her suggestion that she wants him to go and shows her the letter that she gave to Ruby, tearing it up. Miss Cheyney tells Lyle that she is now seeing things clearly, implying that she knows what his motive is for staying in her house.

On another day, Lyle enters the studio and finally sees the Cheyney vase on a shelf, but when he sees that Miss Cheyney is present and working on a sculpture, he backs away and leaves. Lyle meets with Pamela again, telling her that he's going to Maine with Miss Cheyney. When Pamela accuses him of lying, he admits it and tells her that he plans to fly to Germany tonight after he takes the vase so that he can sell it to Reisenweber. Koether telephones and Pamela blurts out that he should rush to Miss Cheyney's house; Lyle grabs the telephone, hangs it up, and backhands Pamela, knocking her to the floor. He rushes back to the Cheyney house and there is a wonderful shot of him coming up in her private elevator; the noirish lighting makes it look like he is already in a jail cell, since his face is framed in the small window of the elevator door and there are vertical bars on the window.

Lyle barges into Miss Cheyney's studio only to find her waiting for him. The look on her face is unlike any we've seen before; she appears triumphant and cruel. On the shelves behind her are numerous, identical copies of the valuable vase. Lyle moves to strike Miss Cheyney, but she reminds him that she's a poor, deluded old woman and she wouldn't know which vase was the real one. The show ends as she comments on the quality of the copies and adds that she 'll probably be able to sell them for a great deal of money!

"The Cheyney Vase" is a tale of greed going back to a prior generation, where an ancient artifact was taken from one country and brought to another to be kept hidden from the public in a private collection. Miss Cheyney's father, the archaeologist William Cheyney, discovered the vase in 1881 and brought it home. It has remained in his house ever since and is the most treasured possession of his aging daughter. The first person to try to purchase it is Koether, the art museum curator; he most likely wants to display it in the museum, not return it to its country of origin.

Carolyn Jones as Pamela Waring
Next comes Max Reisenweber, the German art collector, who writes to Miss Cheyney and offers up to $45,000 to purchase the vase, probably for his own private collection; later in the show, Pamela tells Lyle that Koether thinks the German is "'shady.'" Lyle is the third person who lusts after the valuable artifact; rather than buy it, he plans to steal it from Miss Cheyney and sell it to the German collector. Lyle is presented as a criminal, but is he much different from Miss Cheyney's father, who took the vase over seventy years before? Finally, and most surprisingly, Miss Cheyney herself decides to cash in on the property that her father looted. In the final scene, she appears to be a changed woman. She has learned how to create copies of the vase and now suggests that she will be able to sell them at a high price, presumably telling each buyer that they are purchasing the original. Nowhere in "The Cheyney Vase" does any character show the least bit of concern for the vase as a looted artifact or suggest that it should be repatriated to the country from which it was taken. Instead, four people see it only as something to be bought, sold, and either displayed in a museum or hidden away in a private collection.

"The Cheyney Vase" is consistent with other first-season episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in that it looks more like an example of early television than the more polished episodes of later seasons. Director Robert Stevens was a veteran of live TV, having helmed many episodes of Suspense in the early days of television, and some of the camera work recalls those live shows, especially when the camera pans across a room or dollies in for a close up. The stock music cues, which are an unfortunate feature of many episodes of the first season of the series, also recall the primitive music used on Suspense.

George Macready as Herbert Koether
Yet "The Cheyney Vase" succeeds as entertainment, in large part due to the strong performances and the teleplay by Robert Blees, who said that he based it on his own unpublished story. Some of his papers are kept at the University of Iowa and the index to the collection lists a story, a teleplay, and a revised copy of the story, but none appears to have been published anywhere. In fact, the FictionMags Index lists only a single, published story by Blees, which ran in a 1947 issue of Cosmopolitan.

The unpublished story was first titled "Miss Cheyney's Vase" and includes numerous handwritten and typed revisions. It is set in San Francisco and the surrounding area, rather than New York City, and William Cheyney, Martha's father, is said to have been "one of the most renowned archaeologists of the first half of the century," who discovered the vases "just before the First War."

The revised story is much cleaner and has been retitled, "The Cheyney Vase." The setting has been moved to New York City and Miss Cheyney's house is in Yonkers, a suburb. Pamela tells Lyle that Martha's father discovered six or seven vases in Asia Minor and that four are in museums, one or two in private collections, and one with Martha. After Lyle moves into Martha's home, Pamela writes to dealers around the world to test the market for the vase; she receives a letter back from "Roesdreiken in Mexico City," and she is more actively involved in Lyle's scheme than she is in the TV show.

Pamela shows Lyle a brochure that says that "William Cheyney brought seven of the original set of eight to America in 1881." Lyle later searches the house by night. He turns away an elderly friend of Martha's who comes to the door looking for her after discovering that her phone has been disconnected; Lyle lies and says that she has gone to California. He observes Martha entering a hidden room off of her studio through a "swinging wall" and glimpses the vase in that room. In the final scene, he enters the hidden room and sees Martha among "dozens and dozens of Cheyney vases" that are "on the firing oven, on the floor, on the shelves--everywhere."

Kathryn Card as Bella
In the transition from short story to teleplay to filmed TV show, "The Cheyney Vase" was simplified and shortened; the teleplay seems too long for the allotted time slot and some scenes or portions of scenes have been cut. The story confirms what is suggested in the TV show about where the vase came from and how it ended up in Martha's possession.

Robert Blees (1918-2015) served in the U.S. Army Air Corps in WWII and worked at Time and Life magazines before turning to screenwriting. His movie credits run from 1942 to 1981 and he wrote for TV from 1955 to 1985. Among his films were Screaming Mimi (1958), adapted from Fredric Brown's novel, and Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972), which he co-wrote. "The Cheyney Vase" was the only teleplay he wrote for Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

This episode was one of  the 49 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents to be directed by Robert Stevens (1920-1989), who won an Emmy for "The Glass Eye."

Patricia Collinge (1892-1974) stars as Martha Cheyney. She was born in Dublin, Ireland, and began her career on stage in 1904, coming to the United States with her mother in 1907. Collinge appeared on Broadway from 1908 to 1952 and played roles on screen from 1941 to 1967. Her films included Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and she was seen on the Hitchcock TV show six times, including "The Landlady."

Ruta Lee as Ruby Boynton
Darren McGavin (1922-2006) is shifty as Lyle Endicott; he appeared on three episodes of the Hitchcock TV series. Born William Lyle Richardson, he appeared on stage, film, and TV from 1945 to 2008. He starred in five TV series: Crime Photographer (1951-1952), Mike Hammer (1958-1959), Riverboat (1959-1961), The Outsider (1968-1969) and, of course, The Night Stalker (1974-1975), which followed two popular TV movies featuring the same character, Carl Kolchak, who kept encountering supernatural menaces while working as a newspaper reporter in Chicago. McGavin also had a memorable role as the father in A Christmas Story (1983) and there is a website about him here.

In smaller roles:
  • Carolyn Jones (1930-1983) as Pamela Waring; she was on screen from 1952 until her death, appearing in films such as House of Wax (1953), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), and Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). She was on Batman and Night Gallery and had a long-running role on the soap opera, Capitol (1982-1987), but she will always be best known as Morticia Addams on The Addams Family (1964-1966).
  • George Macready as Herbert Koether (1899-1973); familiar as a heavy, he had been on stage since 1926 and began working in film in 1942, adding TV roles in 1951. He had a noticeable part in Gilda (1946), appeared in Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory (1957), and was on the Hitchcock show four times, including "Vicious Circle." He also made appearances on Thriller, The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and Night Gallery.
  • Kathryn Card (1892-1964) as Bella, the older maid; she was on screen from 1945 to 1964 and was best known as Lucy's mother on I Love Lucy. She was also on one episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, "The Star Juror."
  • Finally, Ruta Lee (1935- ) plays Ruby Boynton, the younger maid. Born Ruta Kilmonis in Quebec, she had a 60-year career onscreen, including two episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents ("Whodunit" was the other) and an episode of The Twilight Zone. She maintains her own website here.
"The Cheyney Vase" aired on CBS on Sunday, December 25, 1955. Watch the episode online here or buy the DVD here. This is one of only two episodes of the Hitchcock TV series to be in the public domain ("The Sorcerer's Apprentice" is the other), so it has appeared on videos many times over the years. Thanks to the staff at the University of Iowa Special Collections for providing scans of the stories and teleplay!


Blees, Robert. University of Iowa Special Collections.

"The Cheyney Vase." Alfred Hitchcock Presents, season 1, episode 13, CBS, 25 December 1955.

Dagan, Carmel. “Robert Blees, Writer of Sirk’s ‘magnificent Obsession,’ Dies at 96.” Variety, Variety, 6 Feb. 2015,


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



Listen to Al Sjoerdsma discuss "The Cheyney Vase" here!

Listen to Annie and Kathryn discuss "The Cheyney Vase" here!

In two weeks: "Mink," starring Ruth Hussey!

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