Episode 1.33: The Belfry.

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Starring: Patricia Hitchcock, Jack Mullaney, Dabbs Greer
Written by: Robert C. Dennis (teleplay), Allan Vaughan Ellston (story)
Directed by: Herschel Daugherty
First aired May 13th, 1956

Episode Grade: I CAN’T

I’m gonna be honest with you here, friends. There is only one more actually decent episode left in Season 1, and it’s not this episode. Or the next one. Or the one after that. Or the one after that. It’s the one after THAT one, the penultimate episode of the season. Then the season ends with another boring episode. (<–this might not be true, I’ve never actually watched the entire episode….because it’s TOO BORING)

Episode Re-Cap & Commentary & Twist & Blah Blah: 

I’ve tried to do a decent job on this one but I JUST CAN’T. I CANNOT. It’s not happening. It’s not a bad episode, but it’s disturbing, and also slow. That’s not the best combination, is it? It’s almost as bad as “depressing and expensive.” It’s not particularly moving, the way Never Again was moving, it’s not even really suspenseful…..Even the very boring Triggers in Leash had more suspense (“Will they shoot each other? Yes/No”), and also Ellen Corby. It’s not as boring as Safe Conduct, which is an episode I forgot existed until I was scrolling through the links just now, that’s how boring it is.

The Belfry stars Patricia Hitchcock, Hitch’s daughter, who I like very, very much, but she isn’t given much screen time, or much to do. Her lovely character is terrorized by Jack Mullaney (who was also featured in Never Again), who is obsessed with her.

But wait, that makes it sound interesting. There’s no action here, except in the first minute, when the murder occurs. This episode just gets right to it. Ellie (Hitchcock) is a 19th century schoolteacher who is greeted by the strange and obviously undiagnosed autistic Clint (Mullaney). He’s building a house for the two of them, because he thinks they’re getting married, since he walked her home from the school two separate times. Ellie tries to reject this “proposal” firmly and kindly, telling him that she just got engaged to Walt (John Compton). Clint loses his temper, and when Walt arrives to greet Ellie, Clint takes an ax and buries it in Walt’s back.

As you can imagine, Ellie is traumatized. Clint hides, first in the shrubs, then in his “house,” and then in the belfry of the schoolhouse-slash-church. The rest of the episode is Clint hiding. There are some scenes with Dabbs Greer as the sheriff; those are nicely done, because Dabbs Greer was a good actor, but the scenes are just too short and too sparse. (Greer was also featured in Little House on the Prairie; you will recognize him as the Reverend Alden. We saw him earlier in my favorite AHP episode of Season One.) There’s one brief period where Clint, still holding his ax, might kill a little boy who’s climbing towards the belfry to retrieve an errant baseball, but it’s quickly resolved when the boy’s father yells “Get down from there.” Clint spends days and days and days and days and days and days and days and days in the belfry. He sucks his thumb when he gets sleepy. I don’t want to think about where he goes to the bathroom.

It ends, as you probably guessed, since it’s called THE BELFRY, with someone ringing the bell after Walt’s memorial service. The sound startles Clint awake, he lets out a cry, and the jig is up.

Please make a note of it:

Because the rest of this season is lackluster–except for “The Creeper,” which is the last very good episode of this season, I will give some brief rundowns like this, take a hiatus, and reformulate the blog. There are some really, really good episodes in Season Two, and I’d like to incorporate film and TV history–what was revolutionary, why it was revolutionary, influences from cinema seen in vintage TV, and how vintage TV has influenced television as we know it today.

Episode 1.32: The Baby Sitter

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Starring: Thelma Ritter, Mary Wickes
Written by: Sarett Rudley (teleplay), Emily Neff (story)
Directed by: Robert Stevens
First aired May 6th, 1956

Episode Grade: B-

Hello again, my friends. Yes, we are still not even done with Season 1, because there are 42 billion episodes per season in the AHP canon, unlike the 13-22 episodes we have today on network television.

This is the only episode which stars Thelma Ritter, one of the greatest character actors of all time. Thelma Ritter is just fantastic to watch; a natural, likable actress, who never gave a bad performance. This episode also stars the incomparable Mary Wickes, another great character actor….Interestingly, though Thelma Ritter is the bigger “star,” more people today know Mary Wickes (though most don’t know that they know her, until they’re shown a picture or a clip of a film, and then they go, “Ohhh I know her!”)…..I should also tell you that I inadvertently drank an entire bottle of wine on my own, so right now I’m all buzzy and I want to kiss all of you.

So let’s get on with it.

The episode, I mean, not the kissing. Or both. Whatever. Look, just NEVER MIND, okay?

Hitch’s Intro:

Remember that time the title card said “BROUGHT TO YOU BY BRISTOL MEYER”…..? That was funny.

Well this episode doesn’t even have an intro. Maybe because it stars the great Thelma Ritter, who starred in Hitchcock’s Rear Window? Is that the reason? Let’s just say it is.

Episode Re-Cap & Commentary:

We begin with a close-up of Lottie Slocum (Thelma Ritter). “Doomed!” she’s saying to the police. “Doomed to a violent end, that Clara Nash was!” The police officer (Ray Teal! remember him? Oh hello Ray Teal!) is losing patience with her. “I know,” he says, “and I’m trying to find out, with your help, who murdered her.”

Lottie really thrives on this drama. Her daughter Janie (Rebecca Welles) tries to rein her in, but Lottie is crying “I was practically the last person to see her alive, ME!” The detective (he isn’t given a name, poor guy) says, “If you could just spare a few minutes of your valuable time….” and Lottie goes off on another tangent saying how a person’s whole life can be changed just by somebody getting murdered. (Changed, ended, whatever, Lottie.) She was given flowers from the “women’s club….with a very kind note of sympathy” PLUS an invitation to talk about her experience on “that fatal night.” Just the day before, she was a baby sitter, paid 85¢ an hour (that’s $7.34 of today’s money….and either way, holy shit, CHEAPO), and now everybody wants to talk to her. She loves this attention. Bleah.

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Episode 1.31: The Gentleman From America.

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Starring: Biff McGuire
Written by: Francis M. Cockrell (teleplay), Michael Arlen (story)
Directed by: Robert Stevens
First aired April 29, 1956

Episode Grade: C+

Hitch’s Intro:

Hitch is sitting at a desk, his arms crossed, two books in front of him, and a lit candle. The chair he is sitting in is rather ornate. And behind him, on the door, is a sign that says “QUIET.” He asks us if we believe in ghosts (of course not), and as he’s talking about how much good sense we have, the books, the candle, and the desk disappear. The chair disappears. This one is a ghost story. “Please turn out your lights,” he tells us. “I’m sure the warm glow from the picture tube will be sufficient to melt all your fears of the dark.”

Episode Re-Cap & Commentary:

This is LONDON, MAY 1940. It says this in Ye Olde Very Fancee Englishy Font. There’s a shot of an English side street. That’s the exterior shot.

The interior is of a gentleman’s club—no, no, not the fun kind. The stuffy, upper-crusty, tweed-and-leather kind. There are a lot of white men, all stuffed shirts, reading the paper, playing chess, drinking brandy (is that brandy? …..whatever), and there is a horse race being broadcast over the radio on the wireless. We see a very, very cute man, Howard Latimer (the very, very cute Biff McGuire), looking very pleased and sort of fist-pumping in a satisfied way. Another stuffy Englishman comes into this Great Room of Fun and Excitement, Sir Stephen Hurstwood (Ralph Clanton), who has actually bet on one of the horses. He’s made a safe bet on Brown Meadow (ew, what does that mean? Brown meadow? Yuck), and we find out immediately that he owes the club £600, so he’s got to win.

Suddenly, Howard Latimer is just ecstatic, yelling “HO HO!” because the horse he bet on, Curly Top, is the winner by half a length. Howard had £500 on Curly Top, and it pays 10 to 1 (unlike Brown Meadow, which pays 2 1/2). So Howard’s payout is £5500, which is a £5000 profit. In 1940, that was equal to $7532. In today’s money, that would be $65,555, just to have some perspective. That’s a nice chunk of money. I’ve never seen that much money in my life. Doubt I ever will. But anyway, the point is the very, very cute Howard Latimer has just won a whole bunch of money. And he’s also from America. We know this because of his accent, and because of his very American, very, very cute face. I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned that he’s very, very cute, but…..he is. Very, very cute. That’s not sarcasm. I mean it. Biff McGuire is just adorable. 

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Episode 1.30: Never Again.

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Starring: Phyllis Thaxter, Warren Stevens
Written by: Gwen Bagni, Irwin Gielgud & Stirling Silliphant (teleplay), Adela Rogers St. John (story)
Directed by: Robert Stevens
First aired April 22, 1956

Episode Grade: A

Friends, this is an exceptional episode. It is unforgettable, exquisitely acted. But I can’t be funny about. There’s nothing funny about it.

This is an episode about alcoholism.

Phyllis Thaxter gives an excellent performance as Karen, a woman who wakes up trying to remember what happened the night before. She has a hangover. Her lips are dry, her eyes are sunken, and she notices her hand is bandaged. She doesn’t recognize the bed she is in. She worries that her boyfriend Jeff (Warren Stevens) is going to be angry with her.

She remembers bits here and there, beginning with her getting ready for a party, not having had a drink in a little over a month, and feeling antsy. She looks very pretty. Jeff comes to pick her up and she insists that he have a drink in front of her, to prove to herself that it doesn’t bother her. They have a small argument in her apartment, but Karen apologizes and says she just doesn’t know who she is anymore. She feels lost without her drinking–as if it somehow defined her. ….This makes me think of the beautiful line in Shawn Colvin’s song “The Facts about Jimmy.” Colvin sings “I used to get drunk to get my spark/and it used to work just fine/and it made me wretched but it gave me heart/I miss Jimmy like I miss my wine.”

Jeff is taking Karen to a party with people from his advertising firm. She says she doesn’t know “smart talk” and Jeff assures her it’s just chit-chat. Going out will do her good. (Going out to a cocktail party? I dunno, Jeff….) As Jeff’s boss, Renee, steals him for a moment to go over some business, Karen promises not to touch a drop of alcohol. She wanders throughout the room, lonely, and bravely rejecting all offers of cocktails. One man finds this not very sporting, and hands her a martini, saying “Don’t be disagreeable.” Karen holds the drink and then notices Renee closing the bedroom door.

While she sits at the party with no one to talk to, another man hands her a drink. “No thanks,” she says, “I have one.” And Marlow (Jack Mullaney) takes her single martini and hands her a double. Just then, Jeff and Renee return from the bedroom, and Jeff sees Karen holding a glass. Karen walks up to Renee and throws the drink in her face. Karen is then horrified at what she did and runs out.

Karen remembers that she took a taxi back to her apartment, and Jeff followed her home. He’s angry. “Can you ever forgive me?” she asks him. And Jeff replies, “Next time, I’ll give you something to be jealous ABOUT.”

Poor Karen is terribly insecure, she thinks nobody likes her, and as she explains this to Jeff, she rips the necklace off her neck. She doesn’t understand why Jeff is with her, when they are at parties with clever girls around. Jeff says, “Well, if you’re like this now, how are you going to be when we’re married?” And Karen is surprised and kisses him. “I happen to love you,” Jeff says. Okay, Jeff is a good man. Bringing her to a cocktail party is incredibly daft, but he’s a good man.

Karen says she wants to go back to the party to redeem herself. Renee, now in a glorious gown, says it’s all forgotten, and gets Karen a ginger ale. But as the bartender pours her a glass of ginger ale, she goes to the balcony, where Marlow meets her again, and hands her a drink. “Where did you go?” he asks her. She tells him she went out. He says he went out too for a while….”like a light.” Marlow and Karen talk a little on the balcony. They’re both lost, they’re both wallflowers. And we find out that Marlow is Renee’s little brother, and he is so different from her, he drinks. They notice Renee talking to Jeff, and Marlow–not knowing who Karen is–says that the man his sister is talking to is going to marry a woman who’s a drunk. Karen takes the drink from Marlow’s hand and downs it in a single gulp. Karen and Marlow start drinking together. They decide to bar hop on the Upper East Side.

We then see Karen and Marlow at a bar somewhere on 3rd street, the jukebox playing. Karen–who was looking so pretty and sweet–is a mess. Her hair is disheveled and she can hardly stand up straight. Marlow isn’t nearly as drunk as Karen is; he just wants to play records on the jukebox. Karen is blind drunk. It is a pathetic sight. She grabs a bottle from the bar, and the bartender tells her she’s had enough, and she begins to hit him and scream. She downs a third of scotch, which she has poured into a large, large brandy glass, and she sees Jeff enter the bar with Renee. Jeff says he’s going to take her home, but she falls, and the brandy glass breaks, cutting her hand and wrist. That is why her hand is bandaged when she wakes up. 

As Karen lays in bed, sweating and nervously remembering the night before, a nurse comes into Karen’s room, and gives her a shot. “Which hospital is this?” Karen asks.

“This isn’t exactly a hospital,” the nurse replies. “It’s the city jail.”

“Why am I here?” Karen asks.

“You killed a man last night,” the nurse answers. “Jeff Simmons. His throat was cut. With a brandy glass.”

Karen lets out a heartbreaking and desperate scream.

Notes:

Hitchcock notes at the end that there is nothing funny or fun about this episode. They showed it “in hopes that it might help someone.”

This episode makes me incredibly sad. It is awful. Every time I see it, I want the ending to be different, but it never is.

This is the first time we see Phyllis Thaxter. Thaxter is my most favorite actress in the AHP canon. She is ALWAYS good. She is just a fantastic actress. It’s sad, I think, that nobody knows her today. But my gosh, she is just wonderful to watch. Her performance in this episode is fearless, and without vanity. Thaxter’s own history is fascinating. She suffered from polio, but came back swinging. Her performances are warm, engaging, simple, and understated. We will see much of her in other seasons.

Jeff is played by Warren Stevens. He was also in Premonition. He passed away in 2012 at the venerable age of 92.

We will see Jack Mullaney (Marlow) in one more episode this season.

Louise Albritton plays Renee, Jeff’s boss. This is her only AHP appearance.