'Alfred Hitchcock Presents': The Quality of Humor
Article by Martin Grams, Jr
'I'm doing material on television of a downbeat nature that possibly I could never do for the movies,' Hitchcock recalled in 1955. 'The very first one I did ["Revenge"] was a story about a man who set out with his wife to find a rapist who had attacked her. The wife points out the criminal and her husband kills him. Then he discovers that his wife is deranged and had no way of knowing who her attacker was. That’s the end of the story.'
But when we think of 'Alfred Hitchcock Presents' and 'The Alfred Hitchcock Hour,' we know that is not the end of the story. Alfred Hitchcock was only fifty-six when his television program premiered in 1955. He was the director of forty-two movies. One of his latest, Rear Window (1954), was a financial box-office success. Thanks to the persuasion of Lew Wasserman, then head of Universal-International, Hitch was persuaded to host his own television program. Negotiations took weeks of arrangements until contracts were drawn and finalized between CBS and Bristol-Meyers, the first sponsor of the program. Hitchcock himself would receive $129,000 per show, and all rights of sale and rebroadcast would revert over to him after first airing. For his television company’s name, Hitchcock chose 'Shamley Productions,' named after the summer home he and his wife Alma had bought in Shamley Green, a small village south of London, in 1928. Hitch’s contract with Bristol-Meyers stipulated that he would direct an unspecified number of episodes himself each season. Later, in 1964, Hitchcock would sell the rights to the series, as well as to Psycho (which his company had also produced) to MCA in exchange for approximately 150,000 shares of MCA stock, a deal which made him the company’s third-largest shareholder.
Irving Elman: 'Hitchcock’s humor was very English. I remember before "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" went on the air, they were scrambling for a good title. One day I was in the office when Hitch got a call from NBC asking if he had any titles in mind. He blandly suggested "Playhouse 69".'
To act as executive producer, Joan Harrison was brought back to the growing Hitchcock empire. Harrison once said of the programs that Hitchcock 'contributes nothing except script supervision' (except when he personally was directing an episode). Harrison became involved in story selection, combing all of the great anthologies as well as all of the current mystery magazines for source material. This function was later assumed by another Britisher named Gordon Hessler, an aspiring director who had come from documentaries to serve as the show’s chief reader. Norman Lloyd joined the series in 1957 as an associate to Harrison, who eventually was freed to take over the production chores completely.
Norman Lloyd: 'It wasn't a rigid policy, but rather a pragmatic one. He [Hitchcock] liked to know that a story had been published first because he always felt that if a story had been published, you had something to begin with. He was not one for developing stories, as is mostly done today.'
Gordon Hessler: 'Hitch was very, very tough on stories; there were some stories you’d be angry that he wouldn’t use, but he was adamant. It was a very tough job. The great thing was that all the scripts were finished before any of the shows were shot, so you could really get the best actors in town and give the scripts to them long before they were booked. If you look at the roll call of that Hitchcock era of television, you'll see that many of those people turned into big, big film stars.'
Henry Slesar: 'Hitchcock liked to be able to judge a story in its entirety rather than as a script. It was more the English style of doing things, the influence not only of Hitchcock, but of Joan Harrison, Gordon Hessler and Norman Lloyd as well. This was definitely a British contingent. I remember that when I would get together with them at Shamley and the sky outside was overcast, they would all say, "Isn’t it a great day!"'
On October 3, 1955, the 'New York Times' reviewed the pilot program. 'Alfred Hitchcock, the Hollywood master of cinema suspense, brought his talents to television last night at 9:30 on Channel 2. The first television film that he directed was routine Hitchcock, but the director's personal appearance as host on the program was something not to be missed. In the role of presiding officer, Mr. Hitchcock displayed a superb disdain for the usual television amenities. He said his function was to present the film's titles to those who could not read and after the show explain what had happened to those who couldn't figure it out for themselves. His sardonic introduction of the commercials should gain him a Peabody Award with no trouble at all. Hitchcock, the director, was not, however, a match for Hitchcock, the maître d'. His initial film, "Revenge," starring Ralph Meeker and Vera Miles was a psychological item. It concerned a husband who killed the first man whom his mentally unbalanced wife identifies as her attacker. Moments later, of course, she points out a second man as her assailant. Last night Mr. Hitchcock was a shade carsless. He ran out of suspense before he ran out of film.'
'Variety' did not give the program a favorable review, other critics in coast-to-coast newspapers gave mixed blesings. Regardless of the reviews, the Hitchcock television series was broadcast for more than a decade, proving that even the macabre had a place on television. Among the many who had to watch every episode for their own personal review was the sponsor. The opening and closing intros were almost as important as the stories themselves. It was the sponsor's reputation at stake. And Hitch held back no punches.
The man responsible for Hitchcock's opening and closing lines was a Woody Allen look-alike by the name of James Allardice. 'Oh, Jimmy was a dream,' Norman Lloyd recounted. 'We'd shoot about six stories, and we would then send the synopses over to Jimmy and ask him to write for Hitch. We’d send them to him about ten days to two weeks ahead of time. And we'd wait. Then we'd call him in about a week: "How are things doing, Jimmy?" "Oh, I haven't started yet. . . I'll get around to it. . ." And then, a few days later, we'd call again: "Oh, yeah, yeah," he’d say, "I havn't got anything yet, but. . ." Now it was (let's say) the Friday before the Monday when we were going to shoot these things, and he'd say, "I'll get 'em done over the weekend." And that's how he wrote - he had to write right up against the deadline. He couldn't write unless it was gonna be shot tomorrow [laughs]! That deadline pressure would give Jimmy "the electric shock," and he would take off and do this work, which I think had genius in it. They were brilliant - so creative and marvelous. Just wonderful!'
Hitchcock: 'But I do insist on approval of all the writers' scripts. I read every last one and make whatever suggestions I can think of. And then - editing the final product, the film itself. It’s a question of deciding how much of the original concept you can get on the screen. I've always figured that in a motion picture one's good fortune is to get 75 percent of the original concept. Don't forget, there are always compomises, in casting, in the quality of the direction, even in my own work. . . the minute you put a star into a role you've already compromised because it may not be perfect casting.'
Norman Lloyd: 'One must remember that in the early half-hour days, we were getting the cream of the crop - some of the best stories of their type in English literature, such as "The Glass Eye." In the latter days of the hour show, however, we occasionally had to develop stories from scratch, and the results didn't always measure up. The half-hour show - which ran twenty-two and a fraction minutes - was sometimes a delight in its brevity and its point. But that doesn’t mean it was a better format. In fact, I tried to repeat it some years later when I produced "Tales of the Unexpected" and the results varied greatly.'
Hitchcock: 'I once suggested a story about a fanatic old man who works in a baseball factory. He makes up one and puts dynamite in it. The ball with dynamite becomes the central character. The ball goes out on the field, we follow it to the umpire, who throws it to the pitcher, who then strikes out three men in a row to win the game. . . Imagine the suspense! The ball is given to the club's director, and he puts it on a sideboard in his office with other trophies. At the very end I wanted to have a cleaning woman come in and jiggle the ball by accident, and it rolls and rolls toward the edge. It’s about to fall down and explode, and she catches it in the very last shot. [sigh] We never worked it out.'
Hitchcock's participation on the television program may not have been 100%, but he did leave his mark – especially when it came to the commercials. 'There were some misgivings I suppose,' Hitch once recalled. 'From time to time certain phrases have crept in that may not have been entirely to the liking of Bristol-Myers [one of the sponsors]. Once I said, "The views expressed in the following commercial are strictly those of the sponsor." They didn’t like that. I could see their point of view, too. Afterward I changed it slightly. I said, "The views expressed here are entirely those of the sponsor," and I did a look - you know - to show that perhaps I really didn’t mean it. Once I thought it would be amusing to have one of the A's get mixed up with the B's in that race around the iron stomach. Then I decided to have the butler come in and announce, "Mr. Hitchcock, your grandfather is here." To which I would reply haughtily, "Well, fine, send the old duffer in" [a pun on the name of one of the sponsor's products]. Of course, I have to resist temptation, because on the reruns we will have a different sponsor.'
Alfred Hitchcock's humorous sketches for 'Alfred Hitchcock Presents' and 'The Alfred Hitchcock Hour' were confined to introductions to the commercials, and to the show, and his closing remarks. What he once admitted wanting to do, however, was the commercials themselves. He was never able to get the sponsors to go along with him, perhaps understandably. 'I would do them,' he says, 'like that British real-estate salesman, Roy Brooks, does them. He knocks the houses he sells with remarks like "It’s terribly in need of paint," or "The wallpaper's falling off in sheets," and he gets a terrific volume of sales. I'd love to sell cars, and, as I am passing one of the doors, have the handle fall off as I'm extolling the car's virtues, and without dropping a line simply replace the door handle, or something like that. ... I’d like to take two asprin and, after swallowing them, stagger off the stage. Or, after brushing my teeth with some toothpaste or other, rinse and spit out a mouthful of teeth. Or show Joan of Arc being burned at the stake and comment, "Are you smoking more now and enjoying it less?"'
Another idea Hitchcock likes is one his writer, James Allardice, once pulled off in a high school play. Allardice had an electric chair in one scene, and under it was displayed the sign, 'You can be sure if it’s Westinghouse.' In other words, what knocks Hitchcock out is 'counterpoint' humor. In his lead-ins, he likes lines, props and devices that contrast sharply to his bald, portly, dignified self. He may lead a goat on stage or pose with a butterfly net while making a spiel. When Hitchcock first started making his lead-ins, he decided that 'If the shows were going to be macabre, what I wanted was the counterpoint of humor to introduce them. It's an English sense of humor, I think, rather than American.'
The total image had to be one of incongruity. 'It would be a mistake,' Hitchcock says, for example, 'to place me at the North Pole wearing an Eskimo outfit. Rather I should be at the Pole wearing a plain black suit, or a dinner jacket.' It’s all in the approach - the reverse approach, that is.
Billy Mumy: 'Working on the "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" shows was fine with the exception of one person ... Alfred Hitchcock. He was cruel to me and I'll never forget one syllable of what he said to me while filming "Bang You’re Dead," (which is quite a good show, and I'm glad I did it, and I'm proud to be a part of it). Anyway, as you know, I was in most of that episode, and you can only work a minor so many hours a day ... they were about to "lose" me for the day, and they wanted to get one more close up shot before I went home. Well, I’d been working all day, and I was fidgeting around as they tried to light me. Hitchcock rises out of his chair and slowly lumbers towards me. He was sweating. In my memory, he was always sweating. Several chins waggling, he approaches me in his black suit and leans down to whisper into my ear so that no one else can hear him but me, and this is exactly what he said to me ... "If you don't stop moving about, I'm going to get a nail and nail your feet to your mark, and the blood will coming pouring out like milk ... so stop moving!" Well, I was truly terrified. They got their close up, and I went home for the day, and as we were leaving I told my mom all about how he wanted to nail my feet to my mark, and she laughs and says, "Oh Honey, he's British. They have a different sense of humor." Well, all he ever had to do was tell me he was just kidding. That he wouldn't really have nailed my feet to my mark. But he didn't, and he didn't because he knew that he scared the shit out of me, and he loved knowing that. Let’s not forget the fact that I was seven years old at the time.'
Vincent Price: 'I was terribly excited about working with Hitchcock, he's one of the great movie makers of all time. There were only two of us in it [Price and James Gregory], just two characters, and I thought it was going to be wonderful. It was a very elaborate thing called "The Perfect Crime," and I was really very thrilled to think of Hitchcock telling us what to do. His entire direction was, he came on the set one day and he said, "Faster." [laughs] And so we did it a little faster and he said, "That's better. A little bit faster." Then he went over and slept! [laughs] I've read four books about Hitchcock recently and [yet] he slept all through everything – or gave the appearance of sleeping. He set things up so brilliantly that he didn’t really have to watch very carefully.'
Henry Slesar: 'I much preferred writing for the half-hour show. There was always the possibility of doing what I call "gems." The half-hours were compact and full of sharp point-breaking, bringing the audience in at the middle and then hitting them with the climax. Very clean. This got a little difficult to achieve in the hour shows, which were more like features except that they weren’t, not really. They were actually more like extended half-hours. More was told about the same thing. I think the show suffered because of it, and I think the Hitchcock people felt so, too.'
Norman Lloyd: 'My own feeling is that while the hour show did seems a bit spread out at times, we were able to do shows with a little humanity to them; we were able to develop characters more. There were a lot of good hour episodes. Like "The Jar" and another Bradbury story called "The Life of Juan Diaz," a marvellous story about a guy who earned more money dead than when he was alive. So, for my money, both formats were good and just as effective, only in different ways.'
Doug Benton: 'We [television's "Thriller"] were on the same network, and being made at the same studio, as "Alfred Hitchcock Presents," and although I never heard this directly, I did hear it from people who worked on both shows: Hitchcock resented "Thriller" and he thought that Hubbell Robinson had infringed on his merchandise. He thought that if he were doing this type of material for MCA and NBC, then he shouldn't be. Actually, we weren't doing the same thing he was; he was doing some very sophisticated, "twist" material. Hitchcock was doing the sort of thing that they started out to do on "Thriller," but were not successful with. We came along and improved the ratings considerably and got a tremendous amount of press, and Hitchcock didn't like the competition. I don't think he ever came out and said, "Get rid of 'em !", but he did allow them to enlarge his show from a half-hour to an hour, and that made it more difficult for us to stay on.'
Hitchcock was one of the shrewdest business men in Hollywood and he probably followed every step in the complicated negotiations that transferred his program from one network to another. Hitchcock dropped all pretense of confusion when he discussed the actual production of the show. Material for the one-hour program would have to come from novels or novellas instead of from short stories, and they did.
Hitchcock and his staff decided to use novels instead of short stories for the hour-long presentations. If it can be believed, for a single season his staff had to sift through 2,400 crime novels to glean the required scripts. Short stories were, however, still being used, but lengthened to fit the time frame. This 'Hour' did not last as long as 'AHP.'
After seven seasons of 'Alfred Hitchcock Presents' and three seasons of 'The Alfred Hitchcock Hour,' Alfred Hitchcock presented no more. Without fanfare – NBC did not even announce the program's departure. They simply failed to announce its renewal. The ratings of 'The Alfred Hitchcock Hour' had gradually slipped, although not catastrophically, and, acording to an NBC source, 'We merely found Mr. Hitchcock a little too costly.' Hitchcock fans would still have syndicated reruns to console them, but the master would no longer toddle onto the screen in prime network time, fit himself gently into his own India-ink profile, and deliver his flannel-mouthed, lugubrious jokes.
Norman Lloyd: 'The real reason was that Hitch didn't want to do it anymore. He felt that ten years was enough, and he had a lot of other things to do.'
'We must be philosophical about this,' says Mr. Hitchcock about his television demise. 'As we all know, television is a great juggernaut and we're all nuts and bolts attached to it. Sometimes the nuts and bolts fall off.' He was financially afflicted by this decision, of course, but artistically speaking it did not move him profoundly. Just before the decision was made he was complaining about the difficulty of doing good work on television. In fact, apart from keeping his eagle eye on the scripts, Hitchcock had little to do with the practical work on the show itself.
Needless to say, the Hitchcock organization - an economic and artistic institution known all over the world - would still continue to pursue its profitable activities of movie making and mystery-magazine and mystery-book publishing for its huge international audience. And, if scaring millions of people out of their wits every year was his success, the Alfred Hitchcock organization was one of the most successful in history.
The above is just a sample of the publication, 'The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion' by Martin Grams, Jr and Patrik Wikström.
- Features a lengthy history of the television series, including all three pilots!
- Features a complete broadcast log of each and every episode, with cast lists, plot descriptions, Hitch’s opening and closing remarks, and trivia and recollections from over 100 actors, writers, directors. Including: Patricia Hitchcock, Elliott Reid, Tyler McVey, Charles Bennett, Hazel Court, Arthur Hiller, Mark Richman, Lawrence Treat, Talmage Powell, Robert Bloch, Joan Harrison, Tony Randall, Joyce Van Patten, Harold Q. Masur, Hilton A. Green, Edward D. Hoch, Herbert Coleman, Bruce Dern, Clark Howard, Andrew Solt, Marian Seldes, David Swift, Ray Bradbury, Julie Adams, Ann Robinson, Robert Altman, and many others!
- Features the same for the remake series of the 1980s with the colorized Hitchcock openings!
- Documents each and every LP, magnet, matchbook, hotel soap, label pin, board game and many other collectibles!
- Features a huge list of each and every hardcover and paperback edition of the Hitchcock anthologies!
- And anything else you have been wanting to know about 'Alfred Hitchcock Presents'!
'The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion' can be purchased from Amazon.com.