Alfred Hitchcock's sarcastic humor and his ability to laugh at himself and his sponsors may explain why these combined series were the longest running anthology shows in the history of television.
Alfred Hitchcock, circa 1956, Public Domain
He never wrote a single script and only directed 20 of the 362 episodes that aired during the life of the show, but his fans all know that Alfred Hitchcock Presents and its predecessor, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, would be nothing without Alfred Hitchcock. It is apparent in every last detail that this anthology was a labor of love for the legendary director.
Alfred Hitchcock Presents was 25 minutes long not counting "the sponsors" as Hitchcock haughtily called them. The show aired on Sunday evenings from 1955 to 1962 on the CBS network. The Alfred Hitchcock Hour aired on Tuesday evenings during prime time from 1962 to 1965. The show's individual episodes ranked in the top 25 television shows 67 times and won two Emmy Awards after 17 nominations.
Although anthologies were popular in the 50s, Alfred Hitchcock Presents was the first to use the name and regular appearance of a famous film director--Alfred Hitchcock. Alfred Hitchcock Presents also ranked number four in Time Magazine's "The 100 Best TV Shows of All-TIME."
The idea for the show came from Hitchcock's friend and former agent, Lew Wasserman. Wasserman, the head of MCA, was seeking a way in to television and realized his friend, Hitchcock, was the perfect ticket as he already has such a strong following through the popularity of his films. Hitchcock was also famous for his cameo appearances in his films--he had a well-known face. In addition, Hitchcock had just signed with a magazine publisher to produce The Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, which served to reinforce his image as a "master of suspense." In fact, Hitchcock's image was so solid that the network and sponsors did not require the usual test pilot show. With the first episode--"Revenge," which aired on October 2, 1955--a cult classic was born.
Two Shows in One
Watching either Alfred Hitchcock Presents or The Alfred Hitchcock Hour is like watching two shows simultaneously--a witty performance by Hitchcock, the master of horror and suspense, followed by "the play," which is how he referred to the actual show. The early shows begin with the appearance on the screen of a sketch, or nine-stroke line drawing of Alfred Hitchcock created by Hitchcock who loved to doodle and was once a commercial artist. Eventually, the shows began with Hitchcock stepping into the scene and lining his body up with the sketch. Later episodes show Hitchcock's shadow in profile, slowly rising from the bottom of the screen until if fits snuggly into the sketch. The intro then changed to show a variety of "spooky" images, such as a castle at night, a broken clock face, a locked door, but also included the caricature of Hitchcock. Hitchcock's shadow moves slowly up the door, then the door disappears and is replaced with Hitchcock himself.
Each show begins and ends with the "Funeral March of a Marionette" by Charles-Francois Gounod, a tune carefully chosen by Alfred Hitchcock to represent the combination of light humor in the intro and dark suspense in the story, a tune that stays with you long after the show has ended.
When Hitchcock first appears to introduce the evenings "play," as he calls them, he begins with his trademark greeting, "Good eeeeevening." The opening scene often shows him in an odd setting, settings that represent his great sense of humor--obviously, this was not a man afraid to laugh at himself. In one scene he appears sitting before a set of drums wearing a wig as a reference to the musical group The Beatles. In another he is shown inside a giant mixing bowl wearing a chef's hat. He appeared in a wine vat in one show and a torture chamber in another. He was the postmaster at the "Dead Letter window," a surfer, and a scarecrow. These settings are the basis for jokes that introduce the program, but often have little to do with the play, and he clearly states this to the audience.
After he has had his fun with puns and made a few comments regarding the evening's show, Hitchcock often makes sarcastic remarks about the commercial and station identification break that must appear before the show begins. When he first started these comments the network executives (CBS and NBC) suggested he drop the comments on the commercials. However, a survey showed that the audience and advertisers liked the cheap shots at advertisers and product sales actually increased when they were shown on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. According to surveys, viewers thought highly of the advertisers because they, like Hitchcock, were able to laugh at themselves and not take themselves too seriously. When the networks realized the comments were appreciated Hitchcock was allowed to resume his sarcastic comments about the advertisers. It is unfortunate that these old commercials are not included in the re-runs since Hitchcock's remarks seem to make the "sponsors" and "station identification" a part of the show.
Joan Harrison was the Executive Producer of the show. She actually worked with Hitchcock for 20 years before the show's conception, starting as his secretary, then moving up to scriptwriting. In the 1940s, Harrison became famous as the only female film producer in the world. She started working on Alfred Hitchcock Presents by selecting the stories that would be used for the shows, and the selection process was an important part of the show to Hitchcock. The shows in this anthology are unique. They are generally based on short stories, but present like short films. Harrison was vital to the success of the show, but her job was extremely time-consuming and she eventually left to spend more time with her husband, writer Eric Ambler.
Harrison was replaced by Norman Lloyd, who previously acted in many of Hitchcock's films and was familiar with the Hitchcock "style." When the show ended, Harrison returned to acting, appearing in The Practice, St. Elsewhere, and eventually earning two Primetime Emmys.
Directors and Awards
As stated before, Hitchcock never wrote any of the shows, but he did direct 17 of the episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The 1955 episode "The Case of Mr. Pelham" starring Tom Ewell and the 1958 episode "Lamb to the Slaughter" starring Barbara Bel Geddes were both nominated for Emmy Awards. A third episode, the 1957 show "The Glass Eye," also won an Emmy Award. There were 268 total episodes.
Hitchcock only directed one episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour in 1965, "An Unlocked Window," written by James Bridges who won an Edgar Award for the episode.
Directors used for the rest of the shows were also famous, perhaps not at the time, but certainly later in their careers. The list of directors include Robert Altman (Bonanza, Combat!); Sydney Pollack (Tootsie); Arthur Hiller (Silver Streak); and Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke).
Hitchcock was meticulously careful about the stories chosen for the shows. The shows were generally scripted from short stories or novellas by famous authors, such as Ray Bradbury, H.G. Wells, John Cheever, and the short stories often came from the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Hitchcock always used previously published works because he had a theory that writers would save their best work to promote their own reputations and not his show.
A large majority of the stories were written by Henry Slesar, who also wrote for Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, which was where Hitchcock discovered his writing, according to Slesar.
In 1960, Roald Dahl wrote "Man from the South" starring Steve McQueen and Peter Lorre. "Man from the South" was included in a the special collector's issue TV Guide Magazine's 100 Greatest Episodes of All Time.
According to John Javna's Cult TV, the only episode that never aired was the 1962 show "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," written for Alfred Hitchcock Presents. CBS decided the show was too morbid. In this episode a mentally challenged boy watches a magician saw a man in half. The boy doesn't realize the performance was a trick and actually saws an unconscious woman in half trying to duplicate the performance.
The list of actors who started with Hitchcock is equally impressive, including Robert Redford who appeared in one of my favorite semi-romantic dramatic episodes, 1963's "A Tangled Web." Redford also starred as Charlie Marx in the 1961 episode "The Right Kind of Medicine." Hitchcock tended to use actors, writers and directors for multiple productions.
Peter Falk, who made his name with the series Columbo as an obnoxious detective who always had "one more question," also starred in one of my favorite episodes where he played a traveling preacher in "Bonfire" with Dina Merrill.
Other famous actors appearing on the show include Charles Bronson; Steve McQueen who appeared in numerous episodes; and Gena Rowlands and John Cassavetes who paired up in "Murder Case" as well as a few other episodes for various 1950s anthology shows, and they do make an outstanding pair!
A Wise Investment
When Hitchcock signed the contracts for the show he insisted that the profits from each episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents would go to him. In 1964 he traded the rights to the series to Music Corporation of America for 150,000 shares of the company, which made him the fourth largest shareholder of MCA, and extremely wealthy!
Javna, John. Cult TV: A Viewer's Guide to the Shows America Can't Live Without! St. Martin's Press. New York: 1985.
Nevins, Jr., Francis M. Death on Television: The Best of Henry Slesar's Alfred Hitchcock Stories. Southern Illinois University Press. Carbondale: 1989.
Winship, Michael. Television: Companion to the PBS Television Series. Random House. New York: 1988.