Wednesday, February 27, 2013

"Funeral March of a Marionette" by Charles Gounod

Puppet Tinkler, woodcutter Šilar

Charles Gounod (June 17, 1818-October 17, 1893) was a French composer perhaps best known for his version of Ave Maria, based on a work by Bach.  His mother was a pianist and his father was an artist. He studied at the Paris Conservatoire and studied under Pierre Zimmermann, then later married Zimmermann's daughter, though at one point he considered becoming a priest. In 1839, he won the Prix de Rome for his cantata Fernand. He was a remarkably talented man, highly respected and popular in his day. So, why would I mention him on a blog about Alfred Hitchcock? Because he also composed the theme song to The Alfred Hitchcock Hour: "Funeral March of a Marionette."

It is a strange little tune, both spooky and somewhat cheerful simultaneously. It does indeed remind one of a puppet, and a funeral march, as well. It is a short piece written specifically for the piano, and one of Alfred Hitchcock's favorites.

In 1959, Alfred Hitchcock participated in the BBC Radio Program Desert Island Discs, the forerunner to contemporary reality shows. Each week, a "distinguished guest" was asked to imagine that he or she was stranded on a desert island, but they were not without entertainment. The "castaway" was allowed to choose eight pieces of music, a book, and a luxury item that they would most like to have during their island confinement, and during the show they discussed the items they chose and why they made each choice. One of the records chosen by Alfred Hitchcock was "Funeral March of a Marionette."

In fact, Alfred Hitchcock enjoyed this piece so much that he chose this music for the introduction of his television anthologies Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. The song was an instant hit with fans who connected the quirky tune with Alfred Hitchcock's equally quirky sense of humor. This wasn't the first time the tune was used to introduce a drama. It was also used in the American silent film Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, produced in 1927 by F.W. Murnau, and in Harold Lloyd's first "talkie,"  Welcome Danger, released in 1929.

It would be interesting to ask Gounod how he would feel about the use of his tune to introduce dramatic films and "plays" about murder and mayhem. Although the theme of a funeral march for a marionette does seem rather dramatic, it is possible Gounod would have been happier knowing this particular piece was used by Catholic students for piano practice rather than to introduce a crime. Gounod was a devout Catholic who once considered becoming a priest and always worked on a piano that had a portrait of Jesus carved on the music rack.


Sunday, February 24, 2013

Alfred Hitchcock Presents and the Alfred Hitchcock Hour

Alfred Hitchcock, circa 1956, Public Domain. 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.

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 Concept
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 PracticeSt. 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. 

Alfred Hitchcock and The MacGuffin Plot Device

Photo is the set from the movie Psycho. Photograph by Superchilum.

In the 1960 horror/suspense film Psycho, starring Anthony Perkins as the legendary Norman Bates, scream queen Janet Leigh makes a brief appearance as Marion Crane, a bored secretary in Arizona who steals $40,000 when her employer asks her to deposit the money in the bank for a customer. Instead of stopping at the bank, Crane takes the money and runs, headed for California in her car. Exhausted from a day of driving, she pulls to the side of the road to sleep, but a police officer wakes her up and becomes suspicious of her anxiety.
The tension is rising for the audience, as well. Crane trades her car in at a dealership and returns to the highway in a different vehicle, then she is caught in a sudden rainstorm and forced to find a motel. She chooses the Bates Motel because it is isolated from the highway traffic, which provides her with a false sense of security.
At this point, the audience is introduced to the star of the film, Anthony Perkins, the shy, insecure motel manager who lives with his mother in the Bates Mansion, the deteriorating house on the hill. Bates invites Crane to dinner at trathe mansion and Crane overhears Bates arguing with his mother who suspects Bates of being sexually atcted to Crane. At dinner, Crane suggests sending Mrs. Bates to an institution, which clearly upsets Norman.
Crane returns to her room and decides to return the money, making lists of how she can repay the money already spent. She then steps into the shower while Bates watches through a peephole. Next we see one of the most famous horror scenes in film history as the shadow of a woman is seen entering the bathroom. She repeatedly stabs Crane through the shower curtain. It is now clear that the mystery--the disappearance of Crane and the strange motel manager--are the focus of the film. The $40,000 is The MacGuffin.
What is The MacGuffin?
The MacGuffin was used in storytelling for years, but director Alfred Hitchcock was the man who made the use of this plot device, and its name, famous. The MacGuffin is something that motivates the characters to do almost anything as they pursue, protect, or control an object, person, or even a place, with little or no explanation as to why this object, person, or place, is important.
Alfred Hitchcock, who directed and produced Psycho, made the use of this plot device, and its name, famous. In Dick Cavett's 1972 interview with Alfred Hitchcock, Cavett asked Hitchcock to define The MacGuffin for the audience. According to Hitchcock: "It might be a Scottish name taken from a story about two men on a train. One man says, "What's that package up there in the baggage rack?" and the other answers, "Oh, that's a MacGuffin." The first one asks, "What's a MacGuffin?" "Well," the other man says, "it's an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands." The first man says, "But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands." And the other one answers, "Well, then that's no MacGuffin!" So you see, a MacGuffin is nothing at all." 
Hitchcock's story may seem a bit vague, but his point is that The MacGuffin is not really important because it's a plot device. The package on the baggage rack builds tension, creates a mystery, it is a possible reason for suspense, but has nothing to do with the story of what is happening, or has happened, or is about to happen to the two men on the train.
In the 1959 mystery North by Northwest, also directed by Alfred Hitchcock, The MacGuffin is the mysterious "government secrets." In the 1964 mystery/drama Marnie, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring another famous scream queen, Tippi Hedren, paired up with Sean Connery of James Bond fame, The MacGuffin is the color red.
The Birds
In the 1963 horror thriller The Birds, The MacGuffin is a pair of love birds that Melanie Daniels, played by another famous scream queen Tippi Hedren, buys as a gift for Mitch Brenner's (Rod Taylor) younger sister. The presence of the birds in Bodega Bay seems to set off a series of attacks by birds of all species, and there are a few hints in the film to indicate the love birds are The MacGuffin, but the response of the residents to the presence of Melanie Daniels in the town could also indicate a second MacGuffin in the film as Melanie Daniels and the love birds arrived at the same time, which would make Daniels a MacGuffin. In the end, no one really knows why the birds attacked, but the attacks do seem to be a warning against the mistreatment of the environment, a theme explored more deeply in the film's sequel, The Birds II: Land's End. Some film reviewers have indicated that the reason for the attacks by the birds is The MacGuffin, but the bird attacks are an integral part of the plot and not a simple device to keep the plot moving. 
The Thomas Crown Affair
Although Hitchcock used The MacGuffin often in his films, it was not his invention. He was not the only writer, director, or publisher to use it in films past and present. In fact, both versions of The Thomas Crown Affair contain solid examples of the use of The MacGuffin. 
In the 1999 version of The Thomas Crown Affair starring Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo, The MacGuffin is a painting: Monet's San Giorgio Maggiore at Dusk. In the 1969 version of The Thomas Crown Affair starring Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway, The MacGuffin is $2.6 million dollars. The two films are essentially the same--bored millionaire plans or commits the perfect crime; sexy insurance investigator solves the mystery; the couple falls in love. In the 1969 version, Steve McQueen, who plays the millionaire, is not caught, but the lovers are sadly parted. In the 1999 version, Pierce Brosnan also gets away with the initial crime, but he returns the painting in the end and runs away with Rene Russo. The audience is left with the impression that the millionaire's temporary life of crime, and his life of boredom, have both ended, replaced by a new life with Russo.
So, what about the money and the painting? In the end, no one really cares. The money and the painting are plot devices used to move the story forward, but neither one is important because the story is about the romance between the millionaire and the investigator. The audience is lured into a high degree of sympathy for both the millionaire and the insurance investigator--two bored and lonely people--and they are so completely focused on this love affair between the couple that nothing else matters. The money, the painting, The MacGuffins, are now precisely what Hitchcock called them in the Dick Cavett interview. They are "nothing."