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Archive for September 7th, 2017

 

by Sam Juliano

Charles Gounod (1818-1893) was a renowned French composer perhaps best known for his version of Ave Maria, based on a work by Bach, though his two big operas, Mignon and Romeo et Juliette have continued to hold the stage. The latter in fact has been a staple at the Metropolitan Opera over the past several decades.    His mother was a pianist and his father was an artist. Gounod studied at the Paris Conservatoire, and later married Zimmermann’s daughter after he finally abandoned desires to enroll in the seminary. He won the Prix de Rome in 1839 for his cantata Fernand, and enjoyed sustained popularity during his lifetime.  For television fans Gounod’s fame is for the iconic theme music of a venerated show that ran for seven years during the height of the baby boomer era.  Indeed Gounod’s quirky composition, Marche funebre d’une marionette (The Funeral March of a Marionette) was a godsend of sorts for film and television giant Alfred Hitchcock who employed this simultaneously cheerful and spooky piece for what is arguably the most famous opening of any show in the history of the small screen.  Hitchcock is said to have chosen this theme after recalling its employment in Murnau’s 1927 masterpiece Sunrise, though its use in Harold Lloyd’s first talkie Welcome Dancer must have been equally ubiquitous.  As Gounod’s music launches the screen showcases the enlarged letters of the show’s title, which segues into the iconic caricature of the director -which he drew himself- appearing in silhouette, which is followed by Hitchcock himself walking to the center of the screen to eclipse the image in side profile.  Then we are delightfully regaled with the inimitable master of ceremonies’ trademark “Good Evening” before he launches on his distinctly British sounding deadpan tirade of the coming mise en scene or the pervading theme of the half-hour episode about to commence.  Sometimes his appearance is pensive or pedestrian, just as often he is adored in clothing that corresponds to the teleplay at hand.  In one show about hypnotism Hitchcock is shown laying on a cot answering a moderator while under the influence; in others we see him dressed in rain gear at a fishing wharf or with a noose around his neck before an execution.  Whatever the mood that is established in the episode there is always the opening levity and the final post-script when Hitch returns again to tell the audience the fate of the murderer or one of the characters as a way as he later explained to interviewers “to hold the moral ground.”

John Crosby, in his November 16, 1955 review of the series in the New York Herald Tribune opined that “the best thing about Alfred Hitchcock Presents is Alfred Hitchcock presenting”.  While such an assessment might seem like a takedown of the actual episodes themselves, it mostly accentuated the significance of the masters-of-ceremonies role in the show.  While Rod Serling in The Twilight Zone, Boris Karloff in Thriller and John Newland in One Step Beyond were essential to their respective presentations, both to established tone and impart some narrative and/or thematic information, Hitchcock’s moderator gig by its very intent as well as delivery was markedly mordant, with even the show’s sponsors often satirically chided. Hence, irregardless of who wrote or directed the actual episodes (Hitchcock directed 17 of them) the imprint of the creator extended from the introduction and epilogues to the tone of most of the teleplays.  No anthology series before or since has operated with such vital incongruity.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents began its formidable run in 1955.  It ran for seven years in the half hour format, was finally cancelled after the impressive run (unprecedented for an anthology show) and then immediately returned wearing different clothes as The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, which aired for three years, concluding in 1965 after 93 episodes, running at 50 minutes each, double the length of the earlier series.  Though some treatments of Alfred Hitchcock Presents opt to include the three one-hour years as part of the original show, and others describe it as a continuation, for the purposes of this countdown they were considered separately. The Alfred Hitchcock Hour landed a spot on the second part of the countdown and will be considered in another essay.  The seven years of the half hour show yielded 268 episodes, of which one -the seventh season “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” was never aired because it was perceived as too violent, though it was widely seen years later and is presently part of all the show’s video incarnations.  The tone of the episodes ranges from crime and murder (the most prevalent themes) to thriller, horror and deadpan comedy.  There are a few very moving human stories in the mix as well and one of these will be featured as my own #1 favorite in the entire series run.  The narrative element that seems to unite most of the episodes is that many people are reprehensible human beings.  The slightest provocation can often lead to someone plotting another’s demise, and in numerous instances a wife, husband or close friend are bumped off for monetary gain.  The series is largely a succession of morality tales in “what goes around comes around” mode.  Sinners will almost always get their proper comeuppance, and often in much more elaborate terms than their own victims received.  The ironic twist endings far better manifested themselves in the half-hour shows, where they are more direct and not obscured by a wider ranging plot, though the hour longs shows had other assets to elevate them (more…)

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