Sunday, February 3, 2013

Screen Directors’ Playhouse: “Claire” (Hal Roach Studios: TV, 1956)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I ended up watching “Claire,” an episode of the mid-1950’s half-hour TV drama series (back when TV still had half-hour dramas!) Screen Directors’ Playhouse, in which each episode was helmed by a major (or semi-major) film director — this one was by Frank Tuttle and the one they promoed for the next week was a Western by Stuart Heisler. Ironically, given that the night before we’d watched the Danny Kaye vehicle Wonder Man ­— a Sam Goldwyn production in which Goldwyn’s son-in-law, McClure Capps, had been the assistant art director — for “Claire” not only was Capps the art director but his wife Ruth Capps (Goldwyn’s daughter by his first wife, Blanche Lasky — the divorce was so bitter that for years afterwards Goldwyn refused to acknowledge either his first wife or his daughter by her, and led everyone to believe that his second wife, Frances Howard — mother of his son Sam Goldwyn, Jr. — was the only woman he’d ever married) wrote the script. It’s basically a quirky knockoff of Rebecca in which the title character, a Siamese cat, essentially plays the Judith Anderson role. Dr. Stanley Wayne (George Montgomery) has just returned from a honeymoon with his new bride Vera (Angela Lansbury, a quite odd choice for a goody-good role even though it turns out she’s not as good as she seems) to his house, which is by a lake and is decorated exactly the same (complete with such hideous wallpaper for a while it looked like a PRC production) as it was when Dr. Wayne lived there with his first wife Julie.

Where this film departs from the Rebecca template is that it turns out that Julie and Vera actually knew each other until Julie mysteriously drowned in the lake the house is next to, and Vera insists she has a phobia against swimming that’s only been intensified by the death by drowning of the first Mrs. Wayne. Vera seems to get along with every human in the neighborhood — including the Waynes’ Black maid Kate (Armanda Randolph), neighbor Roberta Lawrence (Jean Willes) who seems to have the hots for Dr. Wayne herself, and Vera’s former boyfriend Carl (William Erwin) who doesn’t seem to have taken romantic defeat all that well. Clad only in a swimsuit and revealing a surprisingly sexy chest (and basket!), Dr. Wayne takes a timer photo of himself and Vera together by the pool — the show’s sponsor was Eastman Kodak and I wondered if they insisted that photography had to figure somewhere in the plot — but Vera is constantly being tripped, bumped into and otherwise inconvenient by that darn cat Claire. At one point the cat pushes her into an old, non-functional clock and she sets off its tubular bells — freaking Dr. Wayne out because while she was alive, Julie would frequently stroke those bells, setting them off and reveling in the sound. I couldn’t help but wonder where this was going and whether Vera’s increasingly freaky state of mind was the result of pressure either from Roberta Lawrence (out of jealousy for her having lost Dr. Wayne to Vera) or Carl (out of jealousy because Vera picked Dr. Wayne over her), but I was also envisioning the probability that Vera herself would turn out to be the bad girl, if only because Angela Lansbury was playing her. The climax occurs when the cat escapes the house, Vera goes out with a leash to catch her and bring her back, the cat walks to the edge of a small pier built into the lake, and — with Dr. Wayne watching — Vera loses her balance, falls off the pier and does a perfectly fine crawl stroke to get back to land, thereby letting both Dr. Wayne and us know that she can swim and therefore, on the day Julie died, she could have rescued her and instead chose to let Julie drown so she could displace her as Mrs. Stanley Wayne. This wasn’t a great program but it was a nice offtake on a legendary story, even though it probably would have made a better script for Alfred Hitchcock Presents than Screen Directors’ Playhouse because either Hitchcock or the “ghost” directors who usually did his TV show would probably have been able to make it creepier and more suspenseful than Frank Tuttle did!