Friday, January 01, 2016

We Interrupt This Holiday With Original Programming ...

Happy New Year!

Speaking of which, I suppose TV programming on New Year's Day is not done the way it is on ordinary days. I never really thought about it before, but I guess TV networks resort to special programming on the New Year's holiday, just as they do on other holidays. Whether usual programming is being preempted by college football or something else, I guess that's the norm.

And there are so many networks these days. You've got to do something to set yourself apart from the rest in the eyes of viewers who have seemingly unlimited options — and lots of time on their hands.

Whether it is an attempt to attract viewers or appease the cast and crew of a television series by giving them a holiday — or, as I suspect, a combination of the two — I guess there isn't much original programming on New Year's night. I suppose there never was.

To which Alfred Hitchcock said, "Rubbish!" — or something comparable — 60 years ago tonight. Hitchcock presented a first–time showing of an original episode; please note that I said it was original and not necessarily his best or even great. In fact, good might be stretching it. But that is largely because it seems rather obvious from the vantage point of 2016, not 1956.

Now I have probably fallen into that trap of judging the past by modern standards. It's a common trap, and lots of folks fall into it these days. But that is no excuse, I guess.

Sixty years ago, there were only the three major networks — ABC, CBS and NBC — and TV was in its infancy. The networks were experimenting with everything, including programming; special holiday programming may well have been experimental. Having been a child in the pre–cable era, I know that special holiday programming was always heavily advertised, and that was many years after the Hitchcock program that premiered 60 years ago tonight.

I'm sure there were holiday specials in those days, but there were no marathons and probably few sports telecasts, even on New Year's Day. I recall once, when I was a child, one of the networks showed "Oklahoma!" on Thanksgiving night — and spent weeks promoting it. Original programming on holidays probably was more common then than it is today.

On New Year's night 1956, Alfred Hitchcock Presents aired an episode called "A Bullet for Baldwin" that featured some familiar faces for folks who have watched 1960s TV. Such folks have probably heard of at least one of their names, too — Sebastian Cabot. He played a partner in a turn–of–the–century business.

The other familiar face belonged to a fellow named John Qualen, a Canadian–born son of Norwegian immigrants. He was always playing mild–mannered characters in all sorts of TV series, but he had a pretty impressive movie resume, too. He was in "The Grapes of Wrath," "Casablanca," "Anatomy of a Murder," "The Searchers" and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," among others.

Anyway, Qualen played a mild–mannered company employee, and the story began with Cabot's character — the Baldwin of the episode title — dismissing Qualen for making repeated mistakes.

Qualen's character went to his desk, retrieved a revolver from the top drawer, returned to Cabot's office and shot him point blank.

Qualen's character was certain he had killed Baldwin, and he was prepared to wait at his home for the police to come for him. Instead, he got a phone call from the office telling him that Mr. Baldwin wanted to see him. Bewildered, he went to the office and was stopped by the other partner, who took him aside to give him some work instructions.

At that point Qualen's character confessed to shooting and killing Mr. Baldwin. The partner was convinced that Qualen had had some kind of mental episode; after all, everyone in the office had been under such pressure lately. Then he took Qualen to Mr. Baldwin's office, and he (and the audience) saw someone who looked like Baldwin and sounded like Baldwin preparing for an important business trip.

The partner assured Qualen that he wouldn't say anything about their conversation and told him he would receive a raise. Qualen returned to his desk, apparently relieved that he had imagined the whole thing.

And the partner went into Mr. Baldwin's office — and that was when the audience found out that Mr. Baldwin really had been killed. The fellow who was pretending to be Baldwin was a — pardon the pun — dead ringer for him. The partner had been having an affair with Mrs. Baldwin, and he had been in the office when Qualen had shot Baldwin. He hid in the office until Qualen left, all the while trying to figure out how to manipulate the situation to his advantage.

And he came up with the idea of having an impostor play the role so he could gaslight Qualen.

The partner decided to feign ignorance when Qualen thanked him for his discretion — and the raise. Then, as Baldwin had done before him, the partner discharged Qualen.

And Qualen did exactly as he had done the first time. He went back to his desk, retrieved a revolver, confronted the partner and shot him point blank.

When Alfred Hitchcock gave his customary closing remarks, he called the story "amusing" but assured viewers that his TV program was more than entertainment. It was intended to reinforce some of life's wisdom, although he admitted that he didn't know what the moral of "A Bullet for Baldwin" was.

Maybe it was a cautionary tale for employers. Be careful who you fire — and why.