The Trouble With Harry

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The inside story on what happened when Hollywood and Hitchcock came to Vermont in the 1950s



By Robert Kiener Alfred Hitchcock was upset. It was just past noon on a balmy October day in 1954 and the world-famous director was about to shoot a scene in Craftsbury Common for his movie, The Trouble With Harry. Moments before he was ready to yell “Action!”, a boisterous horde of schoolchildren poured out of the Craftsbury Academy and streamed onto the Common. The shot was ruined. Miffed, Hitchcock turned to an assistant and asked, “What shall we do about the patter of little feet?” Before the assistant could answer, the portly, world-famous director offered his own one-word solution: “Chloroform?” While the exchange sounds almost too good to be true, it has been told, and re-told, by many who were there to witness it. Not only is it vintage Hitchcock, it’s also an intriguing glimpse into the troubles he encountered in Vermont while filming the black comedy that the New York Times in 1955 called “a curiously whimsical thing.”

The Trouble With Harry was a departure for Hitchcock. His thrillers Dial M for Murder and Rear Window had just been released, both to great acclaim, and the director had decided to try his hand at a quirky comedy. (Prior to Harry, Hitchcock’s only other American-made comedy was Mr. and Mrs. Smith with Carole Lombard and Robert Montgomery, released in 1941.) The film tells the story of a group of rural New Englanders who discover a corpse, the eponymous Harry, in their woods. As the movie’s trailer noted, “The trouble with Harry is… he is dead.” Several of the film’s characters believe they are responsible for his demise. Paramount, Hitchcock’s studio, was lukewarm about the movie but the director reportedly liked its understated humor and saw it as “a nice little pastorale.” Because he set it in New England it also gave him a chance to shoot on location in Vermont and stay—and eat—at the Lodge at Smugglers’ Notch in Stowe, then nationally known for its fine cuisine. The crew stayed in the Mountain Road Motel and the Green Mountain Inn. As Shirley MacLaine, who made her film debut in Harry, later wrote, “Hitchcock was a connoisseur of food and had great knowledge in this area. We shot in Vermont because the hotel we stayed in, the Lodge, was famous for the best food in Stowe, Vermont. He liked the leaves of Vermont but he really appreciated the food.”

State trooper Richard Carter, left, stands with Alfred Hitchcock and Sgt. Frank Constantine, Stowe 1954. The men were assigned to the production, and the studio paid the state $1,500 for their services. Carter had a bit part in the movie. In a movie still Hitchcock chats with stars John Forsythe and Shirley MacLaine, who made her film debut in The Trouble With Harry. Preceeding pages: Craftsbury Common as it is today. (Photo by Glenn Callahan) Forsythe and MacLaine share a moment as a group of local women look on. This photo is from a series of snapshots taken between September and October 1954 donated by Everett W. Demeritt to the Craftsbury Historical Society, which graciously allowed access to their collection of historical documents and photographs on the film. 72


Vermont’s fall foliage was a big draw for Hitchcock because he thought it would provide a strong contrast to the dark, macabre story line. As he explained, “I’ve always been interested in establishing a contrast, in going against the traditional… With Harry I took melodrama out of the pitch-black night and brought it out in the sunshine. It’s as if I had set up a murder alongside a rustling brook and spilled a drop of blood in the clear water.”


“The main purpose in taking a motion picture troupe some three thousand miles from Hollywood to Vermont was to photograph the warmth of the autumn foliage. We were not disappointed. “But now, glancing into my rear-vision mirror of memory, I particularly recall another sort of warmth—the fine friendliness of the Vermont people. “They did so many things that made our work easier while we were filming The Trouble With Harry. Such things as baking blueberry muffins needed for a scene and then voluntarily bringing along several dozen more muffins for the cast and crew to eat. There were the people who passed on the information where we could obtain an old car—a 1913 Buick roadster—as a prop for the picture. And the owner’s only request was that we drive it no faster than 40 miles an hour. There was the farmwife who loaned us a needed ancient purse for a scene after we had scoured antique shops without success.

Hitchcock talks about Vermonters

“These are a few stray incidents that stay in my mind. There are many others but the over-all reaction is that the legendary impression of the native Vermonter as cold, brooding and suspicious is entirely false. “They minded their business and let us mind ours which we appreciated. They helped us when they could. They realized that we had a job to do and that although the motion picture is the world of make-believe, the making of a motion picture is a hard-working reality. “There was more than these tangible expressions of cooperation, much more. These were the many things that might be summed up in the word neighborliness. I will always remember the people of Vermont. “I also will remember the beauty of the countryside in autumn with nature’s palette of red, golds, yellows, browns and greens. There were the glowing maples, the oaks, the beeches and other foliage with their kaleidoscopic changes of color. “I felt that The Trouble With Harry called for a rural background which would be as much a part of the story as the characters and plot. The story—a comedy about a body—deals with the lives of simple and attractive people in a framework of natural beauty. This we found in Vermont, in the neighborhood of Stowe, Craftsbury Common, East Craftsbury, Morrisville, and elsewhere. “As for the picture, it is a comedy but it has its suspense. You see The Trouble With Harry is that he’s dead. But if one has to die, can you think of a more beautiful place to do so than Vermont in autumn?” —From Vermont Life, Autumn 1955


fter his location scouts toured much of northern Vermont, Hitchcock thought he had found the perfect bit of “sunshine” in picture-postcard-perfect Craftsbury Common. The film crew filled the Common with cows, built a few sets, renamed the village “Highwater” and began shooting in the fall of 1954. But the skies quickly darkened. Literally. Strong winds and persistent rain began stripping many of the trees of their rich autumn colors. “It was a terrible foliage season,” remembers Stowe’s Frank Lackey. Although Hitchcock expected a quick shoot, for 20 of the 23 days of filming, the weather was overcast or raining. Undaunted, he built sets inside Morrisville’s American Legion Hall where he shot many of the interior, and even some exterior shots. But he also encountered problems there. Rain echoed off the building’s tin roof and ruined shots. A 500-pound Technicolor camera crashed to the floor, narrowly missing Hitchcock. At least one scene was filmed in Stowe, on Edson Hill. But the trees were another matter. As they continued to lose their leaves, crew members used extreme measures to save Vermont’s trademark Fall Foliage look. Anne Wilson, co-president of the Craftsbury Historical Society, explains, “I know the crew tried tying maple leaves to an old elm by the Craftsbury Academy.” Townsfolk watched in bemusement as rattled art directors re-draped trees with branches that were still full of leaves. As one reporter later noted, “Vermonters who saw that sight said they would never forget it.” But in the George Adams, Jr., of Stowe, loaned his 1913 Buick to filmmakers. Ruth Nelson (front) and end, Mother Nature Marlene Miles in the car during a break in filming. refused to cooperate. The leaves continued to fall. Frustrated that his production looked like it could soon be gone with the wind, Hitchcock sent some of the crew to as far away as Virginia to find landscapes that might double for Vermont. But they returned with bad news; they couldn’t find anything that matched the beauty of Vermont’s landscape. But, hey, this is Hollywood. Hitchcock ordered his crew to gather up boxes of fallen leaves and had a refrigerated train-car full of them shipped back to Tinsel Town where staffers painstakingly painted and glued thousands of them onto plaster “trees.” He then shot several of the “exterior” (rain-delayed) scenes against special effect “mattes.” Sharp-eyed viewers can spot the changes in color between the scenes shot in Vermont and those created on the Hollywood soundstage. The leaves, however, look great. He finished the film around Christmas, several months behind schedule. Despite Hitchcock’s skill and determination, The Trouble With Harry was a box office failure—a rarity for him—when it was released in the United States. As John McCarten of the New Yorker noted, “Alfred Hitchcock, whose work has been going steadily downhill ever since he arrived in Hollywood, skids to preposterous depths in The Trouble With Harry. This is an over-blown joke about a corpse.” Others complained that its humor was too subtle. However, the film played for a solid year in England and Italy and a year and a half in France. In 1971 Hitchcock declared it was his favorite of all his films. He also said it contained his favorite line from all his movies. As Captain Wiles (Edmund Gwenn) is dragging Harry away, the reserved Miss Gravely (Mildred Natwick) sees him and asks, “What seems to be the trouble, Captain?”

Clockwise, from top left: A movie poster for the film. Shirley MacLaine, John Forsythe, Edmund Gwenn, and Mildred Natwick discuss what to do about Harry, who’s lying in the bathtub—dead. World premiere of The Trouble With Harry at the Paramount Theater in Barre, a two-day affair with visiting critics, remarks by the governor, and a lobster dinner. It rained for the premiere, appropriately, as it had for 17 days of the 28-day shoot in Vermont. MacLaine chats with Ernest Emerson of Morrisville and Nancy Graham of Stowe. Graham was MacLaine’s stand-in, while Emerson stood in for Jerry Mathers, who played MacLaine’s young son Arnie Rogers in the film. Robby Williams, who interviewed Hitchcock in 1954 while a 14year-old student at the Craftsbury Academy, on the Common last fall. (Glenn Callahan) A film program from The Bijou Theatre in Morrisville. Forsythe (Sam Marlowe) and Royal Dano (Calvin Wiggs) in the scene where Calvin asks about the uncanny likeness between the man in Sam’s sketch and the dead body found in the woods.

Hitchcock liked the film’s subtle wit so much he required writers who wrote the dry, devilish introductory monologues to his television show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, to study it. As he once said of the film, “Nothing amuses me so much as understatement.” Although some reviewers have described it as “lesser Hitchcock,” it has been re-released and has developed something of a cult following. Several times each summer a tourist will wander into Craftsbury’s well-kept museum and ask Anne Wilson or whomever is volunteering that day, “Wasn’t there a movie made here a long time ago?” Says Wilson, “If they’re really interested, we’ll show them the Harry memorabilia we keep in the basement. Often they go around town taking pictures of scenes that were in the film. It’s amazing that so little has changed here in 50-some years.” Although Hitchcock and his actors stayed in Stowe, there is little evidence of their visit. The Lodge has been converted to condos and as Frank Lackey remembers, “The town was excited to have movie stars here but we didn’t see much of them. Every morning all of them would head out to Morrisville and Craftsbury.” Stowe-based photographer Paul Rogers has a 35mm slide his father, a former Stowe doctor, took of Hitchcock shooting a scene at Edson Hill in Stowe. “I believe my dad treated Hitchcock and some of the crew when they were here,” says Rogers. “So he was apparently allowed on the set to watch.” Stowe artist Stan Marc Wright was commissioned to paint the pictures that were supposedly painted by Sam Marlowe, John Forsythe’s character in the movie.


Clockwise, from top left: State trooper Richard Carter in a posed gag with actor Royal Dano, 1954. “Royal Dano told me, ‘Look at me, not at the camera, when I was being filmed. Good, professional advice.” Dr. Sam Rogers, of Stowe, took this slide of Hitchcock during filming. His son, Paul, says: “Dad was a small-town doctor and amateur photographer in the fifties. Hitchcock came to Stowe to film scenes for Harry one fall, and tradition has it that both he and emerging actress Shirley MacLaine visited Dad’s office on Maple Street. Perhaps that’s why he was allowed on set up on Edson Hill. If Dad were with us, I’m sure he would have stories to tell.” Mildred Natick’s character lived in this Craftsbury Common house, shown here as a scene is being filmed. It later burned. The East Craftsbury farmhouse where MacLaine’s character lived. Gwenn and Forsythe dig up and re-bury Harry’s body. Hitchcock, with cinematographer Robert Burks, checks the shot in this studio still. Jerry Mathers encounters Harry in the woods. ©STOWE GUIDE & MAGAZINE, 2011


is picture might have bombed at the box office but what kind of reviews did the master director get from the residents of Stowe, Craftsbury, and Morrisville? Turns out they were pretty mixed too. “I heard that some people here thought he was a terrible snob and very rude,” says Craftsbury’s Anne Wilson. “Not so,” says 69-year-old Craftsbury Christmas tree farmer Robby Williams, who interviewed Hitchcock in 1954 for a school assignment while he was a 14-year-old student at the Craftsbury Academy. “He gave me as much time as I wanted and answered all my questions. He was a real gentleman.” A newspaper reporter once noted that local opinions of Hitchcock ranged from “aloof” to “friendly” and from “quiet” to “a pugnacious bulldog.” But it’s hard to argue with the plainspoken Craftsbury woman who summed up her impression of the man with just one word: “Oval.” I

Clockwise, from top left: Alfred Hitchcock, Mildred Dunnock, who played Mrs. Wiggs, the proprietress of Wiggs Emporium, and screenwriter John Michael Hayes on the steps of Wiggs Emporium, October 1954. Dunnock, Hitch, and Edmund Gwenn on set. John Forsythe and Gwenn chat in between takes in this Hollywood publicity still. Hitchcock, on location in Craftsbury Common, gives an interview to a group of Craftsbury Academy students. Local Everett Demeritt had this snapshot of actual filming; it’s the scene where Mrs. Wiggs and artist Sam Marlowe (Dunnock and Forsythe) discuss his paintings. Wiggs Emporium, the village store and post office in the film, was just a facade and dismantled after the shoot. Theron Strong and Rob Paterson, pictured, were hired to work as night watchmen on the sets.