Right now in my free time, I am working on a play called, “This Actually Happened to my Sister’s Best Friend’s Cousin.” I generally refer to it simply as, “The folklore play.” It is structured around a couple in a parked car where he is telling her “ghost stories” he has learned in folklore class. One of those stories is the Vanishing Hitchhiker.
There are endless versions of it but it always has the same elements: the narrator picks up a hitchhiker. At some point, the hitchhiker vanishes. In trying to find them, the narrator finds that the hitchhiker was a ghost. In the play, I use the version where the hitchhiker leaves behind a book. The narrator takes it to the house where the hitchhiker claimed to be going. Once there, he meets the hitchhiker’s father who take the book and returns it to the open slot in a book shelf.
It’s a perfect story. Folklore tends to be that way because it gets refined in the millions of tellings of it. So it isn’t surprising that many writers have grabbed onto it. I’m personally interested in it as folklore in my work. Just the same, having first heard the story when I was perhaps only eight, having heard and read it numerous times in numerous forms since, and having worked with it, I still get chills when I think about it. It’s wonderfully spooky.
Return to Glennascaul
It occurred to me the other day that years ago I had seen a short film with Orson Welles that involved the Vanishing Hitchhiker. So I went looking and I found it, Return to Glennascaul. Before I present it, I want to note that it is produced by Micheál MacLiammóir and written & directed by Hilton Edwards. Most people don’t know them, but they are legends. They founded the Gate Theatre in Dublin, and ran it their whole lives. They are, however, best know for giving Welles his first professional acting work.
Before I discuss it, it is worth watching. It’s just 22 minutes long.
As cinema, it isn’t great. I assume that Hilton Edwards was a great theater director. The success of the Gate Theatre would indicate this. And the film is shot very much the way that someone who thinks in terms of the theater would shoot it. It’s almost all medium-long shots. And it bugs me! The film would be so much more engaging with some close-ups. Also, the editing wouldn’t be so stilted. The film was made in 1951, and it looks hardly more advanced than D W Griffith’s 1911 short, What Shall We Do with Our Old?
Just the same, it is really engaging. There are a number of reasons for this. One is that Hilton gets good performances out of his actors. Another is that the base material is irresistible. But perhaps most of all, Hilton’s screenplay is wonderful. Let me mention a few things that I think are clever.
Return to Glennascaul is a double version of the Vanishing Hitchhiker. Hilton manages this by making it a double frame story: Orson Welles tells the story of picking up a hitchhiker who tells him the vanishing hitchhiker story. The story is also highly meta. Orson Welles is supposedly Orson Welles. This allows for two rather good jokes — especially the ending. And it is the ending that really does cap the story and send the viewer off in exactly the right frame of mind.
I’m pleased to find Return to Glennascaul again. It certainly isn’t a great film. But it is a most enjoyable one — and a fine take on the Vanishing Hitchhiker.