In the summer of 1956, Flannery O’Connor and her mother Regina got a fancy new refrigerator—“the kind that spits ice cubes at you, the trays shoot out and hit you in the stomach, and if you step on a certain button, the whole thing glides from the wall and knocks you down.” They paid for it with the proceeds from the sale of the television rights to “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.”

At first O’Connor heard that Mr. Shiftlet was to be played by Ronald Reagan, but Gene Kelley ended up playing the part. Kelley described the story as “a kind of hillbilly thing in which I play a guy who befriends [emphasis O’Connor’s] a deaf-mute girl in the hills of Kentucky. It gives me a chance to do some straight acting, something I really have no opportunity to do in movies.”

O’Connor was confident that the television people would butcher her story. “Mr. Shiftlet and the idiot daughter will no doubt go off in a Chrysler and live happily ever after. Anyway…while they make hash out of my story, [Regina] and me will make ice in the new refrigerator.”

The show aired on March 1, 1957. The O’Connors did not have a television, so they went to Regina’s sister’s house to watch with the college librarian and a few other friends from Milledgeville. O’Connor reported that she was “not overcome with [Gene Kelley’s] acting powers… The best I can say for it is that conceivably it could have been worse. Just conceivably.”

But the play itself wasn’t nearly as hard to swallow as the reaction of the townspeople. “They feel that I have arrived at last,” she complained. “they are willing to forget that the original story was not as good as the television play. Children now point to me on the street. It’s mighty disheartening.”

When she heard a rumor (surely tongue-in-cheek) that somebody had contacted Rodgers and Hammerstein about a musical adaptation of “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” O’Connor contributed some lyrics:

The life you save may be your own
Hand me that there tellyphone
Hideho and hip hooray
I am in this thang for pay.

  • Janna
    5:56 PM, 13 June 2012

    Please tell me there will be nothing more said against Mr. Kelley on this website today. Not sure my heart can handle it. Have you seen this  tv version, JR?

    • Jonathan Rogers
      7:01 PM, 13 June 2012

      Janna, the last thing I want is for my blog to join the legion of anti-Gene Kelley blogs out there. We all have the highest respect for Gene Kelley here at But don’t you agree that it’s funny to think about Gene Kelley being cast as Mr. Shiftlet?
      I haven’t seen this production, though I did run across somebody (online) who had a VHS tape of it.

      • Rebecca Reynolds
        4:43 PM, 14 June 2012

        1. Gene Kelly is hot. 2. Now I’m all giggling, mentally stuffing him into movie roles that don’t fit.

      • Loren Warnemuende
        7:53 PM, 14 June 2012

        Yeh, I have to agree with Becca. I can’t see Gene Kelly as Mr. Shiftlet.
        But what I want to know is did they give the movie the Hollywood happily-ever-after O’Connor feared? I can believe it, but that would definitely be a tragedy!

  • Amy L
    4:04 PM, 15 June 2012

    IMDB has a link to a review from “The Modesto Bee,” on a google news/images archive:,101853&dq=janice-rule&hl=en
    “Gene plays an easygoing tramp who comes upon a pretty and innocent deaf mute.  Her mother thinks the tramp might make the girl a good husband and tries to talk him into it.  Some of this is rather touching and Gene Kelly is . . . well, Gene Kelly – which is good enough.”

    I certainly did not come away from the story thinking, “that was rather touching.”  Unless you mean “touching” the way O’Connor just described those ice cube trays hitting her in the gut.

    I’d guess that leaving a beautiful handicapped girl in a diner on the highway was too dark for TV in 1957.  And Gene Kelly can’t play the jerk.

  • yankeegospelgirl
    9:22 PM, 15 June 2012

    I always thought Gene Kelly was an untrustworthy-looking sort of chap. It’s that toothy smile. “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!”

  • Bailey Boy
    6:12 PM, 18 June 2012

    Sorry if someone’s already mentioned this. 
    O’Connor’s essay, “Writing Short Stories,” included in Mystery and Manners, gives more detail about the changes to the story in the TV version:
    “Not long ago [“The Life You Save May Be Your Own”] was adapted for a television play, and the adapter, knowing his business, had the tramp have a change of heart and go back and pick up the idiot daughter and the two of them ride away, grinning madly….When you write a story, you only have to write one story, but there will always be people who will refuse to read the story you have written.”

    • Jonathan Rogers
      6:42 PM, 18 June 2012

      Thanks, Bailey Boy. Nobody had mentioned that. I almost wore out Habit of Being looking for that quotation, though. I thought I had dreamed it. It’s in Mystery and Manners…of course.
      P.S. I like your parrot shirt.

      • Bailey Boy
        7:09 PM, 18 June 2012

        Would you kill me for it?

      • Bailey Boy
        9:23 PM, 18 June 2012

        Or do you prefer to go shirtless, wearing jeans that are too tight for you?

    • Mr. Choo Choo
      4:52 AM, 14 January 2013

      She told Joel Wells in May 1962, “I didn’t recognize the television version. Gene Kelly played Mr. Shiftlet and for the idiot daughter they got some young actress who had just been voted one of the ten most beautiful women in the world, and they changed the ending just a bit by having Shiftlet suddenly get a conscience and come back for the girl.”
      Found on page 90 of “Conversations with Flannery O’Connor”.

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