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Playhouse 90
March 28, 1957
From the classic play by Brandon Thomas
Adapted by Leslie Stevens
B&W, 82 minutes including vintage commercials
Produced by Martin Manulis
Directed by Arthur Penn

Art Carney (Lord Fancourt Babberly)
Orson Bean (Jack Chesney)
Richard Haydn (Stephen Spettigue)
Tom Tryon (Charlie Wyckham)
Venecia Stevenson (Amy Spettigue)
Jackie Coogan (Coach Sanderford)
Melville Cooper (Brassett, the valet)
Sue Randall (Kitty Verdun)

Special guests:
Jeanette MacDonald (Donna Lucia d’Alvadores)
Gene Raymond (Colonel Sir Francis Chesney)
Charles Bickford (Host Announcer)
The Ralph Brewster Singers (Bob Stevens, Gene Lanham, Chuck Schrouder, Clark Yokum, Mack McLean, Alan Davies, Lee Gotch) sing “Oxford Will Shine Tonight” and “Where Has Your Highland Laddy Gone?”

Unseen since it’s original 1957 broadcast, this TV version of the 1892 British comedy classic is now available (12/00) on commercial video. The role of Fancourt Babberly who is tricked into masquerading as Charley’s Aunt has been played in film by Charlie Ruggles (1930) and Jack Benny (1941), and made into a popular stage and film musical Where’s Charley? which starred Ray Bolger. (It’s hit song was “Once in Love with Amy.”)

Jeanette plays Charley’s real aunt, Donna Lucia (“from Brazil — where the nuts come from”). Charley (Tom Tryon) and his chum Jack (Orson Bean) are Oxford students eagerly awaiting the arrival of Charley’s aunt so she can chaperone them while they propose to their very proper sweethearts. However, Charley’s aunt sends word she isn’t coming — just as their fellow student Fancourt Babberly, called various “Babbs” or “Fanny” (Art Carney), receives delivery of the old lady costume he is to wear in an amateur theatrical. Babbs is forced to masquerade as the widowed millionairess, attracting proposals of marriage from fortune hunters including Jack’s reluctant but impoverished father, Lord Chesney (Gene Raymond)

Jeanette doesn’t appear until an hour into the production. (This is true of all of all versions of the play — Babb’s impersonation is well established when the real aunt appears to further complicate the plot.) This TV version follows the matings of the original play, so Donna Lucia (Jeanette) ends up with Lord Chesney (Gene, her real-life husband). A variation in this script is that they had once been sweethearts, but he was posted to India. (In the 1941 film version, Jack Benny, as the fake aunt, ends up with the real aunt, Kay Francis!)

Sadly, although the Ralph Brewster Singers provide background music throughout the production, Jeanette doesn’t sing a note. Surely a brief flirtation involving a piano might have been introduced into the fast-paced hijinks? She does, however, get to satirize a then-much-quoted line from Tea and Sympathy: “Years from now when you speak of this — and you will — please be kind.”

A major feature of these early live television plays that today’s audiences either love or hate is their energy, tension, and raw immediacy. No chance for retakes. This is it! Everything is happening in “real time,” with the cameras gliding from set to set and the actors trying to be in place when the moment comes. There are fluffed lines, awkward moves, and even one brief scene where a microphone fails to operate so that we can hear the sound effects and audience laughter, but nothing coming from the actors’ moving lips. What agony the production crew must have been going through!

Jeanette actually fluffs a difficult line, but her long theatrical experience lets her cover up smoothly. Of course, the number of Oxford students and British lords who have American accents is just amazing.

Another feature that you will find either enchanting or disruptive (or both) are the commercials. There’s a strong artistic case for including them because this is how audiences actually saw the play. And some of them are gems. The Marlboro Man commercial is darkly poignant, equating cigarette smoking with athleticism. A deliciously naive Singer commercial recalls a time when one could buy a sewing machine for less than $100 and expect free sewing classes and a Singer truck arriving at your door to repair it! However, the charm of these period commercials wears thin toward the end. Rather than having a few interruptions with many commercials as is done today, single commercials are spotted every few minutes throughout the play!

All in all, this is a must-have for fans of Jeanette and her husband Gene Raymond. (See the Bulletin Board for viewer comments.)

OTHER VERSIONS: This Brandon Thomas play has been popular since it first opened at the Theatre Royal, London, on February 29, 1892. It is still being performed regularly by regional and amateur theatres. It has been filmed at least six times: a 1915 silent; a 1925 silent starring Syd Chaplin, brother of Charlie Chaplin; a 1930 sound film starring American Charlie Ruggles; a 1940 U.K. spoof called Charley’s Big-Hearted Aunt with Arthur Askey, a 1941 U.S. version with Jack Benny, and a 1952 U.K. musical film version of the Broadway hit, Where’s Charley? with Ray Bolger.