25 June 2002 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Karloff owns this role
"The Best of Broadway" was a short-lived anthology series, in which well-known actors performed live versions of popular Broadway dramas and comedies. This series was in colour at a time when most American TV shows (and all British ones) were in black and white. Each episode was an hour long (including credits and commercials), so any full-length play was necessarily subjected to drastic cutting. The format favoured one-set comedies and light dramas with small casts.
The January 5, 1955 episode of "The Best of Broadway" was a potted version of the 1940s comedy "Arsenic and Old Lace". Although drastically cut down, this episode is vitally important because it stars Boris Karloff in his Broadway role as Jonathan Brewster, the homicidal maniac who is a lookalike for Boris Karloff. The 1944 movie version of "Arsenic and Old Lace" (directed by Frank Capra) was filmed in Hollywood during the play's original Broadway run; Capra managed to borrow several of the Broadway cast members (who were understudied on Broadway during the film's shooting schedule), but he was unable to obtain Karloff ... the actor whose name on the marquee sold tickets. This kinescope of "The Best of Broadway", filmed more than ten years after his Broadway run, was Karloff's only chance to preserve his performance.
Unfortunately, by 1955 Karloff was too old to play Jonathan Brewster.
He's supposed to be playing a menace, but by this time in his career he's too heavy and sedate for monster roles. Still, Karloff *OWNS* the role of Jonathan Brewster. Jonathan is a hair-trigger psychotic who looks like Boris Karloff, and who goes homicidal whenever anybody mentions the resemblance ... so the *REAL* Karloff adds a layer of significance to this role which no other actor could possibly match.
In this same production, Mortimer Brewster is played by Orson Bean: he's good in the role, but the age discrepancy between Bean and Karloff is fatal. Mortimer and Jonathan are supposed to be brothers (or at least stepbrothers), but Karloff is old enough to be Bean's father.
Two actors in this production repeat their roles from the movie version: Peter Lorre is excellent as Doctor Einstein, and he clearly relishes this chance to work with Karloff. Edward Everett Horton is slightly less effective as Witherspoon, the director of the Happy Dale insane asylum.
In this production, the two dotty old aunts are played by Helen Hayes (Aunt Abby) and Billie Burke (Aunt Martha). Hayes would repeat her role in 1969, in a full-length TV production of this play. Billie Burke (an extremely annoying actress) does the same fluttery scatterbrained routine here which she used in most of her film roles.
This production of "Arsenic and Old Lace" features very static camera-work, typical for 1950s television. The colour photography is surprisingly good, but "Arsenic and Old Lace" is a story that really works better in shades of grey.
I met Orson Bean in the 1970s, when he and I were both living in Australia, and he arranged for me to view a kinescope of this version of "Arsenic and Old Lace". I hope that it becomes more widely available.
It's a shame that Karloff wasn't able to preserve his performance in the 1944 movie version of "Arsenic and Old Lace", when he was still young enough to bring some genuine menace to the role.