BOOTLEG FILES 129: “Charley’s Aunt” (1957 TV romp with Art Carney and Jeanette MacDonald).
LAST SEEN: In its only broadcast, on March 28, 1957.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Only on collector-to-collector labels.
REASON FOR DISAPPEARANCE: Not much call for this one.
CHANCES OF SEEING A DVD RELEASE: Don’t bet on it.
If you are unfamiliar with the Walter Brandon Thomas comedy play “Charley’s Aunt,” it is only because you are living in the wrong century. It first appeared theatrically in London in 1892 and was in constant productions throughout the world during the first part of the 20th century. Oddly enough, there was never a genuinely satisfactory film adaptation of this work despite its being put on camera six times. The most famous versions were a 1941 adaptation with Jack Benny and the 1952 musical spin “Where’s Charley?” starring Ray Bolger. To date, none of the films were ever released on home video.
What is available, however, is a 1957 made-for-TV adaptation. Produced as part of the fabled “Playhouse 90″ television series, this version of “Charley’s Aunt” is perhaps the least faithful to the original Thomas play. Yet it is also an amusing romp with a game cast headed by Art Carney in a delightfully over-the-top performance.
“Charley’s Aunt” takes place at Oxford University, although in this version you wouldn’t know it since nearly all of the actors are Americans who speak in their native accents. Carney, playing the undergraduate Lord Fancourt Babberly, initially tries a faint British accent, but inevitably lapses into his natural New York speech patterns. But accents are the least of the problem – having a 39-year-old Carney playing an Oxford undergraduate is clearly more peculiar.
Any way, two of Babberly’s pals, Charley (Tom Tryon) and Jack (Orson Bean) are expecting a visit from their respective sweethearts. Charley and Jack want to propose marriage to the girls, but proper protocol of this Victorian setting requires the presence of a chaperone. Charley’s aunt, a British-born aristocrat who married a Brazilian nobleman and became Dona Lucia d’Alvadores, is returning to England for a visit and she is supposed to be the chaperone. But a late change in her schedule prevents her from coming.
However, the girls’ guardian, one Stephen Spettigue (Richard Haydn, the sole English actor in the cast), is present and he will not allow any interaction without the presence of a chaperone. Babberly is recruited (against his will) to put on the costume of an elderly lady from a school theatrical event and pretend to be Charley’s aunt, Dona Lucia. Needless to say, the wacky Babberly is no one’s idea of a demure and quiet old lady – his concept of Charley’s aunt is a boisterous, silly, playful gal who loves to hang out with the visiting girls.
Spettigue, however, knows something of Dona Lucia’s history – particularly the more recent history involving her becoming a millionaire widow. Jack’s father (Gene Raymond), who turns up abruptly as well, also knows this history. Thus, the two men vigorously pursue the faux-Dona Lucia with the hopes of getting “her” hand in matrimony (and their hands on her money). Naturally, who else should appear on the scene but the real Dona Lucia (Jeanette MacDonald). However, no one ever saw her before (including Charley), so she plays along with the masquerade and even helps nudge the greedy suitors closer to the phony aunt.
“Charley’s Aunt” is a typical slamming door farce where people chase each other out of rooms, across gardens and, in this case, into a lily pond (which was one of the new additions to the script, adapted by Leslie Stevens). What is remarkable with this version was that it was produced for live TV in front of a studio audience. Thus, the cast found themselves running amid several different sets at a furious pace (under the direction of a young Arthur Penn) and often risked having accidents on the air which could not be edited out since it was one-time live event.
In fact, accidents happened. At one point, the sound vanished and a frantic scene between Carney and Hadyn seemed like a pantomime. In another moment, the school’s gym coach (played by Jackie Coogan) is hit in the face with a tomato. Alas, the sound effects coordination was off and Coogan entered the room with soggy tomato on his face several seconds before a watery splat was heard on the soundtrack. Both Jeanette MacDonald and Charles Bickford (who served as the host of the program) fluffed lines, albeit with minimal disruption in either case.
As its name suggests, “Playhouse 90″ ran 90 minutes and thus the original Thomas text was trimmed to fit that tighter space (made even tighter with commercial breaks). The character of Babberly’s girlfriend Ela was eliminated (along with the subplot that involved their romance), but strangely the new character of the gym coach was put in. An anachronistic new line was also added, with MacDonald repeating the well-known closing line from the then-popular drama “Tea and Sympathy” as a tongue-in-cheek joke (“Years from now, when you speak of this – and you will – please be kind”).
“Charley’s Aunt” was not a particularly classic episode of “Playhouse 90,” which was better known for its serious original dramatic events such as “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” “The Miracle Worker” and “Judgment at Nuremberg.” But it was a major role for Art Carney, who at that point in his career was terrified of being typecast as Jackie Gleason’s sidekick. In Max Wilk’s book “The Golden Age of Television,” Carney recalls his eagerness to do as many different live TV acting gigs as possible, just to show he was more than Ed Norton:
“Anything that came along that gave me the chance to act, I grabbed at it,” said Carney. “I didn’t want to be tabbed as a second banana – a stooge, a comic – which I wasn’t. With Gleason, I was always a comic actor. But I also wanted the right to develop myself.”
The major surprise here, however, is Jeanette MacDonald. Best known as the queen of the MGM operettas with Nelson Eddy as her leading man, MacDonald showed herself to be surprising deft at light comedy. Sadly, she had few chances to present this side of her talent. (As an FYI, this was a rare appearance with MacDonald’s real husband, Gene Raymond – many people incorrectly assume MacDonald and Eddy were married.)
“Charley’s Aunt” was broadcast on March 28, 1957. Since it was a live broadcast in the days before video, it was only seen on TV that one time. However, a kinescope (a 16mm film shot off a TV monitor) was made to preserve the program. Prints of the kinescope circulated in home collector circles. The title eventually made its way to home video, where it was duped among several collector-to-collector labels. The copy I obtained also has the original commercials from the 1957 broadcast, which are often funnier than the program (especially a Marlboro cigarette offering where a hunky athlete dives into a pool and emerges to enjoy his favorite brand of cancer inducement).
As with most old-time TV kinescopes, “Charley’s Aunt” will probably not find its way into commercial DVD release. But for those interested in a mindless diversion with Art Carney in drag, it is worth digging this title out.