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The 1969 TV special "Arsenic and Old Lace" is the second TV version of this classic stage comedy; the first was televised on January 5, 1955 as an episode of "The Best of Broadway". The 1955 TV version had an excellent cast, with Boris Karloff and John Alexander repeating their Broadway roles as Jonathan and Theodore Brewster, plus Peter Lorre and Edward Everett Horton reprising their roles from Frank Capra's film version. Helen Hayes, who starred as Abby Brewster in the 1955 TV production of "Arsenic and Old Lace", repeats her role (and her half-baked performance) in this 1969 version.
A lot of bad decisions are made here. The play has been updated from the 1940s to the 1960s, which kills several topical jokes about the Roosevelts in the White House and Theodore Roosevelt's daughter Alice Longworth. Somebody decided to "open up" the action with some exterior scenes which weren't in the original play, such as when Mortimer Brewster goes to a nearby park to meet Witherspoon, the director of the Happy Dale insane asylum. Richard Deacon, usually a splendid character actor and a deft hand at comedy, gives a leaden performance as Witherspoon. The brief exterior sequences are badly photographed, in glaring sunlight.
The strangest mistake is the decision to rename Jonathan Brewster's henchman, the drunken plastic surgeon who accidentally carved up Jonathan's face to make him look like Boris Karloff. In the play and the movie (and the 1955 TV version), this character is named Herman Einstein, a name which sounds naturally funny and gets an automatic laugh when he's introduced as "Dr Einstein". But in this 1969 TV version, Jonathan's henchman has been re-named Jonas Salk (the same name as the real-life virologist who developed a vaccine for polio). Jonathan Brewster keeps introducing his henchman to the other characters as "Doctor Jonas Salk ... no relation". The line isn't funny the first time we hear it, and it's even less funny the third time. Dr Salk (formerly the Peter Lorre role) is played by Jack Gilford, a veteran character actor who's grossly miscast here: Gilford is much too sympathetic as an accomplice to a psychopathic murderer.
The best performance is Fred Gwynne's as Jonathan Brewster, the menace who goes homicidal every time someone tells him he looks like Boris Karloff. Gwynne spent his entire post-"Munsters" career trying to escape the spectre of Herman Munster, so I'm surprised that he took the role of Jonathan Brewster, with its obvious Herman Munster overtones. Do the maths: Jonathan Brewster = Boris Karloff = Frankenstein's monster = Herman Munster.
David Wayne, cast as Teddy Brewster (the lunatic who thinks he's Theodore Roosevelt) is too manic: Wayne seems to be playing a sane man PRETENDING to be crazy, whereas Teddy Brewster is a lunatic who seems outwardly normal. Also, David Wayne (unlike his predecessor John Alexander) doesn't look like Theodore Roosevelt, and this is fatal to his performance.
Bob Crane (formerly of "Hogan's Heroes") gives a competent performance as Mortimer Brewster, the only sane member of the family ... but his casting throws a chill across this production, for ironic reasons. During the climax of the story, when Mortimer is bound and gagged while Jonathan and Doctor Salk discuss the best way to kill him, modern viewers can't help recalling that (several years after this TV special was filmed) the actor Bob Crane was found murdered, his corpse bound with electrical flex. This is one of those scenes that's creepy for the wrong reason, like the moment in "Monkey Business" when Groucho Marx threatens to lock Thelma Todd in the garage. (Three years later, Todd was murdered in her garage.)
I can't think of any reason to recommend this version of "Arsenic and Old Lace". There are some good actors here, but they've all given better performances elsewhere. Skip this TV version and watch the Capra movie instead. The Capra movie has its own flaws, but overall it's superior to this production.
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