Alfred Hitchcock Presents
Series 2, Episode 24

   Herschel Daugherty
   Sarett Rudley (teleplay); Fredric Brown (story)
   Claude Rains, James Gregory
   10 March 1957
   24:50 (total) • 22:17 (film) • 1:23 (Hitchcock)

The Cream Of The Jest
Charles Gresham (Claude Rains) is an actor down on his luck after failing to land a role in a play. He enters a bar to get a drink but the bartender refuses to serve him anything other than water on account of Charles' already outstanding bar tab. After finding a newspaper on the floor he reads that Wayne Campbell, a playwright and former employer of his is hiring actors for a new play and so Charles heads off to his office to speak to him about it. Wayne remembers Charles as an unreliable drunk whom he hired previously only because Charles needed the money but refuses to have anything more to do with him despite Charles' pleas.
However, in a twist turn Charles turns to blackmail by reminding Wayne that the two of them have known each other for some time and that he knows how Wayne became successful through embezzlement after he stole $5,000 from the bank where he worked as a clerk. When Wayne's wife telephones the office to remind him of their dinner engagement Wayne promptly leaves and throws down a $20 bill for Charles in disgust.
Charles is next seen back in the bar drunk and reciting Shakespeare, with his bar tab seemingly settled. Wayne walks in just as Charles falls down drunk on the floor and later takes him back to his office to let Charles sleep it off. When there Wayne apologises for rejecting Charles and acknowledges why Charles resorted to blackmailing him and offers him a part in the new play.
The next morning Wayne brings Charles some coffee in the office and tells him that the new play coming up has two unfilled roles: one is a mere walk-on part but the other part is, ironically enough that of a blackmailer. Charles seems interested in the bigger part but Wayne tries to convince him that he is not suited for the role and he should consider the cameo instead.
Charles takes a look at the script and it is revealed that his character gets killed at the end of the first act. (This should be a clue as to where this episode is heading....) Wayne tells Charles that the play is being financed by a local mobster named Nick Roper and in order to win the part Charles should go and see him and perform his lines in front of him. Charles, excited at being given the opportunity to work again does just that and arrives at The Blue Flamingo club in character and after barging his way into Roper's office starts reading his lines. But there is an important element of the script Wayne has neglected to mention to Charles....

•This was the second episode in which Claude Rains starred (the first was "And So Died Riabouchinska". He would later star in three more between 1959-1962. He was 68 years old in this episode and looks great.
•Given that Charles tries to blackmail his former boss Wayne in the story, Wayne tells him that it would be "the cream of the jest" if Charles took on the part of the blackmailer in the new play he is intending to play in.
•When Wayne gives Charles the cup of coffee in his office, was I the only one wondering whether or not it was poisoned?
•The Blue Flamingo club is where Charles meets his end.
•Mrs. Campbell's character, allegedly played by Carol Shannon is billed but not seen in the episode. Not unless that is her photo on the board outside The Blue Flamingo club at the end?
•In Hitchcock's 1946 film "Notorious" there is a line of dialogue referring to Ingrid Bergman's character wanting to marry Claude Rains' character in order to infiltrate him and his associates where the agent remarks that it would be "the cream of the jest" for her to do so. Claude Rains features in this televsion episode as well.
[Hitch is standing by a book case and takes a book from the shelf] "Good evening. I understand that it is fashionable to introduce television plays from a library and so I thought I would preface tonight's play, 'The Cream Of The Jest', in this way. 'The Cream Of The Jest' is a play about the theatrical business. [Hitch walks over to a table where three elderly people are sitting quietly and reading books. Above his head there is a sign which says 'Silence'. They readers summon him to be quiet. Hitch lowers his voice and continues...] And it has, as its central character, a fading actor named Charles Hanniver Gresham. Our play will... [Hitch is shushed again by the readers at the table. Hitch pauses, then begins talking loudly and quickly before taking a seat] Our play begins in just one moment!"

[Hitch is sitting at a table reading a book] "Well there's no use taking that book home with us. Now that we've finished it. {He gets up and grabs his jacket from a coat hook and tries to put it on] By the way in case you were interested the police learned of Wayne Campbell's connection with tonight's crime. I can't understand why this coat doesn't even fit, I just bought it. There seems to be a message stitched inside: 'Occupancy by more than one person contrary to law'. Well no wonder. Next time we shall return with another story. Join us then. Good night."

The script for the new play Wayne has written was designed to deliberately get Charles off his back and to stop the blackmailing. Wayne writes the script in such a way that when he sends Charles to perform his part live in front of a local mobster whom Wayne falsely tells him is backing the project, the mobster, who would be completely oblivious to any such script will silence Charles once and for all when he perceives Charles' performance as a genuine and real threat to him. It works. Very clever indeed.

Very cleverly written story and well acted performance by the bankable Claude Rains as the guy who gets his comeuppance after he tries to blackmail his former employer. There is suspicion about Wayne's character when he suddenly turns from being unhelpful into being overly caring about halfway through. But in general I found this to be a strong episode, one of the best from this series in fact; helped immensely by the clever twist ending.
Claude Rains was a lovely actor, and here he's playing a lovely actor. The Invisible Man plays the Inebriated Man. Mr. Rains wasn't very tall and he wasn't especially good-looking, but he was a Star, and this episode is definitely a Star Turn. Occasionally this series throws us genuine delights, and there are few things more radiant than Mr. Rains' drunken rendition of Macbeth's "tomorrow" speech, from Act 5, when Macbeth has been informed that his wife is dead, and he knows all is lost. Mr. Rains' character, Charles Gresham, is a washed-up, alcoholic actor, and his performance of the speech - which really applies to himself - is heartbreaking but also triumphant, giving us a glimpse of past glories that have been washed away in a sea of booze. It takes a great actor to play a great actor, even a drunken one. We're in Sardi's, with all the caricatures on the walls, and the bartender is Johnny Silver from Guys and Dolls, so this is New York. Mr. Rains may be playing a drunken actor, but he's not an obnoxious, vomitting fighter. We feel for this man. Even when he's at the point of collapse, he has dignity. He's kind-hearted, a quality which terminally undermines his attempt at blackmail. He's also doomed. This we know - but we don't know how. There's a double twist here, and the first one is so obvious that it hits us like a truck, eighteen minutes in. Mr. Rains is so innocent and trusting, and the playwright he's attempting to blackmail is such a piece of work, that we KNOW the "speech from the play" that he's been sent to recite as his audition piece will end up with him being shot. But this is all so unlikely. Surely Mr. Rains would introduce himself first, as an actor auditioning for the part, instead of launching into the memorised speech. That was obvious and a tad disappointing, but the episode redeemed itself with another excellent twist right at the end. It was a sad but inevitable ending for Mr. Rains, but justice was done. Ironically the "worst" part of Mr. Rains' performance - and we know this was deliberate - was his attempt to be the tough guy reciting the blackmailer's speech. Mr. Rains had played baddies before (he was in Notorious), and a "Claude Rains" blackmailer would use softly-spoken charm, all smiles and insinuation with an undercurrent of menace. "Charles Gresham", bless him, tries to come across like Humphrey Bogart. It's a great actor giving a great performance of a bad performance ! With anybody else in the leading role, this would still have been a very good episode. Mr. Rains made it a classic. And they avoided the poison in the coffee.

(click any image to enlarge)

Charles Gresham... CLAUDE RAINS
Wayne Campbell... JAMES GREGORY
Nick Roper... PAUL PICERNI
Jerry the bartender... JOHNNY SILVER
Mrs. Campbell... CAROL SHANNON [unseen]

(click any image to enlarge)

Acknowledgements: [IMDb]

This page was last updated on: 14 August 2020