“The Cream of the Jest” was broadcast on March 10, 1957, as the first Fredric Brown adaptation to appear on the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV series. It has the distinction of having been published under three different titles. It first appeared as “Last Curtain” in the July 1949 issue of the pulp, New Detective. It was reprinted in the July 1956 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine as “The Cream of the Jest.” The next reprint came in the collection, Ellery Queen’s 1962 Anthology, as “Good Night, Good Knight.” Finally, Brown collected it in his 1963 volume, The Shaggy Dog and Other Murders, as “Good Night, Good Knight.”
In the story’s first scene, as Gresham converses with Mac, the bartender, he quotes Fitzgerald’s The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (“Ah, with the Grape my failing life provide”) and makes a pun at his own expense (“They sneer at me from leaning all awry”), noting that he is a ham actor and thus would be “Ham awry” (or ham on rye). The quotations and pun are meaningless to Mac, showing that Gresham is an educated and literate man who has fallen on hard times.
In the second scene, when Gresham begs Campbell for a part in his play, he recites Macbeth’s “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” speech from act five, scene five of Shakespeare’s Scottish play. Here, the speech is simply an opportunity for Gresham to show his acting skill, as he takes on the character of the murderous king who has just learned of his wife’s suicide. However, at the end of the story, when Gresham realizes he is about to be killed, he recites the speech again, with greater meaning, as he says “Out, out, brief candle,” and the candle about to be extinguished is himself.
Finally, in the scene where Gresham auditions for Campbell, the playwright answers with a quotation of his own, this time from Hamlet: “Speak the speech . . . trippingly on the tongue.” This quotation is from act three, scene two, and in the play it is spoken by Hamlet to the players who are about to act out a pantomime show for the new king. Hamlet has prepared a play that mimics the king’s recent murder of his father in order to catch “the conscience of the king”—he thinks that when the murderer sees his recent crime acted out he will react. In Brown’s story, neither Gresham nor the reader realize it at the time, but Campbell’s speech has been prepared for Gresham in order to reveal a real crime and cause his death.
“Last Curtain” was an unusual story for a detective pulp in 1949, with its use of literary quotations and its layers of meaning. It is likely that the producer of Alfred Hitchcock Presents came across it in the 1956 reprint in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and purchased the rights for the TV show. The adaptation follows the story closely while adding a few elements to lengthen it for a half-hour slot. While the characters are the same, the TV version has Gresham come up with the idea of blackmailing Campbell on the spot after Campbell refuses to cast him in the new play. Gresham pleads, “I’m only real when I’m acting. The rest of the time I’m nothing.”
Gresham reminds Campbell that they both come from the tough part of Philadelphia, and he threatens to reveal Campbell’s stint in jail for embezzling from a bank. These details add depth to the story without taking anything away from its effect. The other big change is that, at the end, Gresham forces his way into Corianos’s office in costume and in character and recites the blackmailer’s speech from the play. Corianos does not know he is an actor and shoots him on the spot. This is a bit more far-fetched than the way it is done in the story, where Corianos knows Gresham is an actor there to audition for a part. As Gresham dies, he recites “To be or not to be” from Hamlet, a good choice for a dying man but not as good as the speech from Macbeth in the story.
The TV show adds a further twist ending, as Corianos finds a sheet of paper with the speech typed out on Campbell’s letterhead. We are left with the impression that Campbell will be his next victim.
“The Cream of the Jest” was adapted by Sarett Rudley, who penned nine episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and directed by Herschel Daugherty, whose atmospheric work was seen in 24 episodes of the series, as well as on 16 episodes of Thriller. Starring as Gresham was Claude Rains, whose long and impressive career included memorable roles in The Invisible Man, Notorious, Casablanca, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. James Gregory played Campbell, and his gravelly voice enlivened countless TV shows for decades, including episodes of just about every fantasy and crime show from The Twilight Zone to The Wild, Wild West. Jerry the bartender was played by Johnny Silver, an actor who never seemed to get a big part but who seemed to pop up regularly on TV, including on five episodes of The Odd Couple.
“The Cream of the Jest” can be seen on Hulu and is included in Universal’s DVD set of season two of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It was a popular episode of the series, as demonstrated by its being among the few reruns in the summer of 1957 and again in the summer of 1959.
I also want to point out how impressive the July 1956 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine is! In addition to “The Cream of the Jest,” it includes “The Destructors” by Graham Greene, “The Double Clue” by Agatha Christie, “The Flaw in the System” by Jim Thompson, and “Snowball in July” by Ellery Queen. The magazine also seems to have incorporated Black Mask, and a section in the middle includes two hardboiled stories for fans of the classic pulp! This is a digest well worth seeking out! (EQMM ran "Black Mask" stories from May 1953 through March 1958 after acquiring the trademark when the legendary pulp went belly-up in 1951. There were grand plans for the title according to the editor but nothing special seems to have come from it other than some choice reprints and, later in the run, some original stories done "the Black Mask way." Though the BM stories vanished with the March 1958 issue, the words "including Black Mask" remained on the contents page for years after. The gimmick was revived in the January 2008 issue-PE)
Brown, Fredric. "The Cream of the Jest." Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine July 1956: 101-09.
"The Cream of the Jest." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Season Two. Universal Studios Home Entertainment, 2006. DVD.
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Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001.
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Khayyam, Omar, and Edward FitzGerald. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. New York: Dover Publications, 1990.
Seabrook, Jack. Martians and Misplaced Clues: the Life and Work of Fredric Brown. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular, 1993.
Shakespeare, William, and G. Blakemore Evans. The Riverside Shakespeare. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974.