Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Johnny California: ARSENIC AND OLD LACE

 by JB

I remember reading about this in Frank Capra’s autobiography The Name Above the Title when I was in 8th grade!

Just in time for Halloween, the Criterion Collection comes through with this sweet confection of spooky goodness. Arsenic and Old Lace was even more fun on my most recent viewing; I don’t think I’ve seen this old chestnut for two or three decades. I remember it played on television a lot when I was just a kid. Of course, I’m so old that I fondly remember PBS actually playing silent films with some regularity. There’s currently a handful of silent films on HBO Max; I should count my blessings.

A small handful.
I was a precocious child, and my 8th grade math teacher gave me a gift I will always treasure: Frank Capra’s autobiography. This elephantine volume was one of my gateway drugs into the world of film. I distinctly remember the chapter on Arsenic and Old Lace. Capra agreed to direct the property, which was then an enormous hit on Broadway, for Warner Brothers, which had paid $175,000 for the film rights. (The film was shot during the play’s Broadway run, but the producers placed a codicil in the film contract that the movie could not be released until the play finished its run. The play ran for three and half years, actually switching theaters three times!)

Three of the play’s stars—Josephine Hull, Mary Adair, and John Alexander—were given eight weeks leave to fly to Hollywood and make the film, so Capra needed to shoot fast. An enormous set was built inside a soundstage. The set encompassed the Brewster house, its backyard, the neighbor’s house, an adjacent cemetery, and a moving miniature “El” train. This set even featured a very detailed, 3-D backdrop of the Brooklyn bridge. Capra needed to be able to control all aspects of the sets and lighting if he was going to shoot so fast.

One unfortunate casualty of the “make the film while the play was still onstage” strategy was that Boris Karloff, star of the Broadway production, stayed in New York and continued to perform in the play while his costars were making the movie. Because he owned a piece of the play, he didn’t want the box office receipts to dip if he (a major draw) also took eight weeks off. I would have loved to see Boris Karloff in the role that was virtually written for him. Karloff played crazy criminal Jonathan Brewster, who attempts to elude the police through plastic surgery. When his partner in crime, the alcoholic Dr. Einstein, botches the surgery, Jonathan goes through the play moaning, “He made me look like Boris Karloff!”
I place getting to see Karloff playing Jonathan in the original company of Arsenic and Old Lace on my “Time Machine Wish List” right next to seeing Karloff playing Captain Hook in the original Broadway cast of Peter Pan. In the movie version, Jonathan Brewster is played by Raymond Massey wearing suitably Karloffian makeup.

The Plot in Brief: Broadway critic Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) literally marries the girl next door, Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane), even though he has been a vocal opponent of marriage his entire life. He visits the home of the two beloved aunts who raised him, Martha and Abby Brewster (Jean Adair and Josephine Hull), to tell them the happy news. The aunts live with Mortimer’s brother Teddy, who is under the delusion that he is Teddy Roosevelt and that he’s digging the Panama Canal in the basement.

When Mortimer learns that his father’s sisters have a new way to “help” the lonely old men who come to rent a room, hilarious hijinks ensue. Later, the third Brewster brother, Jonathan (Raymond Massey) returns home with his own baggage as well as his alcoholic personal plastic surgeon, Dr. Herman Einstein (Peter Lorre). Mortimer must sort out the chaos in his childhood home and find some way out of his hours-old marriage—he decides that, if he shares a bloodline with the crazies around him, it won’t be long before he cracks as well.

Arsenic and Old Lace contains one of the funniest and most durable farce plotlines in entertainment history. Although I shudder to think what some community theater groups and high school drama clubs have done to the material, the cast of the 1944 Capra film is more than up to the challenge. In later years, Cary Grant would decry his hysterical overacting in the film (Capra planned on reshoots to take Grant’s performance down a notch, but these were cancelled when Capra joined the Army after the attack on Pearl Harbor.)
I like Cary Grant’s performance and it fits the general tone of the film. The character of Mortimer is of course the audience’s surrogate… and who knows how some of us would react to some of the hair-raising shenanigans in the film?

I wonder too, if Capra tacitly approved of Grant’s histrionics because they provide a nice ironic edge to the film’s dark subject matter. The film’s three biggest transgressors (Martha, Abby, and Jonathan) all downplay their roles and are outwardly unflappable. The innocent Mortimer, on the other hand, is a screaming flibbertigibbet from start to finish. It’s a nice twist that subtly comments on how some murderers really do get away with it...

The new Criterion disc looks superb with great contrast and black levels; it was created from a 4K scan of the film’s original nitrate negative. I love how the film takes place on Halloween; contains a scene with 1940s-era (era) trick-or-treaters; and uses wind, blowing leaves, music, and lighting to create some of its creepiest effects. Max Steiner’s score is wonderfully effective and full of musical in-jokes. Director of Photography Sol Polito pulls out all the stops, making the creepy house and its creepy inhabitants even more creepy because of the way they are filmed. Kudos go out to Art Director Max Parker as well. It seems at times as if the Brewster House is one of the cinematic precursors to Disney’s Haunted Mansion.
THIS JUST IN: I just learned that a television version of Arsenic and Old Lace, presented in 1962, actually featured Boris Karloff in the role he originated—the psychopathic Jonathan Brewster! Tony Randall took the Cary Grant role, Dorothy Stickney and Mildred Natwick played Abby and Martha, George Voskovic from the original Twelve Angry Men plays Dr. Einstein, and Tom Bosley (Howard Cunningham on ABC-TV’s Happy Days) played Teddy Brewster. AND IT’S AVAILABLE TO STREAM ON THE YOUTUBE MACHINE:

Happy Halloween. Cheers. Have some wine?

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