Friday, 6 October 2017
ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (1944)
With the phenomenal success enjoyed by Boris Karloff in his early Forties theatrical tour of Arsenic and Old Lace, it was only a matter of time before Joseph Kesselring’s farcical black comedy was transferred to the silver screen. It was an ideal prospective film property - containing a fairly small cast (all of whose vivid characters have priceless moments even in the smallest support roles), a central part perfect for the light, comedic leading man talents of a movie star – and a funny script chock-full of quotable one-liners and inoffensive chills, which made it a virtual sure-fire hit all over again if a director with the right sensibility was attached. All of these elements came together beautifully in a classic Hollywood comedy but it was not achieved without a little hardship and disappointment along the way.
Although the film wasn’t released until September 1944 it was actually shot back in late 1941 under acclaimed comedy maestro Frank Capra and then shelved. Capra had to get top-lining movie star Cary Grant when his busy schedule allowed, but the delay was a contractual obligation agreed to by Warner Brothers so that producers Russel Crouse and Howard Lindsay could maximise the returns from their Broadway smash-hit run first.
The main premise irresistibly subverts the established horror conventions. Audiences had seen all too many mad scientists and serial killers played to a physical type as obviously bat-shit crazy cavaderous medicos, wild-eyed grizzled lunatics from the gutter or slightly subtler monsters of cold clinical reserve. Arsenic and Old Lace gleefully panders to that (casting Karloff on stage for his grisly genre marquee recognition) yet brilliantly offers an altogether sweeter, more sympathetic idea of killing.
Between the two World Wars, English literary audiences had already been seduced by a new-wave genteel art to murder, with lady and gentleman amateur detectives like Miss Marple and Lord Peter Wimsey sleuthing their way through the twee teacups and libraries of the British upper classes as if playing a jolly sport. Kesselring presented playgoers with the premise of what you found that a known pair of colluding killers of that caste were your dear, refined old maiden aunties? More beguiling still, what if their motives were solely altruistic, bestowing guest-house kindness upon lonely old men before painlessly poisoning them into a better place? Involuntary euthanasia, if you will.
This is the dilemma facing Mortimer Brewster, opinionated drama critic and an equally outspoken enemy of matrimony who is also fleeing mild public retribution for suddenly getting hitched. On a flying visit to celebrate with his aunties he is plunged straight into this nightmare discovery that Martha and Abby have been killing with kindness, and so far twelve bodies of their saintly handiwork have been buried in the basement by their insane brother who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt. As if that isn’t enough to worry about, Mortimer’s brother Jonathan drops in, a much more evil homicidal maniac accompanied by his sinister friend ‘Dr’ Einstein, with the latest from their own body-count to dispose of. In a mounting mortuary pressure-cooker, Mortimer attempts to convince the ladies to stop their activity, conceal their murders from the police and his bride, whilst also fending off the macabre blackmailing advances of his deadly sibling.
Whilst the spinster sweeties turned potential horror into laughs and sympathy, playing Jonathan in the theatre gave Boris Karloff a rejuvenating career boost. Operating on the funny bone as much as tingling the spine surprised and widened his fan-base – with bittersweet repercussions. He was such a vital part of the show’s triumph that the producers would not release him to make the film version that would extend his image as both mirth-maker and fear-maker, leaving the excellent Raymond Massey to fill in well. This was a crushing blow to Karloff especially as it would have doubled the fun of the film’s best running in-joke – that Einstein’s plastic surgery job on Jonathan causes him to be compared to Boris Karloff everywhere he goes, with murderously wrathful consequences.
Although Grant himself was a replacement for Broadway lead Allyn Joslyn as Mortimer, looking back in later years he could never bring himself to watch his work in the film. His daughter Jennifer Grant recalled in her biography of him Good Stuff that he hated “all the overwrought double takes, all the gags . . . I’m way over the top,”. He is uncharacteristically theatrical, at times off-puttingly broad, and yet to be fair this has the effect of making his maiden co-stars seem even more eminently reasonable in comparison. Also, under Capra’s direction he does nimbly change gear, at times supplying a quiet commentary to underscore the whirling serial killer cyclone around him. “Insanity runs in our family. It practically gallops” he memorably mutters to the effervescent Priscilla Lane (the new Mrs Brewster).
Leading the cuckoo waltz are the wonderful double-act of Josephine Hull and Jean Adair as Abby and Martha. They along with the explosive bombast of John Alexander as Teddy ( - ”Chaaarge!” - ) were allowed to reprise their Broadway roles for the film – no doubt further frustrating Karloff. Fans of classic era gentle comedies will remember Hull’s enchanting Veta, the lovingly patient sister to James Stewart’s adorable fellow eccentric Elwood P. Dowd in Harvey (1950) for which she richly deserved her Best Actress Academy Award. Adair’s casting was a happy reunion with Grant; he never forgot her real-life mothering of him when he suffered rheumatic fever on tour two decades before.
Canadian-born actor and father to the Massey acting dynasty Raymond Massey already had a matching height and build to his predecessor as Jonathan, but Capra wanted an even closer resemblance. He encouraged Perc Westmore (part of his own famous make-up dynasty) to create such a likeness that Warners’ took the precaution of having Karloff sign a permission release. He agreed, partly because as an investor since the beginning, Karloff stood to recoup even more from the movie incarnation than he did from the stage production.
Massey’s partner-in-crime Dr Einstein was a perfect fit for the snivelling creep persona of Peter Lorre. He had already demonstrated a flair for dark humour co-starring with Karloff in The Boogie Man Will Get You (1942); however a B-movie bid like that could never be impactful enough to make the industry take notice of their range. Here though his obsequious and dubiously-credentialled doctor contrasts beautifully against the commanding Jonathan, virtually hiding behind Massey when necessary. (Listen out for another in-joke one-liner fired by Grant at Lorre which self-referentially mocks his own playing style tool - “Will you stop underplaying? I can’t hear you!”)
Their entrance is a great example of how Kesselring’s stage play was reimagined for film. In profile,
Jonathan is subtly framed in half-light by cinematographer Sol Polito just enough to show off his hideous plastic surgery stitches applied by Einstein. Later when he threatens his terrified sidekick, Massey’s imposing shadow looms to one side of Lorre as they talk, suggesting the dreadful consequences if he is betrayed.
The play was artfully prised open in the screenplay as well by the twin talents of Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein (previous writers of the sublime Casablanca amongst others). We’re given the Brooklyn locale by way of footage showing the Dodgers baseball team scrapping. They also supply a prologue where we see what an amusingly hypocritical weasel Mortimer is: the author (latest bestseller: ‘Marriage: a Fraud and a Failure’) vainly trying to get the couple’s marriage license incognito in case his unforgiving public recognise him.
By necessity most of the ensuing action is kept within the confines of the Brewster aunties’ home, all the better to keep tightening the tension screws upon Mortimer until he can negotiate with the Happydale Sanitorium to take Uncle Teddy and his beloved elderly sisters. This plot development serves as a treasure chest of supporting character gems from Judge Cullman (Vaughan Glaser), Dr. Gilchrist (Chester Clute), Jack Carson’s bemused Officer O’Hara and the dithering delight of Edward Everett Horton as Happydale’s manager Mr Witherspoon. Even a single scene cameo by Edward McWade as the narrowly-escaping prospective lodger Mr Gibbs scores points for his blithe unawareness of how close he comes to a terminal trip to the cellar.
Despite skirting immorality with its expertly crafted comic tone, there was one slight change made to satisfy the Production Code and it comes with a bravura payoff saved for the curtain. Having safely rehomed his barking-mad relatives, Mortimer is still fearful that he will inherit the family strain of madness - until Abby reveals that he is illegitimate, thus in no danger from the infected bloodline. The theatre version had him celebrate “I’m a bastard!” Feeling this was too strong for the sensibilities of moviegoers (as though they are somehow a different breed) the Breen Office had him instead whoop “I’m the son of a sea cook!” It’s still a joyous cap to a terrific, high-energy masterpiece…