Thursday, October 20, 2011

ARSENIC AND OLD LACE | 1944 | Spooky Screwball

Halloween.  I don't know enough about its history to compare its origins to the ways we currently observe it, and explore how the differences reflect how we're evolving as a people.

And you can thank goodness for that.  I know I do.

However, based on what I do know, both then and now Halloween seems to have a strong component of wish fulfillment.  Way back when it was about hoping that if you celebrated the dead, perhaps the creeps wouldn't jump you or your livestock during the long, dark, vulnerable winter nights.  Now it's about hoping that if you get drunk enough to believe you're making the sexy nurse costume work, then everyone else will too.

ARSENIC AND OLD LACE is delightful, suspenseful, takes place on Halloween, and dramatizes one of my greatest wishes:  To be sat down and told I'm not related to my family.  That sounds mean, but it's not.  Despite my best efforts, I assure you they have the same wish.

Mortimer (Cary Grant) is a famous New York theater critic who wrote a book called Marriage:  A Fraud and a Failure,"an sneered at every love scene in every play.  (In other words, me as a teenager and young adult).  When we meet him, Mortimer is in line at the Marriage License Bureau preparing to marry Elaine, the girl next door (literally).  After, the newlyweds head back to Brooklyn so he can tell his Aunt Abby and Aunt Martha, and she can tell her minister father, before they head off to Niagara Falls for a honeymoon.

While at his Aunt's home, Mortimer discovers a dead man hidden in the window seat.  At first he figures his Uncle Teddy, who believes he's Theodore Roosevelt, has progressed to murder.  Teddy's sisters quickly clarify that they poisoned Mr. Hoskins (the man in the window seat), and that Teddy had nothing to do with it.  Well, except that as part of his delusion, he digs locks for the Panama Canal in the basement (which Abby and Martha then use to bury their victims).

Mortimer now feels like he needs to take care of his family by ensuring the murdering stops and that no one ever finds out, not even his new wife, sitting next door, waiting to go on their honeymoon.  His efforts are further complicated when his brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey) returns home with a plastic surgeon named Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre).  The two have a dozen murders in their rear-view mirror, a fresh kill in their car (a "hot stiff on their hands" as Dr. Einstein calls it), and have recently escaped a prison for the "criminally insane".  Their immediate plan is to hide-out at the aunts house, and while they're there, have the alcoholic doctor to give Jonathan a new face so he can't be identified and hauled back to the big house.

Technically this may not be a screwball comedy, but I'm going to make an argument for it because it's October, so...

The way this study is shaping up, it seems the primary indices of screwball are:  something to do with marriage (getting engaged, married, or divorced), some kind of class conflict, adults struggling with what society expects from grown-ups (comic anti-heroes and general dissatisfaction with status-quo), a primarily cosmopolitan setting (though often the adventure of the story occurs in the country), a mixture of high and low comedy, and alcohol.

ARSENIC AND OLD LACE doesn't handle all of these traits in the ways most Classic Screwballs do.  Most notable is that the alcohol isn't cocktails in a nightclub, a posh hotel room, or on a butler's tray - it's in a glass carafe on a sturdy wood table in a quaint Brooklyn house.  And it's poison (not in a "choose your poison" way, but actual poison).

The comedy includes pratfalls and other standard screwball physical comedy, like tension from characters lingering a bit too long in certain rooms then walking out just in time to be found out (or not).  It includes a lot of the smart, sharp and witty dialog that defines screwball for a lot of folks.  But there's also some more conceptual comedy about sanity, like when Teddy's thinks he might be coming down with a cold until his sister informs him that he didn't sneeze, he just heard a sneeze.

Class and setting are mixed together in that Mortimer's rabbit hole is the trip from Manhattan to Brooklyn.  He goes from famous Manhattan theater critic without a shred of domesticity, to crossing the river and finding himself dealing with serial killers, basement graves, escape convicts, a cop aspiring to be a playwright, and more, yet he's unable to walk away because it's his family.  So class is not simply rich vs. poor, but sane vs. insane, evil vs. innocent, criminal vs. lawful, nature vs. nurture, culture vs. domesticity, independence vs. interdependence, and cosmopolitan city vs. provincial borough.

Over the course of the film, Mortimer transforms from selfish, immature and romantically petulant, into a selfless family man.  Though his family is nuts, he risks his reputation to protect them.  And, once he's aware precisely how seriously crazy his family is, he attempts to cut Elaine loose to shield her from the insanity.  It's a dramatic change, but it's so seamless that it goes down easy and is totally believable.  Ultimately - 67 year old spoiler alert! - Mortimer learns he is not actually related to his aunts, his uncle or his brother, and so he can be with Elaine.  And after the events of the evening, he now knows what that really means, and it's not anything to do with all the trite cliches that had previously turned him off marriage and the like.

ARSENIC AND OLD LACE covers all of the Screwball Comedy bases (at least my working definition), plus it is every bit as strong as the films on the Classic Screwball list, so I'm calling it Screwball.  It's my blog, I can do that.

Happy Halloween!

Released:  1944 (filmed in 1941)
Writer:  Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein (based on play by Joseph Kesselring)
Director:  Frank Capra
Producer:  Frank Capra, Jack L. Warner
Leads:  Cary Grant, Josephine Hull, Jean Adair, Peter Lorre, John Alexander, Raymond Massey, Priscilla Lane
Genre:  Black Comedy