Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Halloween Re-Re-post | ARSENIC AND OLD LACE | 1944 | Spooky Screwball

I don't know enough about the history of Halloween to describe how it started, how that differs from the way we currently observe it, and explore how the changes reflect how we're evolving as a people.  And you can thank goodness for that.  (I know I do).

All of that said, best I can figure, Halloween seems to be a whole lot about 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 seems to be about hoping that if you get drunk enough to believe you're making the sexy nurse costume work, then everyone else will somehow agree.

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," and "sneers at every display of love."

When we meet him, Mortimer is in line at the Marriage License Bureau preparing to marry Elaine, the girl next door (literally).  Next, before a Niagara Falls honeymoon, the newlyweds head to Brooklyn so they can share the news of their nuptials with Mortimer's Aunt Abby and Aunt Martha and with Elaine's minister father.

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. But 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 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 give Jonathan a new face so he can't be identified and hauled back to the big house.

If it were summer, I'd probably explain why this isn't a screwball comedy.  But because it's October, I'm going to argue that it's a variety of screwball.

What I've learned from this study is that screwball comedies include: 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).

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.

And then, and only then - warning, nearly 70 year old spoiler alert ahead! - 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 my Classic Screwball list, so I'm calling it Screwball.

It's my blog, I can do that.

Happy Halloween!
(originally posted October 2011, lazily reposted October 2012, completely forgotten in 2013, shamelessly re-posted with a few edits in 2014)


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, Screwball Comedy

Romantic Comedy Expert | SNL | October 25, 2014

Not only the Rom but also the Com.  But not the Screwball.



"That is not actually why we brought you here."