Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Tuesday's Forgotten (or Overlooked) Film: ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (1944) starring Cary Grant, Priscilla Lane, Raymond Massey and Peter Lorre.

I've saved the best for last on this my final October Forgotten Film Post:

(This is a repeat of a review originally posted (by me) on 2011, newly edited (by me) and re-posted since, really, this is my favorite Halloween movie and it's kind of a ritual around these parts. Far as I'm concerned, you can't say too much about ARSENIC AND OLD LACE or for that matter, say it often enough. 

ARSENIC AND OLD LACE directed by Frank Capra, screenplay adapted by Julius and Peter Epstein from the stage play by Joseph Kesserling, and with an utterly delightful musical score by Max Steiner (arranged by Hugo Friedhofer), is, to my own mind at least, one of the greatest screwball comedies ever conceived in any mind, man or woman. There, I said it and I'm glad. I LOVE THIS MOVIE!

Cary Grant was not, I understand, the first choice to play Mortimer Brewster but really, I can't imagine anyone else in the part. Grant himself thought he was not the best choice. (I've read he said that Jimmy Stewart would have been better.) He was wrong. Grant is superb as the crazed (and reluctant) newlywed who suddenly finds his whole life upended by hilarious madness and murder. Well, hilarious to us, at any rate.

Grant's facial expressions and over-the-top physicality alone are worth the price of admission. He threw himself into the part and steals the picture away from a whole host of seasoned scene stealers. He is simply magnificent. I have to say that ARSENIC AND OLD LACE and BRINGING UP BABY are my two very favorite Cary Grant movies of all time. (In my book, two Oscar worthy performances, if the vaunted Academy had valued comedy as much as drama.)

Yeah, I liked Grant's serious stuff too, but I just fell in love with Mortimer Brewster as I did earlier, with Dr. David Huxley. I love when an actor plays against type so successfully. Despite (or maybe because of) his physical beauty, Grant was not afraid to mix it up, to play a nerdy, hapless anthropologist or a hysterical, anti-marriage newspaper columnist on the eve of his honeymoon: a man who has suddenly discovered that his doddering, adorable aunts have been busy poisoning lonely old men who happen to drop by their house in Brooklyn. (No spoilers here, this is made evident very early in the movie.)

So, grab a bag of popcorn, sit back and get ready for the screwiest Halloween movie of all.


Here's the complete cast, just so you get an idea of the wonderfulness of it all:

Cary Grant as Mortimer Brewster, a newspaper columnist and author of a best selling book quaintly termed, The Bachelor's Bible: "Marriage, A Fraud and A Failure."

Priscilla Lane as the adorable Elaine Harper who has managed to rope in Mortimer, to his chagrin. Not to mention, his readers.

Raymond Massey as Jonathan Brewster, Mortimer's sinister brother and Boris Karloff look-alike (Karloff, who played the part on Broadway, was unavailable).

Peter Lorre as Dr. Einstein, Jonathan's ultra creepy plastic surgeon and cohort in crime.

Josephine Hull as Abby Brewster one half of the murderous duo of sweet doting aunts. She's the plump one.

Jean Adair as Martha Brewster, the other half. She's the skinnier one.

John Alexander as 'Teddy Roosevelt' Brewster, the loony-toony brother who lives with the aunts and thinks he's President Theodore Roosevelt.

Edward Everett Horton as Mr. Witherspoon, head of the local lunatic asylum: Happydale Sanatorium.

Jack Carson as O'Hara, the local cop on duty, a simpleton who can't spot a crime happening under his very nose. Literally.

James Gleason as Lieutenant Rooney, the local detective and O'Hara's exasperated boss.

...and to top it all off, our favorite character actor of them all, the ubiquitous and long-lived Charles Lane (1905 - 2007) who would outlive most everyone in this film, shows up at the beginning playing a news reporter.

See what I mean? Scene stealers all. But this time out, Grant does the stealing.

...and, finally, here's the story:

Opening scene at Ebbits Field: the Brooklyn Dodgers, a baseball game which ends in bedlam. Bliss. Brooklyn. The Bums. Already I'm happy.

Then we see the bridge and we switch to Manhattan, the marriage license bureau at city hall where Mortimer and Elaine are getting a license to wed. They're standing on line while Mortimer tries to hide his face from the other couples and two nosy reporters looking for a story, any story.

And this being Frank Capra's show, we get a room full of mixed ethnicities which is very nice for a 1944 flick.

Then we switch back to Brooklyn. To a cemetery, wind blowing leaves among the headstones. It's Fall, it's chilly, in fact it's Halloween and here come Mortimer and Elaine, freshly married. She lives next door to Mortimer's aunts' house, right next door to the cemetery. All very cozy and comfy in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Mortimer has the cab driver wait for them. (The bemused cab driver spends the entire movie waiting outside the house.) Elaine goes next door to get her luggage and Mortimer drops in on his aunts to tell them the happy news.


The delightfully roly-poly Aunt Abby and the thinner, more spinsterish Aunt Martha are thrilled with the news. Mortimer is their favorite nephew and they've been match-making for a while. Grant plays his scenes with them so sweetly. It is just a pleasure to watch.

So, while Elaine is off gathering her trousseau Mortimer spends happy time with his aunts. But a few minutes later, he (very) inadvertently discovers the sweet old ladies' secret. And what a hideous secret it is, too.

While his aunts are in the kitchen getting refreshments, Mortimer decides to search for the notes to his new book, "Mind Over Matrimony". He lifts the cover on the window seat and - though he can hardly believe his eyes - discovers a dead body.

When he reacts as anyone would under those circumstances, he is utterly hilarious. Then when he tries to tell his Aunt Abby, she doesn't react as anyone would under those circumstances. She is perfectly calm and tells Mortimer to forget about it. Turns out that the body belongs to an itinerant old man who had come by earlier in the day and been given a glass of the aunts'  'special' wine.

Aunt Abby hid the body in the window seat because sister Martha hadn't been there to give her a hand lugging it down to the basement and brother Teddy hadn't had a chance yet to dig another lock for the canal, (to inter this latest body). Oh yes, there are many more in the basement. Teddy thinks they're all yellow fever victims.

Never one to think slowly on his feet, Mortimer realizes that his aunts have no clue they're doing anything wrong. According to them, they're saving these old men from their lonely lives. They're doing a good deed.

Mortimer decides that he can't/won't call the cops, instead he will call Happydale Sanatorium where Teddy (alias President Roosevelt) was scheduled to go anyway, in future, once the elderly aunts passed on. A most obliging coincidence.

Mortimer wants a rush job. He must have Teddy AND his aunts put away for their own good and the public safety - immediately, if not sooner. The way he sees it, he has no choice. What else is a sane man to do?

Meanwhile, newly-wed Elaine returns wondering what's keeping the new hubby. Mortimer pleads with her to go back to her house on some pretense or other and wait for him. Actually, he carries her out of his aunts' house and locks the door. She is befuddled. They were all set to go to Niagara Falls.

With Elaine temporarily disposed of, Mortimer rushes back inside his house and tries to get through on the phone to Mr. Witherspoon (Edward Everett Horton), the head of Happydale Sanatorium.
Then - his hysteria mounting - he runs out to see a judge to get an order for his relatives' incarceration. Let's face it, very few can do sympathetic hysteria like Cary Grant.

Later that same night, once the aunts are upstairs and the house dark and quiet, the front door opens and in creep two very strange men. Jonathan Brewster (Raymond Massey who looks remarkably like the Frankenstein monster as played by Karloff in the films) and his henchman and plastic surgeon, Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre).

A scary duo.

They've escaped from a hospital for the criminally insane and have come home to Jonathan's aunts to hide out. Oh, and they're carting their own dead body, a Mr. Spinoza. A dead body that needs to be hidden. They too discover the old man in the window seat.

The aunts come downstairs but are frightened by Jonathan into going back to their rooms where they've been preparing for funeral services. They worry that their particular body won't have a proper burial down the basement, what with scary Jonathan in the house.

When Mortimer returns, he is not happy to be reunited with his brother. But when he tries to get Jonathan and Einstein to leave, they tie him up and gag him.

For what happens next, you'll have to see the film. It's all fast-paced screwball madness, nonsense, black humor and tons of physical comedy.

Since this was based on a stage play, there's people coming and going, plenty of opening and closing of doors, plenty of interruptions to Jonathan's plans, not to mention Mortimer's.

The cops eventually show up.

The scenes with Mr. Witherspoon (who thinks perhaps Mortimer too should be included in the sanatorium family package) are especially funny.

In the end, Mortimer works it all out after fearing that he too will go nutso since he is, after all, a Brewster. But the aunts have a further surprise in store for him.

See the movie, and if you've already seen it - see it again.

Link here to see the original trailer at TCM.

I didn't remove the original comments when I had the chance (didn't know I had to), so please remember that this is a re-do and I'm not the sharpest blade in the tool shed. Just pretend they're not there. Or add to your original comments if you feel like it. It's all good.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

It's Halloween Again!

Vintage, vintage, vintage witchy-witch!

Cover art: Edna Eicke (1919 - 1979)

Cover art: F. Sands Brunner (1886 - 1954)

Artwork: Haskell Coffin (1878 - 1941)

Artwork: Susan Mitchell

Vintage Trick or Treat Bag

Cover art: William Joyce 1994

Artwork: Lisa Zador 

Artwork: Ida Outhwaite (1888 - 1960)

Artwork: Jean Baptiste Monge

Well, almost.

The above artwork is guaranteed to get you in the mood even if you're an old curmudgeon like me who wishes it would all go away. Ha!

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Book Review: CIRCLE OF SHADOWS by Imogen Robertson + My Historical-Mystery Reading Rules

England, 1784. Harriet Westerman is an adventurous well-to-do widow, mother and detecting enthusiast. She and her companion Gabriel Crowther, anatomist, forensic specialist and reclusive but wealthy older gentleman (he has spurned his family title), are off to the Duchy of Maulsberg.
CIRCLE OF SHADOWS is the unlikely duo's first foray into crime solving on the Continent, having heretofore concentrated on crimes closer to home.

Westerman and Crowther are the stars of a historical mystery series which in my view, rises head and shoulders above most others for these fairly simple reasons: the author's writing talent, sleight of hand research ability and gift for vivid characterization and plotting. The series is four books along - at least in this country, though I understand that the schedule here lags behind the British pub. dates. My local library doesn't even have the entire series on their shelves.

Additionally, these are the only mysteries I've read which are set during England's Georgian era. That adds to their uniqueness. But this wouldn't have been enough to get me interested in reading these books if the writing weren't so damned good. There are many popular historical mysteries which just, for one reason or another, don't hold my interest no matter how many times I've attempted to read them (mostly due to friends' recommendations), but Imogen Robertson fixed my attention from the first paragraph in her first book and I've been hooked ever since.

Now for a brief interruption:

Yvette's Rules for Historical Mysteries:

1) Location. Location. Location. As a reader (which makes me a kind of time traveler) I must WANT to travel back to where the mystery is. It's up to the writer to make this happen. And usually, it must happen quickly. If it's England, we're already a couple of steps ahead of the game.

2) Very important: The dialogue should not be anachronistic in tone, it must sound as if people of a particular time are speaking though not to the point where it becomes pedantic. The writer is speaking to a modern ear after all.

3) If a specific actual event, place, person or thing is used in the story, the dates must be accurate unless we've been informed beforehand that the author switched things around for some purpose. However, that purpose must make some sort of sense. This applies too if the writer is including characters created by another author and transplanted.

4) The writing style of a historical mystery should appear - in sentence cadence, for instance - not only as if it were knowledgeably written, keeping the era in mind, but also as if it were effortless. The behind the scenes nuts and bolts of research should not be apparent and obviously, the work should be approachable enough so that the modern reader/mystery-lover/history maven, can jump right in. Above all, it must NEVER be written in the present tense. In fact, nothing should ever be written in the present tense except maybe blog posts. (I'm guilty of that.)

I admit that I might have read one or two books written in present tense - but only rarely, in my opinion, does it ever work. The talent must be prodigious. There should be a reason for telling a story in this way, not merely the fashion of the moment. I have never read a historical novel written in the present tense and probably never will.

5) When it comes to history I'd always assumed that everyone shared my enthusiasm. (History was my favorite topic in school.) But to my consternation I've found that this is not always so. I know, the mind boggles.

Obviously you don't have to be a historian to read a book set in the past. But the truth is that there are always things it helps to know (even just generally) or at least have an interest in - points of reference and whatnot - the more you know, the quicker you can acclimate. I don't want a history lesson while I'm reading a mystery. (I read non-fiction for that.) I want the author to assume that I know a little something about the era, the setting or the events or else I wouldn't be there. The thing must be, first and foremost, a murder mystery.

Those are my rules and by gum they've always worked for me. Yeah, I know, I know, rules are meant to be broken. But when it comes to historical mysteries I can be pretty strict. I want a comfortable but intriguing setting. I want wonderful characters. I want suspense. I want mystery. I want knowledgeable writing. That's about it.

Author Imogen Robertson meets all of my criteria.

Okay, back to CIRCLE OF SHADOWS:

The Duchy of Maulsberg is a small German state roiling with poisonous intrigue, spies and more than its fair share of shadowy behind the scenes political chicanery. What's more, Maulsberg is currently preparing to celebrate the up-coming betrothal of their duke to a princess of a neighboring state. The marriage is to be a typical if formidable combo of lands and power - though the Duke brings rather less to the mix than is commonly known. But amid the pomp and circumstance, there are first some very nasty murders to be dealt with. The authorities, naturally enough, are eager to quell speculation, sweep the matter under the rug and quickly hang the most likely suspect.

Unfortunately, the most likely suspect this time is Daniel Clode, the brother-in-law of intrepid sleuth Harriet Westerman. An attorney and agent of the Earl of Sussex who happens to hold Duchy of Maulsberg bonds, newlywed Daniel had been traveling abroad with his wife, Harriet's younger sister Rachel.

During a masquerade ball at the castle, Daniel, raving incoherently, was found in a locked room with his wrists cut. Also in the room, the dead body of the Duke's current mistress. Daniel doesn't remember anything about the crime or even how he came to be in the room. It's obvious he has been drugged. But how gratifying for the Duke's investigators to have a foreigner conveniently on hand to blame for the murder.

When Harriet, back in England, receives a hysterical letter from her sister, she and Gabriel Crowther must travel to the continent to save the condemned Daniel and, as it turns out, solve several horrific murders in the process. While in Maulsberg hobnobbing with the German aristocracy, Harriet once more crosses paths with the diabolically clever spymaster Manzerotti, this time a special 'guest' of the Duke of Maulsberg. Manzerotti is a famed castrato opera singer renowned for his physical beauty as well as his magnificent voice. He is also the man Harriet blames for her husband's death.

Unexpectedly forced to work with her nemesis, Harriet and Crowther are swept up in court intrigue at an especially 'iffy' time when even the hint of scandal could put the kabosh on a very beneficial state marriage. Murder can hardly be allowed to interfere with matters of this monumental importance. Therefore the investigation must be carried out in a hush-hush sort of way - nothing new for Westerman and Crowther.

Question: How was it possible for the duke's mistress to drown inside the castle, in a dry locked room?

Ah, my friends, this is one of many questions which will be answered as Westerman and Crowther's investigation turns up more grisly deaths - deaths which have passed for 'accidents' - gone unnoticed as murder.

Author Imogen Robertson has peopled this particular book with an especially interesting group of characters. Besides the Duke (who is apparently more than just another aristocratic flounce) and the mysterious castrato, we are also introduced to a set of ruthless spies, some 'pie in the sky' revolutionaries, a mad alchemist or two, and an Arab duo who excel at creating incredible automatons of great beauty. There is more than enough court intrigue, deadly secrets and chicanery to sweep everyone up, especially those not quick-witted enough to step nimbly out of the way.

By the time the truth is known (much of it unpalatable) Harriet Westerman and her friend Gabriel Crowther are more than ready to congratulate the Duke and head back to England, relatives and friends in tow, ready for whatever new mystery awaits them.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Tuesday's Forgotten (or Overlooked) Film: THE SCARLET CLAW (1944) starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce

Of all the Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, I think this is the one with the most creepy-scary moments - so I am hereby qualifying it as a tip-top Halloween offering.

THE SCARLET CLAW (1944) is a film directed by Roy William Neill (as were most of the Holmes/Watson movies released by Universal) and it is based, far as I know, on nothing Conan Doyle ever wrote (except for the characters), especially since the action takes place in Canada.

The story:

Holmes (Basil Rathbone) and Watson (Nigel Bruce) are, for no apparent reason that I can make heads or tails of, traveling in Canada to attend some sort of conference on the occult. Here's why it makes no sense: Holmes doesn't believe in spooks and spirits so why would he travel halfway around the world just to tell people who do, that he doesn't. See what I mean?

At any rate, here we are in Quebec at a posh hotel.

Just as Lord Penrose (the always good for a 'sneer' Paul Cavanaugh) is addressing the conference on his belief in things supernatural - coming up against Holmes' disbelief - he receives news that his wife has been found dead back home. Without much hint of emotion, he stiffly informs the conference members that Lady Penrose's body has been discovered by the village priest in the local church - her throat torn out. I mean, jeez.

Though mortally wounded, she had dragged herself to the church where she clutched at the bell pull in a last desperate attempt to bring help. (The manor house has no phone.) Unfortunately for her, the village people in the charmingly named village of La Mort Rouge are not inclined to go out in the night just to answer the odd bell ringing or two.

Eventually, the priest did set out for the church and discovered the body. Now I don't know about you, but I'd imagine a cut throat would be rather a bloody thing, but nary a hint of blood or wound are we shown even when the priest looks down at the unfortunate lady's body. I'm the last person in the world - heaven knows - to call for blood and guts, but really, the whole thing looks a little too antiseptic even to me.

Minor quibble, I know.

Lord Penrose declines Holmes' immediate offer of help in investigating his wife's death. He is convinced that Lady Penrose has been done in by some supernatural evil lurking in his aptly named home town.

But Holmes is surprised the next morning as he and Watson are preparing to return to London, to discover a letter asking for his help. The letter was written by none other than Lady Penrose herself just days before her tragic death.

As Holmes' says, "Imagine the irony, Watson. For the first time we have been retained by a corpse." (Or words to that effect.)

Despite Lord Penrose's standoff-ishness, Holmes and Watson travel to the gloomy (not to mention, foggy and shadowy) village of La Mort Rouge to investigate the murder of Lady Penrose.

To that end, the villagers they meet up with, including a rather garrulous post man and a surly publican with a sweetly innocent daughter, are a nervous and suspicious lot full of superstitious nonsense stemming from the fact that some sheep have recently been found nearby with their throats cut. Yeah, that would be enough to make me nervous and suspicious, I admit it.

La Mort Rouge is one of those grim places with a tedious history where everything happens at night and daylight is a rare commodity.

Of course Holmes, the most rational of men, is not convinced that the evil they're dealing with is of the supernatural variety, not even after coming across a ghostly figure prancing about the fields in the dark.

Unable to prevent a couple more murders, Holmes comes to realize that the victims (except one) all share a common - if improbable - link and that a brutal killer, adept at disguise, is actually lurking among the villagers, hiding in plain sight.

In this as in so many Holmes' movies made at Universal, we have a familiar cast of character actors who appear over and over again in various and sundry parts: Gerald Hamer, Paul Cavanaugh, Arthur Hohl, Miles Mander, David Clyde and the always wonderfully creepy Ian Wolfe among others.

It's almost like little theater where the same actors take different parts, sometimes as villains, sometimes as heroes, sometimes bit parts, sometimes more. It's always fun to distinguish among them and realize where and when you've seen them before. The only constants are Holmes and Watson and occasionally Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard (Dennis Hoey,who does not appear in this film).

If THE SCARLET CLAW is successful, believe me it is not because of the rather hackneyed, illogical script. (Which is basically a version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, minus the hound.) What works for me best are the creepy atmospherics (and you know how important I think those are).

As I mentioned, everything happens in the dark of night - all is doom and gloom, and the murder weapon, a five pronged garden weeder, is as nasty as it sounds.

So, throw logic out the window, fix a batch of popcorn and prepare to enjoy another moody Halloween flick which will get you in the mood but will not gross you out.

Preview the original trailer here.