Arsenic and Old Lace

Arsenic and Old Lace, 1944, Warner Bros. Pictures. Starring Cary Grant, Priscilla Lane, Josephine Hull, Jean Adair. Directed by Frank Capra. B&W, 118 minutes.

A dark comedy with a pair of innocent-minded serial killer aunts and their bewildered yet loving nephew is funny, fast-paced and full of surprises, with a chain of events that maintains suspense and unfolds into a Halloween tale like no other.

Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) has just married the girl next door, Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane), and before the two leave on their honeymoon, they stop to give the news to their respective families. For their part, the Brewster sisters, Abby & Martha (Josephine Hull, Jean Adair, reprising their Broadway roles), who raised Mortimer, are thrilled he’s finally settling down with the lovely Elaine.

Priscilla Lane, Cary Grant, Arsenic and Old Lace
Priscilla Lane, Cary Grant

But during his visit, Mortimer discovers his kindly aunts have taken on a new cause, that of releasing lonely elderly gentlemen from their earthly pain with a sip of poisoned elderberry wine, and burying the bodies in the basement. The morbid work of burial is done by deluded Uncle Teddy (John Alexander), who believes he’s Theodore Roosevelt digging the Panama Canal.

About the time the full impact of his aunts “very bad habit” has begun to sink in on him, another blow is dealt to Mortimer — the return of his long-lost brother, Johnathan (Raymond Massey) along with Johnathan’s plastic-surgeon friend, Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre). The two have their own body in tow, that of one late Dr. Spenalzo.

Johnathan isn’t from the same benevolent branch of the family tree as Mortimer and the aunts, and he plans to do the rest of them in, one way or the other.

While this film features Cary Grant in one of his most over-the-top comedic performances, the strength of the dialogue is often in its dry and understated style.

Jean Adair, Josephine Hull Arsenic and Old Lace.png
Jean Adair, Josephine Hull

It’s a continued contrast of extremes throughout the film that keeps the humor fresh. There’s a lot going on in this macabre combination of screwball comedy/horror film, yet somehow, the story is cohesive and, despite the numerous plot twists, never contrived beyond the nature of whatever genre this film might actually fall into.

The rest of the cast includes such strong, scene-stealing character actors as Edward Everett Horton and James Gleason. After a point, the whole show just lets loose, and it’s Mortimer himself whose surrender to the situation best sums up the whole zany scenario.

The movie was was originally filmed in 1941, in part because of Grant’s availability at that time, with the agreement it wouldn’t be released domestically until the Broadway run of the play was complete. It has been said to have been shown to serviceman overseas before its 1944 release, but no official record of that exists today.

Frank Capra chose this project because it took him away from the “feel good” films he’d become known for and into a wacky plot with no particular redeeming value, save its dark humor and non-stop antics. It’s not a film fans of either Capra or Grant point to as pivotal parts of their careers, yet it remains immensely popular and a part of pop culture today.


 

The Thin Man

The Thin Man, 1934, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring William Powell, Myrna Loy, Maureen O’Sullivan. Directed by W.S. Van Dyke. B&W, 93 minutes.

Nick Charles (William Powell), a retired detective with a droll wit, is a man who’s happy to now live on his wife’s fortune and, well, drink a lot. Nora (Myrna Loy), for her part, is a classy, sassy woman capable of keeping up with her husband in both drinks and saucy banter. Joining the two in their convivial life is Asta the dog.

(It’s important to note this movie was made two years after the end of Prohibition, so the Charles’ drinking was looked upon, and portrayed, in a different light.)

Despite his contentment in retirement, Nick is drawn into a case by the daughter of a long-time friend of his, Clyde Wynant (Edward Ellis). Wynant has abruptly disappeared, and the appealing Dorothy (Maureen O’Sullivan) pleads with Nick to look into it. Nick can’t resist helping Dorothy — after all, he’s known her since she was an infant — and ultimately, it’s his expertise that leads the police to the truth.

Myrna Loy, William Powell
Myrna Loy, William Powell

Simple case? Not a chance.

This plot goes down a winding path and brings in a long list of viable suspects. Nick, in his dry, observational manner, notes key elements the detective misses, ultimately leading them to what turns out to be the skeletal remains of the murder victim.

The group of suspects is brought together at a dinner party in the Charles’ home, where Nick skillfully pares down the list until the guilty individual is revealed.

This was the second of 14 films Powell & Loy would make together, including the six in the Thin Man series. Their chemistry was immediate and never failed, and they were a match in the pace and timing of their repartee and delivery.

Their performances are key to the success of the film, but the numerous Damon Runyon-esque characters play an important part in the overall feel of a fine & fun mystery.

William Powell, Myrna Loy
William Powell, Myrna Loy

The screenplay was based on the immensely popular novel of the same name by Dashiell Hammett, one of the most highly-regarded mystery writers of all time. The adaptation was written by the husband/wife team of Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich, who were also responsible for the screenplays of numerous other notable films, including It’s A Wonderful Life and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

The Thin Man was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor in a Leading Role, and Best Adapted Screenplay. These nominations were a somewhat remarkable feat and a tribute to all involved in the production, as the movie was given a “B” movie budget (read: small) and a short time frame for completion. Studio executives had low expectations.

Well, always easier to deliver when no one’s looking for success.

A little piece of trivia: contrary to popular belief, “The Thin Man” refers to the murder victim, not Nick Charles. However, that name caught on and was also used in the title of every other film in the series.

 

My Man Godfrey (1936)

My Man Godfrey, 1936, Universal Pictures. Starring William Powell, Carole Lombard. Directed by Gregory La Cava. B&W (colorized version also available), 94 minutes.

A scattered young woman discovers a surprisingly sophisticated hobo and hires him as the butler for her wealthy family, and he in turn shines a sometimes unwelcome light on their chaotic, misguided lifestyle.

Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard) and her sister Cornelia (Gail Patrick) are looking for a “forgotten man” as part of a scavenger hunt, and come upon Godfrey Smith (William Powell) at a city dump. The two women are on separate teams, and when Godfrey pushes Cornelia into the trash in response to her offer of five dollars to help her win the prize, Irene decides it’s best to walk away as well.

Lombard Powell My Man Godfrey
Carole Lombard, William Powell

But Godfrey, after talking to the flighty Irene, chooses to go back to the ballroom with her so she can win the scavenger hunt and triumph over her sister. She’s delighted, even when, after her team’s victory is declared, he stands and denounces the group of wealthy citizens. She offers him a job as the family’s butler, which he graciously accepts.

Cornelia remains bitter toward Godfrey, and does what she can to undermine his abilities and character. She quickly realizes, although the rest of the family seems oblivious to it, that Irene is falling for their new servant.

In addition to dizzy Irene and conniving Cornelia, there’s the mother, Angelica (Alice Brady), a featherbrained woman who perhaps drinks a little too much and indulges her “protegée,” Carlo (Mischa Auer), a man who is clearly taking advantage of the family. There’s also Alexander Bullock (Eugene Pallette), the husband & father, who’s burdened by the weight of his failing business and family’s antics.

Carole Lombard, William Powell My Man Godfrey
Carole Lombard, William Powell

Showing the wealthy to be frivolous and foolish was a classic Depression-era theme, as was giving someone down-and-out sudden wealth. This is a definitive screwball comedy, with yes, implausible plot elements, but a realistic plot line is hardly important here.

What is important is the effortless acting of the two stars, the strength of talent of the supporting cast, the fine direction by Gregory La Cava and all the elements of cinematography, lighting, set decoration, costume and the rest that sets movies of that era apart from movies today.

Powell had lobbied for Lombard to star in the movie, and La Cava, a personal friend of hers, was in agreement. The two stars had divorced three years earlier after two years of marriage, but remained good friends until her death in 1942 in a plane crash. The chemistry between them is evident and somewhat mirrors their real-life personas; he the quieter, more urbane of the two, she the unconventional, outspoken one.

William Powell, Carole Lombard in My Man Godfrey
William Powell, Carole Lombard

My Man Godfrey was nominated for six Academy Awards: Best Director, Best Actor for Powell, Best Actress for Lombard, Best Supporting Actress for Alice Brady, Best Supporting Actor for Mischa Auer and Best Writing, Screenplay for Eric Hatch and Morrie Ryskind.

It’s the only movie to date to be nominated in all four acting categories without being nominated for Best Picture, and until 2013, was the only film to be nominated in these six categories without winning any of them.

The movie has been colorized, and both versions are available on DVD (generally the same DVD). This trailer has been colorized:



Midnight (1939)

Midnight, 1939, Paramount Pictures. Starring Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche, John Barrymore. Directed by Mitchell Leisen. B&W, 94 minutes.

This witty screwball comedy about devious means justifying honorable — or at least desirable — ends, is coupled with a common fantasy of many, that of a benevolent benefactor who, with one grand motion, makes dreams come true.

Eve Peabody (Claudette Colbert) is a showgirl escaping a run of misfortune in Monte Carlo by way of train to Paris. She arrives with twenty-five centimes to her name, and talks cab driver Tibor Czerny (Don Ameche) into driving her from venue to venue in an effort to find work.

Midnight Claudette Colbert Don Ameche
Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche

It’s a failed endeavor, however, and Eve is left with nowhere to go, until Tibor offers his home, which she adamantly refuses. He’s insistent, and first chance she gets she escapes his cab and runs to the nearest open door.

Here she gains entrance to an event for the social elite by passing off a pawn ticket as her invitation. Once inside, she meets Georges Flammarion (John Barrymore) who has an enticing offer:  lure dashing, single and wealthy Jacques Picot (Francis Lederer) away from Georges wife, Helene (Mary Astor), and Georges will pay all expenses, including an extravagant wardrobe and luxury accommodations.

john-barrymore-claudette-colbert-in-midnight-1939
John Barrymore, Claudette Colbert

Of course Eve has already started to fall for Tibor, despite her best intentions, and she’s unwittingly complicated this fairy godmother situation by taking the name Baroness Czerny, as in wife of Tibor, who tracks her down after he learns of her deception.

This movie delivers all the wonderful fun a top-notch cast with a script by  Charles Brackett & Billy Wilder promises. Claudette Colbert and Don Ameche perhaps don’t make an obvious pairing, although they did work on three films together (this one being notably the best), but the match works in sophistication, banter and sly humor.

Claudette Colbert, Francis Lederer, Mary Astor, John Barrymore in Midnight
Claudette Colbert, Frances Lederer, Mary Astor, John Barrymore

The true delight — albeit far from assured prior to production — is John Barrymore’s smart and affable performance. Barrymore was deep in decline due to alcoholism by this time, and was generally unreliable, unable to memorize scripts or even show up on the set. His wife, Elaine Barrie, had a co-starring role and is credited with helping keep him in check.

However, as noted by co-star Mary Astor, Barrymore was such a highly skilled actor that despite all his problems, he was “able to act rings around everyone else.” High praise, given the quality of the entire cast.

Astor herself was several months pregnant at the time of filming, although her character was not, and numerous clever means were used to hide her changing figure.

Mary Astor, John Barrymore, Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche.png
Mary Astor, John Barrymore, Don Ameche, Claudette Colbert

(A bit of  background trivia — in 1924, a 40-year-old Barrymore had an affair with his co-star, then 17-year-old Astor, although the relationship faced severe constraints by her parents and eventually failed. By the time this film was made they were reportedly on good terms, each having survived a separate scandal or two in the meantime.)

Today considered one of the top romantic comedies of the era, although surprisingly perhaps one of the lesser known, Midnight is everything it promises to be, and a must-see for classic movie fans.

 

Laura (1944)

Laura, 1944, 20th Century Fox. Starring Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney, Clifton Webb. Directed by Otto Preminger. B&W, 88 minutes.

A film-noir classic of murder, love and obsession, Laura epitomizes that genre in many ways with its stark cinematography, urgent narration and moody drama.

Detective Mark MacPherson (Dana Andrews) is called to investigate the murder of a beautiful young advertising executive, Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney). He begins his interviews of her penthouse society crowd with one of her closest friends, the caustic, odd and self-centered Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb), whose jealousy over his protegé’s engagement to the ingratiating Shelby Carpenter (Vincent Price) is evident.

Through a series of flashbacks, Laura’s story is told, and MacPherson finds himself drawn into the circle of the captivating woman’s male admirers. As Lydecker scathingly notes, the detective has begun to dream of a life with his murder victim, getting to know her through her personal correspondence and diary.

A twist in the tale throws the investigation onto a whole new course, with a winding path of discovery.

Clifton Webb, Dana Andrews in Laura
Clifton Webb, Dana Andrews

Laura has a number of odd elements, such as the investigation techniques of Detective MacPherson and the effete personality of Lydecker, who appears to be in love in Laura. The story doesn’t suffer from any of these incongruities, however; the tension and cinematic reality hold firm.

For several of the cast, this was a career-launching film. It was a breakout role for Clifton Webb, who was in his 50s at the time and primarily had worked on stage. For both Gene Tierney and Dana Andrews, who were also fairly new to moviegoers, the film helped establish A-list recognition from their peers and audiences.

Even the director, Otto Preminger, found his film career taking off again with the success of Laura, after having been shunned by Hollywood because of disputes with powerhouse Darryl Zanuck.

Followers of Vincent Price will be surprised by the subservient nature of his character, quite a departure from his career-defining persona in thrillers and horror films. Despite the difference, he’s decisively believable, showing well his broad range of talent, and this role is considered by some as one of his best.

Dana Andrews, Gene Tierney in Laura
Dana Andrews (portrait of Gene Tierney as Laura)

The haunting melody of the music score was also immediately popular with audiences, who began to ask for recordings and sheet music. A year after the film was released, Johnny Mercer added lyrics and the song Laura became an instant musical standard and one of the most recorded songs of all time.

Laura was nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Director and Best Supporting Actor (Clifton Webb), and won for Best Black & White Cinematography.

Today this movie is considered by many to be definitive film noir, and the mystery and suspense don’t lessen with time. It is Hollywood at its best.