Movies in History: Arsenic and Old Lace

Plot: Cary Grant portrays Mortimer Brewster, a famous arts critic who marries the girl next door on Halloween. He returns to the Brooklyn home he shares with his two maiden aunts to pack for his honeymoon (at Niagara Falls, of course), when he discovers a corpse in the window seat. Mortimer is shocked to learn that his sweet old aunts have been poisoning lonely old men with arsenic laced elderberry wine,  and burying them in the “Panama Canal” that Teddy has dug in the cellar. He spends the rest of the movie frenetically trying to have Teddy committed, in the hope that if the authorities should happen to learn about the bodies in the basement, they’ll blame it all on Teddy. Midway through,  long lost, psychopathic third brother Jonathan appears on the scene with his plastic surgeon and another corpse in tow.

Arsenic and Old Lace was released in 1944. It’s in black and white and  very much like the stage play that inspired it, but when viewed as a period piece, one of the “madcap comedies” of the time, it doesn’t come across as dated. Cary Grant bears the weight of the plot, and he’s brilliant. It’s a joy to watch him convey a full spectrum of emotion in a ten second sequence of facial expressions.  Raymond Massey plays the role of Jonathan, who becomes enraged whenever anyone mentions his resemblance to Boris Karloff, and Peter Lorre that of Dr. Einstein, who keeps promising to make him look like someone else. The aunts, some cops, Mortimer’s new wife, and the sanitarium director make frequent appearances to move the story along.

In spite of its macabre theme, this is very much a comedy, with lines that hold up quite well some seventy years after they were uttered. Great fun, full of laughs, and vintage in the best sense of the word.


Historical Fiction: Martha Peake, by Patrick McGrath

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


English author Patrick McGrath has been hailed as the master of the neo-gothic, but he prefers to describe himself as the creator of “stories of love and madness”.  I haven’t read his other novels, which have generally been highly acclaimed, but having devoured Martha Peake, I can say that the gothic and romantic certainly blend seamlessly here. Told by two unreliable narrators, decades afterward, Martha’s tale plays out in four  18th century settings, each equally dark and threatening. Harry Peake makes his first appearance in  Cornwall, where he’s a good looking, hard drinking smuggler who loses his wife and most of his family in a fire that he caused. His own injuries have left him a bitter, hulking hunchback. He removes with his one loyal daughter, Martha, to London,where, crazed by guilt and grief, Harry tries to expiate himself through humiliation, by displaying his spine nightly to strangers in a seedy bar room. He draws the attention of macabre anatomist Lord Drogo, who employs his own personal resurrection man and displays misshapen human bones at his mansion in the marshes.  Martha, who loves her father dearly, becomes terrified about what Drogo might have in mind for Harry. When an unspeakable calamity befalls her, Martha has no choice but to flee alone to America, which is on the brink of revolution.  But she can’t forget her father, who was alive when she fled, and the choices she makes as a result will make her a symbol of  the revolution itself.

The extremes of grotesquery and madness are there, along with injustice and poverty, sordid backstreets, crumbling estates, and foggy cliffs, but what is also there, for those who care to look, are the issues and philosophies of the era. It may even remind you why the war for independence was fought, both the noble and the selfish reasons. To McGrath’s credit, he manages to deliver a satisfactory ending while also leaving a sense of mystery about some of the tale’s most vivid images (no spoilers, so I won’t elaborate).  Martha Peake is a finely crafted, multilayered novel, one that deserves to be savored and considered rather than rushed.


History in the Movies: White Christmas

Yesterday flipping around the channels I hit upon White Christmas, that old chestnut (1954) starring Danny Kaye, Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, Dean Jagger, and dancer Vera-Ellen. I first saw this movie as a child, long, long ago, and have never forgotten that final scene with the entire cast in red and white, singing the title song with snow floating down all around. Magical. Today, the plot is, well, nothing less than corny, but you’ve got to hand it to the stars – they were talented, show biz pros. Vera-Ellen’s dancing was amazing, and the sound track contains such classics as “Count Your Blessings” and “Sisters”. Watch it for some old fashioned sentimentality, nostalgia, and post WWII can-do Americanism. It’s a lot of fun, even the preposterous parts (breaking into song at the railway station, for instance, or expecting the General to have been intimately acquainted with Privates Kaye and Crosby.) And oh, that Vistavision!!!

Watch This: The Help


New college grad Skeeter Phelan comes home to Jackson, bent on starting a career as a writer. Her friends welcome her back, but Skeeter’s changed in ways that they have not.  For one thing, Mississippi in the 1960’s was a hotbed of racial segregation, and Skeeter’s no longer comfortable with that. Her first summer home, she observes the way her friends (mis)treat their black maids, and, gradually, convinces some of the maids to talk to her about their lives, about which Skeeter knows very little. Soon, she has a publisher interested in compiling those interviews into a book.

The Help is written and directed by Tate Taylor, who elicited fine performances from his primarily female cast. Viola Davis, as the maid Aibilene, is the lynchpin that holds the story together, showing depths of carefully modulated  dignity, strength, and emotion in her dealings with employers and friends alike. The other standout is Jessica Chastain,  who plays the  white trash bombshell who snagged the town’s most eligible bachelor and is shunned by everyone but Skeeter. Her ability to project vulnerability and honesty without pathos is awesome. Bryce Dallas Howard, in the thankless role of beautiful, dyed-in-the-wool racist and social leader Hilly,  personifies the ugliness of the racial situation with aplomb. Emma Stone represents those looked their consciences square in the face and took up the banner in the civil rights movement, and as Skeeter, shows how much courage was necessary in that dangerous environment.

The Help  has taken a lot of critical flak from folks who have an ax to grind about how it presents the issue of segregation. But, first and foremost, The Help is a movie, based upon a novel,  not a sociological treatise. It’s intelligent, thought provoking entertainment.  It shows how things were, and in many cases, still are, and if it brings awareness to the minds of people who weren’t yet born during the 60’s, it’s done its job.

Watch This: Cheaper By the Dozen

2003. Directed by Shaun Levy, with Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt.

2 of 5 stars

Not even Steve Martin can save this remake of Cheaper By the Dozen, which is not nearly as good as either the book by Frank B. Gilbreth, or the original film made in 1950, with Clifton Webb. Part of the charm of the story as written was the occupation of the paterfamilias as an efficiency expert. Martin’s character is a football coach, which all but eviscerates the comic potential. Except for the fact of the twelve children, this  CBTD  bears no resemblance to the Gilbreth saga. Setting aside this issue, how does it play as a family movie?

Not well at all, sad to say. Martin might as well have phoned in his performance. Bonnie Hunt as wife and mother channeled Carol Brady. The kids are OK, but there are too many of them for anyone but the eldest son to establish their character. The screenplay is predictable, and most of the “humor” falls flat.

CBTD  might be suitable for viewing for families with young kids, but otherwise, it’s a yawner from start to finish. Why they ever made a sequel (CBTD 2) is a mystery. If you want to see a truly funny version of a true family, watch the original with Clifton Webb and Myrna Loy.

Watch This: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

   5 stars of 5

Only rarely does a movie based upon a novel capture the essence of the original, but with GWTDT, it’s now been accomplished twice over.  If you’ve seen the  excellent Swedish version that was released a couple of years ago, you’ve got to wonder why anyone would feel the need to do it again. Nevertheless,  screenwriter Steven Zaillian and director David Fincher did just that, and though theirs is not quite so menacing, it’s exciting, compelling, and very well made.  Daniel Craig turns in a solid performance as disgraced journalist Mikael Blomqvist, although it seems he’s been typecast, much as was Clint Eastwood in earlier days. Christopher Plummer is terrific in the role of  aging industrialist Henrik Vanger, who hires Blomqvist to find out who murdered his young niece decades ago. The real star of this show, however, is Rooney Mara, the virtual unknown who landed this plum of a role, the unconventional, psychologically damaged, yet powerful Lisbeth Salander.

This is a dark, brooding film, with two themes, that of the murder mystery, and that of  Lisbeth’s unrelentingly painful young life. Brilliant but almost psychotically defensive, she’s managed to retain her capacity for empathy. While she goes way overboard when compelled to bring about justice, she’s the type of heroine that you can’t help but root for. It’s interesting to see Lisbeth’s humanity begin to emerge as she and Blomqkvist begin to develop a relationship; too bad it takes about half the movie to get to their initial meeting. Though critics have written that the Zaillian version has been toned down for American audiences, its brutal violence and depravity are still difficult to watch. On the other hand, Sweden’s wintery scenery provides the perfect backdrop for such a story.

Let’s hope it’s not too long until the sequel, The Girl Who Played With Fire, hits the theaters.

Watch This: It Happened on Fifth Avenue

1947, Allied Artists, black and white

There’s nothing like a vintage Christmas movie to capture the holiday spirit, and It Happened on Fifth Avenue, though not very well known, fits in beautifully with its more popular cohorts. In the aftermath of WWII, many vets are having trouble finding work and affordable housing for their families in NYC, and Jimmy Bullock (Don DeFore) hatches a plan to purchase and renovate local barracks into apartments. A homeless drifter, Aloysius McKeever (Victor Moore), has made a comfortable life for himself by squatting in Fifth Ave. mansion while its magnate owner, “the second richest man in the world”, winters in Virginia. McKeever has a good heart, and he provides a home for the vets while they work out their plan. Meanwhile, the magnate’s daughter (Gale Storm) has run away from her school, and falls in love at first sight with Jimmy, who has no idea that she comes from wealth. What plays out is a warm-hearted comedy of role-reversal, in which the magnate (Charles Ruggles) finds the heart that he’d encased in granite long ago.

The casting department did itself proud by assembling these actors, who play very well against each other. The real star is Victor Moore, who masterfully pulls off  the role of tramp living like king without overplaying a single scene. There are many funny moments, and some schmaltzy ones as well. As in many early movies, the musical score is cloying to modern ears, but the film is engaging nonetheless, paying tribute as it does to the hopeful, can-do spirit of Americans after the war. The Christmas and New Year’s scenes occur at the very end, and perhaps this is the reason for the film’s failure to forge a strong association with the holidays.  In 1948, it was nominated for the Academy Award in the best story category, but it lost to Miracle on 34th Street.