Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Murder and Mayhem in Brooklyn

Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant): Insanity runs in my family. It practically gallops.

In 1944, Cary Grant was one of the most popular movie stars in Hollywood.

He's been called "the best star actor there ever was in the movies," and, if he wasn't, he should have been. The American Film Institute agrees. When AFI named its top 50 male and female movie stars, it listed Grant as second only to Humphrey Bogart.

During his career, Grant must have co–starred with nearly all of the most beautiful leading ladies of his time, but I don't think he ever really had the same chemistry with any of them that he had with Priscilla Lane in "Arsenic and Old Lace," which made its big–screen debut 70 years ago today.

Grant seemed to have chemistry with everyone, but there was something special about his chemistry with Lane. She had a definite girl–next–door quality, not unlike Mary Ann on Gilligan's Island, that set her apart from Grant's other co–stars. That was a good quality for her to have because, in "Arsenic and Old Lace," she was the girl next door. The viewing audience knew her as Grant's new bride, but, before that, she had been the girl next door.

Lane was young and vivacious — and not a star in the sense that Katharine Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, Irene Dunne and many of Grant's usual co–stars were. Lane probably would have qualified for one of those "you know the face, but do you know the name?" contests — if such a thing existed in 1944.

Lane didn't upstage Grant, who was clearly the star (and, therefore, the primary attraction) of the movie — perhaps that was part of what made the movie so appealing. In reality, Grant was 11 years her senior, but they looked very natural together on screen. It worked in a way that Grant's other on–screen relationships did not.

Lane's character wasn't submissive, she was deferential. The thesaurus may tell you that those words are synonyms, but they don't really mean precisely the same thing.

Maybe a big part of the movie's success was the dialogue, which came from Joseph Kesselring's 1939 stage play. It was a huge hit, opening in January 1941 and moving to the Hudson Theatre in 1943 before finally wrapping up in 1944 after more than 1,400 performances.

That's an important fact to remember because the movie was made in 1941; but it couldn't be released until after the play had concluded its run on Broadway because of a mutual agreement between Warner Bros. and the producers of the play.

That led to some interesting quirks in the story. For example, the story itself took place in Brooklyn, and it was supposed to be set in the present day. When the movie was made, the then–Brooklyn Dodgers had won their first National League pennant in more than 20 years (they lost the World Series to the New York Yankees, four games to one), and the opening sequence shows the jubilation of Brooklyn baseball fans.

In the next three years, the Dodgers plummeted to 42 games out of first place, and, what with the war and everything, the '41 pennant was a distant memory by the time the movie made it to the theatres — so the references to Brooklyn's championship season had no real relevance to moviegoers in 1944.

One of my favorite lines in the movie was when Aunt Martha (Jean Adair) said she was anxious to leave Brooklyn because the community had changed since the Dodgers "won that old pennant thing." That certainly would have been a lot more amusing in 1941. Audiences in 1944 had to reach too far into their collective memory bank.

Aunt Martha and Aunt Abby (Josephine Hull) were delightful supporting characters who, as one of their charities, poisoned lonely old bachelors and widowers to end their suffering, then buried them in the cellar — with the assistance of their nephew Teddy, who believed himself to be Teddy Roosevelt.

(A nice touch was the way Teddy would run up the stairs and yell "Charge!" It was his re–enactment of Roosevelt's famed charge up San Juan Hill.)

I don't think I ever saw Adair in any of her other film roles (there weren't that many of them; most of her career was spent on the stage) so I think of her performance as Aunt Martha when I think of her, but Hull is different. I always associate her with her Oscar–winning role in "Harvey." It was a similar kind of role, I guess — a peculiar, even eccentric, older lady — and she was awfully good at it.

It wouldn't be right to discuss the supporting characters without mentioning two other, more sinister characters — played by Raymond Massey and Peter Lorre.

Massey took the place of Boris Karloff, who was still appearing in the stage version on Broadway when the movie was being made. Adair and Hull were in the Broadway play, too, but they were given leaves of absence to make the movie. Karloff was the main attraction of the Broadway show, however, and couldn't be spared.

The movie retained a line that was written for Karloff. His stage character was supposed to have had facial surgery by his companion, who had been intoxicated and made the character of Jonathan look like Karloff. The resemblance was mentioned in the script and, presumably, it drew a huge laugh from theater audiences when Karloff was said to look like Karloff.

To support the story about the surgery, Massey was made up to look like he had scars on his face.

As a student of history, though, I have more appreciation for a line that Massey's character delivered.

To set the table, as it were ... there was a discussion about Massey's murder record stacked up against the record of his aunts in Brooklyn. One of the victims Massey claimed to have killed had died of pneumonia — but he had been shot first. Lorre's character insisted that it didn't count.

"He wouldn't have died of pneumonia if I hadn't shot him," Massey replied.

I don't know if Americans of that time were as ignorant of the nuances of history as they are today, but that was an allusion to the death of President James Garfield in 1881.

Garfield was shot in early July 1881 and lingered for weeks, at times appearing to improve only to get worse. Eventually, he died more than two months after being shot. Officially, he died of a heart attack and pneumonia, neither of which probably would have occurred if not for the facts that he had been shot earlier and the inadequate medical treatment he received had taken a toll on his system.

So Massey's assertion that a victim wouldn't have died of pneumonia if he hadn't been shot was a reference to the manner of the president's death.

I wonder how many people knew that in 1941 or 1944.