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- The Cartography of WolvesApril 22, 2021
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I want to say that Frank Capra’s 1944 film Arsenic and Old Lace does for Halloween what his other 1944 film It’s a Wonderful Life did for Christmas, but I just don’t think we live in that world. It would in fact be a wonderful life if Arsenic and Old Lace were played on every channel in the days leading up to the holiday, or if characters in modern movies watched it on their TV sets to clue in the audience to what season it’s supposed to be, which is all often the case for its Yuletide counterpart. I don’t know why Arsenic and Old Lace is not a more beloved, more celebrated old movie, but Halloween, as everybody knows, is the season of giving, love, and forgiveness, so I’ll table my complaints for now in favor of a testimonial brimming with holiday cheer. Arsenic and Old Lace is as Rockwell-esque as It’s a Wonderful Life, a gleeful, ghoulish comedy that runs wild in an aesthetic of darling, old-fashioned, almost Victorian-Americana. It is quaint. It is cozy. It is joyous. It is not a film, so much as a carol. A Halloween carol, you might say.
But this picturesque aesthetic works to meaningful thematic ends, even beyond making its (actually very dark) subject matter feel cute and funny. And, by the way, there is a lot of dark subject matter to make cute and funny: Arsenic and Old Lace is full of serial killers, psychotic convicts, dead bodies, monsters, and the constant threat of murder. But the out-of-place charm and even small-town-ish-ness of the film exists in excess not solely to transform its grotesque elements into cuteness, but to make, in a way, the “cute” and the “quaint” and even the “American” appear grotesque, themselves.
Based on the hit 1941 play by Joseph Kesselring and screenwritten by Casablanca dream team Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein, Arsenic and Old Lace is the story of Mortimer Brewster, a famous, wealthy, and well-liked theater critic (the first tip-off that this thing is fiction), who discovers one Halloween night that his entire family is criminally, murderously insane. Until he heads home (to the quaint Brooklyn street where he was raised), on that day, Mortimer (Cary Grant, hyper and muttery) believes that the biggest trouble before him is a nuptial scandal, that he’ll make a mockery of his career by getting married. He’s the author of several bombastic, comical books that decry marriage, entitled things like The Bachelor’s Bible, yet what has he done? Gone and fallen in love with Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane), the daughter of the Minister who lives across the road from his two adorable spinster aunts, Abby (Josephine Hull) and Martha (Jean Adair). Mortimer’s aunts raised him in that house, so Elaine’s really “the girl next door,” of all things—a homey figure that checks the highfalutin city boy persona he has adopted. After they get married in the Manhattan courthouse and duck the paparazzi (again, he’s a theater critic?!), they swing by Brooklyn to say a quick goodbye to their families before heading to Niagara Falls. That’s when Mortimer stumbles upon a dead body stuffed into the window seat of his Aunts’ well-kept parlor.
First he assumes that this is the work of Teddy (John Alexander), his cousin who resides there and believes himself to be Teddy Roosevelt. Actual Teddy Roosevelt. But Mortimer soon learns that, no, this corpse is the work of his two cute, jolly aunts—enthusiastic but remorseless serial killers who rent lodgings to “lonely old men” and fatally poison them (using a cocktail of arsenic, strychnine, cyanide, and elderberry wine). They joyfully see it as acts of compassion, but Mortimer begs to differ. So does the audience. Indeed, one of the cleverest things that this very self-referential script does is collapse the character of the theater critic with the actual spectators, separating him from the farce and reserving his judgement as legitimate. Mortimer has never been in a position to judge his own family, before—and now his eyes are opening to the macabre production that has, unbeknownst, played around him for his whole life.
And with this, the movie turns from a screwball romantic comedy about a secretly-reformed chauvinist who falls in love with a girl from his own neighborhood, into a high-stakes farce about a man who discovers that his loving family (and the idyllic block where he was raised) are not nearly as charming and innocent as they once seemed. There have been clues to this all along—including Mortimer’s ne’er-do-well brother Jonathan Brewster, whom they haven’t seen in years. Their childhood was spent with Jonathan tormenting Mortimer, and Mortimer seems to have blocked out the darker aspects of this fraternal bullying. But then, of course, this Halloween night, when Mortimer has to negotiate between the new, impatient bride waiting across the street, a dead body in his family’s living room, and his Aunts’ frank confession of numerous murders, Jonathan (Raymond Massey) finally returns home. But Jonathan doesn’t look like himself—a wanted man (guilty of a dozen murders, just like his Aunts), he has commissioned a cowardly, alcoholic surgeon named Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre) to cosmetically reconstruct his face, resulting in a hack job that permanently makes him look like Frankenstein’s monster, scars and all. (My favorite running joke in this very meta play is that characters frequently tell Jonathan he looks like Boris Karloff, the actor who famously played Frankenstein’s monster onscreen—and in the play’s original Broadway run from 1941 to 1944, who played Jonathan but Boris Karloff, himself. Hahahaha. Hahahaha.)Mortimer has never been in a position to judge his own family, before—and now his eyes are opening to the macabre production that has, unbeknownst, played around him for his whole life.
Jonathan’s face change from man to monster is a helpful swap, visually revealing to Mortimer the underlying brutishness, inhumanity, and possibly evil inherent in the Brewster clan, all along, disguised not only by human faces but compassionate acts and loving behavior (indeed, the police officers on the block ‘look out for’ the Brewster sisters in the wrong sense, taking extra care of them because they’re so sweet). The Brewsters’ performance of humanity has thoroughly hoodwinked and therefore evaded the theater critic nephew Mortimer for his entire life, until a series of obvious accidents start to reveal that it’s a facade. The trick, if you will, underneath the treat.
Speaking of facades, the film, which bills itself as a “Halloween tale of Brooklyn—where anything can happen, and it usually does,” takes place on a block near the Brooklyn Bridge that might as well be Sleepy Hollow or Bedford Falls; save for the giant, illuminated backdrop of the Brooklyn Bridge in the distance, it is firmly “not Brooklyn.” It’s not even in New York. While Victorian houses and woodsy groves and old graveyards (the composition of this “Brooklyn” set) were certainly extant in this borough circa 1942 (when the film was made, though it was released in 1944, because of contract specifications), they didn’t appear tucked together, on quiet, tree-lined streets, and they certainly didn’t exist below the Brooklyn Bridge. This neighborhood, which we now refer to as DUMBO (just north of Brooklyn Heights), was an industrial neighborhood in the 1940s, and the houses that did stand there were row houses, townhomes, and small apartment buildings. Quaint, sure, but decidedly urban. (Those interested in taking a peek back in time should check out the 1940s reconstruction of NYC done by software engineer Julian Boilen, using WPA and Tax department photos from that era.) It’s curious that Capra’s version, which invented this charming fake-Brooklyn outdoor set (since the set of the Broadway version was exclusively the Brewster’s living room), chose this small-town, WASPy aesthetic, not only because it’s incorrect, but because it’s patently the opposite of what Brooklyn actually looked like, and was perceived to be like.
In this film, the denizens of Brooklyn are not immigrants, not working-class. We do get a glimpse of them: the title card, which promises a “Halloween tale of Brooklyn” flashes an aerial view of an ordinary urban block. After that, there is a very short montage “of Brooklyn,” that strange world where rules don’t apply: the film shows a fight breaking out at Dodger Stadium which causes a bunch of spectating nurses to laugh, a scene which The New York Times bemoaned in its review for having “no apparent reason for being in the picture at all.” But I think it does have a reason… under the guise of establishing the fringier borough as a kind of social no-man’s-land, a place where strange things might happen, it also shows two distinct Brooklyns, one that’s looks like the stereotype of Brooklyn (known for being boisterous and predominantly working-class, as well as for that famous baseball team), and one that looks like the stereotype of America, which is where our film actually takes place.
I think this strange detail clues us into this adaptation’s master plan, or, at least, it works perfectly in my own reading. The perfect silliness of this brilliant comic conceit (that Mortimer realizes his whole family is murderously insane) yields to metaphor, when it’s mentioned that the Brewster clan is descended from the Mayflower voyagers. They embody a notion of “true Americanism” in the same the way that their Victorian street caricatures it. The two antique, spinster Aunts, with their homicidal poisons, are witchlike in their characterizations, but with their ancestry, they are associated with Puritanical Plymouth rather than (the more obviously Halloween-amenable) Puritanical Salem, switching a site of proliferation rather than termination. Cousin Teddy acts as a living seance for the ghost of Teddy Roosevelt, one of the loudest characters in the pantheon of so-called American heroes, whose own larger-than-life-ish-ness masks mass murder done in the name of American expansion.The Brewsters are a twisted, perverted clan, whose bloodthirst is inbred to its ancientness, its American-ness.
The Brewsters are a twisted, perverted clan, whose bloodthirst is inbred to its ancientness, its American-ness. Their heaping small-town aesthetic seems picturesque and delightful until it it is revealed that it goes part-and-parcel with a history of killing. It’s no coincidence that Abby and Martha tell Teddy to go dig the Panama Canal in their cellar when they want to bury another body of a murdered boarder; the Brewsters are living and undying (especially once Jonathan shows up, looking like Frankenstein’s reanimated corpse, an actual undying body) monuments to a dark history of America, one of colonization and murder underneath a facade of clapboard and lace. The film doesn’t harp for too much longer on the historical-genocidal implications of this, but the themes are nonetheless striking. The Brewster family is as old as America, itself, and the Brewsters and America kill inconvenient parties and bury their skeletons interchangeably.
Mortimer is afraid that he’s going to turn out to be criminally insane like the rest of his family, and he’s afraid of going on his honeymoon with his newlywed Elaine, for that reason. It’s noteworthy that the rest of the Brewster clan is patently non-sexual; Abby and Martha are elderly spinsters, while Teddy’s delusions seem to negate his sexual viability, and Jonathan is represented as inhuman entirely (plus he’ll also be arrested again soon). Mortimer is the only chance his family has to reproduce their way into the American future, which they’ve managed to do for so long. So, it’s a great relief when his aunts confess to him that he was adopted by their family as a baby. Instead of being the son of the great, historic house of Brewster, he’s the son of a Sea Cook. Well, Mortimer is ecstatic not to be related to them, not to carry their genes (wouldn’t you be?). And in a small way, the image of mythic, quaint, small-town America that literally provides this film with its most towering set-piece gives way to the actual composition of Brooklyn. And, neatly, the descendant of a maritime-specific laborer is endowed with greater morality and reason than he would have been, had he been the descendant of a maritime-specific colonizer.
Indeed, Mortimer’s newfound working-class genealogy is revealed as a kind of true Brooklyn, and the worthier America, while the creatures haunting this Halloween night prove to be the nation’s “founding” families and its most passionate expansionists, wreaking havoc for their sheer comforts, pleasures, and delights. Teddy, with his jubilant charges up the stairs (which he believes to be San Juan Hill), embodies the notion of pitiless and even exultant murder, through his taking on the persona of the death-dealing Manifest Destiny advocate Teddy Roosevelt. More simply, Abby and Martha love murdering. Jonathan does too. Centuries after their ancestors seized Massachusetts, they admit it freely and perform it constantly. In Arsenic and Old Lace, only the working classes are free from the kind creepy, twisted entitlement of America’s tallest family trees. And, therefore, the working-classes are represented as deserving to take over for these wrongly-long-esteemed figures of destruction and self-righteous delusion.
Mortimer, a kind of reverse King-Arthur (pure of heart because he’s definitely not descended from Anglo-Saxon kings) must dismantle the production (and reproduction) put forth by this family. It’s a perfect metaphorical mission to complete on Halloween night, but this is an autumnal movie whose events would work just as well on Thanksgiving. Indeed, the quaint, charming, adorable Arsenic and Old Lace hints to us, there is nothing scarier or darker than the kind of pageant that represents American history as endearing, attractive, and upright.