Alcoa Presents: One Step Beyond (known simply as One Step Beyond in syndication) was an anthology that explored the paranormal, focusing on events that seemed to defy rational explanation. Over the course of its run, various episodes of One Step Beyond featured such things as premonitions, clairvoyance, ghosts, astral projection, parallel universes, and so on. While Alcoa Presents: One Step Beyond covered some rather fantastic subject matter, the episodes were claimed to be based on true events.
Alcoa Presents: One Step Beyond was the creation of writer Merwyn Gerard. Mr. Gerard had a long career in radio, having written for such shows as The Whistler, Suspense, Escape, and Night Beat, before moving into television where he wrote episodes of such programmes as Robert Montgomery Presents and M Squad. Mr. Gerard's original idea was that of an imaginative anthology that would rotate each week between fantasy, horror, tales of the paranormal, and science fiction. Originally titled Imagination, it was later retitled Fantasy. Merwyn Gerard brought Collier Young in as the line producer on the show.
Mr. Young had been married to director and film star Ida Lupino, and had worked with her on such films as Never Fear (1949), Outrage (1950), Hard, Fast, and Beautiful (1951), and The Bigamist (1953). On television he had created the show Mr. Adams and Eve. He also brought Larry Marcus onto the show as a writer. Mr. Marcus had written on such films as The Red Dress (1954) and Witness for the Prosecution (1957) and for such TV shows as Four Star Playhouse, M Squad, and Wagon Train. As a director on the show and its host Merwyn Gerard brought in John Newland. As a director Mr. Newland had directed episodes of Robert Montgomery Presents, The Thin Man, and The Loretta Young Show, as well as the films That Night (1957) and The Violators (1957). As an actor he had appeared in the films and on such TV shows as Studio One, Philco-Goodyear Playhouse, Lights Out, Tales of Tomorrow, Kraft Theatre, and Robert Montgomery Presents.
In the end Messrs. Gerard, Young, Marcus, and Newland disposed of the idea of a show that would rotate between fantasy, horror, the paranormal, and science fiction. Quite simply, there had already been horror anthologies (Lights Out) and science fiction anthologies (Tales of Tomorrow), and they wanted to do something that had never been done. Given that except for the short lived quiz programme E.S.P. (hosted by Vincent Price) there had been no programme focused on psychic phenomena, the four of them decided they would produce a show that centred on paranormal events. They further decided that their prospective show would be based on fact. That is, each episode would be based on something that had actually happened. The episodes then unfolded as docu-dramas, with John Newland offering evidence as to the events portrayed in the episodes at their end. This naturally set One Step Beyond apart from the horror and science fiction anthologies that had preceded it.
The pilot for One Step Beyond, "The Bride Possessed," was written by Merwyn Gerard and directed by John Newland. It cost $30,000, a respectable amount for a television pilot at the time. Once the pilot was completed, the production team set about trying to sell it to a sponsor. In the end aluminium producer Alcoa Inc. agreed to sponsor the show for an entire season. As a result it would receive the name it would bear throughout its network run, Alcoa Presents: One Step Beyond. Alcoa was one of the major television sponsors of the era, and had already sponsored The Alcoa Hour (which ran from 1955 to 1957) and Alcoa Theatre, whose run overlapped with One Step Beyond (Alcoa Theatre ran from 1957 to 1960).
Ultimately Alcoa Presents: One Step Beyond would prove moderately successful. It debuted on 20 January 1959 and ran for a total of 95 episodes (nearly three seasons) until 4 July 1961.
Following its initial network run, reruns of One Step Beyond would be syndicated until well into the Eighties. In fact, it proved to be successful enough in syndication that a new version, The Next Step Beyond, was produced for first run syndication in 1978. Unfortunately, it would not prove as successful as the original, only running for one season (25 episodes). As to the original series, it would be run on the Sci-Fi Channel in the Nineties and has since been released on DVD.
In many ways One Step Beyond was a pioneering television show. It as the first scripted series to deal with the paranormal. It was the forerunner of such shows as The Sixth Sense, The X-Files, Medium, The Ghost Whisperer, and Haven. Indeed, in some respects it could even be considered an indirect ancestor of various reality shows dealing with the paranormal that filled cable channels in the Naughts.
Today when people think of fantastic situation comedies in which an ordinary person is living with someone with extraordinary powers, they are inclined to think of the Sixties. After all, that was the decade when such fantastic comedies as My Favourite Martian, Bewitched, and I Dream of Jeannie aired. The first such show, however, aired in the Fifties. This pioneering sitcom was based on both a classic book and a soon to be classic series of films. The novel Topper by Thorne Smith was first published in 1926 and proved to be a best seller. In fact, it was so successful that Thorne Smith wrote a sequel, Topper Takes a Trip (1932). Topper would be adapted into the classic 1937 film of the same name starring Cary Grant, Constance Bennett, and Roland Young. The film version of Topper proved so successful that it would be followed by two sequels: Topper Takes a Trip (1938) and Topper Returns (1941). A radio show would follow; The Adventures of Topper, once more starring Roland Young in the title role, aired as a summer replacement series on NBC in 1945. Given the success of Topper in various media, it was quite natural then that in 1953 producers Bernard L. Schubert and John W. Loveton, who had already seen some success on the small screen with Mr. and Mrs. North, acquired the television rights to Topper.
Thorne Smith's novel centred on an uptight banker, Cosmo Topper, who finds himself haunted by a husband and wife team of ghosts, Marion and George Kerby, who take it upon themselves to liven Topper's life up. Both the 1937 film version and the 1945 radio show followed this same format, as would the television show. Screen actors Anne Jeffreys and Robert Sterling, who were married in real life, had a successful night club act in 1952 and, as a result, were cast in the role of the Kerbys. Leo G. Carroll, who had appeared in such films as A Christmas Carol (1938), Wuthering Heights (1939), and many Alfred Hitchcock films (everything from Rebecca to North by Northwest), was cast as Cosmo Topper and Lee Patrick, who had appeared in such films as The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Now, Voyager (1942) was cast as his wife Henrietta. A character who appeared in neither the novels nor the films was added to the television series, that of the St. Bernard Neil, a ghostly dog who had died with the Kerbys.
For the television series the antics of the fun loving Kerbys were toned down a bit from the novels and even the films, although it was still clear that the couple enjoyed having a good time. Even in death the Kerbys continued to enjoy good food, good drink and smoking, and they still endeavoured to brighten Cosmo Topper's previously drab existence. As might be expected, the majority of the plots of Topper involved the Kerbys getting Topper in and out of trouble. Topper was then the direct forerunner of such imaginative sitcoms as My Favourite Martian, Bewitched, and I Dream of Jeannie, in which an ordinary person's life is complicated by a supernatural being living with them. Among the writers who contributed scripts to the show was a young Stephen Sondheim, who wrote eleven episodes for the show, including the pilot.
Topper debuted on CBS on 9 October 1953. Not only did it receive sterling reviews from critics, but it also proved to be a hit with viewers. The show was still receiving excellent ratings in its second season when it abruptly came to a halt. Quite simply, Camel cigarettes decided that it did not want to pay for a third season of Topper. This left Topper with only one sponsor, General Foods. Because Camel had decided to no longer sponsor Topper, the show ended its run after its second season. The show ended its run on 15 July 1955 with a total of 78 episodes. ABC would air reruns of Topper later that same year and then NBC would air repeats of the show in 1956. Afterwards it went onto a highly successful syndication run.
A pilot for a new Topper series was aired on ABC in 1979, with Kate Jackson and Andrew Stevens as the Kerbys and Jack Warden as Cosmo Topper, but it failed to sell.
Arguably Topper may have inspired the entire cycle towards ordinary
people living with supernatural beings that was so prevalent during the
Sixties. It was only six years after Topper left the air that Mister Ed (the sitcom about the famous talking horse) debuted. It was only three years after the debut of Mister Ed debuted that My Favourite Martian (an ordinary man living with a Martian). My Favourite Martian proved to be a smash hit and soon the airwaves was filled with people living with witches (Bewitched), genies (I Dream of Jeannie), angels (The Smothers Brothers Show), and, of course, ghosts (The Ghost & Mrs. Muir). It seems possible none of these shows would have made it to the air had Topper not been there first. Quite simply, the success of Topper both in its first run and in syndication paved the way for a whole slough of fantastic comedies in the Sixties
Those of you who have read this blog for years know that I have a tradition of posting a week's worth of post related to the holiday prior to Halloween. This year I have planned posts on the horror pulp magazines, the classic film Peeping Tom (I don't care what anyone says, having seen it many times I still say it is a horror film), and a few other surprises. To start things off, here is a video I found on YouTube. It's Bobby "Boris" Pickett performing "Monster Mash" on American Bandstand in October 1964. I have already written about "Monster Mash" elsewhere, so without further ado I will leave you with the video!
John J. Lloyd, who did production design for TV shows from Alfred Hitchcock Presents to Emergency as as well as for films by both John Carpenter and John Landis, died on 20 September 2014 at the age of 92.
John J. Lloyd was born in 1922 in Dearborn, Michigan. In the mid-Twenties his family moved to Raymond, California. Later they moved to Culver City, California. Both his father and uncle worked for MGM. During World War II Mr. Lloyd served in the United States Navy. Following the war he attended the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles.
His first work as an art director came on the television show Lux Video Theatre in 1950. He later went to work for Revue Studios the television production subsidiary of the powerful agency MCA. In the Fifties at Revue he worked on such shows as Studio 57, Wagon Train, Suspicion, The Millionaire, Mike Hammer, M Squad, The Jack Benny Programme,and Leave It to Beaver. He worked a good deal on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Checkmate, serving as the show's art director for much of their runs.
In the Sixties John J. Lloyd served as art director on such shows as G.E. Theatre, Thriller, The Tall Man, Wide Country, The Munsters, and The Bold Ones. He worked on such TV movies as The Hanged Man (1964), Memorandum for a Spy (1965), and Code Name: Heraclitus (1967). The first feature film upon which he worked was Munster, Go Home! (1966). He also worked on the films Sergeant Ryker (1968), The Counterfeit Killer (1968), The Hell with Heroes (1968), Winning (1969), and Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970).
With the Seventies John J. Lloyd began to work increasingly in film. He worked on such films as How to Frame a Figg (1971), At Long Last Love (1975), The Day of the Locust (1975), MacArthur (1977), Animal House (1978), The Prisoner of Zenda (1979), and The Blues Brothers (1980). He continued to work in television for much of the decade, working on such shows as Columbo, McMillan & Wife, Emergency, and Ellery Queen. He also worked on such TV movies as Vanished, The Longest Night, Deliver Us from Evil, and Fear on Trial.
In the Eighties Mr. Lloyd worked on such films as Raggedy Man (1981), John Carpenter's The Thing (1982), D.C. Cab (1983), Crackers (1984), Maxie (1985), Big Trouble in Little China (1986), The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988), and Crazy People (1990). His last work was on The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear (1991).
John J. Lloyd was one of the best production designers to ever work in television. Indeed, he was nominated for several Emmy awards (including his work on Alfred Hitchcock Presents) and won for his work on the TV show Checkmate and his work on the TV movie It Happened One Christmas. He was also largely responsible for establishing the look of many shows from Revue and its successor Universal Television, including The Munsters, Columbo, and Emergency. It was John J. Lloyd who designed the rather impressive staircase on The Munsters.
Of course, Mr. Lloyd also worked extensively in film. He was not nominated for any awards for any of his work in the movies, although he really should have been. Indeed, his work on both John Carpenter's The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China was particularly impressive. Here it must be pointed out that Mr. Lloyd also had a gift for capturing the era portrayed in a film perfectly, doing so in both MacArthur and Animal House. John J. Lloyd had a real talent for production design, and it showed in everything he did.
Gerard Parkes, who appeared on the 1960s Canadian show The Forest Rangers, starred on the Eighties Canadian show Home Fires, and played Doc on Fraggle Rock, died 19 October 2014 at the age of 90.
Gerard Parkes was born on 16 October 1924 in Dublin, Ireland. He trained at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and appeared on stage in his native Ireland before immigrating to Canada in 1956. Mr. Parkes started his career with CBC Radio in 1958. He made his television debut on an episode of Encounter in 1960. He made his film debut in David Thompson: The Great Mapmaker in 1964.
In the Sixties Gerard Parkes had a recurring role on the Canadian family show The Forest Rangers and he was a regular on the fantasy shows Barney Boomer and Upside Town/Swingaround. He guest starred on the shows Seaway, Adventures in Rainbow Country, and Play for Today. He appeared in the films A Great Big Thing (1968), Isabel (1968), and The First Time (1969).
In the Seventies Gerard Parkes appeared in the mini-series The National Dream: Building the Impossible Railway He began playing the regular role of Doc Lowe on Home Fires in 1980, a role he would continue to play into the early Eighties. He guest starred on the shows King of Kensington and A Gift to Last. He appeared in such TV movies as Bethune and An American Christmas Carol, He appeared in the films Fleur bleue (1971), The Pyx (1973), Running Time (1974), Second Wind (1976), and Who Has Seen the Wind (1977).
In the Eighties Gerard Parkes appeared as eccentric inventor Doc on Fraggle Rock. He was the only human regular on the show. He also appeared as Doc in the television special A Muppet Family Christmas in 1987. He guest starred on such shows as The Littlest Hobo, Cagney & Lacey, Night Heat, Today's Special, The Twilight Zone, War of the Worlds, Friday the 13th: the Series, and Ray Bradbury Theatre. He appeared in the films Yesterday (1981), Spasms (1983), La ligne de chaleur (1987), Short Circuit 2 (1988), The Gunrunner (1989), Speaking Parts (1989), and The Last Winter (1989).
In the Nineties Gerard Parkes had a recurring role on Shining Time Station. He appeared on the mini-series Storm of the Century. He appeared in the films Money (1991), The Adjuster (1991), Trapped in Paradise (1994), It Takes Two (1995), Mother Night (1996), The Boondock Saints (1999), and Deeply (2000).
In the Naughts Mr. Parkes appeared in the films Moss (2004), Saint Ralph (2004), and The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day (2009).
While Gerard Parkes spent much his career playing physicians or priests, he was a very versatile actor. This can be proven by looking at two of his better known roles, both of which were named "Doc" (and neither of which was a physician or priest). Doc on Fraggle Rock was an eccentric inventor whose inventions were usually of the Rube Goldberg sort. Doc in both The Boondock Saints and its sequel was the owner of McGinty's bar in Boston. He had Tourette's Syndrome and was as a result prone to spouting obscenities at any given moment. The two Docs were about as different as can be, and yet Gerard Parkes played both excellently. He also gave a fine performance as the dotard, if slightly creepy Uncle Matthew in Isabel, for which he won the Gemini award for Best Performance by a Lead Actor. Although he is perhaps best known as Doc on Fraggle Rock, Gerard Parkes played a number of different roles in his career and did well in all of them.
If you are a fan of musicals and a fan of dance in particular, then you probably know who the Nicholas Brothers are. The Nicholas Brothers were Fayard and Harold Nicholas who together made perhaps the most spectacular dance team ever on the silver screen. The Nicholas Brothers combined tap dancing with acrobatics and even ballet to create some of the most incredible dance routines of all time. Fayard Nicholas was born 100 years ago today.
Fayard Nicholas was born on 20 October 1914 in Mobile, Alabama. His mother, Viola, was a classically trained pianist. His father, Ulysses, was a drummer. Both had college educations. They played in bands in vaudeville, forming their own band called the Nicholas Collegians in the Twenties. Nearly from birth, then, Fayard Nicholas was exposed to musicians and vaudeville performers. Fayard would be followed by two more siblings, his sister Dorothy and his brother Harold. Surprisingly enough, none of the Nicholas children had any formal training in dance or singing. By watching the performers on stage Fayard taught himself both how to sing and how to dance. He then taught his younger siblings, Dorothy and Harold, how to sing and dance as well. The Nicholas family eventually settled in Philadelphia.
Eventually Nicholas formed a dance team with Dorothy known as the Nicholas Kids. Harold later joined the dance team. Dorothy eventually left the act, whereupon they became the Nicholas Brothers. The Nicholas Brothers soon made a name for themselves. They made their debut on radio on The Horn and Hardart Children's Hour, which aired on n WCAU in Philadelphia, Afterwards they performed at such local theatres as the Standard and the Pearl. It was in 1932, when Fayard was 18 and Harold was 7, that the Nicholas Brothers made their debut at the Cotton Club in Harlem in New York City. They would perform at the Cotton Club for two years. It was also in 1932 that they made their debut on film, in the short "Pie Pie Blackbird" with Eubie Blake and his band.
Over the next few years the Nicholas Brothers would be very much in demand. They appeared as a dance speciality act in such films as Kid Millions (1934), The Big Broadcast of 1936 (1935), Babes in Arms (1937), and Down Argentine Way (1940). They made their debut on Broadway in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936. In 1937 on Broadway they appeared in Rodgers and Hart's Babes in Arms.
The Nicholas Brothers did not slow down in the Forties. They toured England, Europe, Latin America, and Africa. It was in 1948 that they gave a Royal Command Performance for King George VI at the London Palladium. The Nicholas Brothers would also perform for many Presidents of the United States. They also continued to appear as a speciality act on film, appearing in such movies as The Great American Broadcast (1941), Sun Valley Serenade (1941), Orchestra Wives (1942), Stormy Weather (1943), and The Pirate (1948). In the Fifties the Nicholas Brothers appeared in several movies made in Europe. They would later teach tap dancing at both Harvard University and Radcliffe College. Fayard appeared in the films The Liberation of L.B. Jones (1970) and Hard Four (2007), as well as a Bob Hope special in 1971.
In a different time and place the Nicholas Brothers could have been stars on the level of Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire. Both Fayard and Harold Nicholas were gifted with good voices and they were both handsome men. More importantly, they might well have been the greatest tap dancers of all time. Either Fayard and Harold could give Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire a run for their money. Had opportunities for African Americans in the Thirties and Forties been greater, it is not hard to imagine that Fayard and Harold Nicholas could have been major movie stars.
For those of you who have never seen The Nicholas Brothers in action, here is proof of their talent. This is their "Jumpin' Jive" sequence from the movie Stormy Weather. No less than Fred Astaire thought that it was the greatest dance sequence ever filmed.
Frank Capra apparently had a knack for making films that would be forever linked to specific holidays. It's a Wonderful Life (1946) is a perennial Yuletide favourite. Meet John Doe (1941) is also linked to that particular holiday. As to Frank Capra's adaptation of Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), it has always been tied to Halloween. There should be little wonder that it is. Not only is Arsenic and Old Lace set at Halloween, but its subject matter makes it perfect viewing for the holiday.
Arsenic and Old Lace centres on drama critic Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant), who returns to visit his spinster aunts, Martha (Jean Adair) and Abbey (Josephine Hull) following his wedding. His cousin Teddy (John Alexander), who lives with his two aunts, believes that he is Teddy Roosevelt. When Mortimer discovers a dead body in a window seat, he concludes that Teddy must have committed murder. It is not long before Mortimer learns the shocking truth behind the murder. Worse yet, his homicidal brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey) shows up. Jonathan brings with him surgeon Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre), with the plan that Einstein will perform plastic surgery on him so he won't be recognisable to the police As might be expected, hardly anything goes according to plan for either Mortimer or Jonathan.
The film Arsenic and Old Lace was based on the hit Broadway play of the same name by Joseph Kesselring, who wrote it in 1939. As hard as it is to believe, the black comedy had some basis in real life. It is commonly believed at Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas that Goerz House at the college served as the basis for the Mortimer sisters' home. While Mr. Kesserling taught at the college he lived at Goerz House, which at the time served as both a residence for male teachers and a men's dormitory. Among its features were a rather large window seat and a cellar with a dirt floor, much like the Mortimers' house. At Bethel College it is also believed that the Mortimer sisters themselves might have been based on people he met while living in Kansas.
Of course, no murders were ever committed at Goerz House at Bethel College. That having been said, the inspiration for that part of the plot of Arsenic and Old Lace might have been based on a real life murder case. Amy Archer-Gilligan was the owner of a nursing home, the Archer Home for the Elderly and Infirm in Windsor, Connecticut. For lifetime care at the nursing home, one only needed to pay Archer-Gilligan a one time fee of $1000. Unfortunately, she had a novel means of making more room at the home and thus creating more business. Quite simply, between 1907 and 1917 Archer-Gilligan murdered several of the residents at her nursing home for their pension money. She was charged with five counts of murder, which her lawyer got reduced to one count, although she might have been guilty of many more (between 1907 and 1917 there were sixty deaths at the nursing home). As to how she committed the murders, Archer-Gilligan had been buying arsenic in bulk, ostensibly to deal with a rat problem.
Prior to Arsenic and Old Lace Joseph Kesserling had not been particularly successful as a playwright. His first play on Broadway, There's Wisdom in Women, closed after only 46 performances in 1935. His third play, Cross-town, did even worse. It closed after only five performances in 1937. Fortunately Mr. Kesserling sent a copy of Arsenic and Old Lace (then titled Bodies in Our Cellar) to actress Dorothy Stickney with the idea that she could play one of the aunts. Ultimately she would not, but Miss Stickney was married to Howard Lindsay, who with Russel Crouse formed a successful writing team on Broadway. Mr. Lindsay saw potential in the script for Bodies in Our Cellar and as a result Lindsay and Crouse decided to make the play their first joint production on Broadway. Allegedly Lindsay and Crouse rewrote the play a good deal, although they took no credit for it publicly.
To direct Arsenic and Old Lace (as the play was retitled), Lindsay and Crouse turned to Bretaigne Windust, who had directed Lindsay and Crouse's hit play Life with Father in 1939. For the important role of serial killer Jonathan Brewster, Lindsay and Crouse recruited Boris Karloff (the line "He looks like Boris Karloff!" was then an in-joke that got uproarious laughter from audiences when the play was first performed on Broadway). For the other roles in the play Lindsay and Crouse hired Broadway veterans: Josephine Hull; Jean Adair; John Alexander; Allyn Joslyn; and Edgar Stehli.
The play Arsenic and Old Lace made its debut in a trial run in Baltimore, Maryland on 26 December 1940. The show opened to overwhelmingly positive notices from critics. It also proved to be a smash hit. It was then on 10 January 1941 that Arsenic and Old Lace made its debut on Broadway at the Fulton Theatre (now called the Helen Hayes Theatre). It proved to be an enormous success. As in Baltimore the reviews from critics were overwhelmingly positive. What is more, Arsenic and Old Lace was playing to largely full houses. The play would remain at the Fulton Theatre until 25 September 1943, whereupon it moved to the Hudson Theatre. It was there that it closed on 17 June 1944 after 1,444 performances.
Such success did not go unnoticed by Hollywood. Nearly every major studio sought the film rights to Arsenic and Old Lace, including Paramount and Samuel Goldwyn. In the end it was Warner Bros. who won the rights to the play, closing the deal less than a month after Arsenic and Old Lace had opened on Broadway. As part of the deal Lindsay and Crouse insisted that the film could not open until 1 January 1943, giving the play a chance to run two years on Broadway. As it was the play would run considerably longer and in the end the film would not be released until 23 September 1944.
Lindsay and Crouse were hoping that René Clair would direct the film version of Arsenic and Old Lace. Instead Jack L. Warner chose Frank Capra, who had directed such hit films as It Happened One Night (1934), You Can't Take It With You (1938), and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). The screenplay was written by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein. The screenplay would depart from the play in some respects, largely because of the Production Code. The line, "I'm not a Brewster! I'm a bastard!" had to be altered in order to conform to the Code. Another change made in the film is that in the play Mortimer and Elaine are only engaged, while in the film they have just married. Yet another change made for the film is that while the play is set in September, the film is set in Halloween.
The casting of the lead role of Mortimer for the film version of Arsenic and Old Lace would take some time. Originally Warner Bros. wanted Bob Hope for the role. Although it might seem odd now, there's no doubt that it made perfect sense to Warner Bros. at the time. Bob Hope had recently starred in two hit horror comedies for Paramount: The Cat and the Canary (1939) and The Ghost Breakers (1940), which they probably thought made him a good choice for Arsenic and Old Lace, yet another horror comedy. Unfortunately for Warner Bros., Bob Hope was under contract to Paramount and that studio refused to loan him out. Reportedly Frank Capra offered the role to Jack Benny, who was then under contract to Warner Bros., but Jack Benny turned him down. On 11 August 1941 Warner Bros. announced that Richard Travis (now best known as Bertram H. Jefferson in The Man Who Came to Dinner) would play Mortimer. This changed on 30 September 2011 when Warner Bros. announced that Cary Grant had been cast in the role.
The role of Mortimer would not be the only one that would prove difficult to cast. The role of Jonathan would as well. Warner Bros. wanted Boris Karloff to play the role, but Lindsay and Crouse did not want to release him from the play for two months to make the film. They tried to convince Warner Bros. to wait until June 1942, when Boris Karloff (and the rest of the cast, for that matter) would be free to do the film. Lindsay and Crouse believed that Boris Karloff was the play's chief asset and without him ticket sales could actually go down. Ultimately Raymond Massey would be cast in the role of homicidal sociopath Jonathan Brewster.
Then as now Raymond Massey was best known for playing villains in such films as The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) and Santa Fe Trail (1940). He had appeared with Boris Karloff in The Old Dark House (1932). He also resembled Boris Karloff insofar as both men were tall and somewhat menacing in appearance. As it was Frank Capra insisted that make up be used to make Raymond Massey look even more like Boris Karloff. This alarmed Warner's legal department, who had Mr. Karloff sign a release so that he would not sue the studio.
While Boris Karloff did not get to appear in the film version of Arsenic and Old Lace, his co-stars from the play Josephine Hull, Jean Adair, and John Alexander were able to recreate their respective roles of Aunt Abby, Aunt Martha, and Cousin Teddy for the film. The three actors were given eight weeks off from the play in order to play their parts in the film. Their roles were taken over by Patricia Collinge, Minnie Dupree, and Harry Gribbon respectively.
For the most part the rest of the cast was filled out by players under contract to Warner Bros. Legendary actor Peter Lorre played the role of plastic surgeon Dr. Einstein. Priscilla Lane played Mortimer's new wife, Elaine. Jack Carson played the rather clueless Officer O'Hara. Legendary character actor Edward Everett Horton was one of the exceptions in the cast. He spent nearly his entire career as a freelancer, so he was not under contract to Warner Bros. when he played Mr. Witherspoon, the superintendent of Happy Dale Sanitarium.
For its adaptation of Arsenic and Old Lace Warner Bros. spared no expense. Its cinematographer would be Sol Polito, who had already shot such classic films as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), 42nd Street (1933), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), and Angels with Dirty Faces (1938). He had already been nominated for one Academy Award, for his photography on The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939). Max Steiner, then as now known for his work on King Kong and Gone with the Wind, would compose the score. Arsenic and Old Lace was budgeted at $1,220,000 then a respectable sum for a film. It was given a shooting schedule of 48 days or, more simply, eight weeks.
Arsenic and Old Lace was shot from 20 October 1941 to 16 December 1941. Despite this it would be some time before the movie would be seen by audiences in the United States. As mentioned earlier, Lindsay and Crouse did not want the film released while Arsenic and Old Lace was still playing on Broadway. Initially they had thought the play would have ended its run by 1 January 1943 at the latest. As it turned out Arsenic and Old Lace was such a roaring success that it ran until 17 June 1944. While Warner Bros. would not release the film during this time, it was shown to troops serving overseas in World War II during 1943.
It was also during this period that the film would undergo one change from its original, completed version. The original, completed version of the movie Arsenic and Old Lace ended with Aunts Abby and Martha poisoning one last victim, Mr. Witherspoon. The Breen Office was none too happy with this ending, and it turned out that preview audiences were not either. In the end Warner Bros. simply cut the ending off, so the film ends with Mortimer, Elaine, and the taxi driver in the cemetery.
With the play's Broadway run completed Arsenic and Old Lace premiered at the Strand in New York City on 1 September 1944. It went into general release on 23 September 1944. In the intervening time two of the film's cast members had died, Edward McWade, who played the murder victim Gibbs, and Spencer Charters, who played the Marriage Licence Clerk. Priscilla Lane was also no longer with Warner Bros., the actress and the studio having terminated her contract by mutual consent not long after Arsenic and Old Lace had finished shooting.
The film Arsenic and Old Lace would prove very successful. It would literally play for weeks in several cities. Ultimately the film made $2,836,000 in the United States and $1,948,000 overseas. The film also received largely positive reviews. Donald Kirkley wrote in the Baltimore Sun, "The epic, macabre humour of Arsenic and Old Lace has been fully retained in the screen version... In some ways the film is superior." The New York Times reviewer wrote of the film, "Frank Capra has put into the picture all of the riotous farce, gentle naivete and broad melodrama that Messrs. Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse put originally into the Joseph Kesselring stage play."
Curiously not everyone was happy with the film adaptation of Arsenic and Old Lace. Cary Grant felt that he overplayed Mortimer Brewster and that Allyn Joslyn (who originated the role on stage) was much better. He also felt Jimmy Stewart would have done a better job of playing Mortimer in the film. Mr. Grant considered Arsenic and Old Lace to be his least favourite performance on film.
It would appear that audiences have disagreed with Cary Grant over the years. Arsenic and Old Lace continued to do brisk business well into 1945. The film would later prove to be a favourite on television, where it is among Frank Capra's most frequently shown films. Indeed, for many television stations airing Arsenic and Old Lace is a Halloween tradition.
As a postscript it must be noted that while Boris Karloff did not get to play Jonathan Brewster on film, he did eventually get to play the role in a television adaptation of the play. On 5 January 1955 the CBS series The Best of Broadway aired an adaptation of the play that not only featured Boris Karloff as Jonathan Brewster, but John Alexander as Cousin Teddy, Peter Lorre as Dr. Einstein, and Edward Everett Horton as Mr. Witherspoon. Josephine Hull would go from Arsenic and Old Lace to another great success on Broadway, the play Harvey. She would reprise her role as Veta Louise Simmons in the 1950 film version of Harvey as well.
Seventy years after its release Arsenic and Old Lace not only remains popular, but also well respected. At film review site Rotten Tomatoes the film has a rather phenomenal rating of 92%. At IMDB it has a rating of 8.1 out of 10. In 2000 the American Film Institute placed Arsenic and Old Lace at #30 in its "
100 Years...100 Laughs" list of the funniest movies of all time. Originating as a smash hit Broadway play, Arsenic and Old Lace has gone on to become one of the best loved film comedies of all time.