Sunday, October 29, 2017

Five Reasons Why Turner Classic Movies Should Show Arsenic and Old Lace in October

Turner Classic Movies is my favourite cable channel. It is the one place where I am guaranteed to see classic movies every single day. I especially look forward to each October when TCM shows classic horror movies, particularly those from Universal, RKO, and Hammer. Unfortunately there is one movie that is often missing from TCM's schedule this time of year: Arsenic and Old Lace (1944). It is true that Arsenic and Old Lace is not a straight forward horror movie. Indeed, it is a comedy. That having been said there are several reasons why it is the perfect film for TCM to show every Halloween season.

1. It is set at Halloween.

It is made very clear at the beginning of Arsenic and Old Lace that it takes place on Halloween. Indeed, the opening credits are filled with Halloween imagery: witches, a black cat, an owl, a jack o' lantern, and bats. If that was not enough, titles at the very beginning of the movie announce, "This is a Halloween tale of Brooklyn, where anything can happen..." Throughout the film there is dialogue to the effect that it is Halloween. That brings us to the next reason that Turner Classic Movies should show Arsenic and Old Lace just in time for Halloween....

2. It features what may be the first ever instance of trick-or-treating in a feature film.

Although it seems as if it has always been a part of the holiday, trick-or-treating is actually a relatively recent development. The first reference to trick-or-treating was in Alberta, Canada in 1927. From there it spread to the western United States. Throughout the Thirties the custom moved eastward until it reached the East Coast towards the end of the decade. For that reason trick-or-treating is not portrayed in any feature films made in the Thirties. No films made in the early Forties mention trick-or-treating either, with the exception of Arsenic and Old Lace. Shot in 1941, but not released until 1944 when the Broadway play upon which it was based had ended its run, Arsenic and Old Lace appears to have been the earliest film to portray trick-or-treating. The scene happens very early in the film, with Aunt Abby and Aunt Martha handing out jack o' lanterns to trick-or-treaters who arrived at their door.  The scene is brief, but it perhaps establishes Arsenic and Old Lace as being a Halloween movie more than any other scene in the film.

3. Arsenic and Old Lace is a horror comedy.

That Arsenic and Old Lace is a comedy there can be no doubt. That having been said, it is part of a particular subgenre of comedy, the horror comedy. Let's face it, the movie not only deals with little old ladies who poison lonely old men, but features a serial killer in the form of Jonathan Brewster (played by Raymond Massey). Add to this the fact that it is set in a creepy old house that is just across from a graveyard. What is more, Arsenic and Old Lace features some frightening moments, much more frightening moments than such fellow horror comedies as The Cat and the Canary (1939) or Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).  In other words, Arsenic and Old Lace would fit in quite well with the more serious Universal and Hammer horrors TCM shows during October.

4. Among the stars of Arsenic and Old Lace is Peter Lorre.

Today Peter Lorre is counted among the great horror actors. Following Arsenic and Old Lace he would make several horror movies, including Invisible Agent (1942), The Beast with Five Fingers (1946), Tales of Terror (1962), and The Raven (1963). Even in 1941 he would have had a link to the genre. A good argument can be made that M (1931) is as almost as much a horror movie as it is proto-film noir. Even if M is not counted as a horror movie, Peter Lorre starred in Mad Love (1935), in which he played a somewhat more sinister surgeon than Dr. Einstein in Arsenic and Old Lace. Of course, in the original stage version of the play there was an actor who even then was more firmly linked to the horror genre than Peter Lorre ever would be. Boris Karloff played the role of Jonathan Brewster. Unfortunately, the producers of the play would not release Mr. Karloff to do the movie, so Raymond Massey was cast in the role. That having been said, Raymond Massey was made to look as much like Boris Karloff as possible. That brings us to the fifth and final reason TCM should show Arsenic and Old Lace at Halloween.

5. There are a lot of Boris Karloff references.

Given Boris Karloff was cast in the role of Jonathan Brewster, the original play contained a number of references to the actor as in-jokes, including the famous line, "He looks like Boris Karloff." While Jonathan Brewster was played by Raymond Massey in the film, he was made to look as much as Boris Karloff as possible. What is more, the various Boris Karloff jokes remained in the film. Now there is perhaps no other actor as connected to Halloween as Boris Karloff, and not simply because he appeared in countless horror movies. He was often in demand as a guest on Halloween episodes, both in radio and on television. He appeared on the 1947 Halloween episode of Bing Crosby's radio show, where he sung "The Halloween Song" with Bing Crosby and guest Victor Moore. He later appeared on the 1950 Halloween edition of the Paul Whiteman Revue. On television he appeared, alongside Lon Chaney Jr. and Peter Lorre, in the famous Route 66  Halloween episode "Lizard's Leg & Owlet's Wing". He even appeared on the 1965 Halloween edition of the rock music show Shindig. If this were not enough to cement Boris Karloff's association with the holiday, he was the star of the stop-motion animated classic Mad Monster Party (1967), traditionally shown at Halloween. While Boris Karloff did not star in the film version of Arsenic and Old Lace, there are enough references to him to link him to the film and provide yet another link between the film and the holiday.

It is because of the reasons above that many people, myself included, enjoy watching Arsenic and Old Lace every October. Indeed, in the days when independent stations dotted the television landscape, it was not unusual for many of those stations to show the movie each October, often on Halloween itself. I am really hoping that next year Turner Classic Movies will show Arsenic and Old Lace in October and that they will do so from here on out. It really should be as much of a tradition for TCM to show Arsenic and Old Lace in October as it is for NBC to show Its' a Wonderful Life (1946) every December.


Unknown said...

Couldn't agree more! Arsenic and Old Lace is one of my favourites.

Caftan Woman said...

A classic. Never underestimate the old ladies. They did as good as Jonathan!