Thursday, October 25, 2018

Halloween at the Movies: 1918-1978

To a large degree the rise in popularity of Halloween in the United States and  the birth of cinema coincided with each other. The celebration of Halloween was brought to North America in the mid-19th Century by Scottish immigrants. By the 1880s and 1890s the celebration of Halloween had entered mainstream American society to the point that Halloween parties were not uncommon. English inventor Wordsworth Donisthorpe patented the first motion picture camera in 1876. Others would follow suit in the 1880s and 1890s. In 1893 the Edison Manufacturing Company showed the first kinetoscope film in public exhibition. The year 1895 arguably saw the birth of modern day cinema. That year  Woodville Latham held the first commercial projection of a film in the United States and Auguste and Louis Lumière held the first commercial projection of a film in Europe. Given that the celebration of Halloween in the United States and motion pictures roughly grew up together, it should come as no surprise that Halloween would appear in movies from time to time in the early to mid-20th Century.

It is perhaps impossible to determine what the first film to reference Halloween was. That having been said, among the very earliest was the 1918 film The Way of a Man with a Maid. Directed by Donald Crisp and released by Paramount Pictures, the movie starred Bryant Washburn as a bookkeeper, Arthur McArney, trying to live on $21 a week. This is complicated when he falls in love with stenographer Elsa Owenson (played by Wanda Hawley), who has another suitor in the form of the wealthy Sankey (Jay Dwiggins). At one point in the film Arthur spends $200 in order to attend a swank Halloween party with Elsa. Unfortunately Arthur is called into work and Elsa attends the party with his rival Sankey.

Two films in 1934 would include Halloween in their plots. The first of these was As the Earth Turns, released by Warner Bros. and starring Jean Muir and Donald Woods. The film centres on a young couple struggling to make a living on a farm in Maine. Included in the film is a Halloween dance. The second film to mention Halloween released 1934 was, of all things, a Western starring Ken Maynard, Smoking Guns. The plot involves Ken Masters (played by Ken Maynard) trying to clear his father of a crime. Included in the plot is a Halloween dance at which the villain plots to ambush Ken. Depending on when the film was set, it would seem to be a bit anachronistic. Halloween would not be widely celebrated in the United States until the 1880s, and Halloween parties would not become particularly common until the 1890s.

Halloween would play a more significant role in the 1937 movie Boy of the Streets starring Jackie Cooper. The film begins at Halloween in a slum in New York City. Children are dressed in costumes and going down the street on scooters, bicycles, and box cars. Many of them are pulling pranks, such as turning over trash cans. The film seems to emphasise the Celtic roots of Halloween, as an Irish cop references having celebrated it in the Old Country.  Here it must be pointed out that trick-or-treating does not play a role in the children's celebration of Halloween. Although the custom was already observed through much of the United States, it had not quite yet been spread to much of the East Coast.

Halloween also played a role in Boy Friend (1939), starring Jane Withers. In Boy Friend a police officer Jimmy Murphy (played by Richard Bond) goes undercover as part of a gang. When one of the friends of his younger sister Sally (played by Miss Withers) is murdered, she and another one of her friends decide to solve the murder themselves. To this end she sneaks into the Golden Parrot Club, owned by mobsters, on Halloween and entertains the customers there, while her friend searches the basement.

Halloween would play a bigger role in the Ealing comedy The Ghost of St. Michael's (1941). The film starred Will Hay as a hapless teacher, William Lamb,  who finds himself teaching at a school on the Isle of Skye and living in the haunted Dunbain Castle. During the film William catches the students celebrating "the feast of Halloween", which they describe as an old Scottish custom. Among other things, the students are stealing food and drink (including whiskey) for their party in their dorm.  The Ghost of St. Michael's is notable as one of the earliest British films to reference Halloween.

The year 1944 would prove to be a significant one in the history of film with regards to Halloween, as two major releases (both now regarded as classics) dealt with the holiday. The first released of the two films was Arsenic and Old Lace, based on the hit Broadway play of the same name Arsenic and Old Lace was shot in 1941, but not released in 1944 after the play had ended its run. It stars Cary Grant as Mortimer Brewster, who visits his two spinster aunts (played by Josephine Hull and Jean Adair) upon the occasion of his engagement. Unfortunately for Mortimer, he soon learns that his aunts have a rather disturbing secret. Fittingly enough for a horror comedy, Arsenic and Old Lace is set entirely at Halloween. In fact, it quite possibly might be the first film to feature trick-or-treating. At one point in the film trick-or-treaters show up at the aunts' door and the aunts give them jack o' lanterns as treats. Of the films made during the Golden Age of Hollywood, perhaps no other movie has as strong a link to Halloween as Arsenic and Old Lace does, to the point that it would perhaps be accurate to say that it is to Halloween what It's a Wonderful Life (1946) or Miracle on 34th Street (1947) are to Christmas.

The second movie to be released in 1944 to deal with Halloween was Meet Me in St. Louis, which was based on Sally Benson's book of the same name, a novel that grew out of her short stories originally published as a series  in The New Yorker under the title "5135 Kensington". Meet Me in St. Louis followed the lives of the Smith family in St. Louis during the year leading up to the World's Fair (1903-1904).  A rather long segment of Meet Me in St. Louis is set at Halloween in 1903, and is particularly interesting for its portrayal of Halloween customs at the start of the 20th Century. The segment begins with youngest Smith daughters Tootie (played by Margaret O'Brien) and Agnes (Joan Carroll) getting dressed in their costumes for Halloween. Tootie goes to the door of a dread neighbour, Mr. Braukoff (played by Mayo Newhall) and throws flour on him (believe it or not, this was a common Halloween prank at the turn of the 19th Century). Later Tootie and Agnes are nearly killed when they try the rather dangerous prank of placing a dummy on the trolley tracks.

The following year, 1945, saw the release of another film that included Halloween, The Woman Who Came Back. It was one of the very few horror films of the era to acknowledge the holiday. The Woman Who Came Back centred on Lorna Webster (played by Nancy Kelly), who returns to her hometown in New England. Descended from the witch hunter Elijah Webster, she soon becomes convinced that she is possessed by a famous witch from the past. Fittingly enough, Lorna arrives in her hometown on Halloween. Halloween decorations adorn the houses in the town, and children are wearing their Halloween costumes.

While Halloween played fairly significant roles in Arsenic and Old Lace, Meet Me in St. Louis, and The Woman Who Came Back, it played only a minor role in My Blue Heaven (1950). My Blue Heaven centred on Kitty and Jack Moran (played by Betty Grable and Dan Dailey), a married song and dance team who want to adopt a child. As might be expected of a Betty Grable musical, it features several song and dance numbers. Among the numbers is one dedicated to Halloween, complete with a jab at Irving Berlin for having written songs for every single holiday except it.

Despite its title, Halloween would play a major role in the 1960 Hayley Mills movie Summer Magic. Indeed, the movie climaxes with a house warming party held on Halloween. Quite naturally, the party has many of the trappings of the holiday, including jack o' lanterns and corn shocks.

Halloween would also play a role in the film Conrack (1974).  Conrack starred Jon Voight as Pat Conroy, a young teacher assigned to Yamacraw Island off the coast of South Carolina. As it turns out Yamacraw Island is extremely isolated. In fact, most of the residents speak a dialect of Gulah. Conroy strives to teach his students about the outside world. To this end he takes his students to Beaufort on the mainland for Halloween, an excursion that would mark their first significant interaction with the outside world.  This does not sit well with the school's superintendent, Mr. Skeffington (played by Hume Cronyn), who takes Conroy to task for it.

The year 1976 would prove to be a fruitful one for films referencing Halloween, with no less than three movies released. The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976) begins at Halloween, which also happens to be the birthday of the main character Rynn Jacobs (played by Jodie Foster). The movie features children in costume trick-or-treating. Rynn, who is from England, knows very little about Halloween and has to have the holiday explained to her.

Prior to the Eighties it was a rare thing for horror movies to be set at Halloween. An exception to this rule was The Clown Murders (1976). In an effort to spoil a businessman's real estate deal, four friends dress up as clowns on Halloween and kidnap his wife. Unfortunately, the four friends find themselves hunted by a killer in a clown costume. While not a very good film, The Clown Murders is significant as one of the earliest films to deal with the now common "evil clown" trope.

Kenny  & Company (1976) was a much more innocent film than the thriller The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane or The Clown Murders. It followed several the three days leading up to Halloween in the life of a boy named Kenny (played by Dan McCann). Kenny & Company captures Halloween as it was observed by boys in the Seventies very well. Halloween is a bit in the background in the early part of the film, although Kenny and his friends are making their plans for it. They are getting their costumes ready and determining the best houses to visit. The climax of Kenny & Company takes place on Halloween, with the boys trick-or-treating and Kenny being sent into a scary looking house.

It would be in 1978 that a film would be released that would change things forever. Aside from Arsenic and Old Lace and Meet Me in St. Louis, John Carpenter's Halloween may be the most famous movie to deal with the holiday. As its name suggests, the film takes place almost entirely on Halloween. The film centres on Laurie (played by Jamie Lee Curtis), a babysitter who finds herself facing the psychotic killer Michael Meyers. As might be expected Halloween featured some of the trappings of the holiday, including brief sightings of trick-or-treaters and jack o' lanterns.

Halloween would prove to be a smash hit at the box office. It would also have a lasting influence. While it was not the first slasher movie, the success of Halloween would spur a cycle towards slasher films that would last well into the Eighties. And while only only a few horror movies were set at Halloween prior to the release of Halloween, afterwards there would be a whole slough of horror movies set, at least in part, on the holiday. Among these films were The Amityville Horror (1979), The Changeling (1980), Creepshow (1982) Trick or Treat (1986), and Demonic Toys (1992).

In addition to feature films, Halloween would also prove to be a popular theme for theatrical animated shorts. Most series had at least one Halloween entry. "Felix the Cat Switches Witches" (1927) pitted Felix against witches at Halloween. The title of "Betty Boop's Hallowe'en Party" (1933) is pretty much self-descriptive. "Trick or Treat" (1952) is considered one of the all time classic Donald Duck shorts, featuring Huey, Duey, and Louie and Disney's version of Witch Hazel. "Broom-Stick Bunny" (1956) pitted Bugs Bunny against Warner Bros.' version of Witch Hazel on Halloween.

With regards to live-action short subject, the classic "Our Gang" short "Bouncing Babies" is set at Halloween and features the gang in costumes. It also featuring Halloween pranks, including one in which the gang changes Wheezer's little brother with a goat.

Halloween celebrations in the United States grew up alongside the cinema. Ultimately motion pictures would chronicle many of the changes to the holiday over the years. Early films centred primarily on Halloween parties. Halloween pranks made their appearance in sound films fairly early. Arsenic and Old Lace marked what might be the first instance of trick-or-treating on film, a custom that would be featured in many movies set at Halloween to come. And while horror movies of the Golden Age were rarely set at Halloween eventually it would become commonplace for horror films to be set on the holiday. The celebration of Halloween in the United States and motion pictures emerged at about the same time, and it seems likely that they will continue to evolve together.

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