Old(ish) Wine, New(ish) Bottle

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Back around the time of the First Ice Age, I recall a (1969) TV production of that enduring (and endearing) old chestnut, Arsenic and Old Lace, of which my mother disapproved of me watching.  The play, she pointed out, had “undertones.”  I didn’t know what she meant then, and I still don’t.  What ‘undertones’?  Everything in this piece is laid out like a frilly tablecloth for dinner.  The Brewsters are homicidal loonies, thirteen bodies are buried in the cellar, and Brother Jonathan greatly resents remarks about his personal appearance.  Nothing hidden or covert here.  You can duck under that tablecloth looking for all the undertones you want, but it’s pretty much all laid out on the table.  Only waiting for guests to be seated and served.  Elderberry wine, of course.

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Just about everyone with access to a TV, DVD player, or TCM knows Arsenic from its 1944 Frank Capra film incarnation.  Over the years the movie has achieved film-classic status (though its star, Cary Grant, didn’t care for either the film or his own performance).  The play itself, however, since its debut, not only has had countless theatrical stagings throughout the world (an acclaimed Broadway revival ran in 1986), but also several television adaptations (an IMDB list can be found here).  It’s no one-off wonder, even if it was a one-hit wonder for its originator, Joseph Kesselring, who never wrote a hit play before it, and never a hit play after.  I imagine he must have lived comfortably off its royalties alone.

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The 1969 TV production I saw, at which my mother pursed her lips but let me watch anyway (readers of my blog can judge whether that viewing has had warping aftereffects), did take some liberties and make some changes.  It updated its late-Depression-Pre-WW2 ambiance to the Swinging Sixties and to Television itself.  There are references to TV violence, Ann Landers, and the “fuzz”; Mortimer Brewster is not a theater but a television critic; and the aspiring policeman-writer pitches not a play but a TV pilot (to a bound-and-gagged Mortimer…how else to treat a critic…).  But the adaptation also kept much of the original play, especially its ending—Mr. Witherspoon about to sip a glass of that infamous elderberry wine—and its language—Mortimer happily informs his bride not that he’s a “son of a sea cook” but a “bastard.”  I think that’s an improvement, as it leaves no doubt what is meant.  No undertones here.

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Not everyone (per reading the comments on YouTube and IMDB) enjoys this version.  Mainly, it seems, because it’s not Capra’s film.  Capra’s movie is beloved by its fans; I’ve no doubt it’s an annual Halloween viewing treat for many.  The film is so well known, I sense its partisans may think it’s the only interpretation possible (how many realize it was based on a hugely popular play, still performed today?).  As sacrilegious as it may be to state, I do have issues with Capra’s version.  Capra directs it for farce, and sledgehammered farce, at that—lots of noise, motion, banging doors, racing actors, who ham it up in double- and triple-takes.  The performances are broad, the line readings emphatic, the pacing uneven and frenetic.  Grant disliked the film for those reasons, though such reasons may be why audiences enjoy it.  It’s fast, loud, funny, and uncomplicated, like a Saturday-morning cartoon.

In contrast, the TV adaptation is lighter, not slamming the jokes at us, and the pacing is better; it probably helped that it was filmed in front of a live audience, allowing the actors, many of whom, such as Helen Hayes, Lillian Gish, Fred Gwynne, David Wayne, and Jack Gilford, were stage-trained, to tune their performances to audience response.  Some things don’t work.  Such as the updating:  The opening, in a discotheque (extras doin’ the Frug or the Monkey or whatever) is extraneous to the plot (and looks awfully quaint now, from a 21st-century perspective).  And some performances sag:  Bob Crane (billed as Robert) as Mortimer doesn’t have the other actors’ stage smarts; at times he loses focus, his face turning blank as if he’s forgotten his motivation.  He also lacks Grant’s pop-eyed energy (I like Grant’s performance, even if he didn’t), so the play’s center wheels away from him, leaving him, so to speak, on the sidelines.  And I sense that Bob Dishy, as the cop-turned-playwright-manqué, improvised his lines, which was a mistake; he spins off into stream-of-consciousness tangents that are boring and stop everything dead.  Comedy works best when it’s kept tight and focused; unless you’re Robin Williams (and even Williams could overdo it), actors should stick to their business.

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But I did enjoy this adaptation.  Counting 1969, I’ve seen it three times and always laugh when I watch.  I especially enjoy Gwynne as Brother Jonathan, which he plays with a Boris Karloff accent and a mad, John-Barrymoresque grandeur; you’re never quite sure where he’s going to go with the part.  Hayes and Gish, as Aunts Abby and Martha, are adorable, their timing and reactions spot-on, their pleasure in their ‘charitable’ activities (helping lonely old gentleman to their heavenly reward) deliciously balanced between sweetness and ham.  And I laughed out loud at Wayne as Brother Teddy, which I don’t when I watch John Alexander (even though he originated the role).  Wayne is more subtle and sophisticated in his line readings, and he brings something different—a timing, a precision, a crispness to the part, using his actor’s intelligence to re-think and re-freshen this character.  Whether charging up San Juan Hill or heading down to Panama, he plays his scenes with a hilarious, yet artless brio; watching him was like seeing something wholly original and new.

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That, for me, is the advantage of this TV version—it allows you to see the play with fresh eyes, its familiar (Capraesqued) contours revamped and revised.  You realize that the play stands on its own, that its humor doesn’t rely on the movie’s elephantine antics, but can be rethought and redone to be, as it were, rediscovered.  Part of this adaptation’s fun is that, being filmed live, you pick up on the actors’ own enjoyment in their skill and in the audience response (per IMDB, the cast rehearsed several weeks before filming, allowing them to develop a rapport unusual for TV productions).  You can sense, even in this worn TV print, at decades’ remove from the live event, that this is what thespians live for—that unique alchemy of live theater, of ‘being in the moment,’ when performer, character, spectators, and play fuse into a living, breathing entity.  Which is how a play should be experienced.

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And that brings me back to Joseph Kesselring’s play, the source, origin, and founding document of what we know and love of the nutty Brewster clan, the body in the window seat, and that bottle of seemingly innocent homemade wine.  The play’s legend, as variously told, is that Kesselring had intended it as a ‘straight’ thriller but changed it, on the advice (and perhaps rewriting) of producers Howard Lindsey and Russel Crouse, into a comedie noire.  Despite its depiction of serial murder, the play is not scary (though a further legend has it that Kesselring was inspired by a real criminal, a landlady who poisoned her tenants).  But Kesselring’s (and perhaps his collaborators’) genius is that he/they turned what would normally be considered horrifically disturbing into non-stop laughs; their control over its macabre story has the elegance and delicacy of old lace itself.  Like fine wine (elderberry or not), you can savor it for its taste alone.

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As with all great black humor, Arsenic is deeply subversive, upending our gatekeepers’ ideas of proper entertainment for the masses.  Perhaps that’s what my mother meant by ‘undertones’—our laughter at its frolics arises from other than innocent delight.  But that we do laugh, at this 1969 adaptation as well as its many others, demonstrates the innate strength of Kesselring’s play—that it can encompass numerous interpretations and styles, but that it should be seen for what, on its own, it is:  A great and funny show.  I don’t know what Kesselring’s other plays are like, but, as his Wikipedia entry notes, Arsenic is his “masterpiece”—its lightning striking for him just once, that, captured and bottled (like a certain flask of spirits), being all he needed.  Productions of it may, like elderberry wine, come and go, but Arsenic is for the ages, Ice or otherwise.  No undertones need be read there.

Happy Halloween

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While available, you can watch the 1969 adaptation of Arsenic and Old Lace here on YouTube.  Be warned, the black-and-white print is dark and the sound is tinny, but the play does come through.

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2 Comments

  1. Brian Schuck

     /  November 1, 2022

    Very thoughtful tribute to this TV production! Capra’s Arsenic and Old Lace was one of my wife’s and my picks to watch during the Halloween season. I’d seen a high school production (one of my best friends played Teddy, and I thought he was hilarious), and a college one (also well done), but I’d never seen the classic film version. I thought Cary was just a bit too frenetic, but I loved Raymond Massey and his Frankenstein monster-like interpretation, and Peter Lorre causes me to smile no matter what he’s in. The 1969 version looks intriguing, with that cast and the clever updating. I always admire people who take on old “chestnuts” with an eye to doing something different, or maybe even definitive, with them. You’ve got to admire their gumption!

    Reply
  2. The 1969 tv version is not bad, and some of the updating worked, and I really enjoyed the actors. And I think a new take on this much-seen play can be refreshing to watch. The play does seem a favorite with high school and college drama societies (it’s performed so often, I wonder if it’s in the public domain?). Cary Grant didn’t like his own performance in the Capra film, and blamed the director for it, though the actresses who play the aunts in it are adorable. Someone on Twitter sent me a YT link to a 1962 TV production of the play that stars Boris Karloff as Brother Jonathan. I haven’t watched it yet, but I’d love to see Karloff in the role he originated and which spoofs him! here’s the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qipwzSdVi7I

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