An enchanted evening at the theatre . . . I treasure each part of the experience, from the preshow people-watching and intermission bathroom sprints to the unavoidable eavesdropping during the exiting traffic jam. More than the show itself, it’s the little things that have exaggerated my smile lines over the years — politically incorrect fur, drag queens in the most gorgeous of veiled hats, the politics of the armrest, and of course spelling “theatre” with an “re,” ignoring my all-American spell-checker. Hardly difficult to relish the entire night, but lately I’ve walked out of numerous shows thinking, “I really liked the first act.” I just can’t seem to settle into Act Two.
Plays that have gone from the classic stage to the classic screen often make my list of favorites, mostly because I notice the theatre training possessed by the performers. When I finally sat down to this film adaptation that stars the man who should have been my husband, I assumed that the next day another favorite would be added to the shelf. The opening credits, bordered with illustrations of Halloween witches, caused my inner Wicked Witch of the West to stir in a familiar way. . . fortunately parts of our childhood are waterproof. I knew the general plot: Cary Grant is the nephew of two sweet spinster sisters who poison elderly gentlemen and bury them in their basement. I would have put money down on the possibility of this becoming one of my go-to movies. And yet, as I followed Mr. Grant through Arsenic and Old Lace, I suspected this was going to be another of my one-act wonders.
While the earlier part of the film centers around these two kindhearted serial killers and their dashing nephew, the second half shifts a bit when a long-lost, homicidal relative returns for visit. Raymond Massey throws himself into the role of Cary Grant’s creepy brother, accompanied by a whipped but equally crazy Peter Lorre. Nerdy or nightmarish, Mr. Lorre always reminds me of a cute little teacup poodle, always a pleasure to see. But this time I started to lose interest as the film progressed; the more I wanted of Aunt Martha, Aunt Abby, and their wicked wine, the less I received. I found myself fidgeting when they weren’t in a scene, all due respect to the rest of the cast. Call me crazy but two old ladies who have 12 men buried in their basement are much more intriguing than Massey’s character, a maniac who rolled right off the villain assembly line.
Break out a pen and the list of things we must appreciate about old movies: you just never know who might show up. A most cruel form of self-torture is trying to identify the voice from a cartoon — the frustrating game of “who’s voice is that” has kept me awake more nights that I care to count. Then again, how amazing does it feel when you fight the urge to consult the omnipo-Net and actually think of it on your own? Happily it took about five fractured seconds to identify Edward Everett Horton, a name I must have missed in the opening credits . . . maybe I’m not used to seeing his name without a cranky little fairy flying around it. The narrator of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show’s side feature, Fractured Fairy Tales, Mr. Horton had a voice full of comfort for the younger, trusting audience. It also had a perfectly measured dose of “wink” in it for the adults enjoying the tales’ subtle, mature humor. He pops in here as a doctor, and I’ve had the Fractured Fairy Tales theme music on constant repeat in my head for three days.
This one is good for a foggy Sunday, so have a seat, pour yourself a glass from an unopened bottle, and enjoy an Act or Two . . .