Sunday, October 23, 2011

'Arsenic and Old Lace' - ABC, 1969 / With Bob Crane, Helen Hayes, Lillian Gish, and Fred Gwynne

By Carol Ford

Promotion of Arsenic and Old Lace,
The Hollywood Reporter,

Wed., April 2, 1969.
The classic comedy-drama, Arsenic and Old Lace, originally written for the stage by Joseph Kesselring, depicts a day in the life of television critic Mortimer Brewster, who has just become engaged to Elaine Harper. Eager to share this happy news with his somewhat off-beat (and unbeknownst to him, occasionally murderous) family, he introduces Elaine to them.

Trouble begins for poor Mortimer from almost the moment he steps into the old, Victorian-style, eerie but outwardly cheery New England house, where his two spinster aunts reside with his psychologically challenged uncle. Before everything is all said and done, Mortimer discovers his aunts' macabre secret, attempts to cover it up, and is held hostage and almost killed by his brother, all while trying to justify his unfortunate relationship to these wildly eccentric and often dangerous people. If Mortimer has any advice for the world, it's don't look in the window seat and don't drink the Elderberry wine.

Bob Crane with Fred Gwynne, Lillian Gish, and
Helen Hayes in the 1969 ABC movie,
Arsenic and Old Lace.
Originally starring Cary Grant and Priscilla Lane, the 1944 movie adaptation directed by Frank Capra was a smash hit with audiences, even though Cary Grant confessed to hating the movie and regretted making it. More than two decades later, ABC remade the film for a 1969 Movie of the Week. This latter version, directed by Robert Scheerer, stars Bob Crane in the leading role of Mortimer Brewster, the increasingly confused nephew of the sweet but murderous Aunt Abby and Aunt Martha, played by Hollywood screen legends Helen Hayes and Lillian Gish. Sue Lyon costars as Mortimer's pretty fiance, and Fred Gwynne (of The Munsters fame) was appropriately cast as the criminal brother, Jonathan Brewster, who enjoys dabbling in the art of human butchery. Jack Gilford portrays Jonathan's sidekick, Dr. Jonas Salk (renamed in this adaptation), and David Wayne appears as Uncle Teddy, who believes he is Teddy Roosevelt.

Unlike the 1944 major motion picture with Grant, the 1969 version was performed as a theatre production and filmed almost entirely onstage. There are two main sets in the 1969 remake: the grand living room and the kitchen, with only a handful of scenes filmed outside and off-stage. Following the production, there is a curtain call by the cast, and the camera pans the applauding audience as the actors take their bow as they would after any theatre performance.

Bob Crane with Sue Lyon.
Arsenic and Old Lace, 1969.

The 1969 film was met with mixed and sometimes poor reviews. It seemed impossible to review this version without comparing it to the 1944 classic or screen giant Cary Grant. Modern critics further claim it bears too much of an ominous foreshadowing to Crane's own 1978 murder to be enjoyed.

Having recently watched the 1969 film, now more than forty years after its debut, I agree that some of that criticism is warranted. For example, the opening scene in a flashy dance club seems completely out of place with the rest of the film, and it's even difficult to hear Crane and Lyon exchanging their lines. The film editing is also not the best, and it bears all the choppiness one might expect of a late-1960s, low-tech production. Finally, it is difficult not to think of Bob Crane's gruesome murder when Mortimer nearly faces the same fate.

However, I also find the general dislike of the film by critics to be a bit harsh. When you look past these surface flaws and sad irony, and study the performance itself, what you see is a hidden gem. This 1969 film is not a late-night, made-for-TV flop; it is archived footage of these actors performing live, on stage, in front of a theatre audience - as they would have performed had they been on stage in any theatre production. And that, my friends, is almost impossible to come by. 

Bob Crane, Helen Hayes, and Lillian Gish rehearse
a scene for Arsenic and Old Lace.
Bob Crane starred in many theatre productions since the 1950s, including Cactus Flower, Send Me No Flowers, 6 Rms Riv Vu, Tunnel of Love, and Beginner's Luck, and he earned high critical praise for his performances. He had his sights set on Broadway, and at the start of his first summer theatre tour (Cactus Flower) in 1969, Crane admitted, "I'm hopeful it will serve as a springboard on Broadway." Watching Crane in this performance of Arsenic and Old Lace provides us with a glimpse of his stage talents, which he continued to hone until his death.

Upon learning he had won the part in Arsenic and Old Lace, Bob was overjoyed and humbled at the prospect of working with Helen Hayes and Lillian Gish. In a TV Guide article, he noted, "If someone had said to me, before it happened, would you like to work with Helen Hayes and Lillian Gish, I'd have said they were joking!" Bob also took the advice of Hayes, who had encouraged him to expand his acting style by appearing in more movies and stage plays during his summer hiatus from Hogan's Heroes. Hayes, who thought very highly of Bob, stated in the same TV Guide article, "I watch Hogan's Heroes regularly. This young man, Bob Crane, is a wonderful farceur, and there are almost none of them around anymore. He's habit-forming."

As for the 1969 ABC adaptation of Arsenic and Old Lace, it is extremely difficult to find. Hopefully, ABC will one day release the film on DVD. This film is a rare treat, and one that I encourage you to discover.

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Efron, E. (1968, August 3). Think John Wayne. TV Guide, pp. 25-27.
Pullen, G.C. (1969, June 8). Hogan's hero has eye on future. Plain Dealer.