With Arsenic and Old Lace playing such a prominent role in the current Gruesome story it’s about time we dug in to this Boris Karloff classic.
Arsenic and Old Lace is well-known as one of the most successful and enduring plays in the history of stage. Written by Joseph Kesselring and opening on Broadway in January of 1941, this was a dark comedy starring Mortimer Brewster who returns home while debating his plans for marriage and is forced to deal with his insane and homicidal family.
This wonderful family includes two spinster aunts, who have taken to murdering lonely old men with poison, a brother who believes he is Theodore Roosevelt and digs the Panama Canal in the basement and a murderous brother Jonathan Brewster played by Boris Karloff. In an effort to evade police capture, Jonathan has received plastic surgery from an alcoholic accomplice (Dr. Einstein) and the botched facial surgery is easily one of the most hilarious bits in the play when Jonathan realizes his new face makes him look exactly like Boris Karloff.
During its original run, the play was extremely well received and closed in June of 1944 after an impressive 1,444 performances in New York City. In 1944 this made Arsenic and Old Lace a top 5 all time Broadway play and even today in 2014 it remains in the top 60.
A movie version of the play was made by Frank Capra in 1941 starring Cary Grant as Mortimer Brewster. While produced in 1941, the film was not released until the New York play closed in 1944 and play managers prevent Karloff from taking part in the film for fear of lost ticket sales.
Throughout the years following the play’s initial run, Karloff would occasionally reprise his role on stage, radio and even in television. We wonder if Karloff, commonly type cast as a horror genre star might have seen the comedic Arsenic and Old Lace as a breath of fresh air.
Below we have linked a couple good videos on Arsenic and Old Lace:
Things are quiet on the Dick Tracy front as I think most of us are happily consuming the current Gruesome story line but we do have some news for Tracy comic collectors. IDW’s Complete Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy Volume 18 is now available for pre-order. It’s hard to believe these collections are already through the end of the 1950’s and this book will be covering December 15, 1957 through July 11, 1959. That includes villains Miss Egghead, Headache, Popsie, Pantsy and Rhodent.
With Halloween right around the corner it’s time to get Gruesome! Mike Curtis has teased us with Dick Tracy’s fall enemy, the fearsome 1947 film foe Gruesome. Like Cueball before him, Gruesome’s comic strip introduction is occurring six and a half decades after his 1947 film debut and we excited to see him added to the comic strip canon.
So who is Gruesome? RKO Pictures created 4 Dick Tracy movies between 1945 and 1947, Dick Tracy Detective, Dick Tracy vs. Cueball, Dick Tracy’s Dilemma and finally Dick Tracy meets Gruesome. This last film was the most star-studded, with horror genre star Boris Karloff (of Frankenstein fame) playing the role of Gruesome against Ralph Byrd’s Dick Tracy. Karloff was so well-known in 1947 that his villain role was promoted more than that of the hero.
In this Dick Tracy classic which you can watch below, the stern-faced Gruesome is a cold-hearted ex-con who stumbles upon a poison gas designed to freeze individuals in place. Gruesome is initially exposed to the gas and thought dead, leading to a classic Karloff moment when Gruesome awakens like a zombie in the city morgue, much to the surprise of Pat Patton. Gruesome and an accomplice use the gas in a daring daylight bank robbery, which goes off perfectly except for witness Tess Trueheart who hid in a sealed phone booth.
Tracy and Pat Patton investigate the heist and gas, relating it to the disappearance of a scientist named Dr. A. Tomic. These names are very Gouldian, with A. Tomic’s associate Dr. I.M. Learned either helping or hindering the investigation. The movie toys with several horror themes during their detective work, an example being Pat Patton’s nervous search of a taxidermist shop. Yet, the movie pokes fun at itself and the horror genre with Tracy commenting that this Gruesome fellow feels like a character out of a Boris Karloff film.
While Tracy and Patton’s investigation closes in on the bank robbers, Gruesome plays his role with cold malevolence as he silences those who might lead Tracy to him. Of course Tracy eventually does still track Gruesome down and they face off in a well done battle complete with a conveyor belt feeding a red-hot furnace. I’ll not reveal if Karloff’s villain ends up in flames like so many of his other monstrous roles. For now, we’ve only gotten our first peek at Curtis’s Gruesome and it will be interesting to see what traits of the character will remain, if any at all!
Mural in Pawnee, Oklahoma by Ed Melberg in 1990.
Chester Gould’s hometown of Pawnee, Oklahoma celebrates Dick Tracy’s birthday each year and will do so again this coming Saturday in what is now an annual historical society event. Chester was born in Pawnee on Nov 20th, 1900 and although he moved to Chicago in 1921 and came to live in Woodstock, he always remembered his roots, calling out former Pawnee classmates by naming stores and such after them during a case.
World Scene Writer Jimmie Tramel has written a nice article for the Tulsa World on the Pawnee celebration with quotes from Chester and his brother Ray from early 30’s and 40’s interviews. Here’s the link if you are interested.
Volume 17 of IDW’s professional hard cover Complete Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy series has finally been released and is for sale now. We love IDW’s Dick Tracy collections and this volume, which reprints strips between May 14, 1956 and Dec 14, 1957 completes 25 full years of Chester Gould strips. Volume 17 starts with the haunting conclusion to the Flattop Jr. saga began in the previous collection and is followed by Lizz Worthington joining the police force.
Following the conclusion of the Flattop Jr. case, Tracy and team delve in to some lesser known stories which make the volume, which is good news because we might not know how a case might end! Money and death are prevalent in most of these stories which star a new host of crazed villains, including the murderous Kitten Sisters; the Clipso Brothers, Spec and Ivy and comic relief in the form of bandleader Spike Dyke and B.O.’s father Morin Plenty and his sugar-addicted wife Blossom.