Arsenic and Old Lace

ArsenicAndOldLaceDT2014With 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.

ArsenicandOldLacePlaybillDuring 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:

Continue reading

Who is Gruesome?

DickTracyGruesomeWith 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!


Belinda Blue Eyes

BelindaBlueEyesEaster Egg, homage, having a little fun, whatever you call it, Mike Curtis and Joe Staton are masters of slipping in references to old comic strips. For the past several months one has been staring me in the face and I didn’t have the slightest clue! As we know, Dick Tracy and Annie Warbucks are trapped in a 1944 version of Simmons Corner, where most of the townsfolk are brainwashed by a daily “Belinda” radio show. While we caught the similarities between the radio shows secret code and a Dick Tracy Radio Secret Codes, I was surprised to learn in yesterdays interview (read it!) with Mike and Joe at Comic Book Resources that Belinda herself was an English version of Little Orphan Annie!


The Mirror, Dec 23, 1941

Belinda Blue Eyes was first published September 30, 1935 in the UK’s Daily Mirror by Bill Connor and Steve Dowling who signed with the name “Gloria”. Belinda was a blond-haired orphan waif of similar age and adventuresome spirit to Annie. The Mirror was Britain’s most important newspaper for strip cartoons and much of their early success came from copying American ideas but adding a regional twist for the home market. In addition to Belinda Blue Eyes, the Mirror introduced England to Buck Ryan (Dick Tracy), Just Jake (Li’L Abner) and Garth (Part Superman, Part Terry and the Pirates).

According to Steve Dowling, the Mirror’s Guy Bartholomew was fanatical about comic strips, having been an artist himself and his excitement towards the medium can be summed up with this 1941 comic page. With World War II paper rationing in effect, the Mirror was limited to 8 pages a day yet still they included a full-page of comics. This one page may have been an important momentary reprieve for British citizens directly threatened by the dominant German war machine.

The Belinda strip ended October 17, 1959 with artist Tony Royle and writer Don Freeman at the helm, and now you know.

Thanks to Mike and Joe for keeping it fun!

Talk Like a Pirate Day (Terry and the Pirates)

MystaChimeraQuestionHaving seen Hotshot Charlie’s B-17 flying over Simmons Corner a few days ago and in celebration of “Talk Like a Pirate Day”, I thought I’d do a blog post on Terry and the Pirates.  Don’t worry, I promise not to do it in pirate slang.

Terry and the Pirates was created by Milton Caniff in 1934, appearing in black and white newspaper dailies for the first time on October 22 with color Sunday’s following on December 9th.  An adventure comic strip, Terry’s early plot is best summarized by The New Yorker,

“In this ground-breaking adventure serial, a pair of eager Americans, a boy named Terry Lee and a young fortune hunter named Pat Ryan, land in China to search for an abandoned mine and quickly find themselves facing a succession of gangsters, warlords, pirates, and femme fatales up and down the coast. Period colonialism and chinoiserie occasionally combine for some awkwardly overheated depictions, but Caniff visualized his setup—Robert Louis Stevenson by way of the pulps—with a cinematic flair that remains thrilling because it is played straight. Ryan, a two-fisted, often shirtless he-man, exhibits an arrestingly sexual chemistry with various bad girl.”

King George VI and Terry and the Pirates B-17 Bomber.

King George VI and Terry and the Pirates B-17 Bomber.

When the United States went to war in December 1941, Terry and company went to war as well.  The war years were some of Caniff’s finest work with current events woven into the stories and authentic planes, ship, uniforms and weapons researched and depicted.

Terry himself joined the Army Air Corps (this was before the Air Force) and he quickly became a fighter pilot.  Terry’s entire comic crew joined the fight and many new faces were added, including one Charles C. Charles, aka Hotshot Charlie.  The comically flippant Boston pilot became Terry’s best friend in the air force.

Shortly after the war in 1946, Milton Caniff ceased art and story duties on Terry and the Pirates.  As was normal in those years (and is the case with Dick Tracy) the comic strip was owned by the parent newspaper and would continue without Caniff who went on to write Steve Canyon comics. Terry’s story was adopted by George Wunder who carried the comic strip forward another 27 years into the 1970’s before it was cancelled.  George’s art and story work was not well received by many Pirate fans.

Like Dick Tracy before it, Terry and the Pirates has spun off an 18 episode television series (1953), a cliffhanger serial through Columbia Pictures (1940) and several radio programs from 1937 to 1948.  A choice selections of this media are linked below.

If you are interested in reading Terry and the Pirates, Idea and Design Works, LLC (IDW) has reprinted the entire Milton Caniff collection in a six volume set using the same high quality production used for the Dick Tracy collections.  Hermes Press is pitching in to print the follow-up George Wunder years.

Happy Talk like a Pirate Day!

P.S.  – Going back to today’s post title did you know that Talk Like a Pirate Day was created by a couple of guys named John, Mark and maybe Brian while playing racquetball in the 90’s?  They celebrated the day on their own for years until they emailed humorist Dave Barry (who I find hilarious) and the special day really started to roll.

Fearless Fosdick

FearlessFosdickEarlier this year struggling comic strip writer Vera Alldid introduced Dick Tracy to parody of himself in the form of J Straightedge Trustworthy.  Mike Curtis and Joe Staton gave us Straightedge’s insulting funny paper appearance in full form one Sunday in March and long time readers know this is not the first time we’ve seen a strip inside the Dick Tracy comic.  Tracy’s creator Chester Gould featured two fictional strips himself during the 60’s and 70’s.  The first was Sawdust, written by Chet Jade who was himself a parody of Gould.  In Sawdust, many motes of sawdust (dots on paper) tell wood themed jokes and the lovely Moon Maid later became a key writer of Sawdust strip.  The other comic within a comic was Vera Alldid’s first strip, The Invisible Tribe.  A lazily drawn comic strip that mimicked Alldid’s demeanor, the Invisible Tribe featured invisible characters telling jokes to each other.

While continuing the tradition of a strip within a strip, Alldid’s J Straightedge Trustworthy is also homage to Al Capp’s famous Dick Tracy parody, Fearless Fosdick.  As Li’l Abner’s favorite comic crime fighter and “ideel” role model, Fosdick first appeared in 1942 and was promptly shot. Fosdick could not be bothered by “mere scratches” however, and reported back to his corrupt Chief and over the next decade went on to battle an absurd succession of Dick Tracy-esque enemies like Rattop, Bombface, the Chippendale Chair and Sidney the Crooked Parrot.


Continue reading