Tuesday, October 18, 2011
Halloween Essential: THE BOOGEYMAN WILL GET YOU (1942)
An attempt by Columbia to recreate the success of Frank Capra's Broadway play Arsenic and Old Lace, THE BOOGEYMAN WILL GET YOU would be pedestrian fluff except the script rocks and Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre play together with much comic energy and we're meant to share their bemused disdain for Bill, the high-strung little pisher of a romantic lead, Larry (AL JOLSON STORY) Parks. He's shipping out to war but first has to square up with flighty ex-wife, Winnie ("Miss Jeff" Donnell). Ever-angered at his own co-dependent need to save her (he thinks she's gullible), it's clear she does need saving (heavy clocks and sideboards nearly fall on her quite often) but she doesn't think so. She starts the film out buying a crumbling old inn in some sunny hamlet, where mortgage-strapped Karloff is brewing atomic supermen in the basement and two old character actors round things out as the resident 'cook' and 'pigkeeper.' Visitors to the inn include two doubtful state troopers, a crazy 'human bomb' escaped Italian soldier, and the always delightful Max Rosenblum as a powder puff salesman ("like what ya dab on ya kissa"). Lorre is the town magistrate, sheriff, and the notary public who arranges the deed to be signed over. Parks and Winnie set about the renovations, and hunting for possible shadiness and it's all so good, so right, you get the vibe you might remember from when dad's away for the weekend on business and mom lets you stay up extra late, and when the cops come she's just as nervous and full of jive excuses as you are.
If you've seen ARSENIC, the film version being made two years after BOOGEYMAN, you know that Parks' equivalent would Cary Grant's Mortimer Brewster. He uses the same high voiced morality and protectiveness as an excuse for avoiding sex. Recall how Grant keeps his bride waiting at the cab while he tries to quickly send his homicidal aunts off to "Happydale," like they are the ones who need it. Parks at least seems to want to have sex at some point, and is willing to do the Bed, Bath, and Beyond route to get there. Winnie has his number ("Bill," she asks romantically, "don't you ever get tired of yourself?") and it's all understandable because young men were hard to find back in 1942. If they weren't in uniform they better look 4-F, even if they're allegedly shipping out right after the movie ends.
The catch here is that, just like we root for Grant's crazy aunts in LACE, we root for Karloff and Lorre here: first they spar with each other and then form a bond with Lorre helping Karloff turn passing salesmen into electro-powered supermen: "He will destroy Berlin! He will throttle Tokyo!" Meanwhile, the ghost of Unkus ("The last of the Mohicans!") keeps emitting unearthly yowls in the day-for-night exteriors, and a portly 'balletmaster' snoops around, deflecting knife attacks with his whalebone corset.
The dialogue is deliciously archaic throughout, as if a drunken Vincent Price was mocking passages in some old Victorian novel. Someone had a good time writing this, and the actors ride that spirit. Lorre gets a great glint of mischief in his eyes. Karloff riffs on his zillion past mad scientist roles while relishing the chance to play daffy but lovable old duffer.
There's lots of great little bits I love and can quote by heart: Lorre's magistrate character has a kitten he carries in his coat ("she has an amazing affinity for crime and corruption!") and his easygoing way with doing all the jobs required in this strange 'historic' town is consistent with the vibe of the colonial hotel Winnie buys, and Lorre's house, and the strange Americana aspect helps add a patina of political allegory, reflecting the way social order and governmental fixedness dissolve on the homefront when the bulk of the brains and brawn are occupied elsewhere, so positions collapsed and energy streamlined -- opportunities opened and dog-eat-dog capitalism drifted closer to can-do socialism than ever before or since.