Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Halloween Essential: THE BOOGIE MAN WILL GET YOU (1942)

Straight horror was considered ill-timed during the war, but horror comedy was OK - get 'em laughing at the boogie man and the eggshells don't crunch quite so loud underfoot on the way home. If only an attempt by Columbia to mimic Arsenic and Old Lace, then a Broadway hit, THE BOOGIE MAN WILL GET YOU would be pedestrian fluff--and most critics dismiss it as just that---if the script didn't rock in a way so deadpan it take many viewings to truly savor. That means that you must come to terms with the shrill hamming of Larry Parks and "Miss Jeff" Donnell in the Brad and Janet roles. It's worth any effort to get both Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre, bouncing off each other with perfect comedic timing. Clearly, we're meant to share their bemused disdain for Bill, the high-strung little pisher of a romantic lead (Parks). He's shipping out to war but first has to square up with flighty ex-wife, Winnie (Donnell) who just bought the crumbling old inn 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.'

Ever-angered at his own co-dependent need to save her (he thinks she's gullible), Parks' is like a high strung little wire--one of those shrimpy 4F guys Hollywood had to use to patch the holes left by all the A-1 recruits and draftees. It's clear Winnie does need saving (heavy clocks and sideboards nearly fall on her quite often) but she doesn't think so and regards Bill as a tiresome nuisance, though he eventually proves his worth. Visitors to the inn include two doubtful state troopers, a crazy 'human bomb' escaped Italian POW, 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 and eventually joins Karloff in his superman brewing (the failures are stored in a cold morgue room off to the side. 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 makes popcorn.

If you've seen ARSENIC, the film version made two years after BOOGIE MAN, you know that Parks' equivalent would Cary Grant's Mortimer Brewster. Grant uses the same high voiced morality and exasperated 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 if that's what it takes 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 men were hard to find on the home front back in 1942. They better look 4F if not in uniform, and not get too lucky with all the single girls drifting around in zombie fugue states between the sexy bookstore girl in The Big Sleep and the tranced-out Monogram brides of Bela Lugosi in The Corpse Vanishes and Voodoo Man. 

The catch is that, just like we root for Grant's crazy aunts in Old Lace, we root for Karloff and Lorre here way more than Parks. First the "gruesome twosome" spar with each other, old neighborhood enemies (Lorre owns the mortgage) but they 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 the grounds and deflecting knife attacks from the crazy old lady housekeeper 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 and Karloff riffs on all his past and future mad scientist-cum-daffy but lovable old duffer roles.

There's lots of great little bits I love and can quote by heart: Lorre's kitten, which he carries in his coat ("she has an amazing affinity for crime and corruption!") and his easygoing way with handling all the magistrate duties required in this strange 'historic' town is consistent with the Norman Rockwell divided by Chas Adams political allegory of the moment, reflecting the way social order and governmental fixedness dissolve on the home front when the bulk of the brains and brawn are occupied elsewhere. Authority and energy streamline themselves, for survival's sake; capitalist money-grubbing is put on hold in favor of a kind of can-do socialism America shuns both before and after emergencies. At such times as war, petty tyrants can grab the throne and force true noblemen to turn outlaw and rob the rich and give to the poor in Sherwood. Or in this case, to help the war effort by taking 4F door-to-door salesmen and turning them into super soldiers!

Karloff and Lorre bring out the best in each other. One of the big tragedies of cinema is that Karloff wasn't released from his Broadway contract to do Capra's film version, though the rest of the cast all got to (west, that is). Karloff instead made this film, almost as consolation, once the show was over, and Raymond Massey stepped already into his shoes on ARSENIC, making all the jokes about "he he looks just like Karloff!" completely confusing -not that he did that bad a job, it's just that Karloff would have nailed it and no one would ever accuse anyone of looking 'just like Massey.' Not just for that reason but I prefer BOOGIE to the film version of ARSENIC. There's a lot less repetition and whinnying sexual anxiety and a lot more Lorre and Karloff. That means, in other words, more Halloween perfection, despite its relative sunniness (Capra got to use real night, and you can feel the difference). Put it on a double bill with Roger Corman's THE RAVEN and your Halloween shall be neither Karloff and Lorre-less no mit aus heiterkeit!

1 comment:

  1. I really wish Karloff could have been in the movie version of "Arsenic and Old Lace." Having another actor play the part negates the in-joke ("He said I looked like Boris Karloff!") A made-for-TV version in the late 1960s featured Fred Gwynne as Jonathan, and they wisely changed "Boris Karloff" to "Frankenstein's monster." It would have been funnier if he had said, "Herman Munster," but maybe that would have violated a copyright or something. Anyway, I always thought "Boogie Man" was funny, and Karloff and Lorre looked like they were having fun with the self-parody (as they did in "The Raven" and "The Comedy of Terrors"). The similarity to "Arsenic" was obvious, although I never knew before how much of it was intentional.


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