Thursday, October 27, 2016

Arsenic and Old Lace - A Connecticut Murder Mystery Plays Out

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) is based on a true story.  In this season of Halloween, we note that the daffy and macabre comedy with malevolent roots was first a play, which still haunts professional and community theatre stages across the country.  It is an American theatre classic.  The true story is much more macabre, and only slightly less daffy.

It happened in the small town of Windsor, Connecticut, just north of Hartford.  One hundred years ago, a woman ran a private nursing home in her house, and was investigated for the murder of five of her residents, and was eventually convicted.  It’s possible she may have murdered more than forty people in all—with arsenic.

Born in the town of Litchfield, Connecticut, in 1873, Amy Duggan went to the New Britain Normal School in 1890, and taught at the Milton School in Milton, Connecticut.  She married James Archer in 1897.  In 1901, the couple was hired to care for an elderly widower in his home in Newington, Connecticut, and when he died in 1904, his heirs turned the home into a boarding house for elderly, with Amy and James Archer in charge.  They called the business “Sister Amy’s Nursing Home for the Elderly.”

In 1907, the house was sold, so “Sister” Amy and husband James moved to Windsor, bought another house and opened the Archer Home for Elderly People and Chronic Invalids.  Residents paid for room and board and also medical attention if they required that, frequently signing over insurance policies to Amy so she could manage their final expenses when they died.

More than twenty residents died in the first four years of operation, most from gastrointestinal complaints that would kill them within days—or hours.  Poor Mr. Archer also succumbed suddenly, his death listed as kidney disease.  “Sister” Amy would discreetly have the bodies buried immediately so as not to upset the other residents. 

Dr. Howard King, the medical examiner for Windsor, was also the house physician for the rest home.  He apparently wrote out the death certificates and minded his own business.  Business was good. 

“Sister” Amy had a pattern of buying arsenic, nearly a pound at a time—to kill rats, she said— which was usually followed by the death of another resident.  When neighbors, and then reporters, started raising questions about all this, Amy declared she was the victim of a conspiracy.  Her righteous indignation was enough to quiet things down a bit, because she would not be charged with murder until five years later—after fifty more people died.

In the summer of 1913, Amy married a new resident to the home—Michael Gilligan, a 57-year-old man who was divorced and had a hefty savings account.  Early in 1914, her new husband drafted new will leaving his estate to her—and just in time, too, for he was dead two days later.   He died of “indigestion.”

The late Mr. Gilligan had adult children from his previous marriage.  They joined the growing ranks of neighbors, reporters, and eventually the state’s attorney, who were becoming suspicious of Amy’s home cooking.  More residents were killed, however, by May 1916 when the crime spree was finally ended by official investigation.

It had started quietly when a female undercover private eye working for the Connecticut State Police, moved into the rest home at the end of 1914.  She managed not to ingest any arsenic, and the evidence she gathered was enough to arrest Amy in May 1916 and bring her to trial.  Now that lady private eye is a character that would make a great movie. 

Amy went on trial in June 1917 for the five murders that could be proven, when the bodies were exhumed and discovered to be full of arsenic.  Among them was Franklin R. Andrews, who was regarded as apparently healthy, but who fell ill on the morning of May 29, 1914, and was dead by evening.  His death was the only proven count of murder that convicted Amy Archer-Gilligan.  Her only child, her daughter Mary, testified that her mother was addicted to morphine.  The jury found Amy guilty of murder in the first degree.  She was sentenced to be hanged.

But, wait a minute.  The governor granted a stay of execution until her case could be heard by the state Supreme Court of Errors, and then a second trial was scheduled, but her defense team plea bargained, and Amy was found guilty of murder in the second degree by reason of insanity—the sentence for which was life imprisonment. 

First sent to the old state prison in Wethersfield (no longer there), in 1924 she was transferred to the Connecticut Valley Hospital in Middletown, a state institution for the criminally insane.  She was assigned to work in the cafeteria.  One hopes she wasn’t allowed to season the food.  Amy Archer-Gillian died of natural causes at 89 years old in April 1962. 

In 2014, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that nearly 200 pages of documents related to the medical and psychiatric treatment of Amy Archer-Gilligan were to remain sealed, considering them not to be public records.  This hampered the plans of at least one writer to examine this material for a book on Mrs. Archer-Gilligan and her infamous crimes.

Another writer, years ago, was equally fascinated.  New York playwright Joseph Kesselring, following the case as had a shocked America, rewrote the story into a comedy.  Arsenic and Old Lace was a smash on Broadway from 1939 to 1944, and then made into the popular 1944 movie with Cary Grant and Josephine Hull, who played Abby Brewster, recreating the role she originated on Broadway.

One of the features of the play—beloved by community theatre groups for this alone—is that many of the little old ladies’ victims emerge for a “bow” at the end of the show—these non-speaking roles are usually taken by members of the community, usually ten or so people.  Many a town mayor or favorite teacher has emerged from the “cellar” as a murder victim to take a bow.

Considering how many victims were probably actually murdered by Amy Archer-Gilligan, this bit of black humor is gruesome, indeed.

Note: The above ad for The Valley Players production of Arsenic and Old Lace is from my forthcoming book to be published later this year on summer theatre on Mt. Tom, Holyoke, Massachusetts.  More on that to come.

The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on, and on Amazon and iTunes.

Also in paperback and eBook from Amazon.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Cartoons Caricature Hollywood

There are two aspects that immediately grab the viewer: first, the sometimes extreme ugliness of the caricatured images of stars who were otherwise celebrated for glamour; second, that these stars were marketed like products and brands of the studio based on their physical "type."  Nowhere is this more glaringly apparent than in their animated cartoon likenesses. 

Today we join the Classic Movie Blog Association's Hollywood on Hollywood blogathon.  Have a look here for more entries.

The cartoons we discuss today that lampooned the stars were produced by every studio.  One of the earliest, Mickey's Gala Primier (1933) was a black and white cartoon put out by Disney.  Mickey and Minnie Mouse attend a Hollywood premiere of one of Mickey's cartoons, and all the stars are there, emerging from a single limousine, as klieg lights arch into the sky.  Wallace Beery and Marie Dressler, the three Barrymores in their Rasputin guises (a movie we covered here), Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, Eddie Cantor, Jimmy Durante, Joan Crawford--a huge list of greats. Some like George Arliss would not be as identifiable possibly even ten years later, that is to say he would not have been worthy of parody in popular culture.  Greta Garbo, however, who was much parodied in these cartoons (in particularly unflattering jibes), was a star whose greatness can be measured by the fact that her name was still identifiable long after she stopped making films, and was therefore still the butt of jokes.

The Hollywood Bowl (1938) was put out by Universal under Walter Lantz, known for Woody Woodpecker, which, again in black and white, showed all the major stars of the day attending a performance at the Hollywood Bowl.  Bing Crosby, W.C. Fields are among the most well-known here--and Garbo is again skewered, invariably portrayed as a somewhat somnolent stooge--but Jean Hersholt is on hand, and the Ritz Brothers, all probably less identifiable to later audiences.

Ned Sparks seems to pop up with great regularity in these cartoons too.  For film buffs, trying to name the actors flashing on screen for only seconds at a time is great fun and quite challenging.

Katharine Hepburn's angular features and distinctive voice always make her a good target for caricaturists and she appears in this cartoon, as well as others in the 1940s.  Joe E. Brown, the enormous mouth that devours the entire screen is another regular, but in this cartoon, Benny Goodman, Cab Calloway, Rudy Vallee, and Leopold Stokowski, his  long hair in a snood, also get the works.  What may be surprising to young fans of classic films and cartoons today was that conductor Stokowski was actually something of a "rock star" in his day. 

He also appears in Hollywood Steps Out (1941), which, as you can see by the screen caps here, has some of the best drawn, and least offensive, caricatures of the stars.

Included in this one are Ann Sheridan, Sonja Henie on skates, Cesar Romero, Mickey and Judy, Henry Fonda, but I'd have to say my favorite is of C. Aubrey Smith. 

The Golden State (1948) is a travelogue type cartoon (that ends in a singalong of "California Here I Come") with cameos of Dorothy Lamour, who is of course, in a sarong, as well as Johnny Weismuller in Tarzan garb. 

Hollywood Picnic (1937) gives us, along with Garbo and Joe E. Brown, without whom no cartoon lampoon of the stars is complete, a brief glimpse at Edward Arnold, which seems surprisingly without any exaggeration, and a stereotyped Stepin Fetchit.  Young audiences today will justly be offended at the racism, however they will likely be ignorant that this portrayal of Fetchit was on the mark: this was his act.  This was his brand.  Joe E. Lewis had a great career on Broadway, but in Hollywood, his brand was his large mouth.  James Stewart was a terrific stage and screen actor: to Hollywood, he was a lanky, stammering twit.

Edna May Oliver, likewise, an esteemed stage actress whose screen roles were exquisitely nuanced, had her value to Hollywood, especially the publicity departments that pushed these cartoons, reduced to an ugly old lady.

Hollywood Detour (1942) brings the gang back for a bus tour of the town.  This one was Columbia.  Garbo is back with her large feet and sleepy affect.  Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth, however, get off without being cruelty teased.

Mother Goose Goes Hollywood (1938), another Walt Disney offering, gives comic sendups of Hepburn, Spencer Tracy and Freddie Bartholomew, Edward G. Robinson, Martha Raye, and most of the others mentioned above.

There seemed to be less cartoon parodies of the stars by the mid 1940s--though Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall would pop up in Slick Hare (1947) and in Eight Ball Bunny (1950).  Here the caricatures are not unkind.

When the studio system began to break up and the actors were free agents, they were less likely to be marketed according to their branded caricature. 

Did audiences of the day discover through these cartoons what brilliantly blue eyes William Powell had, an actor they normally saw only in black and white films?

Take a look at the other swell blogs participating in the Hollywood on Hollywood blogathon.

The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on, and on Amazon and iTunes.

Also in paperback and eBook from Amazon.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

News of Current Events...

Just a brief update today on some current events:

First, for those who prefer to buy their books in bookstores and not online, a new independently owned bookstore has opened in Westfield, Massachusetts, in the heart of the historic district right on the town's beautiful common.  It's called Blue Umbrella Books, and they now carry all my books.  In fact, I'll be doing an author signing with them in December -- more on that later. 

So for those of you in western Massachusetts and northern Connecticut -- or any of you folks across the country who'll be up in New England this month doing your leaf peeping (what we call being on fall foliage tours or driving out to look at the leaves) -- stop in to Blue Umbrella Books and say hi.  (Westfield has some mighty nice other stores too.)


Next week, I'll be participating in the Classic Film Bloggers Association annual fall blogathon -- this year the subject is "Hollywood on Hollywood."  My post will be up next Thursday the 20, and I'll be covering how some classic cartoon caricatured the Hollywood stars. Have a look here at the CMBA website for a roster and links of terrific blogs and their topics for this blogathon.

See you next week.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

A Canadian's Perspective: A Visit from Paddy Nolan-Hall

Today we discuss an aspect of the inclusiveness of the classic film fan community which sometimes amazes me in the face of—what all classic film fans know—is an art and culture that was often very skewed in the diversity it embraced.  Racial and ethnic stereotypes are at the forefront of this skewed diversity, obviously, but consider another facet of the Hollywood film industry:  a fair number of actors were Canadian.  However, we never hear of a “Canadian Colony” in Hollywood the same way we hear of the “English Colony” actors, or the large number of refugees from Europe during the war who made up a community in Hollywood. 

Is it because of the seamless way Canadians have always integrated with the U.S., or is it because of a way Americans have of taking Canadians for granted, considering them cousins—and as such, we don’t think about them very much unless they’re coming for Thanksgiving.  Oh, which Thanksgiving?  October or November?  Eh, skip it.

By the way, Happy Thanksgiving this coming Monday to our Canadian cousins. What time is dinner, and should I bring anything?

This post, after I get done yapping, will eventually be turned over to our friend and colleague, Patricia Nolan–Hall, aka, Caftan Woman, who blogs on classic films at her excellent site: Caftan Woman.   Also a member of the Classic Movie Blog Association, she recently swept the annual CMBA awards in the following categories: BEST FILM REVIEW: DRAMA - Charlie Chan at the Opera (1936); BEST CLASSIC MOVIE ARTICLE - Hal Roach and the "Lot" of Fun; BEST PROFILE OF A CLASSIC MOVIE PERFORMER OR FILMMAKER - Harry Carey and Harry Carey, Jr.

Her knowledge of classic films is extensive, and she is a perceptive and articulate writer; and as she happens also to be Canadian, we are fortunate to have her take on the issues discussed here.  This is the tenth installment of our year-long series on the current state of the classic film fan.

What does a Canadian classic film fan think of old Hollywood’s U.S.-centric popular culture?  The settings of most of the films is in U.S.—either a big city, or “Anytown, U.S.A.”  What is there for a Canadian fan to identify with in Hollywood’s “dream factory” movies?

Also, sometimes in a classic film with an American actor playing in an English setting, he is, as a matter of convenience to the story, portrayed as a Canadian – as if to give him a pass for being there – such as Humphrey Bogart’s character in The African Queen.  That character was originally written as Cockney English in the book.  Canada has a – “close enough” stamp on it for old Hollywood, which cracks me up, but I have to wonder if to a Canadian this seems absurd.

When Canada actually is the setting and focus of a Hollywood-made movie, what does a Canadian classic film fan think about it?   What are some classic Canadian films would they like to introduce to movie fans in the U.S.?

With our shared cultural and movie heritage, not only with Canadian actors and filmmakers, but also with Mexican as well—Hollywood benefited from a large number of actors originally from Mexico--maybe we should not call them American films, but North American films?

And so, I leave the lectern and invite Paddy to step up to the mic to give us her take on the matter.  My SpellCheck insists on changing her Canadian spelling, but I won’t let it. 


Paddy Nolan-Hall:

Sitting in my grade school classroom with the map of Canada on one wall and a larger map of Nova Scotia on another, I felt that I resided in the centre of the universe.  The books I read, the television and movies I enjoyed let me know that there were other places and other people out there in the wide world.  I never felt apart from that other world, only excited that it was all there for me to enjoy.

Focusing on film, we all can relate to that marvelous experience of attending the cinema, getting our treats, settling in our seat and joyously anticipating the lights going down.  A Saturday matinee western or Bowery Boys or Beach Party flick, a rare trip to an evening viewing of the latest Disney release.  Movies on television, even when my small town only properly received one channel - musicals with wonderful songs and appealing characters, dramas with adults behaving mysteriously.  I would soak it all in not really comprehending the timeline; that some of these movies were created decades before I was born.  It was enough that the movie was there and I was on the other side of the screen.

The year I turned 11 (1968) our family moved to Freeport in Grand Bahama for my dad's business.  It was eye-opening to have more than one TV channel and so much content that an entire magazine was needed to let you know what was going on instead of half a page in the local paper.  I was not only bombarded with movies, but with the experience of leaving the centre of the universe and being identified by that universe and meeting those people from those other places.  My time in Freeport introduced me to the world and a grudging look at my place in it, plus my first Charlie Chan movie.

Learning and deciding what it meant to be a Canadian led to a fresh look at some of my favourite Hollywood movies.  While often avoiding what may seem like bragging, we are always pleased to be acknowledged by our louder cousins south of the border, even if it can seem rather far out.  Randolph Scott as a Canadian Naval Officer in Corvette K-225?  Well, they gave him a Scottish name.  Bogie's Charlie Allnut is a Canuck?  I can't say it doesn't totally work, but he still sounds like Bogie.  Eddie Robinson as a Quebec police inspector in A Bullet for Joey?  Little Caesar?!  The Happy Time at least cast French actors as the French-Canadian family in the story, and who doesn't enjoy watching Charles Boyer, Louis Jourdan and Marcel Dalio?  Kudos to Jeanette Nolan for her decent Quebecois accent.  Canadian characters on film are a mixed lot.

We are always pleased to point out with pride the Canadian born stars of the silver screen from Fay Wray to Walter Huston to Raymond Massey to Alexis Smith.  Was there a Canadian colony like the British one in Hollywood in the classic era?  It does not appear to be so.  Did Andy Hardy's sister Marian played by Cecilia Parker and Andy Hardy's girlfriend Polly played by Ann Rutherford compare their Fort William, Ontario, and Vancouver, British Columbia, upbringings? 

Did Lucile Watson (Watch on the Rhine) and Maude Eburne (Ruggles of Red Gap) trade maple syrup recipes?  Did George Cleveland (TV’s Lassie) from New Brunswick and Joe Sawyer (TV’s The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin) from Ontario greet each other with a secret handshake?  I understand many Canadian actors working in the States get together for hockey games and to remind themselves of their roots.  In that earlier time it was simply a question of going where you could work.  Nowadays there seems to be a certain appreciation for our country and our culture of self-deprecating humour.  Our sense of self is truly wrapped up in our humour which borrows from our British founders and our American neighbours.  We've taken the best from both and made it our own.

Canada's National Film Board has created may Academy Award winning shorts and is a great resource for chronicling the growth of our country.  Box office films have been harder to come by, but the industry is experiencing a burst of creativity and recognition.  We have never minded coming from behind.  Here is a cross-section of Canadian films through the years which will tell you something about this vast land mass with a sparse population:  1949’s Beyond Dull Care, 1941’s Neighbour, 1970’s Goin' down the Road, 1971’s Mon Oncle Antoine, 1972’s The Rowdyman, 1975’s Lies My Father Told Me, 1977’s Outrageous!,  1977’s Who Has Seen the Wind, 1982’s The Grey Fox, 1985’s My American Cousin, 1992’s The Boys of St. Vincent's, 2002’s Men with Brooms, 2008’s Passchendaele and 2010’s Barney's Version.

During my teen years the film fans of Southern Ontario and Western New York were truly blessed with TVOntario's (our provinces PBS, if you will) Saturday Night at the Movies produced by Rise Shulman and hosted by Elwy Yost.  Every Saturday night a double bill of uncut classic Hollywood films with an education component hosted by former teacher Elwy.  Hollywood notables including actors and those behind the scenes were interviewed by the enthusiastic Elwy for our edification and entertainment.  Single-handedly Elwy Yost created generations of classic film fans.  Upon his death, Mr. Yost trended on Twitter with the heartfelt appreciation of thousands for making being a movie buff "okay".

Canadians and Americans share a continent and enjoyment of much of the same entertainment.  The difference is that we know when the music or entertainers are from the States, but you don't always know when it comes from Canada.  A lot of us share the same experience of the four seasons and relatives who ended up on the other side of the border.  The experience of characters in classic films is not foreign to us (well, maybe those Southern states, but the food looks good and we get used to the accent).  Hey, if you guys hadn't gotten all cranky and had a revolution we might be one big country.  I don't think that would be much fun though, do you?  The differences between our two countries may be the gentlest example of diversity on the planet.

Speaking of diversity, my daughter Janet is a filmmaker in her final year in Sheridan College's Bachelor of Animation Program.  Her peers include students from all over the world, from varied backgrounds and ethnicities.  How do classic films fit into their lives and careers?

Along with a history of animation course taught by Kaj Pindal, Janet relates that all of her professors use classic films as a way to teach aspects of cinematography and storyboarding.  These were the films that inspired the teachers in their youth and they want to share it with their students.  Some of the titles used include Lean's Oliver Twist and Lawrence of Arabia, Ford's The Searchers and How Green Was My Valley, a lot of Hitchcock and the films of Jacques Tati.  Students are encouraged to watch silent film comedies for the facial expressions.

The majority of the students were not previously exposed to classic film and their expectation was that they would be old-fashioned and unrelatable.  They were surprised and open to experience the older films.  Janet feels that the students who are the most serious about learning and growing in their art will continue to watch classic films.  I am optimistic about the future place of classic film and the expansion of classic film fans.

My sincere thanks to Paddy for helping out on this installment of the series.  Please have a look at her Caftan Woman blog for more great thoughts and great writing on classic films

Past posts in this series here:

Part 1 of the year-long series on the current state of the classic film buff is here: A Classic Film Manifesto. 

Part 2 is here: Cliff Aliperti’s new book on Helen Twelvetrees.

Part 3 is here: An interview with Kay Noske of Movie Star Makeover.

Part 4 is here: Evolution of the Classic Film Fan.

Part 5 is here: Gathering of the Clan at Classic Film Festivals.

Part 6 is here: John Greco’s new book of film criticism: Lessons in the Dark.

Part 7 is here: Tiffany Vazquez, new TCM host.

Part 8 is here:  Planet of the Apes at the Cineplex.

Part 9 is here:  Aurora & Classic Movies and More Interview.


The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on, and on Amazon and iTunes.

Also in paperback and eBook from Amazon.

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