This film is my family's go-to movie for Halloween viewing (although last year we watched The Village against my better judgement). Most years though, we watch Arsenic And Old Lace. The 1944 film is directed by Frank Capra, and has Cary Grant in the starring role of Mortimer Brewster. And it's a delight. Surprisingly, the movie starts out on Halloween day with Mortimer getting married, and he's not exactly thrilled. In fact, as he and his bride-to-be stand in line waiting for their licence, he is attempting to keep his face hidden because he's afraid of being recognized. It turns out that he's the famous author of a series of books which deride marriage as "an old fashioned superstition" and recommend consigning the institution to the dustbin of history. Then, to his dismay, he fell in love with Elaine Harper, literally the girl next door- and the sweet, innocent daughter of a minister, to boot. To his shock, he found himself proposing marriage to Elaine which is how we find the couple at City Hall. Soon, despite some last-minute misgivings on Mortimer's part, the two are married and travelling back to Brooklyn to break the news to their families and pack to leave on their honeymoon.
Reaching Brooklyn, they ask the taxi to wait while they, after pausing for a couple minutes to canoodle in the church graveyard, go to pack their bags. Elaine rushes into the manse to tell her father and Mortimer strolls into the house next door where he grew up, raised by his two Aunts and Uncle Brewster.
Mortimer tells his Aunts Abby and Martha that he and Elaine are married, and they are delighted. They insist that they must host a celebration party for them, though Mortimer tries to convince them that they don't need one- he wants to leave on his honeymoon. Nevertheless, they have their hearts set on it and he doesn't like to disappoint the old ladies, who are a bit dotty but sweet.
Though he no longer lives at the Brewster homestead, Mortimer is very fond of his aunts, who care for their brother Teddy. Teddy has slipped over the line from eccentricity into downright crazy. He believes that he is Theodore Roosevelt; he insists on being addressed as 'Mr President' and frequently re enacts the Battle of San Juan Hill, blowing a bugle and running up the stairs shouting "Charge!"
While waiting for Abby and Martha to rustle up cake and wine, Mortimer happens to open up the window seat and then does a double- and triple- take. There is a dead body in the window seat! Mortimer instantly assumes that Teddy's crazy has gone to a whole new level, and steels himself to break the terrible news to his aunts as they reenter the room with refreshments.
To his shock, his aunts affectionately chide him for "peeking" and smilingly tell him that Teddy didn't kill the man in the window seat (Mr. Hoskins)... they did. They happily explain that it's one of their charities; for some time they've been inviting in elderly gentlemen with no family and giving them a glass of their elderberry wine spiked with a blend of arsenic, strychnine, and "a pinch of cyanide." They explain that they're saving the old men from their lonely lives. Each time they tell Teddy that the gentleman is a yellow fever victim and he buries the body in the basement where he- as Roosevelt- is digging the Panama Canal. Mortimer is naturally a little upset by this- too upset to notice that Elaine is trying to contact him from her house, ready to leave.
Despite what they've been up to, Mortimer cares about his aunts and doesn't want to see them carted off to the penitentiary. It has always been the plan to have Teddy committed to the Happydale Asylum when Abby and Martha passed on, and Mortimer decides to have him committed now, and if the murders are discovered, they'll be blamed on him. While he's on the telephone with Happydale, the aunts invite another gentleman in. Mortimer hangs up and turns to see the man about to take a drink of wine. He shrieks, causing the man to drop the glass, then chases him out of the house to save his life. His aunts are annoyed- after all, Mortimer has his little hobbies; they don't see why he is interfering with theirs. Mortimer has to get a judge to sign the commitment papers, so he rushes out to do so, making his aunts promise not to let anyone into the house while he's gone.
Unfortunately, while Mortimer is gone, his older brother Jonathan, who left home many years before, shows up with his colleague- or rather, partner in crime Dr Einstein. Always cruel and sadistic, Jonathan has become a career criminal and murderer. He is on the run from the police, has a dead body (Mr. Spinalzo) in the trunk of his car, and needs a place to hide out. He also needs a place for Dr Einstein to operate and change his face (he's a criminal plastic surgeon). They are going to stay at the house until the operation and Jonathan's recovery is done. Teddy, not knowing anything is wrong, shows Dr Einstein the new "lock" he's just dug in "Panama" and Einstein realizes it's the right size to bury a body- Mr Spinalzo- in. Jonathan orders his terrified aunts to bed, and he and Einstein take up residence in one of the other bedrooms, intending to carry in the body once everyone's asleep.
The play An Ideal Husband was written by Oscar Wilde in 1885. It is generally considered a comedy, and it certainly contains a good deal of humour, but to my mind it is more of a drama punctuated by comedic moments. A lot (most) of the humour is provided by Lord Goring and his interactions with various other characters. His lighthearted flirtation with Mabel Chiltern is amusing, as is every scene in which his father is haranguing him over his lack of either a career or a wife. This humour provides a lighter mood, contrasting with the seriousness of the blackmail plot. Despite his father's low opinion of him however, Arthur is not stupid. Rather, he fulfills the role of a Shakespearean "fool" of whom Isaac Asimov said in the Guide To Shakespeare, "That, of course, is the great secret of the successful fool- that he is no fool at all." Lord Goring's conversation is frequently frivolous and trivial, but in spite of this he is essentially a teller of truths. He makes pointed and, though couched in cynical terms, often accurate observations about their society. In addition, despite his reputation for being shallow, Arthur's advice to both of his friends is always solid and sensible, recommending that they be frank and honest with each other. It is also Lord Goring who manages to outmaneuver Mrs. Cheveley and save the day.
Speaking of Mrs. Cheveley's shady schemes, the entire drama raises a number of interesting- and sometimes controversial- issues. To begin with, let's take a look at the Chilterns' marriage. At the start of the play they appear to be the perfect couple: loving and supportive, with mutual interests. As things fall apart, however, we see that their union has a rather shaky foundation. Robert has a dirty secret in his past which he has never told Gertrude about. When this comes back to haunt him, it very nearly destroys their marriage. This is because Gertrude has built up a false image of Robert in her mind, envisioning him as the ideal man, faultless and perfect. When her idol is revealed to have feet of clay, Gertrude is devastated, her first instinct to recoil from the man who has disappointed her and betrayed her ideal. Of course Robert is responsible for his actions, but Gertrude isn't blameless in this situation either. By idolizing her husband to this degree, she has trapped him with her unrealistic expectations of perfection. She has set their marriage up for failure, as no man however well-intentioned, can live up to that ideal. Yet Gertrude declares that she will accept nothing less, making it nearly impossible for Robert to confide in her for fear of losing her regard. His lack of frankness is fueled by her judgmental attitude. He tells this to her himself in his anguish and anger when she condemns him: "Women think that they are making ideals of men. What they are making of us are false idols merely. You made your false idol of me, and I had not the courage to come down, show you my wounds, tell you my weaknesses. I was afraid that I might lose your love, as I have lost it now."
Regarding Sir Robert's hidden sin, his actions were illegal- and immoral. It amounted to insider trading; Robert sold privileged information for profit, and got away with it. His weak excuse that everyone else in business does the same or worse doesn't change the fact that his behaviour was completely indefensible. He knows this himself, which is why he has in the intervening years repaid the money to society several times over in the form of charitable donations. Mrs. Cheveley gains the upper hand with Robert because she knows that public exposure of his past act will destroy his career. If it did, in one way that would be justice, as Robert would finally be brought to account for a crime he got away with when he was a young man. On the other hand, should a man's entire life be destroyed over a mistake in judgement made so many years before? One of the purposes of punishment is to hold a person to account for the wrong they have done. Sir Robert has done that to himself, and made restitution for his ill-gotten gains at least two times over. In a sense, he has punished himself. Another purpose for punishment is to try to deter the subject from ever engaging in the crime again. There is no danger of that in this case; Robert has lived a blameless and honourable life in the ensuing twenty years.
In addition, as much as is possible, the punishment should fit the crime. While definitely wrong, Sir Robert's crime seems to have, in the long run, harmed no one. The only identifiable victims were those other investors who lost out on the opportunity to buy the stocks which the Baron purchased as a result of the information he received. Is this lost investment opportunity really worth destroying a man who has done much good for his country, and if allowed to continue, will do much more? This is the question which the play poses, and which we must each answer for ourselves.
An Ideal Husbandalso has a good deal to say about the nature of honour- public vs personal. When Sir Robert is confessing all to Lord Goring, he points out that most of his colleagues have done far worse. The difference is, they aren't in danger of being exposed. That appears to be the greatest sin: being found out. As long as they can maintain an outward facade of honour and respectability, it doesn't matter if they are inwardly corrupt and dishonest. The uncomfortable irony of this is highlighted by the arrival of Arthur's father, who criticizes his son for his dereliction of duty while holding up Robert as an example of what an honorable gentleman should be. Both Arthur and Robert know the truth, however. Arthur points out to his friend that his peers will show no sympathy simply because they themselves are morally compromised. Rather, they will be even more merciless in punishing his disgrace because it will allow them to appear more honourable in contrast, and to signal their virtue by the strength of their outrage. Given the many examples we have recently seen of Twitter mobs attempting to destroy people for innocuous comments, or past failings however minor, it is hard to argue that Lord Goring's assessment of human nature was incorrect, or that it has changed for the better since then.
The two primary women characters in An Ideal Husband are Gertrude Chiltern and Mrs. Cheveley. They are complete opposites of each other: Gertrude the model of unbending honour and purity, and Mrs. Cheveley of dishonesty and vice. In one way, however, they are the same, and that is in their belief in the inability of a man to change what he is. Gertrude states this before she knows of her husband's past: "It (life) has taught me that a person who has once been guilty of a dishonest and dishonorable act may be guilty of it a second time, and should be shunned." She goes on to say that this rule should be applied without exception. This indicates an extremely narrow- and naive- view of peoples' characters. Of course past behaviours can give an indication of future ones, but allowance must be made for the possibility of change in character. In Gertrude's mind, people are separated into two categories- good and bad. It is impossible, in her view, for a good person to do a dishonorable thing, while a bad person will invariably choose this route. This is nonsense, as Arthur points out to her: "Nobody is incapable of doing a foolish thing. Nobody is incapable of doing a wrong thing." This is, of course, true of Robert. Essentially a decent and honorable man, years before he was guilty of being young, impatient, and overly ambitious. A practiced deceiver and scam artist- the Baron- played on these faults and tempted him into betraying his principles. This was wrong, but doesn't mean that Sir Robert's character is now unredeemable- obviously, as he has since led an exemplary life.
Interestingly Mrs. Cheveley, despite her much-vaunted ability to manipulate men, makes the same mistake as Gertrude. She assumes that, because Robert once opted to do a dishonorable thing to advance his career, he will now invariably choose to do the same thing in order to preserve it. She cannot imagine that he will not act in his own self interest, probably because she would never do so herself. This, in the end, is the difference between Sir Robert and Mrs. Cheveley: he fell once into dishonesty, then pulled himself up, determined never to behave so again. Cheveley is habitually dishonest with no inclination to be otherwise, so can't comprehend that Robert, whom she knows to have been in one instance dishonorable, might choose not to continue in that manner. This is how we know that Sir Robert has changed: unaware that Arthur has gotten the letter from Mrs. Cheveley, he goes to the House and speaks against the canal scheme, knowing full well that he is probably sacrificing his good name, his career and his marriage, yet determined to do the right thing. He is no longer the man he was, determined to succeed at all cost. For this reason, we can forgive his past misdeed and enjoy his success, while rejoicing in Mrs. Cheveley's failure. So those are my thoughts on Oscar Wilde's play An Ideal Husband, which I definitely recommend. It can be enjoyed for its humour and clever writing, its often piercing insights into human nature, and for the questions about honour and morality which it poses. Definitely worth a read- or watch, as the case may be.
"It takes great courage to see the world in all its tainted glory, and still to love it. And even more courage to see it in the one you love." -Oscar Wilde, An Ideal Husband
An Ideal Husbandhas been filmed several times, though the only one I've seen at this point is the 1999 version starring Rupert Everett as Lord Goring, a part he does very well. It's a pretty good interpretation, though there are a couple minor changes to the plot. Also, while the play takes place mainly in either the Chiltern's house or Lord Goring's residence, naturally the movie expands the world to include several more settings. For example, it actually shows Sir Robert's speech in the House, rather than having Arthur be told about it by his father. Also, in one scene, the Chilterns are at the theater. Amusingly, the play being performed- which they are not paying attention to- is The Importance of Being Earnest.
This illustration is from an edition of The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz and portrays the scene in which Dorothy and her friends unsuccessfully attempt to cross the land of the Hammerhead people. If you have only seen the film and not read the book, you won't recognize it because the movie cut out the entire part dealing with the friends' journey to see Glinda, the good witch of the South. Dealing with the hostile Hammerhead people involved Dorothy using the magic cap to call in the winged monkeys.
I used to think that the expression "to steal someone's thunder" probably had its basis in some myth or legend featuring Zeus or Thor or the like. As it turns out, however, its origin story is quite different. First though, let's go over the meaning of this phrase. The idiom "to steal one's thunder" means to: 1) appropriate and use someone else's idea or plan, taking credit and praise away from them, or 2) upstage someone's moment of glory.
The gentleman pictured here is John Dennis (1658- 1734) who is responsible for the idiom in question. He was a playwright, drama critic and noted crank... he even looks grouchy in this portrait of him. He was well known for quarreling with most of the literary giants of the day, and apparently was crabby from an early age, because he was kicked out of his college for wounding another student with a sword. In the early 1700's, Dennis wrote a play entitled Appius and Virginia which opened at the Drury Lane Theatre in 1709. Unfortunately, it was a big flop, and it quickly closed. This wouldn't have occasioned much notice, except for one thing. At this time, theaters struggled to produce realistic sounding thunder when needed for storm scenes in their productions. Some of the methods used included rolling metal balls in troughs, rattling lead shot in bowls, or shaking sheets of metal. When putting on Appius and Virginia, however, Dennis came up with a way to make a more realistic thunder sound, improving on the bowl method by rolling metal balls in them instead of iron shot. After they cancelled his play, Drury Lane put on Macbeth which, of course, requires thunder. They decided to go with the method which Dennis had developed, since it sounded better. Guess who wasn't impressed by this? Yep. John Dennis was in the audience one night and recognized the distinctive sound of his thunder. Outraged, he leaped to his feet and shouted, "How these rascals use me! They will not have my play, yet steal my thunder!" Well, at least this time he didn't stab anybody.
In Act IV, we have returned to the Chiltern's residence. It is the next morning and Lord Goring is waiting in the morning room. To his dismay, his father shows up, taking the opportunity to renew his criticisms of his son before excitedly telling Arthur what happened in the House of Commons: Sir Robert made a speech harshly denouncing the canal scheme as a swindle. Mabel then enters the room, ignoring Arthur because he didn't show up for their riding date and speaking only to his father. When Lord Caversham leaves the room, Lord Goring asks Mabel to marry him. Mabel responds flippantly, and ironically, the normally frivolous Arthur is reduced to imploring her to be serious. Mabel admits her love for him and the two embrace. At this point Gertrude enters the room, and since Lord Goring needs to talk to her, Mabel goes to the conservatory to wait for him.
Arthur informs Gertrude that he obtained Sir Robert's letter from Mrs. Cheveley and has burned it. She's relieved that her husband won't be exposed, but then Arthur has to tell her the bad news: Mrs. Cheveley stole Gertrude's note to him and is planning to send it to Sir Robert to try to cause trouble. Gertrude explains that she changed her mind about coming to see him, and Arthur advises her to tell Robert the truth and thereby disarm Mrs. Cheveley. Horrified, Gertrude says that she can't possibly tell her husband that she was planning to visit a bachelor in his rooms, no matter how innocently, and tells Arthur that they must somehow intercept the letter. Unfortunately, Sir Robert has already received and read the note and comes in search of his wife. However, since Gertrude hadn't actually addressed the note to Lord Goring, and Mrs. Cheveley sent it anonymously, Robert assumes that Gertrude was writing to him, forgiving him. He has come in search of her, filled with love and gratitude. Meeting Arthur's pleading eyes, Gertrude does nothing to correct this misapprehension. Figuring that they could use some privacy to reconcile, Goring goes to join Mabel in the conservatory.
Gertrude informs Robert that Lord Goring obtained and destroyed the incriminating letter; his reputation is safe. He is greatly relieved, and hesitantly offers to now retire from public life, obviously hoping that Gertrude won't think it's a good idea. To his dismay, though, Gertrude approves of this idea, thinking that this is the honourable thing to do. Lord Goring comes back in, and Sir Robert gratefully thanks him for his aid. Arthur is going to seize the moment to get Robert's permission to marry Mabel, but his father returns and interrupts him. He congratulates Sir Robert on his speech in the House, and tells him that, impressed by his "high moral tone" the Prime Minister is going to offer him a seat in the Cabinet. Sir Robert is excited by this but, remembering his promise to Gertrude, reluctantly tells the incredulous Lord Caversham that he'll have to decline. Gertrude admires his decision to do the right thing and warmly tells him that she'll help him write the letter to the Prime Minister refusing the position. They leave the room. Lord Caversham thinks they're both crazy, but Arthur tells him that the decision demonstrates Sir Robert's "high moral tone". Unconvinced, Lord Caversham says that in his day they called it idiocy. Needing his father out of the way for a few minutes, Arthur sends him into the conservatory to keep Mabel company.
When Gertrude reenters the room, Arthur asks her why she's giving Mrs. Cheveley what she wanted, having Sir Robert destroy his own career. Gertrude says that Robert decided himself that it was the right thing to do, but Arthur tells her that Robert is doing it because he fears losing her love. He also says that Sir Robert was made for public life and will never be truly happy away from it. He predicts that, if she forces Robert to go through with this, both he and Gertrude will end up regretting it bitterly. Sir Robert comes into the room carrying his letter to the Prime Minister. Gertrude takes it from him and rips it up, realizing that Arthur is right.
Gertrude and Sir Robert embrace, truly reconciled. Taking advantage of the moment, Lord Goring asks Sir Robert for Mabel's hand in marriage. Though he is grateful to Arthur for all his help, Robert tells him that he must refuse. Shocked, Arthur asks for an explanation and Sir Robert tells him that, after finding Mrs. Cheveley at his house at night, and after Arthur's impassioned defense of her, he realizes that his friend still has some sort of connection to his former fiance. Sir Robert says that he can't allow his sister to marry a man who clearly has feelings for another woman. Lord Goring cannot defend himself without betraying Gertrude's confidence, and so stays silent. Gertrude, however, admits that it was she whom Arthur was expecting to be in the drawing room, and that the note which Robert thought was for him was actually for Goring. Robert tells his wife that he would never have believed any ill of her, and Gertrude takes the note and writes Sir Robert's name at the top, saying that it is he that she trusts and needs. Mabel and Lord Caversham come in from the conservatory, and Arthur's engagement to her is announces. His father warns Arthur that he'd better be an ideal husband to her, but Mabel says that she wouldn't want her husband to be ideal; she would prefer that Arthur be himself. Everyone leaves the room except for Sir Robert, who sits by himself, brooding. When Gertrude comes back to find him, he asks her if she truly loves him, or merely feels sorry for him. Gertrude assures him that her love for him is real and abiding, and they begin their married life anew, on a more understanding and healthy footing.