Tuesday, June 14, 2011

There's no place like home...

The Carstairs kids (left to right): Archie, April, and Dinah

It wasn’t that long ago that I read Craig Rice’s brilliant novel Home Sweet Homicide for the very first time. It is an absolute masterpiece, with a brilliantly complex plot, extremely funny situations, characters that captivate your imagination, and all the fun of a Rice novel with chocolate malts replacing the booze.

Imagine my joy then, when I found out there was a film adaptation (that information being in the introduction to the Rue Morgue Press edition). Filmed in 1946, Home Sweet Homicide is a wonderfully fun movie, and it is a genuine shame that it hasn’t been treated well over time. The print I got a hold of had an inconsistent quality and two or three times, a few seconds of film seemed to be missing… either that, or the director was fond of cutting to black for no reason at all for a few seconds too long. (I get the feeling the first explanation is more plausible.)

Technical glitches out of the way, this really was a highly enjoyable movie. The three Carstairs children are played by Peggy Ann Garner (Dinah), Connie Marshall (April) and Dean Stockwell (Archie). I am glad to say this much: these three were perfectly cast. And I don’t mean that lightly— they literally are perfect. These may very well be the finest child actors I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching. Connie Marshall and Dean Stockwell were my favourites, as April and Archie respectively. April uses her charms to worm the kids out of embarrassing situations, to get information, or to bedevil the cops. Archie, meanwhile, is the banker of the group— the only member of the family able to save up money. He genuinely loves his sisters but hates showing it publicly. Dinah, meanwhile, likes to think of herself as grown-up, but she isn’t completely grown up yet— her impression of the real world and the process of a murder investigation is entirely out of her mother’s mystery novels. (The same goes for her siblings.)

These children are absolutely wonderful. I sat absorbed in the performances, practically forgetting these kids were not the Carstairs children. They understand the material so well, and just how it should be played. There’s the right amount of innocence, naiveté, and worldliness (necessitated by their mother’s chronic neglect). When April goes into a fake fit of hysterics, you can see why a man like Bill Smith would be taken in, and why someone like Sgt. O’Hare sees through them as fake. In fact, I would be willing to say that these actors had far more talent at their ages than any child actor today.

The other members of the cast are solid as well. Marian Carstairs is played by Lynn Bari, and she comes across as a mother who really loves her kids, but is forced to work hard in order to win the family’s bread and butter. Bill Smith is likeable, charismatic, and genuinely nice. Sgt. O’Hare is cynical, sees through the kids’ tricks, and keeps trying to prove his point that “he oughta know”...

April and Dinah persuading Archie to buy them malts.
But the film makes a mess of the original book’s plot. It deletes plot points seemingly at random to condense the stuff to 90 minutes. You get merely a taste of the original book, with some silliness thrown in about the killer having a phonograph alibi that wouldn’t deceive a five-year old. Also, the Mob, Archie’s gang of friends willing to do anything for the right price, is conspicuously absent. We just get the occasional reference to “my friends” from Archie.

The killer is the only legitimate suspect: the kids are obviously innocent, and apart from them, their mother, and the cops, nobody really gets any substantial screen time. Plus, the killer is the only one seen talking to someone who gets killed later on. Whoever wrote the screenplay (apparently a fellow named F. Hugh Herbert) was really bad at concealing whodunnit.

The movie also completely misunderstands part of the book’s original plot, and that is the children’s attempts to marry off their mother. Here, they attempt to set her up with Mr. Cherrington, and they only get the idea of setting her up with Bill Smith with about 15 minutes to go. In fact, they’re downright dismayed when it looks like Smith will stay the evening, when they were counting on him and their mother going out to a movie.

I realise films and novels are different mediums, and what works in one might not work in the other. But it seems such a shame that with such fine actors, someone didn’t get the bright idea to film everything scene by scene as it was in the original, brilliant novel. Instead, the plot is like a soup of half-developed ideas: many are left dangling completely unexplained by the end, and a few events happen only to never be referred to afterwards.

But what always really annoys me in the transition from page to screen are the minor, stupid, apparently unimportant changes. Like why does Sgt. O’Hare have six kids now instead of nine? Why is Mr. Cherrington not only single, but an author of a book that Dinah’s friend Joella describes as “That book mother forbade me to read? She’s reading it now, but she hides it…” Why does Joella get an expanded role? It is almost pointless stuff to change. (The most maddeningly silly change of all time has to be in the Margaret Rutherford film Murder She Said. It is an adaptation of the Agatha Christie novel 4:50 From Paddington, and the family it revolves around has their name changed from Crackenthorpe to Ackenthorpe. Really?!? Were those two letters just too much??? A close second goes to Murder at the Gallop, though, for changing the character of Miss Gilchrist to Miss Milchrist.)

So if the plot’s something of a mess, why bother watching this movie? Plain and simple: the kids. The kids steal the show and make it their own. Dean Stockwell is so charming as Archie, even if he never reaches the maximum of profanity (“Oh, shambles!!!”) or screams out “I… hate… girls!!!” Peggy Ann Garner turns the tables on the traditional parent-child roles so well, voicing her concern for her mother and that one just doesn’t know what’s best for one’s parents… And Connie Marshall is just adorable as that little actress and dependable charmer, April.

Even if, story-wise, the movie’s something of a let-down, enough of the book’s charm makes its way through to the screen to warrant a viewing. I highly recommend the film, which is genuinely amusing and very, very fun to watch.

I managed to transfer one scene from my copy onto YouTube for your viewing pleasure. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the Carstairs children doing what they do best: interfering with the poor police officers!


  1. Thanks for uploading that clip! Where did you find a copy of this movie?

  2. Let me just say you can find *anything* online if you look hard enough.

  3. There are two copies of this available on Ebay. Very likely only one soon.

    I remember seeing this movie as a kid back in the fifties, and loving it then. Certain parts of it stuck in my memory all those years (including the typewriter alibi and the boy's efforts at semi-profanity).

  4. I actually had the opportunity to watch the movie w/ Rice's children. That was an evening to remember!!

  5. That sounds like a wonderful experience, Jeffrey! I am extremely jealous now... ;)

  6. "If you don't want to save people from the gallows, we do!" Hysterical. Dean Stockwell was one of the few child actors who I could tolerate. He just seemed real most of the time.

    Nice to see Randolph Scott looking very much like Dick Tracy (that jawline!) in his cop role.