One of the things that I love about the Internet is the way that it snatches dormant media from obscurity, allowing us to experience anew that which hitherto existed in the far recesses of our minds as the merest fragments of memory. Whether it’s a long-forgotten commercial or pages from an old Christmas catalog, it seems like everything that was ever broadcast or printed is being digitized, tagged, and archived for our instant access. Can’t get a fragment of an ancient advertising jingle out of your head? Google a few words, and you’ll likely hear it in its entirety. Thinking about the colorful cover of a paperback you once owned? Someone, somewhere, has scanned it, along with the artwork for every other known edition of the title.
Thanks to that other resuscitator of bygone entertainment, Netflix, I recently followed a trail of mental breadcrumbs back to one of my earliest memories. I was watching Who’s Minding the Store, a seldom-seen (and justifiably so) Jerry Lewis vehicle from 1963. Released just five months after Lewis’s brilliant The Nutty Professor, the Frank Tashlin-directed Store is a cinematic abomination that is nevertheless worth watching for its immortal typewriter routine as well as the sheer, audacious chutzpah of its star’s performance. What caught my attention, however, was the unique diction of supporting player John McGiver. I knew I had seen him in other productions, yet I could not name any.
IMDb to the rescue! Soon I was poring over McGiver’s filmography, and while searching for movies and television shows in which I was likely to have seen him, I was absolutely gobsmacked by the presence of a film I had certainly never seen. In fact, I had wondered whether or not my mind had made up this curious title I recalled being promoted when I was quite young. But there it was: Arnold, released in November of 1973. For years I have carried around in my mind the latent trauma of being exposed to its advertising campaign, which scared the hell out of me as a sensitive and neurotic five-year-old.
The commercial began with a close-up of an oil painting featuring the portrait of a distinguished gentleman. As the narrator intones, “Meet Arnold. He’s a scream. He really took care of his family,” one of the portrait’s eyes slides back to reveal a real and maniacal eye staring out from the darkness. This image is intercut with a woman screaming, a man choking to death, another woman apparently suffering horribly in a shot colored by a red filter, the man from the portrait smiling in his casket, and a couple showering together only to be crushed by advancing stall walls. There are other shots, too, mostly footage of an Irish constable tossing off witty commentary, that might have signaled to me that Arnold was not intended to be taken seriously. The narrator even concludes by suggesting, “You’ll die laughing.”
Either the humor went entirely over my head, or it only made the disturbing footage that much creepier. Perhaps my tender mind, already fraught with anxieties provoked by my recent enrollment in kindergarten, could not reconcile the disparity between the terrifying images and the otherwise lighthearted tone of the commercial. These days you’ll find wee ones who can tell you which one of the graphic Saw movies is their favorite. In 1973, though, my little self was rather naive about the manipulative potential of media. I reacted viscerally to the scary moments and forgot the rest.
Flash forward to 2011. Now aware that a comedic horror film called Arnold really did exist (I was beginning to think that maybe I had mixed up memories of an eerie film with Arnold, the pig of Green Acres), I did an Internet search for further information. You can imagine my delight when I found that someone, somewhere, had digitized an old VHS tape of a midnight movie broadcast and uploaded Arnold in its entirety. Now, at last, nearly four decades after being terrorized by a thirty-second commercial, I could finally explore the root of my fear.
I was amused at the outset by the opening credits. Names that would have been meaningless to me then are now familiar actors whom I hardly associate with feelings of terror. The star of Arnold is none other than Stella Stevens, who played opposite Jerry Lewis in The Nutty Professor. Her leading man is Roddy McDowall, whose name inevitably conjures up an image of his simian likeness in Planet of the Apes. Victor Buono, whom I remember from his ridiculous role as King Tut in the campy Batman TV series, shows up early in a bit part as a minister. And who’s that under the turban? Why, it’s M*A*S*H regular Jamie Farr, appearing in a thankless, non-speaking role as the exotic household servant, complete with eye patch and hook hand. It’s sillier than anything Maxwell Klinger ever did.
The plot is a bizarre premise. Wealthy and recently deceased Arnold has stipulated in his will that, owing to the convenience that his wife is now widowed, his corpse is to be wed to his mistress. Thus the film begins with one of cinema’s oddest wedding scenes. Back at the mansion, family members gather for the reading of the will, which is read by Arnold himself via a pre-recorded cassette that is inserted into a tape player installed in the side of his casket. Through a series of these carefully planned recordings, Arnold manages to anticipate the actions of his greedy relatives and lure them to their deaths. Their demises are violent and gruesome yet not graphically gory, presumably because we are supposed to die laughing, after all. Thus, a decapitation is as bloodless as the beheading of a store mannequin.
Lest we fail to see the humor in all of this, Bernard Fox (famous among Andy Griffith Show devotees as Malcolm Merriweather) provides comic relief as Constable Hooke, who cracks jokes with the grave-digging groundskeeper. Much of what is intended to be funny falls rather flat. There is a reference, for example, to “one foot in the grave” after all that remains of one victim is his lower leg. On the other hand, I might have given an audible snort after Hooke tells his pub buddies, “Dear Lady’s been in a bit of a shock the last few days. Hasn’t said a word to a soul since Master Robert exploded.”
There’s not much more to Arnold except for sprinklings of scantily-clad T&A. I can only assume that the filmmakers perceived the trio of sex, violence, and comedy as the total cinematic package, because the pinup-style retro titillation seems like a completely extraneous element of the film. Stella Stevens, who was a Playboy centerfold in 1960, trots around in lingerie looking impossibly young for her age. John McGiver, the actor whom I spotted in Who’s Minding the Store?, spends one of his last film roles nursing a pint and staring at the barmaid’s ample cleavage.
At long last, thanks to the all-encompassing Internet, I have had the opportunity to confront a childhood fear and see just what it was that was lurking behind the curtain. What did I find? Well, I think that if only I had actually seen the complete movie back in 1973, my fears would have been put to rest a long time ago.
Oh, and bad as Arnold is, it’s still better than Who’s Minding the Store?.