KICK YOUR ENTHUSIASM (23)

By: Mandy Keifetz
March 21, 2022

One in a series of 25 enthusiastic posts, contributed by 25 HILOBROW friends and regulars, on the topic of a favorite sidekick — whether real-life or fictional.

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DR. EINSTEIN

What binds drunken plastic surgeon (Universität Heidelberg 1919) Dr. Hermann Einstein to the grindhouse psychopath Jonathan Brewster?

Played by Edgar Stehli in the original Broadway cast of Arsenic and Old Lace, it is reasonable to assume that there’s no more sidekick backstory than the Joseph Kesselring play’s script suggests: Brewster and Einstein have escaped together from a hospital for the criminally insane. Einstein, a plastic surgeon, drunkenly made Brewster’s face look like Boris Karloff’s — on Broadway, the villain was indeed played by Karloff — and the two have been on a murderous rampage. They end up in Brewster’s childhood home in Brooklyn — where they are no longer the craziest people on stage.

In the 1944 Frank Capra movie adaption, though, the relationship is more complicated. As Einstein, Peter Lorre fills every scene with sleazy charm. His screen presence is too huge for a sidekick. Brewster (Raymond Massey) is a raging sadist, hateful and one-dimensional. He seems to have done all the killing, and is plainly no one you’d want to be on the run with. And yet, when Brewster was unconscious during the operation that transformed his face, Einstein didn’t kill him — or even ditch him.

Are they lovers? Is Einstein a gun-moll kind of sidekick, a Bonnie to Brewster’s Clyde? It’s certainly possible. There is a long, tender close-up in which Einstein caresses Brewster’s face with chalazion forceps, saying he will give him a new face; he’ll do “a Schmid” — which is his specialty. This is a very tender moment, and in a Hays Office-era movie plainly signifies hanky-panky.

Or is it a twisted ethics which binds them? The film script makes a case for this as well. In almost every scene they’re in, Einstein cajoles Brewster and soothes him, keeps him from raging out. Perhaps he is a Jiminy Cricket kind of sidekick, a Greek chorus of moral rectitude against which the villain can play.

A third possibility is that Brewster is himself the sidekick, or would be if only Lorre could get him under control. Their screen relationship would really make more sense if Einstein were the mad scientist, and Brewster the foil/muscle. A Pinky and the Brain scenario, if you will.

If the true nature of Hermann and Jonathan’s relationship is never explained, it’s because they aren’t the craziest people in this story. (The Brewsters, Jonathan’s brother Mortimer (Cary Grant), explains to his fiancée, have been lunatics since the Mayflower. But the nature of their relationship stays with you, long after the screwball antics and lovable murders of the main characters fade. As a pair, they seem to contain all of the sidekick tropes, and also none. A great sense of relief fills you when Jonathan is hauled away by the flatfeet, but Hermann escapes.

His next relationship, one hopes, will be more productive.

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KICK YOUR ENTHUSIASM: INTRODUCTION by Josh Glenn | Annie Nocenti on RATSO | Barbara Bogaev on TRIXIE | Sara Ryan on SWIFT WIND | Carlo Rotella on BELT BEARERS | Adam McGovern on JACKIE McGEE | Josh Glenn on RAWHIDE | Gabriela Pedranti on KUILL | Douglas Wolk on VOLSTAGG | Serdar Paktin on CATO | Deirdre Day on TRAMPAS | Dean Haspiel on TIN MAN | Flourish Klink on THE APOSTLE PETER | Miranda Mellis on FAMILIAR | Peggy Nelson on COSMO | Beth Lisick on MARTHA BROOKS | Bishakh Som on CAPTAIN HADDOCK | Stephanie Burt on SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE | Greg Rowland on SPOCK | Adam Netburn on SENKETSU | Mimi Lipson on ROBIN QUIVERS | Jonathan Pinchera on GUTS | Tom Nealon on TWIKI | Mandy Keifetz on DR. EINSTEIN | Judith Zissman on IGNATZ MOUSE | Anthony Miller on DOCTOR GONZO.

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Enthusiasms