Cary Grant and a stellar cast romp through this classic farce based on Joseph Kesselring’s 1941 Broadway hit and breezily directed by Frank Capra. Frazzled drama critic Mortimer Brewster (Grant) has two aunts (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair) who ply lonely geezers with poisoned libations, one sociopathic brother (Raymond Massey) who looks like Boris Karloff, one bonkers brother (John Alexander) who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt, one impatient new bride (Priscilla Lane) — and only one night to make it turn out all right. In this circus’ center ring is Grant, twisting his face into a clown’s gallery of flabbergasted reactions and transforming his natural athletic grace into a rubber-legged comic ballet. You’ll die laughing.
Arsenic and Old Lace 8.25
I don’t quite remember how I stumbled upon this one. Undoubtedly, it must have been during that period when I first got my library card and lost complete control, taking out more DVDs than I had time for and actually trying to cram them all in my schedule.
Nowadays, my attitude is different: in the face of time constraints, I’d try to take the wisest course of action and simply wait until time allowed for it. Problem is that I would have missed out, because, invariably, the wait would become longer than expected – and this one’s not to miss.
It’s a curious piece of work, this ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’. On the one hand, it’s a screwball comedy, and on the other it’s a bit of a creepshow. Aside from ‘The Addams Family’, I haven’t seen such a devilish delightful marriage of humour and the macabre elsewhere on film and television.
I guess one could easily reference the Abbott and Costello films or even The Munsters, but I find those so lowbrow that they simply don’t make the cut. Whereas those films go for easy slapstick and absolute corniness, ‘Arsenic’ and ‘Addams’ have a richer dialogue – the humour is frequently in the repartee, not in the pratfalls.
As well, what distinguishes them is the fact that they are absolutely at ease with their morbid predilections. Not only do most of the characters consider their situations completely normal, if not ideal, they revel in it. And yet, they are all nice, well-intentioned characters – unlike the psychopaths in more modern horror comedies, such as the ‘Scary Movie’ series.
What I appreciate is the absurdity of the moments: even if the characters mean well, they tend to be totally off their rockers – they think, say and do things that are completely inappropriate in our society. While at times completely innocuous, there are moments when there’s genuine cause for alarm (if not downright panic!) on the part of other characters – but, even then, it’s treated with a tongue-in-cheek manner that makes acceptable.
For instance, there is the case of the Cary Grant character in this film. As the nephew and brother in a household of lunatics, he’s gotten used to some odd behaviour. Except that now, as he is about to embark on his honeymoon, he discovers that not all is as it seemed at home – things have turned frightfully ugly and he suddenly loses his bearings trying to sort it out. The humour comes from, not only the casual way in which the horror is dished out, but in Grant’s reactions to it, which is completely opposite.
Grant is a multifaceted actor: he’s done, drama, action, romance, comedy, …etc., very well. By the end of his career he was firing on all cylinders. Here’s he’s about halfway through and his performance is a mixed bag. Although it was essential for his straight character to be played over-the-top to contrast the nutty characters playing it straight, he takes it a little too far. His timing is spot-on, but his gesticulations are too wild and his facial expression are overdone.
Most of the other key players were quite good. Of note, Teddy was an outstanding character, as was aunt Abby – who was an absolutely joy to watch. The older brother, who is meant to look like Boris Karloff’s version of Frankenstein, had a menacing edge that was just right for the part (on stage the role was actually played by Boris Karloff himself, but he couldn’t get away to make the film version ). The rest manage to varying degrees.
The main part of the film takes place in the family home. As a set, the home looks as good as it’s going to get – it’s nothing fancy or otherwise notable. Since it is based on a stage play, it’s unsurprising that there’s limited dimension to it: there’s only so many locations a play can take you to. But it’s such a frenzied comedy that there’s really no time for other settings, anyway; people are walking in and out of the primary set all the time.
All that activity falls in step with this farce: it’s full of misunderstandings, absurd situations (which can require some suspension of disbelief!), and general chaos, in which everyone is manically doing their own thing. It’s not always cleverly done, but it’s entertaining enough – and there are plenty of yummy bits along the way. Very yummy indeed.
With its mordantly morbid humour, one could say ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ is the ultimate film noir. Or comedy noir, to be correct, seeing as it remains in high spirits in the face of the darkest of deeds. Despite its imperfections, I consider this film a rare treat and I highly recommend it for a jolly ol’ time this Hallowe’en season.