Monday, March 15, 2010

52 Perfect Movies: Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

"Insanity runs in my family... it practically gallops."

I've covered the great Cary Grant comedy Bringing Up Baby in a previous post, and here we have another superb and sublime bit of hilarity from the screen's most revered leading man of all time. It's interesting to note that Grant himself never felt confident in his performance in this picture--rather, he believed it to be one of his worst, and completely over-the-top. However, the untold masses who have derived great pleasure from this movie would beg to differ.

Arsenic and Old Lace was based on a smash hit Broadway play of the early 1940s, and given to the great Frank Capra to direct. Capra was a master of slick, stylized slices of Americana. An Italian-American with high ideals for his newfound country and what it represented, he brought a certain irrepresible charm, as well as some unapologetic schmaltz to his projects. To put it plainly, he completely gave himself over to his films, using them to communicate a philosophy about American life in general.

The funny thing is, Arsenic and Old Lace represents a subversion of that perfect American dream. Except it does so in a completely disarming way, using comedy to present us with completely ludicrous situations that we can't help but laugh at. It's a farce in the truest sense of the world--the very definition of a screwball comedy. And it's a joy from start to finish.

There's a sense of delicious chaos that pulses through the script of Julius and Philip Epstein, one that almost no comedy gets as right as this one. And Cary Grant, one of the most versatile of all the matinee idols of his day, is more than up to the task of being the ringmaster in the midst of an absolute cinematic circus.

Raymond Massey shows up as the heavy, his Lincoln-esque features made up to look like those of Boris Karloff--who originated the role of Jonathan, but was prevented from carrying it over to the screen due to his obligations to continue the part on stage. Despite the absence of the man for whom the part was written, Massey imbues Jonathan with a sinister menace that is a wonderful counterpart to the flighty, ever-incredulous antics of Grant as Jonathan's put-upon brother Mortimer.

With Massey is the shady Dr. Einstein, played with aplomb by the very face of shady supporting characters, Peter Lorre himself. Josephine Hull and jean Adair play Mortimer's two aunts, who at first glance seem like two harmless old biddies, but are soon discovered to be a couple of delusional Kevorkians, poisoning elderly lodgers in their bed and breakfast and burying them in the basement. And then there's John Alexander as Teddy Brewster, Mortimer's other brother, who believes himself to be none other than Teddy Roosevelt. Even the always-terrific Edward Everett Horton shows up as the proprietor of the funny farm wherein Mortimer seeks to commit his murderous aunties.

In the grand tradition of this style of comedy, we can't help but sit back and enjoy watching everything unravel as Mortimer continually tries and fails to hold the entire unbelievable situation together. It's a performance in the same vein as Bringing Up Baby, in which Grant played straight man to the madcap Kate Hepburn--but this time, Grant is allowed to take it even further into the realm of broad humor. He may have found it to be a bit too much, but generations of audiences have discovered it over and over again, and embraced it.

It's not hard to figure out why Arsenic and Old Lace was such a successful play, and one has to give major credit to Capra for expertly translating the material to the movies, without losing the intimacy and charm of the source material. This is a pretty unique film in Capra's body of work. That's not to say it isn't just as heartwarming as much of his other output, but the difference here is the manner in which it goes about causing the "Capra effect".

Other films like It's a Wonderful Life had dealt with the darker side of the American dream, but Arsenic and Old Lace is black comedy of the highest order, with gallows humor to spare. It is the story of homicidal old ladies, a houseful of lunatics and a scarred, fugitive ex-con. And yet it never fails to be light, funny and just plain fun.

Arsenic and Old Lace is one of the most downright amusing comedies ever filmed. It has all the life and exuberance of Frank Capra, interpreted marvelously by Cary Grant, with a fantastic ensemble cast supporting him every step of the way. It's also funny as all hell, which, when you get right down to it, is the one thing all great comedies strive to be. And few pull it off like this.

NEXT UP: White Heat (1948)


Nate Y. said...

One of my all-time favorite films, only slightly marred by the absence of Karloff himself.

B-Sol said...

Every time I see it I think of what it would've been like with Karloff. But Raymond Massey still does an amazing job--and scared the life out of me as a kid!

le0pard13 said...

Sorry to be playing catch-up so late, but you've written a wonderful examination of one of my all-time films, B-Sol. It really is one of the cinema greats, even though it came from the stage (I still wish to see the original play it's based on). The whole cast is splendid, but this is one of Cary Grant's signature roles. Whether it's in the play or not, the film's passing reference to Mortimer's brother looking like Boris Karloff is an obvious, but fun, witticism to that missing-in-action actor. I'm so glad you mentioned Capra's other great work, It's a Wonderful Life, in this. I covered their dark sides in a post awhile back. This is a great addition to 52 Perfect Movies series, B-Sol. Thanks for this.

B-Sol said...

Thanks, Leopard. I got to see this on Broadway in 1987, with Tony Roberts in the Cary Grant role, Polly Holiday and Jean Stapleton as the aunts, Abe Vigoda in the Karloff/Massey part, and William Hickey in the Peter Lorre role. It was awesome.