Monday Movie: Arsenic and Old Lace, by David Bax
When you think of Frank Capra, you probably think of many things, mostly big and emotional ones, but you don’t think of subtlety. That certainly holds true for his 1944 adaptation of the popular stage play Arsenic and Old Lace (actually filmed in 1941 before Capra went off to make his many World War II documentaries but held for release until the play completed its very successful run). But one of those big, emotional things you probably think of is hope. Films like It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington are powered by the belief that things will get better because people are good. Here’s where Arsenic and Old Lace stands apart. With its multiple murders and its cynical view of America’s past and of modern institutions like the police, it has more in common with older, darker Capra material like The Bitter Tea of General Yen.
Cary Grant plays Mortimer Brewster, a theater critic who has just married his childhood sweetheart, Elaine (Priscilla Lane). Before heading off to Niagara Falls (of course), he stops off at the house where his aunts (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair) and his brother Teddy live. Mortimer knows that Teddy believes himself to be Teddy Roosevelt, the staircase to be San Juan Hill and the basement to be the Panama Canal. But it comes as a shock to him to find that his sweet old aunts are serial murderers (filling the locks of the “Panama Canal” with their victims). Before he can do anything about it, his other brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey), a career criminal who’s buried plenty of bodies of his own, shows up unexpectedly and threatens to make everything much worse. Mortimer’s suddenly second guessing his plan to start a family with Elaine now that he realizes that his own, descended from Mayflower passengers though they may be, is full of psycho killers.
Mortimer’s frantic attempts to have his family committed while not letting the police know about the bodies in the basement while also trying not to get killed by Jonathan make Arsenic and Old Lace a kind of dark farce, full of coincidences (oh, you’re a murderer too?!) and secrets (multiple family members, unbeknownst to one another, plan to sneak down to the basement to hide more bodies). Grant plays everything at full energy and volume, which would probably be exhausting if the material he’s bouncing off of weren’t so offbeat. Mortimer’s eventually assured that he is not also insane. But, then again, he did get married on Halloween so at least some of his family’s darkness has rubbed off on him.