Arsenic and Old Lace (USA, 1944)

aresnic_old_laceDirected by: Frank Capra. It’s hard to believe this was made by the same guy who did such earnest, heartwarming, Norman Rockwell-for-cinema stuff like It’s A Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but yes, this was old Frank Capra. I would have guessed that a comedy this dark would have been a legendary, genre-breaking sensation in 1944, but it seems like it was universally hailed as a nice little movie based on a nice little play, and from there it kind of faded into the obscurity of movies appreciated at the time. And without the seasonal repetition of It’s A Wonderful Life, it’s pretty hard for any older film to break through into the present. As far as I’m concerned, this movie has a lot going for it: Cary Grant, Peter Lorre, Josephine Hull, a fast-paced farce combined with a comedy of manners about two nice old ladies who poison the old men who stay at their B&B—that is a good recipe for a weird movie. I still wasn’t sure if it would actually be funny or not—older movies also tend to milk stereotypes and gender roles for humour, and a lot of it really doesn’t cut it these days. But to me, this film had enough “pure” comedy to keep me going: a cast of fools, an exasperated straight-man, misunderstandings, missed connections, physical comedy, and flat-out absurdity. I’m a sucker for all of that stuff, and this film is as good an example of everything that you’ll see. It’s a typical Hollywood ending in the sense that everything is wrapped up in a little bow, but I guess for 1944 audiences, the fact that the weird, crooked, alcoholic (and German!) doctor gets to sneak away at the end, is enough of an ambiguous, “edgy” element for the story, without going off the rails. I mean, for a “dark comedy” about murder, nobody actually gets murdered during the course of the play, and the story stops short of actually getting us to laugh at murder or torture or anything else. It sure wants us to laugh at mental illness (which I’m sure is problematic to some modern folks), but to me the story does a good job of letting the whole thing—the house full of homicidal and deluded relatives—stand in as a particularly exaggerated and entertaining metaphor for every person’s anxiety about introducing their partner to their family. Everyone thinks “my family is nuts”, and watching Cary Grant squirm and go off the rails trying to keep a lid on his family is a great manifestation of that anxiety in all of us. I’ve seen Cary Grant in some stuff that didn’t do it for me (I think Monkey Business kind of left me cold), but this movie affirms to me why he’s Cary Grant, and I could watch him carry on like that all day. It was also great to see Josephine Hull again, as I’m very fond of her as the beloved aunt in the Jimmy Stewart movie Harvey. And the last time I saw Peter Lorre, he was the pedo-murderer from Fritz Lang’s M, that classic noir meditation on populist violence and vigilante justice and free will and a lot of other heavy shit that he impressively fit into a 110 minute movie. This movie makes a much more light-hearted use for Lorre’s unique capacity for conveying sinister evil and sweet innocence at the same time. I highly recommend this to anyone who is even remotely interested in theatrical adaptations of comedies from the 1940’s.

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