ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (Frank Capra, 1941; 1944)

Probably the film to see each Halloween, especially if one is in the mood for a lot of fun, a continual sprinkling of the macabre, and a few flourishes of real terror, Frank Capra’s Arsenic and Old Lace was made in 1941 but was contractually not released until 1944, when the original Broadway run of Joseph Kesselring’s hugely popular play finally ended. By that time one of the stars of the film, lead actress Priscilla Lane, had left Hollywood; the film’s great success caused Warner Bros. to try to seduce her back. However, Lane was more than happy in her retirement. Her performance as newlywed Elaine, incidentally, is easily the best of her career.
     The play, set in a quaint Brooklyn neighborhood adjacent to a cemetery, is a silly, immature farce to which Capra, working from the Epstein brothers’ smooth adaptation, brought a richer draught of family feeling and concern, which offsets the fraternal conflict between Mortimer and Jonathan Brewster. Punctuating his performance with dumbfounded expressions shot right into the camera, Cary Grant is beautifully controlled and fearfully funny—some find him frenetic, dithering and exhausting—as newlywed Mortimer, a theater critic, who discovers that his two spinster aunts, the souls of Christian kindness, have murdered by poison a long string of lonely elderly gentlemen to put them out of their misery. Each has been buried in the cellar, in a lock of the “Panama Canal,” by Mortimer’s brother Teddy, who believes he is President Theodore Roosevelt. Nephew Jonathan, a vicious killer escaped from prison, visits his childhood home after a long absence to hide from police and to bury his latest victim; his accomplice, Dr. Einstein, is an alcoholic whose botched plastic surgeries have left Jonathan’s face a scarred facsimile of Boris Karloff’s face as the Frankenstein monster. (Karloff himself originated the role.) Raymond Massey, who had just played Abraham Lincoln and John Brown, is both frightening and witty as Jonathan; Peter Lorre is hilarious as Einstein, such as when he teases Jonathan for having killed fewer persons than his aunts.
     Capra, the right-wing Republican who had won three Oscars during the Depression for directing films that misidentified him as a New Deal Democrat, is unusually relaxed here, and thin—this, a harbinger of his disappointing postwar career. The collaboration between Capra and Grant seems the perfect match, like their politics; but Capra chose Grant only after Bob Hope, Jack Benny and Ronald Reagan turned down the role. Eddie Albert, who strikes me as a likely wonderful Mortimer, eventually played the part in a radio production. Allyn Joslyn originated the role on stage.
     Capra kept the scary staging, rare in films, when everything goes dark and stays that way for a while (except for ambiguous slivers of light) to spur audiences to imagine by the sounds they hear what might be going on.
     Josephine Hull is bubbly and endearing as Aunt Abby—and a future Oscar winner (Harvey, Henry Koster, 1950).

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