Saturday, May 24, 2014

CANON OF FILM: "ARSENIC AND OLD LACE"

ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (1944)

Director: Frank Capra
Screenplay: Julius J. Epstein & Philip G. Epstien based on the play by Joseph Kesselring



Strangely, perhaps perversely, my favorite Frank Capra film has always been the most un-Capraesque film he ever made. It was one that he made for money and that he didn’t particularly like. One that Cary Grant didn’t particularly like either. (And they didn’t care much for each other either; this is their only film collaboration) “Arsenic and Old Lace”, was filmed in ’41, shortly after the Broadway play debuted and became a hit, thinking it would run for only eight months or so (a typical Broadway run at that time) and then release the film afterwards, which was the typical deal made with Broadway plays and Hollywood, but instead they had to hold off for three years, as it became one of the biggest theatrical hits of the time, and still remains one of the funniest and greatest farces to ever breach the stage or the screen.

From Joseph Kesserling's play and adapted by the Epstein twins, who would later do “Casablanca”, to say this film starts off normal and then becomes strange would be like saying I started the race and the starting gate but somehow I ended up on Neptune. Cary Grant, plays theater critic and notorious bachelor Mortimer Brewster, who has just gotten married and has returned home to show his new bride Eliane (Priscilla Lane) off to his two aunts who raised him, Aunt Abby and Aunt Martha (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair), and his uncle Teddy (John Alexander). He’s not really named “Teddy,” he just thinks he’s Theodore Roosevelt. By the end of the movie, he’s going to seem like the sanest person in the family. (Not counting Elaine, who’s too new to the family to be insane yet.)

Where to begin? For starters, Jonathan, Mortimer’s long-lost brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey), has come home, only he now looks like Boris Karloff. (Karloff couldn’t be in the film ‘cause he was too busy starring in the Broadway version at the time, the one sole minor issue with an otherwise perfect comedy is that joke about him looking like Karloff not having the same imput as it would’ve had if Karloff really was playing the character.) Upon finding this out, he calls upon his plastic surgeon Dr. Einstein, in one of my favorite Peter Lorre roles to change his face that night so that he becomes unrecognizable again. (He brings his surgeon along with him because… well that gets logically explained in the film.) Also, the two aunts of Mortimer’s have a habit of finding very old men who have no kids or any family to speak of and are all alone. They find these men to be sad, and after a while they decide to kill them by having them drink some arsenic and old lace. It must be lonely to have no one else in the world, but there are many more people in the cellar, but they all have yellow fever. (That sentence will make sense when you watch the movie)

To say the least, Mortimer is taking all this pretty hard. He is correct when he notes, “Insanity runs in my family. It practically gallops.” There’s one scene I’ve always liked that involves a play that he saw and he discusses it with Dr. Einstein about how stupid a character is. All he has to do is look over his shoulder to see what’s happening behind him, but he doesn’t look, and what happens to him. Well, you’ll have to watch to find out, but it involves a curtain rod. I proclaim if this film we’re released today it would still be a hit, but I kind of hope somebody would put this back on stage. Mainly because I want to see how all these people can possibly run around on the same stage at the same time, it must have been like watching a movie in fast-forward even then. The kinetic energy of this comedy, mostly taking place on a stage, uses only a three-wall format to make it feel like a play, narrows the space allowed for the film, instead of opening it up. Most filmmakers think that’s a bad choice to not open up a play whenever possible, it’s not only the correct choice here, not only because for those outside of Broadway to be able to see something equitable to seeing a play, but because the enclosed space makes the film that much funnier. This is one play that doesn't need to be opened up for film; it’s already bursting out of the screen as it is. It’s a marvel this can be done on the stage at all. A great classic screwball comedy, done the way that it would never be done nowadays. Charge!
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