Monday, March 25, 2013

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

Director: Frank Capra                               Writer: Julius & Philip Epstein
Film Score: Max Steiner                           Cinematography: Sol Polito
Starring: Cary Grant, Priscilla Lane, Raymond Massey and Peter Lorre

A madcap little comedy that was a big hit on Broadway, and in numerous road shows throughout the 1940s, Arsenic and Old Lace is a perfect vehicle for Frank Capra’s brand of family-friendly film. This one revolves around a couple of old ladies who have been “helping” older men to find peace--eternal peace--by slipping a little arsenic into their elderberry wine and burying them in the basement. As usual, Capra is able to command some big stars in his production, most notably Cary Grant in the lead. Grant, however, may not have been the best choice for this film. He’s better with a drier kind of comedy, as in Mr. Blandings Builds his Dream House, or as the controlling force in the chaos, like His Girl Friday. In this production he’s a little too antic, plays his comedy a little too broadly, and is just a little too polished to be believed in the role.

The real treat in this film, as in all of Capra’s productions, are the character actors. Raymond Massey plays the role Karloff did on stage, Grant’s brother returning home after an operation that has him “looking like Boris Karloff.” His sidekick is none other than Peter Lorre, who could never seem to break out of supporting roles other than in his Mr. Moto films. Priscilla Lane has one of the few appearances in her brief career as Grant’s newlywed, but doesn’t get a lot of screen time. And the list goes on: Jack Carson as a rookie cop, Edward Everett Horton as the head of the insane asylum, the great James Gleeson as a police detective, and Gary Owen as the cab driver. Josephine Hull and Jean Adair play the two old aunts and John Alexander has the thankless task of playing the crazy younger brother who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt.

Capra lobbied hard to purchase the rights to the play by Joseph Kesselring, and while he certainly made a hit, he didn’t really make a great film. He did have to wait until the Broadway run of the show was over, and when it was out on the road Hull and Adair were given a six-week leave of absence in order to shoot the picture. The road company needed a star, however, and would not let Boris Karloff go, and so Capra substituted Massey. Unlike certain plays in which the film transcends the theater piece, Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder comes to mind, the frantic action of Arsenic and Old Lace was difficult to capture on film in a way that made the material cinematic, and in the end, despite Capra’s genius, it remains a very entertaining filmed play, but only a moderately successful movie.

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