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  • Writer's pictureCarrie Specht

Arsenic and Old Lace & You Can’t Take it With You Screen Once Again

This weekend the American Cinematheque is providing a rare opportunity to disappear for several hours into the fanciful and idyllic world of the darkened Egyptian movie theater where murderous old ladies are compassionate souls and the little man of the people can win out while sticking it to “the man”. Frank Capra’s world is one that spouts Democratic ideologies while promoting good old Republican family values. No other director has ever been so apt at weaving the admirable qualities of all things American into one gloriously sweet and satisfying package.

Arsenic And Old Lace is an oft-overlooked Capra gem, mostly because the director has so many great titles to his credit. This is a black comedy in its purist form, deftly handled by a choice cast that includes Cary Grant repeatedly delivering his patented double take as he discovers that his two sweet old aunts have been doing their part for humanity by painlessly killing lonely old men. Josephine Hull and Jean Adair play Grant’s aunts with perfect daffiness and vulnerability, maintaining a believable level of sincerity and innocence. Grant is so befuddled by the situation that he forgets all about his new bride waiting to travel to Niagara Falls and wrangles with the decision of what can be done.

During this moral dilemma, Grant is confronted by his long lost evil brother who is on the run from the law for multiple homicides. Played by Raymond Massey (made up to be a dead ringer for Boris Karloff), the brother has some evil plans of his own which include the help of his demented little sidekick beautifully portrayed by Peter Lorre. Meanwhile the local bumbling cop (played with rugged earnestness by brilliant character actor Jack Carson) has no idea what is happening right under his nose.

You Can’t Take It With You was the recipient of the 1938 Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director, and nominated for Best Supporting Actress (Spring Byington), Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Sound, and Best Editing.

Frank Capra’s well-crafted adaptation of the successful Kaufman/Hart Broadway play stars a charming Lionel Barrymore as the wise and much admired head of an eccentric family. The family is portrayed in broad strokes of fancy, but it’s a credit to Capra and his talented cast of supporting characters who capably manage to keep the silly antics this side of caricature and bad acting. Jean Arthur is at her affable tomboy best as the youngest daughter who tries to reign in her zany free-spirited family when she falls for upper crust beau, Jimmy Stewart who comes from a strait-laced family. Ultimately it is the oddball uniqueness of the family that brings everyone together in this delightfully daffy comedy.

Often rushed or mishandled by today’s comedies, the happy endings of a Capra film are clearly set up from the beginning, and follow a logical, albeit funny, linear course to a satisfying closure. Ultimately, all the loose ends are reliably tied up to humorous effect and everyone lives happily ever after with the good guys on top and American morals solidly enforced without it choking up in your throat. It’s often said, and for good reason, that they just don’t make movies like these any more. Mostly because films like these would fail miserably today. There just doesn’t exist the talent required to pull it off. Not that there’s no talent to be had in today’s market, it’s that the sincerity needed to back this type of material is absent. There was a wholesomeness in Capra's age that rang true, even with a heavy application. And the only way to recapture that honest warm and fuzzy earnestness is to see a good old fashioned film the good old fashioned way – in a darkened movie theater.

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