Arsenic and Old Lace: Review
It goes without saying that Frank Capra is one of the greatest and most beloved directors of all time, especially renowned for his madcap romantic comedies. He is one of the few directors who ever managed to balance whimsy with meaningfulness without loosing the ability to entertain, and could spout 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 other great titles to his credit. In this comedy about two sweet old ladies whose basement holds a murderously funny secret, Capra utilizes star Cary Grant to his zany best. Here Grant repeatedly delivers his patented double take as he discovers that his aunts have been doing their part for humanity by painlessly killing lonely old men. Josephine Hull and Jean Adair play Grant’s aunts with the perfect balance of daffiness and vulnerability while maintaining a believable level of sincerity and innocence. Grant is so befuddled by the situation that he forgets all about his new bride, Priscilla Lane who is waiting to travel to Niagara Falls while he wrangles with the decision of what’s to be done. This is a black comedy in its purist form, deftly handled by a choice cast that includes such reliable character actors as Raymond Massey, Peter Lorre and Jack Carson who manage to play their parts to the hilt without chewing up the scenery.
During this moral dilemma, Grant is confronted by his long lost evil brother (Massey made up to be a dead ringer for Boris Karloff) who is on the run from the law for multiple homicides. The brother has some plans of his own which include the help of his demented little sidekick beautifully portrayed by Lorre. Meanwhile the local bumbling cop (played with rugged earnestness by Carson) has no idea this is all happening right under his nose. He’s too busy trying to pitch a play idea to renowned critic, Grant.
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 (even the sympathetic bad guy) with the good guys on top and American morals solidly enforced without any of the hokum sticking in your throat.
Sadly, today a film like this would fail miserably. But that’s because 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 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 like this one, made by a good old-fashioned filmmaker like Capra.