By the early 1940’s, Frank Capra had free rein to direct and produce whatever he wanted. His trophy cabinet already held more Oscars than any other director, and his movies weren’t just popular with critics – audiences loved them, too. He had carefully crafted a reputation for a blend of social commentary, gentle humour, and a keenness for traditional American values and the everyday man; a combination that came to be known as Capra-corn. In 1941, however, he was seeking a project that offered total escapism – an unpretentious film that was nothing but pure entertainment. He found what he was looking for at Fulton Theatre on Broadway, where Arsenic and Old Lace played to a sold out audience.
The right story
It was exactly the kind of story Capra had in mind: a black comedy with characters who were all something other than what they appeared to be. Capra knew from the moment he saw it that he wanted to make a big screen version of the play. While Capra’s reason for making the film may not have appeared to be personal, however, his biographer Joseph McBride noted some connections between Capra’s life and the movie. Capra’s mother, for example, made her own wine (albeit not poisonous) and had a dual image: a figure beloved to anyone outside of her family, but a far darker person to anyone who got to know her well.
The Warner film is good old macabre fun. The fact that it didn’t rank as one of the top films of the year is down to a couple of outstanding faults, any of which would have had the potential to ruin most films. Frank Capra insured that it included the broad melodrama, gentle naivety, and riotous farce that Messrs Russel Crouse and Howard Lindsay put into Joseph Kesselring’s stage production.
Capra’s less-than-happy feelings about parts of the stage play led him to add a number of his own camera capers which didn’t do the film any service. In fact, it harmed it: not only did it pad out an already well padded-out play, it added time to a film that was meant for speed, as opposed to heavy hauling.
To illustrate the point, the film opens on a now quite tiresome note about unpredictable and bizarre Brooklyn, and nurses the laughter along with an Ebbets Field riot scene, which has no obvious reason for even being in the film. It then takes us to a schmaltz sequence in a marriage license bureau, where we see Cary Grant and co-star Priscilla Lane await their license. Then we’re shown another sequence of kiss-chase in a Brooklyn cemetery, before we finally get to the story of Arsenic and Old Lace.
Pure old Golden Age
Despite its 1944 release date, the film was actually produced three years earlier. Warner Brothers chose to delay its release until the stage play’s run had ended. Due to Hollywood’s Production Code, some of the dialogue, along with a number of scenes, had to be either omitted or changed. Mortimer’s famous line in the play, “Darling, I’m a bastard!” became “I’m the son of a sea cook!”. The end of the film features the line “I’m not a cab driver. I’m a coffee pot”, as opposed to the play’s final scene, in which we saw the two aunts serve an old man a glass of poison-laced wine. The Production Code, however, only allowed such acts as murder to be screened if the criminals/killers received punished by the film’s end. Parents wanting to show their children a taste of the Golden Age of Hollywood needn’t be too worried over the film’s madness and multiple murders: there is nothing graphic here. The violence is merely a menacing image of knives, and roughhousing.
Back in the Golden Age, violence and obscenities were far lower key: a very differed scenario than what we’ve been accustomed to in modern cinema and entertainment. Not everyone is happy about the levels of sex and violence we see in movies and in television, however, which is part of the reason why so many still hold a candle for Hollywood’s Golden Age. Fortunately, there are plenty of these classics to watch over and over, however, whether it’s old movies or vintage television. The same parallels exist within the music industry, with more and more obscenities featured in popular music, turning off those who prefer cleaner entertainment. There will always be a taste of the old for those who prefer classic drama and gentle comedy. Video games is another area which has been accused of being too violent, but even games developers are beginning to understand that another audience exists. We can also see this preference for old-timey vibes in slot games, such as Sky Vegas’ Silent Movie, which takes us back to those simpler times of classic Hollywood. With SkyVegas’ Vegas-style table games and modern interface, it sounds just like the kind of platform that actors like Grant and Stewart would approve of… bearing in mind there was plenty the former didn’t approve of at all.
According to Cary Grant: The Lonely Heart authors, Roy Moseley and Charles Higham, the movie was written to the actor’s screen specifications, which included the film being shot in sequence. Even though he got his own way, he remained irritable during filming, constantly complaining about the props, the set, and the cast members’ wardrobe. He even said that he would have preferred to have starred in a movie version of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit. Tensions weren’t helped by the surprise Pearl Harbor attack on December 7. Production stalled briefly, as a result, and caused production to run over budget.
Cary Grant delivers a typical credible performance, even though his high energy might eventually be a bit too much for some. He mugs, howls, bellows, and bounds through two hours; that combined with the inevitable Hack Carson mugging makes for a very long two hours. To provide balance, the two gentle old poisonous ladies are needed to keep things on an even keel. They delight in their respective roles.
The film is a return for one Raymond Massey, who starred after an extended absence from the screen. John Alexander fails to provide the full flavour form in his role as Teddy Roosevelt Brewster. While we’re on the subject, the political gags which were so well received in the play fell flat with moviegoers.
A crazy, mad family
In the film, Mortimer Brewster (Grant) a famous New York theatre critic and writer of a book on the cons of marriage, has found himself married to “the girl next door”. About to embark on their honeymoon, on the eve of Halloween, he stumbles upon a secret in a house in Brooklyn where he grew up. His two elderly aunties lure men into the home before proceeding to poison them, believing that they’re performing a noble act by mercifully ending the lives of lonely, old men. Insanity is a trend in the family, and as his honeymoon cab awaits, Mortimer attempts to get legal asylum-ward papers signed to place the blame for the murders on an uncle who lives in the Brewster home. The uncle believes that he’s none other than President Theodore Roosevelt (when he buries the victims in the cellar, he imagines that he’s digging the Panama Canal). We have yet to see the worst of the Brewsters, however, until fugitive Jonathan (Massey) shows up: a globetrotting, glowering serial killer/criminal with a hideous scarred appearance and a loathing for Mortimer.
Arsenic and Old Lace isn’t the only stage play that Capra has brought to the screen. He did it, and did it well, with You Can’t Take It With You. But while it fared well with critics (possibly because the hero of the film is a critic, as well as being played by the legendary Cary Grant), it should have remained on the stage, in a Victorian-mansion living-room set, with fewer scene changes than an episode of the Addams Family.
Too slow for younger viewers
Modern audiences, especially younger viewers overloaded with horror, must be prepared for a movie with a restrained gear, a nonviolent macabre approach, an unwieldy running time (for a comedy, anyway), and a narrative that runs fast but gets nowhere.
On the more positive side, the film provides no shortage of laughs, as well as some melodramatic thrills and cut-rate hokum. If you can endure the latter, the former will ensure that your viewing will be rewarding enough.
Even not everyone involved in the production of the film was happy with the final product. Cary Grant felt that the lead role should have gone to either James Stewart or the actor who played him on stage, Allyn Joslyn, and that the film’s success was likely down to the reputation earned by the play. While Grant felt that he put in a weak performance (a sentiment the critics agreed with), audiences didn’t seem to care. As strong as the flaws are in the film, it is often enjoyed today as much as it was over 70 years earlier.