Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Arsenic and Old Lace

This film succeeds in making even Cary Grant seem mad as a hatter.

I mean, sure, he's capable of comedy, showcased in films like Howard Hawks' two films Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940). But think of the romdrams and Hitchcock films he's been a part of over the years (An Affair to Remember [1957], North by Northwest [1959], To Catch a Thief [1955]). Now that I lay it out here, Cary Grant can be most suitably portrayed as one of the more multifaceted actors in film history, able to pull off serious, suave, and silly, all sometimes within the same film. The 1944 camp classic Arsenic and Old Lace (dir. Frank Capra) proves him capable of all these qualities, making for semi-compelling, corny-creepy, and at times downright screwball entertainment. Don't go into this expecting anything more than slapdash physical comedy, cheesy verbal puns, and Broadway-style, theater-centric, hyperbolic acting; while the film has it's moments, I can see how it never achieved serious critical acclaim.

Taking place on Halloween night in Brooklyn, New York, the film opens as the dramatic critic and infamous bachelor Mortimer Brewster is attempting to marry his sweetheart Elaine Harper, played girlishly and suspiciously by Priscilla Lane, in the public courthouse. They gayly flee to Elaine's home and his aunts' house which resides right across the street (presumably how Mortimer and Elaine met in the first place) to prepare for their honeymoon in Niagara Falls. Mortimer drops in on his dear, sweet old aunties only to discover to his horror that there is a dead body in the window seat: apparently, his "dear, sweet old aunties" have been killing lonely old men with arsenic-laced, homemade elderberry wine. They believe they are saving these men from their pathetic, dejected lives, and maybe they're right; they only kill these men if they know they have no family and are depressed and unhappy with life. Mortimer spends the rest of the movie running from scene to scene trying to save guests from drinking the wine, attempting to commit his brother who thinks he is President Teddy Roosevelt to the Happy Dale insane asylum, and mugging to the camera.

There's Cary Grant falling over a chair in the early minutes of the film, attempting to run away from a situation. There's a fight scene towards the end that is almost entirely off camera, illustrated through a series of scuffling, banging and yelling noises and pieces of furniture being hurled on scene in Mortimer's direction as he sits on the stairs, muttering senselessly to himself as he lights a cigarette. There's several cheap tricks to try to coax the audience into being scared, including lighting tomfoolery and dramatic crescendos in the music matched with not-so-dramatic images. There's also a series of lines that I couldn't help but chuckle at the sheer audacity of their cheese: while Elaine is trying desperately to drag Mortimer away from his family situation, she coos "But darling, Niagara Falls!" Mortimer replies with "It does? Well let it!" Mortimer introduces his innocently insane brother to Doctor Gilchrist, to whom his brother says with a handshake "Dr. Livingston!" The doctor, confused, replies with "Livingston?" Mortimer sweeps to explain, saying "Yeah, well, that's what he presumes." There is ultimately an overall element of creepiness, including the foreboding knowledge of the thirteen bodies buried down in Aunt Abby and Aunt Martha's cellar and the lurking of certain characters (described a bit later), but this film could be summed up as about three parts camp to one part creep.

If there's one thing that holds this film together, it's certainly the supporting cast: Peter Lorre (of Casablanca fame) plays plastic surgeon Dr. Einstein, the bug-eyed, liquored-up partner-in-crime to Jonathan Brewster (Raymond Massey), Mortimer's deranged murderous brother-in-law who spends the majority of the film lurking and slowly moving around the set without blinking, an overly-dramatic attempt at being creepy that seems to somehow work for this caliber of film. Mortimer's other brother is Theodore Brewster, a harmless mentally ill man who thinks he is President Roosevelt; this provides for a few ridiculous moments, with Teddy thinking he must "Chhhhaaarrrrggeee!" as he ascends the staircase, thinks he must dress up for an African safari that will actually take him to the asylum, and digging down in "Panama" (the cellar) to bury the "yellow fever victims" Abbey and Martha convince him must be buried right away. Are Aunt Abby and Aunt Martha really so sweet and innocent, convincing a man with the mind of a child to bury their murder victims? Actors Josephine Hull and Jean Adair certainly bounce around the set and speak in such honey-drenched voices that it's difficult to blame them for their deeds.

While this film is nothing of a masterpiece, I will really enjoy watching it again late next October. Cary Grant is charming as always, and the plot doesn't ever become too stagnant. Watch out for those little bits of dialogue that will make you cluck your tongue but eventually tickle you in the end. The moral of the story: beware of sweet old ladies who offer you elderberry wine!

1 comment:

Terimisu said...

this movie is ammaaazzzinng!