Sort by
Listing Movies
Display Movies
Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
She Passed Out On Cary! No Wonder . . . She's just discovered his favorite aunts have poisoned their 13th gentleman friend!
Filmmaker(s): Frank Capra

Mortimer Brewster, a newspaper drama critic, playwright, and author known for his diatribes against marriage, suddenly falls in love and gets married; but when he makes a quick trip home to tell his two maiden aunts, he finds out his aunts' hobby - killing lonely old men and burying them in the cellar!

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

Playing with Plays

Adapted for the screen by the same folks who next did “Casablanca,” incidentally with Lorre.

Filmed by someone known for his light touch. I’m not of a fan of Capra’s, as he values the little quirky hooks in the story and dialog and depends on some grand sweep (usually nostalgic) to make a film hang together. I’m interested in the meatier tricks that filmmakers use, and because Capra avoids them I’m not attracted to his postcards.

You can read others about the witty setups and all, and make your own decision on whether Grant was right in remembering this as his worst performance. What I want to point you to is the self-referential nature of the thing. I don’t know the original play and assume that most of this was added by the adapters.

The thing is presented as a play. Most moviegoers of the time would know this as a smash play, an absolute hit.

Our hero is a drama critic, so off the bat, we are set up to be inside and outside of the thing at the same time. his is exploited less than you would imagine, which is surprising since every other comic device is so overused we resent it. The use of this is twice. There’s a scene where our character is with some bad guys; he doesn’t realize the threat. During the time that he is sneaked up on and captured, he is describing a play he has seen where the main character was so dumb, he was in a house with murderers, he doesn’t get out in fact he sits in a chair “like this” and gets tied up. At which point he gets tied up, of course.

The other use of this device is during a fight. Our hero retires to the stairs and remarks on the fight as if he is watching a play.

Elsewhere the general theme of plays is used a bit. Two characters have scripts that they want our hero to read. One of these, when described, overlaps the play we see a bit. One character has had botched plastic surgery and looks like Boris Karloff. Jokes are made about this that would have been funnier in the play which featured Karloff himself in the role.

There’s a character who is crazy, so “plays” the role of Teddy Roosevelt. (In talk about having him committed, the director of the looneybin says he already has too many Teddy Roosevelts. Remember, this was during the war.)

The mere presence of Peter Lorre as a stereotypical mad doctor is along the lines of general self-reference but distinctly cinematic. This wouldn’t have been in the play of course.

All of this is handled as just more jokes, together with whatever other is given to us to laugh at. The anchor is not the gentle spine which I imagine the play has: about the nature of reality and imagination. Instead the anchor of this movie is Grant’s over the top slapstick mannerisms.

Because of this incompetent handling of narrative, the effectiveness of the main framing device is lost. In addition to being a famous drama critic, our hero has written several popular books debunking marriage, more specifically the romance associated with marriage. Its an apt thing for an observer of the artificial to note: that romance is mostly a scripted illusion. As the play begins, he is himself in a romance despite himself and is getting married.

There’s a wonderful relationship between this drama which he willingly enters and the others that are paraded past us in this movie. But Capra doesn’t get it, so it is oddly disconnected.

Posted in 2006

Ted’s Evaluation — 1 of 3: You can find something better to do with this part of your life.


, ,
No Comments

Sort by
Listing Movies
Display Movies
preloader image