Ponty’s list of flicks has been full of pleasant surprises, and his #6 pick is no exception. I wasn’t expecting a dark comedy from 1944—a “farce,” as Ponty calls it.
Like his review—surprisingly succinct coming from our loquacious Ponty—I don’t have much to add. Let’s just say I’ve always wanted to see this film, and thanks to Ponty, I can finally do that—he includes a link to the full flick on YouTube. You can, too, and I encourage you to do so.
It also gets bonus points in my book because Boris Karloff was in the stage version, and would have been in the film if the producers hadn’t been worried about stripping the stage production of its entire leading cast. Sorry, Boris—you deserved better!
With that, here is Ponty’s review of 1944’s Arsenic and Old Lace:
Who doesn’t love a good farce? I’ve seen more on television than on the silver screen, that’s for sure, but I don’t mind what medium they appear on. They’re a lot of fun, where everything that could possibly go wrong usually does. One of my favourite examples of farce comes in an episode of Frasier, entitled “The Innkeepers,” where the titular character and his brother Niles decide to buy a failing restaurant they remembered fondly as children. Anyone who has seen this show will know that the Crane’s track record of working together or hosting together is not good. It is downright awful and so it is here, as their constant nitpicking results in the kitchen and serving staff walking out, getting injured, and eventually, their restaurant being engulfed in water and a car crashing through the wall. If you haven’t seen this episode, you should dig it out. It is farce done extremely well. It’s a little bizarre, this form of entertainment. For one, it brings out the sadist in us. In fiction, we can cope with the schadenfraude of watching characters on screen screwing things up to the point of incredulity but in real life, not so much. The majority of world governments are farcical but it’s not something to laugh at. Played out on a stage and we find it hilarious. Like I said, weird.
The best example I’ve seen of this on the big screen is a Frank Capra classic, Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), in which a newlywed arrives at his family home with his new wife only to find that he has entered a nuthouse. His kindly and God fearing aunts are poisoning guests who they consider to be lonely (bizarrely, they see it as their Christian duty); his criminally insane brother, Jonathan, returns to the house with murder in mind; and his uncle, who believes he is Teddy Roosevelt, is getting worse by the day. Mortimer (Carey Grant) becomes more frenzied throughout, as he tries to keep the neighbourhood police away from the basement, where his aunts have buried their guests (who Teddy believes have succumbed to yellow fever), all the while trying to keep his new wife from seeing how insane his family are. ‘Insanity runs in this family,’ he tells her. ‘It practically gallops.’ A truer sentiment couldn’t be said, as you’ll witness. For those who haven’t watched it or have and want to revisit it, here is the full movie:
The majority of this film, based on a stage play, is played inside the house and has a brilliant cast who deliver a superb and snappy script with aplomb. Capra really doesn’t have too much to do here, pointing his camera and allowing the actors to do what they do best, though he does manage the lighting superbly, especially with Jonathan. I love the shot in the cellar where Jonathan (Raymond Massey) is spelling out his murderous intentions (directed towards his brother, Mortimer) to Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre), his shadow profiled on the wall above Einstein. You can feel the menace, Einstein shrinking back from this foreboding figure. Jonathan is by far my favourite character in this – facially disfigured from some sloppy work by his sidekick, Dr. Einstein, sinister but in moments, oddly humourous especially when his murky accomplishments are challenged by the actions of his equally murderous aunts. He’s an overly sensitive character, easily offended and likely to act out because of it. The corpse he and Einstein bring with them and hide in the window seat was killed because ‘he said I look like Boris Karloff.’
It’s difficult not to like Mortimer’s aunts despite their actions. They’re a dotty old pair but are seen as kindly, friendly and charitable by a community that has no idea what has been going on in that house. Mortimer himself is shocked when he finds out what they’ve been doing but is eager to protect them from the law, while keeping his wife and brother at bay but his aunts cannot see that they have done anything wrong. They welcome their guests, offer them some ‘wine’ and then perform a Christian service over them in the basement. They are frankly offended when Jonathan proposes burying his corpse in their basement and try and fail to get him to leave.
The role of Mortimer Brewster was practically made for someone like Carey Grant who fits into this role like a glove. Watching him go from hurried to harassed to frenzied is great fun, his co-stars doing nothing to help his increasingly addled state of mind. There are a great mix of characters and different styles at play but they all work together perfectly, pulling off a witty script (written by Joseph Kesselring) with ease.
This is flat out my favourite Capra. A fun movie for any day and one to put a smile on your face.