Monday, April 25, 2011

Film: Arsenic and Old Lace

Title of film: Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
Directed by: Frank Capra
Starring: Cary Grant, Priscilla Lane, and Raymond Massey
My rating: ★★★★

Summary: Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant), a dramatic critic, discovers on his wedding day to Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane) that his two spinster Aunts (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair) have been contributing very unselfishly to their favorite charity: poisoning lonely men and burying them in the cellar. The film, based on the play of the same name, follows Mortimer as he runs about in a panic trying to keep his Aunts from killing any more men, getting his brother Teddy (John Alexander) who believes he is Theodore Roosevelt committed, and keeping his brand-new marriage afloat. All this while trying to keep his other brother, Jonathan (Raymond Massey) and his brother's assistant, Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre), from killing him. In the end, Dr. Einstein escapes, Jonathan is taken into custody, Teddy and the Aunts are committed to Happydale Sanitarium, and Mortimer learns that he isn't a Brewster after all.

My take: Where to begin? Arsenic and Old Lace is really the first, true non-musical comedic classic Hollywood film I have viewed, and I must say I'm loving the genre! Cary Grant said that this film was one of his least favorites, and that his acting was horribly over the top. I think it quite the contrary. After just watching him in An Affair to Remember, I find it a true testament to his acting skills the way he was able to play such a panic-stricken, comedic character in Arsenic and Old Lace. (It also doesn't hurt that he's not exactly an eye-sore either). Without Grant's irreplaceable acting skills, the over-the-top comedy to a film centered around 13 dead men in the cellar, would have been lost. Cary Grant should always be looked upon as one of the best Hollywood actors that ever lived, not only because he could act, but because he could act without relying on any prop, special effect, curse word, or sex scene as so many other actors do today.

Although Grant is the glue that holds Arsenic and Old Lace together (he was really the only non-clueless individual!) my favorite character was by far Dr. Einstein. I've only ever seen Peter Lorre in one other film, Casablanca, so it could be by sheer coincidence, but his character in both films are eerily similar. If I had seen more of his movies (which I hope I do someday) I would assume that he is type-cast in these sidekick, criminal-that-you-can't-help-but-to-like type roles. Although in actuality Dr. Einstein (who we later learn is not a doctor at all) would be just as guilty as Jonathan, I'm sure I'm not the only person who hoped that he would escape.

Jonathan is in himself a whole other topic. There were scenes where I was actually scared of him! What I loved most especially is the way he was introduced at the beginning of the film, when Mortimer came across Jonathan's child hood photo. This photo marked a strange resemblance to the photo of Benny "Freckled-Face" Haynes (Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer) that Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye receive in White Christmas. Hopefully "Freckled-Face Haynes, the dog faced boy" didn't turn out quite as menacing. I thoroughly enjoyed the running joke that characters said Jonathan looked like Boris Karloff, who played Jonathan in the Broadway play version and was still doing so at the time this movie was being produced.

Teddy, the other Brewster brother, was another character that made this a true comedic classic. His innocence in burying the "yellow fever" victims almost makes me wish there were more people in the world who believe in the good of others (obviously not to that extreme). His character immediately reminded me of Lionel Jeffries' character in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Grandpa Potts.

Grandpa Potts also liked to go on excursions to "Africa" and such places, although one could merely call him eccentric and not quite as crazy as Teddy.

I always love when stage actors repeat their stage roles on-screen and do it wonderfully, as Josephine Hull, Jean Adair and John Alexander all did.

While I enjoyed the fast-paced drollery of Arsenic and Old Lace, there were times I was about to bite my nails off, and I don't even bite my nails! Of course no one would ever refer to this film as a "nail biter", but the stress of Mortimer trying to balance all those variables well, quite frankly it stressed me out, too! Even with that, Arsenic and Old Lace receives four stars, because of fantastic acting, fantastic screenplay, and who can argue with watching Cary Grant for two hours?

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