Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
Starring: Cary Grant, Priscilla Lane, Josephine Hull, Jean Adair, Raymond Massey, John Alexander and Peter Lorre
Directed by: Frank Capra
Released by: Warner Bros.
Synopsis: Drama critic Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) just married the love of his life, Elaine Harper (Priscine Lane). On his way home, he learns that his two aunts Abby (Josephine Hull) and Martha (Jean Adair) are hiding a very dark secret. As if that wasn't enough, his lunatic brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey) has escaped the Mental Institution. What’s a guy to do?!
Review: Arsenic and Old Lace proves that not only is Frank Capra is a great storyteller he is also very flexible when it comes to handling different film genres. Prior to this film he was known for light comedies and dramas with social messages about the average man overcoming the extraordinary. With Arsenic and Old Lace he tackles dark comedy to great results. Regardless of how morbid the plot is the film feels like a classic Capra film thanks to well written, likable characters and a great pace that doesn't let up. It goes to show you that even when adapting someone else's work Capra knows how to get the most out of it.
Cary Grant as Mortimer Brewster shows his versatility for dramatic and comedic roles, becoming a master at both. His performance is convincing and in many ways what you would expect from a Capra film. Mortimer is an average man who is thrown into a dark and sinister plot, and despite showing the most common sense out of the Brewster pack his sanity is constantly challenged, making for a very fun, wild ride.
Speaking of which, the Brewster family are the classic scene stealers, with a lot of poise expressed throughout the film. The two aunts, Abby and Martha, are the classic lovely old ladies, but the cleverness of the script turns them into complex characters who just want to do well through the wrong intentions (What do they do exactly? Find out for yourself). John Alexander as "Teddy" is very comical in his belief of being the 26th President of the United States (complete with his hilarious yell whenever he runs up the stairs). Teddy could have easily been a stock character, but his participation substantially adds to an already frenzied atmosphere.
Raymond Massey provides us a great villain as Jonathan, the deranged family member with murderous intentions. Even the minor characters offer us memorable scenes, like the cab driver in never ending delay and the policeman who aspires to be a writer of plays. It's this level of eccentricity that Capra is a master of and Arsenic and Old Lace gives us some of the best in this regard.
In spite of the plot's twists and turns, it never manages to have a hysteric pace. Arsenic and Old Lace runs very smoothly, aiding its overall appeal and merits as a comedic film. Most peculiar, the film pays tributes to the story's heritage in how its shot and staged. A great bulk of the narrative is spent on one location: the Brewster household. There are other shots, but everything is developed and discovered on the Brewster living room. To some this might be simplistic, but I think it adds a charm that reminds us where the story got its start.
To sum it all up, Arsenic and Old Lace will not make you cry, make you believe in the virtues of the human spirit or monologue about the qualities of the common man. In other words, don't go in expecting a Frank Capra epic. What you can expect, though, is a very enjoyable story that is able to be both delightful and deliciously morbid with unforgettable characters that may be the best presented to us by the incredible Frank Capra.
Rating: 4 filmstrips out of 5
This review is dedicated to Nicole Orso. She recommended the film to me back when this project was just a note on Facebook. Thanks! Your recommendations helped me a great deal in this project!