Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

Director: Frank Capra
Starring: Cary Grant


It took three long years of sitting of the preverbal movie shelf, but 1944 would finally see the release of the Frank Capra screen adaption of Arsenic and Old Lace. A dark comedy starring Cay Grant Arsenic and Old Lace adapts a popular Broadway play that takes a humorous look at family and murder. Apart from the entertainment of the story, the picture’s place in history when it was released adds additional fascinating notes to its backstory. Today it remains one of the Hollywood’s top classic comedies.

Arsenic and Old Lace is a screwball comedy about relatively popular social critic who discovers dark, deadly secrets of his family and his frantic attempt to cover them up. Following the marriage of Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) to his childhood neighbor Elaine (Priscilla Lane) he returns to the house he grew up in to visit the two aunts that raised him and brother. Mortimer begins to fear his family bloodline as realities about his family begins to unravel into truths both mad and deadly.

Long has it been known that his brother Teddy (John Alexander) believed himself to be Theodore Roosevelt, but only assumed to be an innocent mental illness. However, Mortimer discovers that his inconspicuous and all-around lovable aunts Abby (Josephine Hull) and Martha (Jean Adair) are making a habit of poisoning lonely men and having their bodies buried in the cellar by Teddy. Meanwhile, Mortimer’s other brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey), a fearsome murderer on the run, returns home with his accomplice and hack surgeon Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre) and threatens Mortimer and the family.

The friendly, but bumbling police arrive as Mortimer scrambles to have Jonathan arrested, Teddy institutionalized to a facility ran by Edward Everett Horton along with the aunts while still keeping the secret of the graves in the cellar from being discovered. Mortimer fears the blood of his family will one day infect his own mind, only to be informed that he is adopted, much to his delight as he gleefully whisks Elaine away to their honeymoon.

The picture is a peculiar screwball comedy with a dark twist to it. Cary Grant’s performance is over the top as he hams it up for the camera far greater what audiences are used to from an actor such as Grant. With the story taking place primarily in a singular location, a house in Brooklyn, it is clear this screenplay was an adaptation of a play, yet under the watchful eye of a couple of talented screenwriters and one of Hollywood’s best directors. The result is one of the more entertaining comedies to come out during the World War II years.

The Broadway comedy premiered in January 1941 to positive reviews and Warner Bros. gained the rights to make the film adaption very soon thereafter, quickly lining up the very successful Frank Capra to direct. Coming off many surprise box office hits while with the small studio Columbia Pictures, Arsenic and Old Lace was to be his first picture under the much heftier Warner Bros. Studio, despite this film’s content to not be quite the same cup of tea audiences were used to out of the filmmaker.

The script was penned by the Epstein Brothers, Julius J. and Philip G, who tightened up the story to fit the conventions of the movie screen, making the energy fit for motion picture audiences. For the most part the story would still takes place within the confines of the house, with only a few short scenes outside the residence. With hope to best adapt the stage version Warner Bros. looked to barrow as much as they could from Broadway production in term of casting, with the addition of a big Hollywood name for the headliner.

Massey in his "Karloff" make-up
Supporting cast members Josephine Hull, Jean Adair, and John Alexander came from the Broadway play and were given leave to perform in the motion picture reprising the roles of Aunt Abby, Aunt Martha, and Teddy. Boris Karloff, who played the villainous Jonathan, however was kept back in New York, with the Broadway producers feeling that he was too big of a name for the stage version to take off the marquee even for the few months during the film’s production. His replacement was portrayed by Raymond Massey under heavy make-up. A running joke in the film is that his character looks like Boris Karloff, much to Jonathan’s dismay, reminding knowing audiences of whom Raymond Massey was taking Karloff’s place of in this film adaptation.

For the lead role Warners wished to cast comedian Bob Hope, but Paramount was unwilling to loan the star actor for the role. Jack Benny and Ronald Reagan were also considered before Cary Grant was made available for Mortimer. Throughout production Frank Capra had Cary Grant overact his role in this screwball comedy which did not sit well with the writers, producers, and Grant himself. Dailies revealed the over-hamming up by Grant and Capra was asked to possibly cut back on his overacting performance with possible editing. As production came to a close the United States was attacked at Pearl Harbor and Frank Capra was enlisted in the US Army making the completion of the picture tight as he relatively quickly wrapped up the editing process, leaving it in the form it would ultimately release as and we see today.

Frank Capra finished Arsenic and Old Lace in early 1942 and went to work for the Army, primarily working on his Why We Fight series. Despite the film being ready for premiere contractual stipulations kept the film from being released. The agreement had Warner Bros. holding onto the finished film until the Broadway production had completed its run, which would not happen until June of 1944 after a successful number of over 1400 performances.

The aunts attempting to use their preferred way of death, poisoned wine
With the exception of a playing to military audiences overseas, Arsenic and Old Lace would premiere to general audiences finally in September of 1944 to positive reviews.  Critics and audiences praised the picture, while a select few were not fans, namely Cary Grant and Frank Capra. Grant hated his acting in the picture and considered it one of his least favorite movies, while Capra generally left the film behind him, not giving it much thought as he continued forward with his career after the war attempting to work as an independent filmmaker. By the time of the film’s release Priscilla Lane, Grant love’s interest in the picture, had long left Warner Bros., making it her final picture with the studio.

Through the years Arsenic and Old Lace has become a comedy classic; a darker comedy with twists and whimsy beyond others comedies of the period. Contemporaries name it as one of the finest American comedies of all time, but it appears that favorability of the picture wains back and forth in the hearts of film historians and critics with their love of Cary Grant comedies, the unique subject manner, and Grant’s polarizing overacting at times.  Ultimately it remains a cherished comedy in the minds of film lovers for long to come.

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