Thursday, February 25, 2016

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

Seen: Sat. Feb. 20, 2016; Loew's Jersey (Jersey City), 35mm

An aggressively madcap, uneven comedy that oscillates wildly between screwball zaniness and tepid attempts at black humor. The premise involves a New York theater critic (overplayed by Cary Grant in manic, pop-eyed mode) whose honeymoon with his new bride is unexpectedly delayed when he learns that his two sweet, little old aunts just happen to be poisoning the lonely old men who pass through their Brooklyn boarding house while their crazy nephew (who thinks he's Teddy Roosevelt) buries the bodies in the cellar.

One would expect this premise to be ripe with darkly comic possibilities, but surprisingly little is actually made of it throughout the course of the film. Perhaps the idea of playing murder for comedy was considered just a little too dark for audiences of the time to really be able to explore the more gruesome elements for laughs, or perhaps something was simply lost in the translation from the Broadway stage to the screen, but the results feel decidedly underdeveloped and leave much comic potential untapped. Moreover, the farcical romantic plot with Grant and his new bride is oddly neglected, being relegated mainly to bookending scenes that seem almost wholly unrelated to the rest of the film in all but the most superficial ways.

Indeed, it is this superficial and arbitrary approach to the characters and situations that mars the film throughout, and prevents it from achieving any real sense of cohesion or totality. For example, Grant's occupation as theater critic only really serves to support a running gag about the neighborhood beat cop who wants to be a playwright. At the same time, inexplicably, Grant has also achieved notoriety by writing a series of books arguing against marriage, a fact that seems to exist solely as device to create tension with his new bride's clergyman father (which is never resolved nor even addressed again outside of the opening scenes).

To his credit, Capra keeps the pace moving (uneven as the material may be) and manages to keep the staging, confined largely to the single living room set, from feeling claustrophobic. The material also provides an interesting departure from the kinds of films Capra had become so strongly identified with by this point in his career. The result, however, is a badly missed opportunity.

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