Sometimes, when revisiting a movie you haven’t seen since you were young, you wonder if you’ll still like it at all. I had my doubts about Arsenic and Old Lace, Frank Capra’s film version of the macabre stage comedy — a well-loved movie, though it didn’t quite do for Halloween what It’s a Wonderful Life did for Christmas. Though Capra was a screwball comedy pioneer, I haven’t always responded to his more manic movies. Going in, I felt I might agree with Pauline Kael’s adjectival verdict: “laborious.” If I ended up disliking the movie, I’d even have Capra and Cary Grant on my side, neither of whom were particularly fond of their work here.
As the film begins, things don’t look too promising. Although the story ostensibly takes place on Halloween, we begin at Ebbets Field during a Dodgers-Yankees World Series game. On the surface, this is typical fawning Americana from Capra, but it’s shot in an overwrought, alienating style. A surly fan is shown in exaggerated close-up, a Yankee pitcher in a mound-less low-angle shot, the Dodgers band at a Dutch angle. The hitter gets struck out looking on a full count and confronts the umpire by pulling off his mask and punching him in the jaw. (Okay, that part is pretty great.) A brawl ensues, and this can all be said to set up the rest of the film only in the vaguest “Brooklyn sure is a crazy town” sense. Then the film moves on to the actual story, rolling out most of the main characters. There’s Mortimer Brewster (Grant), a famous anti-marriage writer who’s fallen in love and wants to get married in secret. There’s a couple Brooklyn cops on the beat. And then there’s the film’s main setting, the household of Mortimer’s two aunts, Abby (Josephine Hull) and Martha (Jean Adair), and his brother Teddy (John Alexander). The old ladies seem pleasant enough, while Teddy suffers the harmless, albeit noisy, delusion that he’s actually Teddy Roosevelt and that he can live out Roosevelt’s entire life in that house. All of these early, disconnected gags are mildly amusing at best. The idea of Mortimer as an update on Shakespeare’s Benedick never really materializes at all. He’s just a newly married man who tends to forget that fact as soon as the plot starts snowballing.
Arsenic and Old Lace starts getting good when Mortimer discovers the corpse in the window seat. From then on, the film is a largely faithful adaptation, not only of the plot of the original play, but evidently its presentation as well, staying primarily in the living room of the Brewster ladies’ house. As a pair of crisscrossing body-disposal schemes unfold, drama and tension are stoked by characters’ entrances and exits. Mortimer finds himself caught between two wildly different kinds of murderer: on the one hand, his aunts, cheerfully unaware that what they’ve been doing to various lonely old men might be wrong, and on the other, his monstrous brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey), whose rage has led him to kill people all over the world. The movie begins to crackle as these characters interact with each other, often not knowing things about each other that the audience knows.
It’s a familiar screwball set-up, with Mortimer as the rational straight man who gets swept up in the zany vortex. Grant perfected this kind of role in Bringing Up Baby. I remembered enjoying his outsize dismay in Arsenic and Old Lace, and he made me laugh on my most recent viewing as well. But as it turns out, Mortimer Brewster is often cited as one of Grant’s worst performances. He’s seen as too broad, too frenzied, especially in contrast to the more relaxed work by everyone else in the cast. As Kael put it, “he seems crazier than anybody else.” This is very ironic, but I think the irony mostly works. Mortimer gets in over his head many times over, and Grant’s loud performance — eyes bulged, head bobbing like a bird, screeching and muttering in quick succession — conveys his inability to keep up with the convoluted situation. A lesser performer who did this much mugging would indeed start to grate on me, but Grant somehow finds enough variations in his double takes and eruptions to keep it fresh. I don’t know enough about acting to decide if this is the good kind of bad performance, or simply good — probably the former.
The question of how the other performances interact with Grant’s work is a dicier matter, but individually they’re mostly excellent. Hull and Adair translate their roles from the stage with no fuss and a good deal of drollery. One might call this film a black comedy, given its subject matter, but those dark undercurrents are almost totally lost underneath the aunts’ quaint, parochial good cheer. Likewise, Mortimer and his bride (Priscilla Lane) share a kiss in a three-hundred-year-old cemetery early in the film, and it isn’t spooky in the least. The warped Jonathan is the one who provides actual darkness to the story. Massey lends a sinister growl to lines like, “I’ve lived a strange life, Mortimer,” and he even gets a legitimately effective jump scare. Playing a character caught between identity-masking plastic surgeries, Massey is a truly gruesome presence in this film, enough to make us forget that the original Jonathan, Boris Karloff, would have been better in the role — not least for the metatextual jokes about his appearance. Arsenic and Old Lace anticipates a number of worthwhile self-referential jokes, from the longsuffering cabbie in Airplane! to the “Look behind you” gag in Scream. There’s also a character named Dr. Einstein, but I’m honestly not sure how much is supposed to be read into that. Peter Lorre plays the plastic surgeon with his special brand of lovable darkness. All of these performers tend to ignore Grant as he freaks out. It doesn’t necessarily make sense, but it’s amusing.
Arsenic and Old Lace works due to the strengths of its source material, and the evident fun Capra was having working with stage-bound limitations. One scene that takes place in nearly total darkness is especially striking. It illustrates how the constraints of stage drama and the constraints of Production Code filmmaking could synchronize. Nobody actually dies in this film, and the two corpses that are central to the plot are almost never seen. They’re hidden for practical and dramatic reasons, and also to keep things from getting too grim. This method naturally defangs the film’s suspense sequences — Mortimer clearly isn’t going to be murdered, no matter how good a look we get at Jonathan’s torture implements. The movie goofs on mercy killing and mental illness without having much to say about them. There’s none of the ideological weight that can be found in Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux. But as an offbeat wartime diversion, the film does its job. It’s an overextended spinning plates act, and each crash gets a laugh.