Frank Capra’s screen version of Joseph Kesselring’s dark farce Arsenic and Old Lace brings a mostly faithful adaptation of the long-running hit into spontaneous combustion with a mix of Hollywood stars, original stage performers, and a first-rate production resulting in a mirthful if occasionally shuddery movie-going experience.
The Production: 4/5
Frank Capra’s screen version of Joseph Kesselring’s dark farce Arsenic and Old Lace brings a mostly faithful adaptation of the long-running hit into spontaneous combustion with a mix of Hollywood stars, original stage performers, and a first-rate production resulting in a mirthful if occasionally shuddery movie-going experience. Never one of the director nor his leading man’s favorite films, Arsenic and Old Lace nevertheless barrels along its mostly merry way with its wit, screwball complications, and endearing players all intact.
Fresh from his marriage to his aunts’ neighbor Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane), author and playwright Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) learns by accident that his dotty aunts (Josephine Hull, Jean Adair) have been poisoning lonely, elderly gentlemen who come calling and burying them in their cellar with the help of Mortimer’s deluded brother Teddy (John Alexander) who believes he’s President Theodore Roosevelt digging the locks for the Panama Canal. Into their chaotic lives comes Mortimer’s other, more homicidal brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey) who’s attempting to escape police capture for his latest murder and needs a place both to hide and to have his accomplice Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre) complete a plastic surgery operation to change his Boris Karloff-like appearance to something more mundane.
The stage farce’s adaptation by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein pretty much retains the skeleton of the original play and its narrative guts but with additional scenes added to both open up the one-set comedy for the screen and pad the character roles played by Cary Grant and Priscilla Lane who are the film’s top-billed stars. Thus, we open with a baseball game (completely superfluous but used to establish the rowdy Brooklyn setting of the piece) and then a sojourn at the marriage license bureau where we meet our lovebirds, soon to be ragingly separated by the outrageous circumstances the groom is soon to find himself in the midst of. Director Frank Capra uses every opportunity he can to take us back outside from the Brewster sisters’ dining room and parlor and either into the cemetery next door or into the street where a running gag with a taxicab gets funnier as the film runs. To mix up the film’s idiosyncratic comic elements where characters never listen to one another or dash around discombobulated in moments of surprise, director Capra juices up the ominous threat of the homicidal Jonathan every chance he can offering jump scares of the facially scarred madman bursting through a window or hideous close-ups of his deformed countenance thrust right into our faces. In light of the stringent Production Code office of the era who had great problems with a comedy about murder, Capra keeps the film’s two dead bodies either in shadows or complete darkness and manages to keep the increasingly madcap resolution moving along so that none of the characters who still have their wits about them can stop for a moment and think about everything that has just occurred.
Cary Grant was completely disenchanted with his work in the movie complete with its double and triple takes, erratic love scenes, and numerous pratfalls, and his performance does generally split film buffs into two camps who either think he fits right in with the general nuthouse atmosphere of the movie or who think he pushes too hard for effects and throws the film off balance. Priscilla Lane is basically wasted in the thankless role of Elaine despite her second billing. The three leading players who recreate their stage performances – “sisters” Jean Adair and Josephine Hull and the wonderfully astute John Alexander (who’s earnest but hilarious Teddy is the film’s best performance) – are absolutely essential to the film’s success. Raymond Massey doesn’t attempt a Boris Karloff vocal imitation to go along with his facial rearrangement to resemble the horror icon who originated the role of Jonathan on Broadway, but his menacing presence is nevertheless effective, abetted by Peter Lorre’s sputtering, timid assistant. In other notable roles who milk their moments for all their comic worth, Jack Carson’s is a lovably dense Officer O’Hara, Edward Everett Horton dithers amusingly as sanitarium headman Mr. Witherspoon, and James Gleason as Lieutenant Rooney turns up at the end to wade through the chaos as he tries to make sense of the nonsense.
3D Rating: NA
Taken from a new 4K scan of the original camera negative, this 1.37:1 transfer (AVC codec) looks mostly marvelous. The image is crisp and appealing with lots of details in close-ups and a mostly excellent grayscale that doesn’t allow interior darkness to crush blacks. Black levels can vary just a bit, though, mostly quite inky but occasionally a bit grayer than one might like. The movie has been divided into 17 chapters.
The LCPM 1.o (1.1 Mbps) uncompressed sound mix offers excellent fidelity for a movie of this vintage. There isn’t a hint of annoying hiss, crackle, pops, or flutter, and the loads of dialogue have been well-recorded and mixed most professionally with Max Steiner’s spare background score and the numerous sound effects (Teddy’s blaring bugle blowing and his frequent “charges” up San Juan Hill are always a joy).
Special Features: 3/5
Audio Commentary: author Charles Dennis contributes a punchy, informative overview of the film’s production: its problems, its personnel, and its triumphs. With the film being almost two hours, there are lengthy silent patches, but the commentator clearly knows his stuff.
Best Plays (59:24): 1952 radio adaptation of the movie with Boris Karloff recreating his Broadway role of Jonathan.
Theatrical Trailer (2:49, HD)
Enclosed Pamphlet: contains a cast and crew lists, some delightful tinted and black and white film stills, information on the video and audio transfers, and critic David Cairns’ illuminative essay on the movie.
For many people, black comic farces require one to be in the proper mood to accept their unique and sometimes quite peculiar tropes, so if one is in the mood for such a screwball romp, Frank Capra’s Arsenic and Old Lace could be the right picture for you. Criterion’s Blu-ray offering doesn’t provide as many bonus features as one might expect for a film of its classic stature, but the video and audio quality are first-rate, and fans of the participants certainly won’t be disappointed in that. Recommended!
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