Frank Capra: Arsenic and Old Lace

The USPS has issued a set of four stamps honoring great film directors and the films for which they are most remembered. The four selected are: John Ford (The Searchers), John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), Frank Capra (It Happened One Night), and Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot). We will be exploring the lives and work of these directors over the next several weeks. In this post LR Simon discusses Arsenic and Old Lace (1944).

Despite featuring next to none of the hallmarks of most of his films, Arsenic and Old Lace still feels like a Frank Capra film. Theater critic Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) is more big city elite than populist, there’s no heroic struggle against a corrupt system (though it could be argued that there’s an inefficient system—or two—involved), and Priscilla Lane’s Elaine Harper is not cut from the same cloth as the women in the other Capra films discussed in this series. Thematically, it’s almost a throwback to Capra’s silent film work with Harry Langdon; it’s more escapist entertainment than thought-provoking message piece.

The story follows Mortimer Brewster, theater critic and author of several books severely critical of the institution of marriage (e.g., Marriage Over Matrimony), as he marries his childhood sweetheart and neighbor Elaine, discovers that his two sweet aunts have a “very bad habit” that he must put to an end, and deals with his returning brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey, in the role originated on Broadway by Boris Karloff), who has homicidal tendencies and an alcoholic accomplice, Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre).

Attempting to keep his Aunts Abby and Martha (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair, respectively) from poisoning any more prospective boarders, Mortimer frantically works out the paperwork to get his brother Teddy committed to Happy Dale Sanitarium. Before he leaves to get a judge’s signature, he makes his aunts promise not to let anyone in the house until he returns. Shortly after he leaves, however, Jonathan enters the house with his partner in crime, Dr. Einstein. After everyone goes to their rooms, Teddy comes back down to collect the latest “yellow fever victim” from the coffin-shaped window seat to bury him in the cellar in the newest lock in the "Panama Canal."

Jonathan and Einstein try to move their latest homicide victim, Mr. Spenalzo, to the basement (“Rather a good joke on my aunts,” says Jonathan), but Elaine, who thinks Mortimer has returned, interrupts them. Einstein turns on the light, leaving Jonathan flabbergasted that Spenalzo seems to have vanished.

While Arsenic and Old Lace foregoes some of Capra’s favorite themes, it is a study in the use of dramatic irony for comedic effect. The sets are obviously sets, but the artifice serves the film—some of the acting choices would seem too over-the-top in a more realistic set (or perhaps a more realistic set would have limited the acting choices).


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