This post is part of the Contrary to Popular Opinion Blogathon, where we set the consensus on its head by defending a maligned film, performer or director or toppling a beloved one!
The film critic Pauline Kael had some snide words for the 1944 classic ARSENIC AND OLD LACE directed by Frank Capra. She thinks Cary Grant gave a poor performance; she thinks Priscilla Lane was a “cuddly, innocuous little dear.” Of Raymond Massey’s and Peter Lorre’s performances, she says condescendingly that “some people roar at their antics.”
She calls the movie “inexplicably popular.”
I disagree with all of the above. Cary Grant is incapable of giving a bad performance, Priscilla Lane would have had uphill work playing cuddly and innocuous (she misses it by a mile), Massey and Lorre are a crack comic team, and the source of the movie’s popularity is obvious: It makes people laugh.
At least it makes me laugh. I’ve always liked farce, and ARSENIC AND OLD LACE is a splendid example of it.
A fine, snowballing farce
Farce works like a snowball rolling downhill works: it starts slowly and picks up speed, getting larger and larger (ie, funnier and funnier) as it goes.
We begin with Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane) and Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) getting a marriage license, in spite of Mortimer’s public position on marriage. (He wrote a book titled MARRIAGE: A FRAUD AND A FAILURE.) Elaine definitely masterminded this relationship. They return to her home in Brooklyn, which is next door to the home of his aunts, aka the Brewster sisters, who have just dispatched another lonely bachelor to the Great Beyond. Mortimer finds the body in the window seat, a piece of furniture that assumes escalating importance as the movie goes on.
Cary Grant’s performance is over-the-top. He does exaggerate his reactions; he does seem crazier than anyone else. This is not because he was badly directed or because he did not know what he was doing. It was because he knew what kind of movie he was in. As the lead actor in a farce—a man desperately trying to keep it together while things spin out of control—it is incumbent upon him to unravel and look funny doing it. Never in his career was he afraid to look ridiculous if a scene called for it.
To put his performance in perspective, imagine what would have happened if he had underplayed the part of Mortimer. Suppose he never loses control although he discovers his aunts are mass murderers, his psychotic brother Jonathan returns home with sidekick Dr. Einstein and another dead body, and on top of it all, it is his wedding night.
That snowball would have stopped halfway down the mountain.
Ye gods, there’s another one
These are the classic elements of farce in ARSENIC AND OLD LACE:
- A situation that spirals rapidly out of control.
- An absurd act often repeated. In this movie it is Teddy charging up the stairs.
- An undercurrent of sex. The elements are Mortimer’s unconsummated marriage and a little more fancifully, the spinster aunts’ remarkable ability to send lonely old men straight to heaven.
- A free-for-all ending.
A nice touch: Teddy’s charge up the stairs causes the hands of an old grandfather clock to slip. Every time this happens, one of the aunts walks over to the clock to put the hands back into position. This is normal, everyday behavior for them, along with doing good works in the neighborhood and burying bodies in the cellar.
Not until the very end does the movie slip. On this point alone I agree with Pauline Kael. The play apparently ends with a blackout: the aunts are about to pour the chief of police a poisoned glass of wine. That is better than the ending Capra used. Maybe he had to use the lame revelatory scene where Mortimer discovers he is not biologically related to his aunts.
A little darkness
ARSENIC AND OLD LACE began as a play written by Joseph Kesselring in 1939. It ran on Broadway for 1,444 performances between 1941 and 1944. Both Jean Adair and Josephine Hull, the Brewster sisters in the movie, were in the play.
Kesselring did not originally conceive of ARSENIC AND OLD LACE as a comedy. He intended it to be deadly serious. Supposedly, he was talked out of this by producers Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, who knew a train wreck when they saw it coming.
A solitary scene in the movie reveals Kesselring’s original intent: the one where Mortimer’s brother Jonathan threatens Mortimer with a slow death. He reminds Mortimer of how he tortured him as a child. (Remember that Jonathan is unambiguously psychotic and has murdered a dozen people, so far) Raymond Massey and Cary Grant play the scene without humor.
There is no way to spin this scene to make it funny. Odd that it remained through many drafts and reworkings; its presence is a small, dark signature.