Thursday 14 January 2010

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

Director: Frank Capra
Star: Cary Grant
I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

Firstly, this is a play. It isn't just based on a play, it's obviously based on a play. While much of the early output of Hollywood was naturally sourced from the stage, the tendency of films to be stuck in utterly static settings so that the primitive microphones could pick up the sound was overcome reasonably early, in the early thirties. After that, many of those films aren't too recognisable as plays, but this is a notable exception. Entire scenes are full of irony that hinges on the fact that the lines are spoken on a stage. It's a play that's self-satisfied at being a play and is indecently happy about poking fun at stage productions through itself. Also, almost the entire film takes place on one set, which helps build the atmosphere of that set marvellously but also makes the few scenes shot elsewhere feel somehow detached and secondary.

I'm sure that given all of this, it really shouldn't work as a film. But it does. I'll say right off the bat that I didn't buy into Cary Grant's posturing around like a pigeon whenever he gets the slightest bit surprised by anything, and apparently neither did he, viewing it as horrible overacting and frequently being quoted as saying that this was the least favourite of all his films. Then again it took me a little while to really get Cary Grant. He was a wonderfully talented actor with a string of joyous roles, but perhaps I started out with the wrong ones. For a few, like this one, he just didn't seem to be anything special. I couldn't understand until later just why he was such a beloved star. Everything else here, though, including the parts of Grant's performance that don't involve him imitating a pigeon, are simply a joy to watch.

Grant plays Mortimer Brewster, as happy as you'd expect anyone to be when they've just got married to someone who looks as good as Priscilla Lane, figuratively and literally the girl next door, but then Brewster is a writer with several books to his name that describe marriage as an 'old fashioned superstition'. Following the wedding they visit his beloved aunts, the elderly Brewster sisters, who are so kindly that it would seem to one and all that they couldn't hurt a fly. Life is bliss, but then comes the startling discovery that they are really a pair of serial killers with no less than twelve corpses to their credit. What follows is a comedy of errors that ranks right up there among the very best farces ever written for the stage, not surprisingly given that the original production ran for a record 1,444 performances on Broadway.

Even with stellar performances from the stars and all the supporting cast, the stars of the show have to be the two aunts themselves. Josephine Hull is perfect, in a role very different from her Oscar-winning turn in Harvey, making me regret further the fact that she preferred the stage to the screen, as dying fourteen years before I was born tends to deprive me of the chance to see her act in person. Jean Adair is the other aunt who also came to the part from the original stage production; while Hull made six films, she only made five, both spending most of their careers on the stage. In fact, while the film was released in 1944, it was shot three years earlier in 1941 while the play was still a major hit on Broadway. Most of the principal cast were allowed to swap coasts to appear in the film, on eight week leaves of absence, but there was one major exception.
On Broadway, Boris Karloff was playing the role of Jonathan Brewster, Mortimer's brother and a big hulking psychotic nutjob of a murderer who visits at the same time with an assistant and a corpse in tow. Yes, this is an interesting family, to say the least. The aunts may be killers but they don't look or act like killers in the slightest. They see what they do as charity work, merely ending what they see as the suffering of their victims by serving them elderberry wine spiked with arsenic, strychnine and 'just a pinch of cyanide'. Their nephew Jonathan really looks the part though, and who better to fit that dangerous image than Frankenstein's Monster himself, Karloff the Uncanny?

Unfortunately the managers of the stage show refused to release him for the film version because they feared a notable drop in revenue during shooting. This is highly understandable, of course, given that while he wasn't really the star of the play, he was certainly its chief draw, the man who most people bought tickets to see, and he was also very aware of that fact being an investor in the production himself. However this inevitable but lamentable decision means that we lose out entirely on what should be a wonderful joke about Brewster killing a man because he thought he looked like Boris Karloff. In its place we get a gravestone inscribed with Cary Grant's real name, Archie Leach, which really isn't in the same class.

Karloff's part is taken by Raymond Massey who I'd seen once before, as the lead in Things to Come, a surprisingly good science fiction work based on the thoughtful HG Wells novel. Massey does well here in Karloff's role without trying too hard to be Karloff. I hadn't seen Priscilla Lane before at all but she is a bouncy gem of a young lady as Cary Grant's new wife. Now I know both of them much better. While I've never seen Massey in his long running role as Dr Gillespie on the TV show Dr Kildare, I have now seen him in films from 1932's Universal horror, The Old Dark House, to How the West Was Won thirty years later, in which he played Abraham Lincoln for the fourth time on screen. In between are a number of appearances for Powell and Pressburger, along with memorable roles in The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Prisoner of Zenda. Lane was one of the Lane sisters who were so memorable from the trio of soapy successes, Four Daughters, Four Wives and Four Mothers. She also got major roles in The Roaring Twenties, above Bogart but below Cagney, and in Hitchcock's Saboteur, both of which are highly underrated films.

Jonathan Brewster's tormented sidekick, Dr Einstein, is a pure joy to see and is played by an actor who was a personal favourite long before I saw this film. He's Peter Lorre, always a stunning addition to any movie, however awful it may be otherwise. He's mostly known as a character actor, superb in small supporting roles like this one and in classics everyone has seen like Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon, but he could do much more and did, ably playing the lead in the Mr Moto movies as well as classics like M and Mad Love, both of which are very high on my personal list of favourite films of all time.
And then there's Cary Grant, one of the major Hollywood leading men but one who had eluded me often. I may not have seen much Jimmy Stewart before 2004, but I'd seen even less Cary Grant. I remembered him well from Operation Petticoat, an excellent wartime comedy which paired him up with Tony Curtis and a pink submarine, but that could well be the only place I'd seen him up until then. That sad state of affairs has now been rectified, partly through the fact that he's a major presence on the Top 250, featuring no less than six times, but partly because I've made a concerted effort to catch up with his work. Now I'm up to 41 films and he's become a favourite.

Above Massey and Lane and Grant though, my biggest cinematic gap in 2004 was director Frank Capra. As it was my first Capra, I honestly couldn't say how much of the success of Arsenic and Old Lace had to do with him. After all, given the quality of both the script and the cast, it would have seemed somehow difficult to fail and any competent director ought to have done as well. However this was far from being his only classic. It Happened One Night held the honour of being the first film to win all of the top five Academy Awards, and It's a Wonderful Life was obviously one of the most widely loved films ever made. From what I'd read it seemed that his three Best Director Oscars were well deserved, and highlighted just how dominant he was back in his day. In fact his name even lent itself to a genre, Capra-corn, which was used in jest to describe how often his plots dealt with Everyman winning through in a world that couldn't understand him.

So I left this film in 2004 very much looking forward to catching up with more representative examples of his work, and I've now done that, with 25 of his movies to my credit and only one title still eluding me from the 1930s and 1940s. There are duds in his career: some of his early sound pictures, like The Younger Generation and Flight are pretty dismal, and some of his later films are sadly lacking too: Riding High and A Hole in the Head spring quickly to mind. In between though, from 1931 to at least 1946 he hardly put a foot wrong and left us with at least eight true classics, no less than four of which are in the Top 250, the other three being It Happened One Night, Mr Smith Goes to Washington and It's a Wonderful Life.

In the meantime I enjoyed what he did with Arsenic and Old Lace very much, and I can agree with Anne Sharp, author of Walking the Shark: A Peter Lorre Book, who describes it as the best Hallowe'en movie ever made. I never did get to follow up with a viewing every Hallowe'en but I'm going to renew my will to start that tradition. So should you.

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