Our review of Best of Warner Brothers: 20-Film Comedy Collection, published July 14th, 2013, is also available.
Insanity runs in my family. It practically gallops.
Arsenic and Old Lace is a madcap comedy of murder and insanity; Frank Capra's attempt to do for Halloween what he would later do for Christmas in It's a Wonderful Life. Well represented on the various top 100 lists, it has remained a timeless classic. Warner Bros. has finally released this much-anticipated classic with a beautiful transfer, but unfortunately on a bare bones disc.
Facts of the Case
Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) is a New York drama critic looking to marry the preacher's daughter who lives next door to his kindly old aunts. Next door if you don't count the cemetery between them, that is. Burying dead bodies seems a daily pastime in the neighborhood, however, as Mortimer finds out that lonely old men are being poisoned as an act of "charity" by the lovely old aunties and then buried in the cellar. The ladies are the kindliest sociopaths on the planet, but the Brewster family trait doesn't stop there. Brother "Teddy" thinks he is Teddy Roosevelt and helps bury the bodies thinking he is digging the Panama Canal, and the other brother Jonathan is a wanted psychopath himself. With bodies popping up all over, and the neighborhood police coming over for cordial visits, Mortimer has to stop the killings without landing any relatives in prison, and find out if the "family trait" will claim him as well.
First and foremost, this is a funny film. The humor is surprisingly dark for those days of the Hayes Commission, but I'm not complaining; this is a Halloween picture after all. There is plenty of physical comedy, but expressions and situations are the grist for the comedic mill, and there are plenty to go around. Cary Grant was said to have a rubber face during this film, and I've never seen him make some of these faces in any other film. Grant is supposed to carry the picture along as the only "sane" member of the family, but it is the supporting characters who truly steal the show. The kindly aunts (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair) are so sweet and matter-of-fact about serial killing that I crack up at the dichotomy. Brother "Teddy" (John Alexander) gets a big laugh as everyone humors him about being Teddy Roosevelt. It is a running gag that the local sanitarium (Happydale Sanitarium) doesn't want him because "They have too many Roosevelts…could you talk him into being Napoleon perhaps?" and other plays on his alter ego, such as his frequent "Charge!" up San Juan Hill (the staircase). It was perhaps even more funny at the time since there was a Roosevelt in the White House.
The film is adapted from and closely resembles the Joseph Kesselring Broadway production. Frank Capra wanted to do the film right away, but had to agree to wait to screen it until the play had finished its run. Kesselring did let the actors playing the two aunts and Teddy leave long enough to shoot the film, but demurred on allowing his star attraction Boris Karloff from reprising his role as the evil Jonathan. So Capra hired Raymond Massey to play the part, and used makeup to make him look like Karloff, and a running joke through the movie was how much he looked like him, and everytime someone mentioned it he would fly into a rage. Apparently his sidekick, the evil "Doctor Einstein" (played with great humor by Peter Lorre) had been drinking too much after watching a Karloff film and performed the latest plastic surgery on the fugitive drunk.
What Capra didn't count on was the fact that the theatrical run of the play would run over 1400 performances and take three years, so it was 1944, three years later, when the film was able to be released to the silver screen. The results were one of those times where the critical opinion did not match well to the public at large. Critics bad-mouthed it as overblown; the public voted with their dollars otherwise.
The characters are wonderful, but the situations even funnier. People almost finding the bodies and almost drinking from the wrong wine decanter are staple jokes in the tale as Grant runs about trying to put out every fire that threatens to reveal the family secrets; secrets that he himself has just discovered. The characters have more of a nostalgic charm today, but the film holds up well and is still good for a lot of laughs. The film is smart, the Capra eye for the camera at its peak, and the minimalist transition from the stage play to film keeps our interest even as it rarely leaves the main set.
I've been waiting a long time for this little gem to appear on DVD, especially after reviewing the other Capra classics It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Those were all done by Columbia, which was Frank Capra's studio for much of his career. And Columbia basically did right by his films in their DVD releases, to varying degrees, with commentary tracks by Frank Capra Jr. and other goodies. So how did Warner's treatment of a Capra classic compare?
In the picture quality department, no complaints at all. For a film nearly 60 years old, the transfer is stunning. Only a few dark specks from the source print remain after what must have been a careful and loving job of restoration. The glorious black and white picture is very sharp, without edge enhancement or other artifacts. No ringing or jagged edges to worry about. Black levels are deep and dark, and contrast is bright and well defined. The picture gives a very clear, film-like look, without haze. If only every classic film could be released with a picture of this quality, I would have a much easier life as a DVD critic.
No real complaints with the sound quality either. The Dolby Digital mono soundtrack is very clear, without noticeable hiss or distortion. Everything is heard clearly and there is no sense of muddiness in the sound. Being an old mono soundtrack, there is some loss of fidelity, and voices can sound just a bit thin. The music can be just a bit strident, but not annoyingly so, and any fault here has to come from the quality of the original recordings themselves.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Where Warner dropped the ball was in the extras department. Only a trailer and modest production notes are included. I don't know why Frank Capra Jr. wasn't on hand for a commentary track; perhaps he has an exclusive contract with Columbia. But surely there are plenty of film historians to give us insights and information on the film, either in a documentary, commentary track, or both; as Universal is doing on their classic horror films.
It is tough to speak ill of such a classic film, but the critics at the time did have a point about Grant's performance. Sometimes it went too far over the top, but it still has a charm about it that I enjoy.
One other note; there was some censorship applied to the film at the end, in which the word "bastard" was changed to "son of a sea cook." I don't think it really hurt the film in the context it was used, but it seems funny now to find the need to have that word removed compared to the language in films now.
Fans of Frank Capra and classic comedy should be happy with the disc, despite the lack of extras. It would certainly be worth a rental at Halloween time, especially for those who would like something different from the typical slasher fare. Speaking personally, I'm happy to have it in my collection.
Frank Capra, even if he were still alive, would need no verdict from me; he has attained the status of legend in film history. I am happy to release the film back to the public, and only admonish Warner to look at their competition on their special features for classic films.
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