Frank Capra: Arsenic and Old Lace | Criterion (2022)
Still courtesy of Criterion

‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ Drags America’s History From the Dark Dank Basement

Frank Capra’s America is always on the edge of madness and nightmare. The deeper you dig into his Arsenic and Old Lace, the darker and queasier it becomes.

Arsenic and Old Lace
Frank Capra
11 October 2022
There's a Body in the Window Seat! The History of Arsenic and Old Lace
Charles Dennis
November 2022

Frank Capra‘s Arsenic and Old Lace introduces itself as a Hallowe’en tale set in Brooklyn before unrolling one of 1940s Hollywood’s most frantic and surprising comedies. The Criterion Collection’s new 4K digital transfer presents the film on Blu-ray in a state of dazzling perfection. We hesitate to explain the beautifully modulated revelation of what’s going on in the story, but the title rather gives it away, and everyone at the time knew Arsenic and Old Lace is a comedy about serial murder.

Cary Grant plays Mortimer Brewster, a famous and cynical theatre critic who writes disparaging books about marriage. After initial waffling, he goes through with a civil wedding to Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane), who is literally the girl next door to the old Brewster mansion where Mortimer was raised by two dear dotty aunts, Abby (Josephine Hull) and Martha (Jean Adair). A cemetery serves as the next-door neighbor.

Also living there is Mortimer’s brother Teddy (John Alexander), who believes he’s Teddy Roosevelt and can’t ever go up the stairs without screaming “Charge!” as though it’s San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War. Rumors that the Spanish-American War was trumped up by William Randolph Hearst to encourage American imperialism were discussed, as you’ll recall, in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941). This isn’t irrelevant.

We hear rumors of another brother, Jonathan, who seems to be a criminal. Somehow Mortimer has escaped the family madness, although “it’s only a matter of time”. He explains that this madness goes back to the Mayflower with an ancestor who “scalped the Indians”. The more you dig under all this fast-talking, thrown-away dialogue of brilliance and absurdity, the more you find the concept of a dark American history. This isn’t irrelevant, either.

After some teasing, Mortimer opens the window seat and goes into the frantic, double-taking, hair-ruffling acrobatics that defines the rest of his performance after he’d been so sexy and sprightly with Elaine outside. The reason for Mortimer’s transformation into a panicked animal is that there’s a corpse in the window seat. The plot’s first shock, delivered with delightful sang-froid, is that the unsurprised aunts respond with a “Yes, dear,” and calmly explain that they’ve been poisoning lonely old men and burying them in the cellar. This will be number lonely old man number 12.

Do you see what we mean about the comment on American history? Arsenic and Old Lace is also a meta-commentary on the theatre, as Mortimer derides the stupid behavior of characters who put themselves in danger in plays. One of the greatest in-jokes is all the dialogue about a character who looks like Boris Karloff because Karloff indeed played the role on Broadway. The most unfortunate detail about Arsenic and Old Lace‘s film version is that, for frustrating reasons, Capra wasn’t able to get Karloff for the film, although he got three other actors from the Broadway version. This Blu-ray’s bonus segment is a radio version with Karloff.

That Karloff character is the mysterious brother Jonathan, now played by a scarified Raymond Massey in hard, murderous maniac mode. He’s introduced in scenes of chiaroscuro Expressionist lighting by cinematographer Sol Polito. Tagging along behind him is Peter Lorre as nervous little Dr. Einstein, who reveals that he saw that unnamed Karloff picture right before he performed plastic surgery on Jonathan. “I was intoxicated,” he explains with an adorable comic shrug, admitting his peccadilloes.

Jonathan, who’s on the run, intends to use “grandfather’s lab” for new facial surgery. He makes reference to having tortured the boy Mortimer (“I never liked Mortimer”) with things under his fingernails, and he casually refers to Martha’s habit of wearing high collars to conceal the results of “grandfather’s acid”. The deeper you listen, the darker and queasier the story becomes. Fortunately, the first time one sees Arsenic and Old Lace, one usually laughs too hard at how shocking and frantic and suspenseful it is. Even the rash of 1920s “Old Dark House” plays and movies, often farcical about murder, hadn’t presented anything quite like this.

We might excuse such a twisted farce by saying “there was a war on”, except it wasn’t quite on for Hollywood when the film was shot in late 1941, nor when the Broadway play opened in January 1941. It was certainly “on” everywhere else during America’s initial isolationism, so we might argue that the gloom and horror of Arsenic and Old Lace‘s imminent reality factored into audiences’ desires for a comic outlet for grim, murderous subject matter.

In a thoroughly informative commentary by Charles Dennis, author of There’s a Body in the Window Seat! The History of “Arsenic and Old Lace” (Applause, 2022), he explains that Joseph Kesselring’s hit Broadway play was inspired by the real-life case of Amy Gilligan, although he abandoned her details in favor of his own characters. While Kesselring received credit as the author, the play was, in fact, written by its producers, Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, who mostly tossed aside Kesselring’s work and fashioned the theatrical classic themselves.

Warner Brothers bought the screen rights, including a clause that the film couldn’t be released while the play was still running. Fortunately or not, the play was a smash that ran for years, so the film sat on the shelf until 1944. Its release in the middle of America’s war involvement yielded another colossal smash with critics and audiences. In later decades, the reputation of Capra’s film somewhat suffered as a project, perhaps overstated or stagy, but this restoration blows any such considerations away.

Arsenic and Old Lace‘s screenplay was written by twins Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein, most famous for Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942). They added some outside scenes and beefed up a few roles, and tried to keep up with the Production Code’s finger-wagging, but much of the play’s dialogue remains intact. The Hays Office was so obsessed with ensuring the frustrated honeymoon jokes were censored that they never noticed how one character gets away scot-free. There are juicy scenes for Jack Carson, Edward Everett Horton, James Gleason, Edward McWade, Chester Clute, and Charles Lane.

Capra was a self-promoter, and he tended to promote his films with the “Capra-corn” label to imply feel-good optimism that doesn’t describe them correctly or only conveys one side of their coin. Capra’s America is always on the edge of madness and nightmare, as encapsulated in American Madness (1932). Remember that to arrive at the warm fuzzy ending of It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), the hero must face suicidal depression of the sort also seen in Gary Cooper’s character in Meet John Doe (1941) and Claude Rains’ character in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).

The sanity of Mr. Smith and Mr. Deeds (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, 1936) is seriously questioned, and the point of You Can’t Take It With You (1938) is that the whole family is crazy, if less extreme than the Brewsters. Many of Capra’s earlier films are as dark; poison and suicide are key elements of the pre-Code drama The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), for example.

Dennis argues that the breezy It Happened One Night (1934) is the real “outlier” in Capra’s filmography. That’s valid, as I don’t recall any suicide or madness, but I’ll add that Claudette Colbert’s heroine expresses a profound dissatisfaction with her assigned social roles (by walking out of her wedding) and spends the film rebelling against conventions and learning to assert her desires, which she must negotiate with an equally outspoken nonconformist who doesn’t wear undershirts, so social critique snakes its way in. Capra’s heroes are always restlessly seeking their freedom and finding bitter disappointments along the way.

To repeat: when watching Arsenic and Old Lace, most viewers won’t initially think of how disturbing, sometimes even scary, is this raucous and merry farce. One of the film’s rewards is that, upon rewatching and rethinking, there’s all that subconscious evidence buried in the story’s basement, and much of the audience’s satisfaction rests in the desire to keep it concealed.