Blu-Ray Review: Frank Capra’s Arsenic and Old Lace Joins the Criterion Collection

Criterion has outfitted this macabre screwball comedy with a stunning transfer.

Arsenic and Old LaceAlthough it’s based on Joseph Kesserling’s 1939 play of the same name, Frank Capra’s Arsenic and Old Lace suggests a macabre reworking of the director’s 1938 screwball comedy You Can’t Take It with You. In that earlier film, Jean Arthur’s Alice is trying to keep her idiosyncratic family under control, while this one finds Cary Grant’s Mortimer Brewster struggling to tamp down the escalating lunacy of his clan of maniacal and homicidal relatives. In both cases, these main characters are the only bastions of sanity in a family tree full of nuts, and the farcical comedy stems primarily from their futile attempts to curb the swirling chaos that pervades their households.

But where You Can’t Take It with You eventually gives way to the sort of heavy-handed messaging that tends to weigh down some of Capra’s work—particularly in the late 1930s and early ’40s—Arsenic and Old Lace finds the director letting loose and leaning fully into the material’s darker, more absurdist impulses. And while Capra’s films almost single-mindedly laud the traditional values and deeply held bonds of the American family, Arsenic and Old Lace trenchantly lays bare the hypocrisies and prejudices of the upper-middle class that often remained concealed beneath the faade of good manners.

In true screwball fashion, the film opens on a romantic union in distress, with Mortimer, a theater critic and author of the forthcoming Mind Over Matrimony, worrying about what his secret marriage to his sweetheart, Elaine (Priscilla Lane), will do to his public image as a militant bachelor. After the newlyweds return home following their quickie wedding, his family’s increasingly deranged actions prevent him from even consummating his marriage, introducing much larger dilemmas to his success and happiness. (All the while, Elaine is left pining for him in the backhouse.) Not only that, Mortimer has to deal with his kooky uncle (John Alexander), who believes himself to be Teddy Roosevelt, and the revelation that his sweet, doting aunts, Abby (Josephine Hull) and Martha (Jean Adair), have developed a bad habit of murdering lonely old men they’ve lured into their home and burying them in the basement.

For all the hysterical reaction shots of Grant mugging for the camera—he’s perhaps even more miraculously rubber-faced here than in Howard Hawks’s Bringing Up Baby—it’s Hull and Adair’s pitch-perfect, subdued performances that hold Arsenic and Old Lace together. The cool, matter-of-fact manner in which their characters discuss their victims and the murders they commit, which they see not as acts of cruelty but of good old-fashioned Protestant charity, reveal them as wolves in sheeps’ clothing. Their persistently calm, genial demeanors make Mortimer’s growing frustrations and emotional outbursts all the more amusing by contrast, while also keeping the film at least somewhat grounded in its upper-crust milieu.

Just when the film’s scenario seems to have been exhausted, Mortimer’s estranged brother, Jonathan (Raymond Massey), who’s amusingly said to “look like Boris Karloff,” returns home with his impish plastic surgeon, Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre), and a dead body of their own that they’re looking to bury. At this point, Arsenic and Old Lace’s tone shifts from the farcical to the foreboding, taking on the style of a gothic horror film. With his imposing height and stitched-up face, Jonathan is something of a Frankenstein’s monster, while the film’s lighting becomes more expressionistic, filling the frame with stark shadows and creating an aura of impending doom as the skeletons in the family’s closet—or, rather, basement—threaten to be exposed.

If Arsenic and Old Lace’s latter half drags in comparison to the rapid-fire lunacy that dominates its first half, the clever interplay of horror and screwball tropes always keeps things fresh and unpredictable. And the film finds creative ways of weaving secondary characters in and out of the story without ever leaving its central location. Two particularly clever recurring gags revolve around the overbearing police officer, Patrick O’Hara (Jack Carson), who keeps pitching his idea for his latest play to Mortimer, oblivious to the peril that’s right around the corner, and the cabbie (Garry Owen) who waits outside to be paid for his fare for the entirety of the film.

Arsenic and Old Lace is a complex juggling act that, while exhausting at times, gives even the smallest of bit players their moment to shine. The strength of its cast lends the film its enduring appeal, helping it remain a premier example of classical Hollywood filmmakers’ skill at dexterously melding various genres and performance styles.

Image/Sound

The Criterion Collection’s newly restored 4K digital transfer boasts a flawless image, with an incredibly strong contrast ratio that becomes more apparent as the film shifts toward expressionistic visuals and dark shadows in its second half. Details are razor sharp even deep in the frame, yet there’s also a nice amount of grain that gives the image a filmlike texture. The uncompressed mono audio gets the job done, with squeaky-clean dialogue and a well-balanced mix that prevents the more chaotic scenes from sounding like pure cacophony.

Extras

Charles Dennis, author of There’s a Body in the Window Seat!: The History of Arsenic and Old Lace, delivers a lively, exhaustively researched audio commentary that touches on virtually every aspect of the film and the play it was based on. It often feels like he’s reading passages straight from his book, but his vocal delivery, which sounds like that of a narrator in a 1950s Hollywood melodrama, keeps things light and peppy. If you’re curious about anything from the development of the film’s screenplay, its actor’s backgrounds, or the genesis of the play, this track is a one-stop shop. That’s all the more fortunate since the only other extras included on the disc are a radio adaptation from 1952 starring Boris Karloff and a trailer. There’s also a foldout booklet with an essay by critic David Cairns, who touches on Cary Grant’s performance and Frank Capra’s embracing the opportunity to make something completely unserious.

Overall

Criterion has outfitted Frank Capra’s macabre twist on the screwball comedy with a stunning transfer and an erudite, entertaining commentary track.

Score: 
 Cast: Cary Grant, Josephine Hull, Jean Adair, Raymond Massey, John Alexander, Priscilla Lane, Jack Carson, Edward Everett Horton, Peter Lorre, James Gleason  Director: Frank Capra  Screenwriter: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein  Distributor: The Criterion Collection  Running Time: 118 min  Rating: NR  Year: 1944  Release Date: October 11, 2022  Buy: Video

Derek Smith

Derek Smith's writing has appeared in Tiny Mix Tapes, Apollo Guide, and Cinematic Reflections.

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