arsenic.jpgThe biggest Cary Grant fan I know, my wife, has never been a big fan of Arsenic and Old Lace. Thus, this is the only instance that I am aware of where I actually like one of his films more than she does. Before last night, I had seen it only once and that was several years ago, so I was happy to get a chance to watch it again and to see if it was as good as I remembered. I was not disappointed.

Directed by the legendary Frank Capra and based on a hit Broadway play, Arsenic and Old Lace is a classic screwball comedy where Mortimer Brewster (Grant) discovers his kindly aunts are actually poisoning elderly men (not out of spite, mind you, but out of charity) and burying their corpses in the cellar. Before he can run away with his new bride, Mortimer must try to sort out this mess, while also dealing with his crazy Uncle “Teddy” (who believes himself to be Theodore Roosevelt) and the return of his convict brother, Jonathon (Raymond Massey), who resembles Boris Karloff and would like nothing more than to murder his sibling. Superbly written, these subplots intertwine into a farcical masterpiece full of surprises and some truly funny moments.

Grant’s the only real big-time star, but the rest of the cast is full of recognizable faces from classic Hollywood (Peter Lorre, Priscilla Lane, Jack Carson). The film seems perfectly cast, with each actor playing his or her role just right. The versatility of Cary Grant never ceases to amaze me. That a person who can brings such depth and emotion to his serious roles (in films like Notorious) can also excel at physical comedy to the degree displayed in this film is just mind-boggling. One can say something similar about the directing of Capra, who not only can bring to life such touching films as It’s a Wonderful Life, but in the case of Arsenic, he shows a remarkable understanding of the comedic timing and energy needed to make such a topsy-turvy plot work.

While I still enjoyed it, I must admit that I liked the film more the first time I saw it. I think first-time viewers of this film are more taken aback and amused by the whole ridiculousness of the plot. This time through, I knew what was coming and, with so many subplots being introduced into the story, the film seemed to drag a bit long as it tried to resolve all the loose ends (this is somewhat characteristic of Capra – though he’s one of my favorite directors, he does tend to run his films a little longer than they need be). Nonetheless, there’s no denying this film’s status as a classic, and I will laugh at many of these scenes no matter how many times I see them. It’s also worth noting that while I may have liked the film slightly less this time around, my wife liked it somewhat more. Thus we seem to be overcoming our stubborn, contrarian viewpoints in order to find some unlikely, but endearing, middle ground that will ultimately promote our domestic harmony. This oddly seems an appropriate way to end a discussion about a screwball comedy.

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