In the canon of upbeat films about dreadful subjects, Arsenic and Old Lace reigns supreme as one of the very best. A hilariously irreverent dark comedy that centres on the concept of cold-blooded murder, it has stood as one of the most fascinating examples of subversive cinema produced during the Golden Age of Hollywood. The play by Joseph Kesselring was a resounding success (so much that when the film went into production, the producers of the stage play were hesitant to allow the entire cast to appear in the film version, since the show was still running and as popular as ever), so it only made sense that it would be adapted to the screen. Frank Capra, who is not always the director we’d associate with darkly comical satires, took the reigns, working with a screenplay by Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein (the writers behind some iconic works during this period, such as Casablanca and Mr Skeffington), who tenderly adapts Kesselring’s extraordinarily daft dark comedy, retaining all the wonderful details that made the show so beloved, but also developing on some of the ideas in a way that would make it profoundly cinematic, rather than just being a transposition from stage to screen. In all areas, this adaptation of Arsenic and Old Lace is an absolute success, a hilarious and entertaining romp through the world of murder, as viewed through the eyes of perhaps the only sane, logical person left in this quaint suburb of Brooklyn – and even several decades later, it remains a refreshing and entertaining comedy that goes in search of that elusive quality that is both macabre and enchanting, and based on the reputation the film has held for all these years, it’s clear that it achieved it with flying colours.
For a film that was made over three-quarters of a century later, Arsenic and Old Lace has held up considerably well, which is always a sign of a strong work of art. Any film that can entertain contemporary audiences just as much as those at the time of its release clearly contained something very special. There was clearly something valuable embedded deep within it at the conceptual stage, with the entire narrative serving as a clever satirization of the pleasant but innocuous domestic comedies that had populated American theatre and cinema for as long as it had existed, based around conservative values of family and society that were seen as nothing less than sacrosanct. Here, we are presented with a film that is just as delightful and endearing, filled with the most charming characters and entertaining scenarios, just with the added caveat of being about murder in the first degree. We have become desensitized to such scenarios in which stories can touch on very dark subject matter, but at the time, Arsenic and Old Lace would have likely have been extraordinarily transgressive, pushing boundaries of decency that were perhaps responsible for the slight amount of controversy that occurred when this deranged film was unleashed on unsuspecting viewers. There’s a brilliance in being daring enough to not skirt around these issues, but outright addressing them directly – and the story gets right to the point, leaving very little to the imagination. It’s not often we find a film so gleefully adept at both shocking and delighting us, but this is one of the many reasons behind the incredible success of Arsenic and Old Lace, which is still very much resonant by even the most modern standards.
There is a certain quality that Cary Grant possessed that sets the viewer at ease – a particular magnetism that keeps us engaged, regardless of the role. While the films in which he starred sometimes varied in quality, he was seemingly incapable of giving a bad performance, especially once he had found his niche as arguably the most charismatic actor to ever work in the medium. Arsenic and Old Lace presents us with a slightly different version of the Grant persona, one that sees the esteemed actor utilizing different skills. While we mostly associate him with the kind of debonair characters that are known for rapid-fire dialogue and an unimpeachable charm, Grant actually started out in vaudeville, and honed his talents as a physical comedian alongside the more well-known handle of the art of acting that we normally expected from him. Throughout Arsenic and Old Lace, he is purely a reactionary, leaping between different parts of this house as he watches his relatives reveal how they are all maniacal psychopaths in radically different ways. Grant is extraordinary in the film, especially since he is able to showcase his wonderful expressivity, which was often underplayed in other films – his facial expressions alone are some of the most hilarious parts of the film, and it’s difficult to think of many other actors who could solicit such genuine laughter from just non-verbal reactions to the madness occurring behind them. It’s a performance that may not be considered his greatest work, but considering how it was a purely comedic performance from an actor who normally found humour in more restrained characters, it’s not implausible that seeing him do something very different could have an equally impressive impact. Credit must also go to the rest of the cast – Jean Adair and Josephine Hull are absolutely delightful as the murderous aunts who believe their actions are a work of charity, while Raymond Massey is wonderfully sinister as the only true psychopath in the film, and the main antagonist. Grant may be the main attraction on a technical level, but without the cohesion of the entire cast, it’s doubtful that Arsenic and Old Lace would have been even close to a success.
When talking about a film with as intimidating a legacy as Arsenic and Old Lace, we have to look beyond the reputation and see how it achieves its individual successes, beyond the fact that it has been proclaimed a masterpiece. Far too many supposedly unimpeachable classics have been revealed to be highly overrated – but this is certainly not the case here, since (much like most of his work) Capra put in a lot of effort to capture the spirit of a story that was resonant at a particular moment in time, and which aged incredibly well, to the point where it is still embraced to this very day. Arsenic and Old Lace find the perfect balance between macabre and sentimental, and it relies on not only a single style of comedy, but several. The combination of slapstick humour with darkly comedic satire allows the film to oscillate between different kinds of jokes, which not only makes it more accessible (since some may not be particularly enamoured with some of the humour, but may enjoy another type contained in the film), but forces it to find new ways to surprise the viewer. The best way to venture into a film like this is to quite simply expect the unexpected – what we initially believe we are going to witness proves to be only partially true, as Capra and Kesselring relish in taking us on an unpredictable journey that does not even the best of us would be able to fully anticipate. This is all the more reason to not only watch the film once, but several times – it rewards repeated viewings, since every time we work through this story, we uncover further details that may not always be fully important to the plot itself, but supplement the story and prove that the world in which Arsenic and Old Lace takes place is carefully plotted by the creative artists responsible for its construction, whether it be those involved in the original play, or Capra, whose ability to fashion this material into a compelling film should not be underestimated by any means.
Arsenic and Old Lace is an absolute delight, and a film that warrants as much adoration as it has been receiving over the years. It may be untrodden ground for both Capra and Grant, neither of which had ever been involved with something quite like this (they had both made comedies, but never at a level where it is pitched to be almost exclusively macabre in tone and thematic content), but who are graciously welcomed into the world of this play, which was already an absolute sensation on stage, and as a result was given an extraordinary amount of attention when it came to translating it to the screen. It’s an endlessly charming film that may run slightly long (it was adapted from the stage, where longer running times are far more acceptable), meaning that there are some stretches of outright tedium in-between moments of dynamic brilliance. However, these are all small criticisms of an otherwise near-perfect film, a work of Golden Age comedy that has never felt more refreshingly compelling as it does today. Whether one is a student of the progression of comedy over time, or are disciples of any of the actors who make their way through the film, Arsenic and Old Lace is a charming work that never once underestimates the viewer or forces them into a position where it feels inauthentic. Charming but constructive, and wildly inventive, there are few films that are as creatively deranged as this one, especially in how it manages to be simultaneously heartwarming and fear-inducing, a combination that immediately proves the impact of a story well-told, armed with pathos and warmth in equal measure, as well as indicating that we should never underestimate the power of a wicked sense of humour.