Director Frank Capra, known for his movies about the great American underdog, war propaganda films, and for that one where Jimmy Stewart saves Christmas, explores the glorious American family in Arsenic And Old Lace and shows us that the violent, murderous society we pride ourselves on now, isn’t merely some recent invention of the absent parent, video game industry, and liberal media bias.
Presumably designed to be a rather broadly played black comedy, the movie fitfully entertains though it goes on way too long with too little happening for it to be entirely successful.
Cary Grant spends most of the movie making a variety of faces that vacillate between flummoxed and exasperated and though he reportedly didn’t care for his performance in the picture, he’s the one reason to watch it. Despite some who have complained that his work here is over the top, if he acts like a cartoon character sometimes in this movie, it’s because the movie itself is a cartoon.
The real problem with the movie is that it’s basically a one joke affair that is stretched out over two hours. This only amplifies the feeling that you’re not just getting double takes from Grant, but triple and quadruple takes.
Grant plays Mortimer Brewster, a drama critic who has also written several well-known books that speak out against marriage. When we first meet him, he’s trying to keep a low profile down at city hall while getting his marriage license.
The part of him being a drama critic is used only sporadically, most notably during a really funny scene where he describes some horrible play he saw about a guy being too stupid to realize he’s being menaced by killers, even as Mortimer himself is being too stupid to realize he’s being menaced by killers.
It’s one of the funnier bits in the movie and nails dead on what’s wrong with a lot of horror movies. Those moments of inspired lunacy don’t happen nearly enough though.
Following his marriage, he and his new bride head back to Brooklyn where she and Mortimer’s two elderly aunts live to break the good news to their respective families.
Aunt Abby and Aunt Martha are a pair of pleasant old biddies that even the neighborhood cop loves. Despite being well provided for, they rent out a room for guys who don’t have anywhere else to go. That’s just the sort of Good Samaritans they are.
You and I both know that renting rooms to drifters usually results in one of two bad things happening. Either the drifter ends up being a psychopath who kills a bunch of people, or the people renting the rooms to the drifters are really running a roach motel for down on their luck bums.
This time it’s the latter case, with the black humor supposedly coming from the juxtaposition of the sweet little old ladies and the fact that they’re good naturedly poisoning people and burying them in their basement.
Maybe this sort of thing was hilarious in the 1940s when you didn’t have everyone from six year old kids to eighty year-old broads whacking everyone and their brother, but watching this, I wasn’t thinking that the idea of a nice old ladies being a pair of serial killers was instantly hilarious.
The idea needs some sort of comedic spin to make it successful and the surprise appearance of a long lost brother who also happens to be a serial killer just wasn’t it.
Mortimer discovers a body in the window seat in his aunt’s house and after lots of breathless gesticulating and such he confronts them about it.
They calmly explain that they murder these people because their victims are lonely and don’t have any family. You see, they’re really doing them a favor. He tells them in no uncertain terms that they can’t go around killing hapless old dudes.
To further complicate things, he has a crazy brother who thinks that he’s Teddy Roosevelt. Yes, this is a different crazy brother than the one who shows up later, on the lam from the law with his good buddy Peter Lorre. (Hey, I never said the movie didn’t try to be a wacky farce, I just questioned its success.)
Unfortunately, the movie achieves a sluggish pace as soon as Mortimer’s other crazy brother appears. Jonathan is a criminal who is looking for a place to hide out while the heat dies down and what better place than his family’s unassuming home in Brooklyn. He brings his plastic surgeon associate Dr. Einstein (a very funny Lorre) as well as his own murder victim.
Lots of monkeying around with that body ensues and it naturally ends up in the window seat with the other body. Once Jonathan finds this out, he uses this as a way to prevent Mortimer from telling the cops about his own identity as a wanted man.
Mortimer’s misguided attempts to protect his aunts causes all sorts of problems between him and Jonathan as well as with his new wife. Yes, she’s still milling around, appearing to act huffy or be terrorized by Jonathan every so often, but by and large she adoesn’t add much to the goings on.
The expectedly manic wrap up to all this madness goes on way too long, though with having to wrap up the fates of the two aunts, the two crazy brothers, Dr. Einstein, and Mortimer and his wife, you can imagine the gyrations the script has to go through to make sure everyone gets what’s coming to them while giving us a happy ending.
Make no mistake, the movie is funny in spots and all involved are complete pros. It’s just that with the movie’s pedigree you expect so much more from it. Frank Capra, Cary Grant, a great cast of character actors, and a successful Broadway play as source material and I still found myself bored intermittently.
I felt a bit like Mortimer when towards the end of the movie, he sits exhausted on the stairs inside the house smoking a cigarette. He’s just muttering to himself about everything as everyone else is fighting and destroying the house. It’s a great scene, but it seems as if it was Cary Grant sitting there, completely spent from trying to make the movie work out better than it did.
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