Attn: Spoilers (not that it really matters) I had little idea what Arsenic and Old Lace was about when I began watching it tonight. All I needed to know was that Cary Grant was in it and Frank Capra directed. What else do you really need? Well it turns out, quite a bit.
Let's start with the beginning. A baseball stadium. Crowds cheering. Vendors yelling almost directly into the camera. Excitement on the field. Great way to start a movie -- my attention is piqued. Looking back, though, it begs the question: Why? The opening sequence, while whetting the appetite of the viewer, serves little other purpose than to place the story in Brooklyn and then leave you wondering what a baseball game had to do with the rest of the film at all. Seems a bit cliché and gimmicky in hindsight.
Then we're introduced to Mortimer and his wife to be. We find out he's a well-known theater critic and author of books trashing the institution of marriage. How ironic it is, then, that he's getting married... Now even though there are countless romantic comedies based on this concept -- of the playboy bachelor meeting his match and falling in love, throwing away his old lifestyle to finally settle down -- I never tire of it. It's a classic story line. Why this particular element is in this film, though, is another question. Mortimer could have just as easily been an uptight and conservative insurance man who was getting married to the girl next door and the character would have worked just as well. At no point in the film is Mortimer's change in attitude toward marriage ever utilized, and his background as a theater critic is played up for nothing more than a few cheap laughs.
These initial scenes, then, raise the question as to whether Frank Capra was intentionally trying to mislead the viewer as a kind of in-joke -- teasing us with the idea of something exciting happening in a baseball game, or with the possibility of screwball antics to come -- or whether it was just poorly thought out, arbitrary storytelling. For a film as unhinged as Arsenic and Old Lace, I would presume the latter.
The rest of the movie suffers from inconsistencies in tone, swinging from romantic to creepy to foreboding and then downright ridiculous. It is, in total, clumsily put together. I will grant that it has its funny moments (notably the scene when the taxi driver waiting outside the house helps Cary Grant call another cab) but these are rare in what is an otherwise extremely frustrating film to watch.
One of the biggest problems with this film is that most of the action is driven by the very thin plot device of Mortimer trying to get all the signatures necessary to commit Teddy into an insane asylum. This is what motivates Mortimer to run all over town, ignore his new bride, and desperately try to hide the fact that his two sweet aunts are cold-blooded killers. It also blinds him from seeing that his supposed brother, Jonathan, is completely insane. All of Mortimer's actions appear to be centered around saving Teddy, first and foremost. We must assume, then, that Mortimer cares deeply for Teddy. The problem is, we can only assume, as we never really see any sort of unique relationship between the two. Capra clearly thought there was enough time in the film for a couple sincere scenes between Mortimer and his new wife. But it would have been much more effective to develop Mortimer's relationship with Teddy, because then we might know why saving Teddy was so important. I realize this is supposed to be a zany comedy, but in great comedies, you usually care about the characters. I realized about halfway through this film I didn't care about what happened to anyone because they didn't seem to genuinely care about each other.
This makes the last third of the film excruciating to watch, as it drags out the tension between the characters as they try to hide or divert others from finding out the truth of what's lying in the cellar. Again, I understand this is supposed to be a madcap kind of comedy. But it has no heart -- the characters are one-dimensional, lack any sliver of self-awareness, and barrel their way to the finish line by sheer inertia and stupidity. My question is: what's so funny about that?
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