A critic’s imagination intruding: Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

There’s a great film here but you’ll have to dig down in the basement for it.

I saw this a few days after The Philadelphia Story and what a contrast they make. Both incidentally take place around a house. But that one stagy, sedate wit, pleasant in the way of a dinner engagement you’d rather skip. This one imaginative, uproarious, fluid in visual narrative, both in the short and the long form.

In the short this means a lot of gags and a constant zap of manic energy — no less from Cary Grant who gives a Bugs Bunny performance, a new slapstick expression every minute. Once more a house of fiction and games, by now a Capra staple. In Mr. Deeds and You Can’t Take it with You, it was a house where in all the playing around and unexpected fooling with etiquette we could recognize the upending of boring normalcy. It’s a bit different this time.

The playing around in this house is all about recognition that we are watching fiction. It’s not just a story but a story about what it means to inhabit one.

Grant for one plays a dramatic critic, someone whose job is to watch and criticize plays. One such play unfolds in the house all around him, and it’s one that constantly opens trapdoors in what we expect to see. I will not spoil the main surprises.

This is one thing that’s marvelous here. Having Grant (a rather smug fellow when we first see him) as viewer who is constantly bamboozled by what goes on around him.

The swirl of fiction about fiction also involves a passing cop on the beat who is an aspiring playwright. In another spot Grant describes a scene from a silly play he once had to see, one where a hapless victim agreed to be tied down to a chair by killers, and while demonstrating the scene he finds himself in the very same scene he’s describing, tied to a chair by killers. Another scene has him watch from a staircase at a fistfight while commenting on the action.

More about characters acting roles in a stage within the stage. There is a crazy nephew in the same house who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt, dresses and performs the part and constantly charges up a staircase he thinks is San Juan hill. Teddy was probably still at this point the most iconic president anyone could remember. And of course famous for his blustering performances and a natural storyteller.

Another brother is made up to look like Karloff from Frankenstein and is recognized by everyone in the film as Karloff the actor. No accident. Karloff himself was playing this character on the stage but could not appear in the film version. I should say it’s a pity we don’t have him but Massey is superb and truly steals every scene he’s in.

That’s all fine. I adore visual imagination, the spontaneous and impromptu, the fooling with expectation. But Capra as so many times before misses in the long form; this is where what we see would begin to amount to real significance for someone who has a life in the story.

There was no filmmaker more capable at the time than Capra (and I think him immense in talent), who always comes so close but could hit so widely off the mark.

The long form here is that Grant is not just a critic, he’s also a writer who’s written a few books against marriage — but as the film begins has actually decided to marry his sweetheart. The film opens at the courthouse where he tries to marry while avoiding being recognized as the writer of those books.

So this should be against everything he’s espoused so far, there has to be some unresolved tension in him. Note also that one his books is titled ‘Mind over marriage’, possibly implying a life of the mind and enjoyment of oneself is preferable. And how about his aunts commenting at one point that ‘everyone is nervous when they get married’?

Here we see a narrator who has been attached to a story about how life should be, but now life and the vagaries of love capriciously upend it, showing to him how silly it has been.

So what happens in the film? No sooner is he back from the courthouse to his aunts’ house who are preparing a wedding cake and a celebration than things start happening out of the blue.

Dead bodies suddenly abound, note, of lonely old men who had no family of their own. A brooding brother appears in the house (in the face of a famous cinematic monster no less), who has led the solitary life of a vagabond and has to change faces every so often, lost to himself.

Is it his own brooding self the one who subconsciously intrudes upon the house on the day of his wedding and is creating what we see? Marvelously these intrusions are in the form of self-referential bits from other plays and movies, a critic’s imagination.

There are eventually too many shenanigans for this to shine clearly across the whole film, but you should definitely visit at some point.

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writer on structured narrative and the changing world

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Akis Lalos

Akis Lalos

writer on structured narrative and the changing world

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