October 29, 2020

GRANT'S COMIC APOTHEOSIS:

ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, FRANK CAPRA'S "HALLOWEEN TALE OF BROOKLYN," IS THE PERFECT FILM FOR THE SEASON ( OLIVIA RUTIGLIANO, 10/29/20, Crime Reads)

Based on the hit 1941 play by Joseph Kesselring and screenwritten by Casablanca dream team Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein, Arsenic and Old Lace is the story of Mortimer Brewster, a famous, wealthy, and well-liked theater critic (the first tip-off that this thing is fiction), who discovers one Halloween night that his entire family is criminally, murderously insane. Until he heads home (to the quaint Brooklyn street where he was raised), on that day, Mortimer (Cary Grant, hyper and muttery) believes that the biggest trouble before him is a nuptial scandal, that he'll make a mockery of his career by getting married; he's the author of several bombastic, comical books that decry marriage, entitled things like The Bachelor's Bible, yet what has he done? Gone and fallen in love with Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane), the daughter of the Minister who lives across the road from his two adorable spinster aunts, Abby (Josephine Hull) and Martha (Jean Adair). Mortimer's aunts raised him in that house, so Elaine's really "the girl next door," of all things--a homey figure that checks the highfalutin city boy persona he has adopted. After they get married in the Manhattan courthouse and duck the paparazzi (again, he's a theater critic?!), they swing by Brooklyn to say a quick goodbye to their families before heading to Niagara Falls. That's when Mortimer stumbles upon a dead body stuffed into the window seat of his Aunts' well-kept parlor. 

First he assumes that this is the work of Teddy (John Alexander), his cousin who resides there and believes himself to be Teddy Roosevelt. Actual Teddy Roosevelt. But Mortimer soon learns that, no, this corpse is the work of his two cute, jolly aunts--enthusiastic but remorseless serial killers who rent lodgings to "lonely old men" and fatally poison them (using a cocktail of arsenic, strychnine, cyanide, and elderberry wine). They joyfully see it as acts of compassion, but Mortimer begs to differ. So does the audience. Indeed, one of the cleverest things that this very self-referential script does is collapse the character of the theater critic with its actual spectators, separating him from the farce and reserving his judgement as legitimate. Mortimer has never been in a position to judge his own family, before--and now his eyes are opening to the macabre production that has, unbeknownst, played around him for his whole life.

And with this, the movie turns from a screwball romantic comedy about a secretly-reformed chauvinist who falls in love with a girl from his own neighborhood, into a high-stakes farce about a man who discovers that his loving family (and the idyllic block where he was raised) are not nearly as charming and innocent as they once seemed. 

The Bishop's Wife is a, likewise, subtly dark Christmas classic.
Posted by at October 29, 2020 8:28 AM

  

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