C’mon, Halloween’s been around for more than 40 years, right? So why do we have 23 different Halloween movies and nothing older than 1976?
Well, that’s about to change with tonight’s selection, Frank Capra’s 1944 adaption of the popular stage play Arsenic and Old Lace.
Keeping with this year’s motif, Halloween frames our events but isn’t their focal point. In fact, it’s a little touch Capra and screenwriter Julius Epstein added to the film version, as the original play does not take place on Halloween night. It fits though, giving a spookier air to the already sinister happenings of the story.
Newly married theater critic and author Mortimer Brewster has just discovered his sweet and unassuming Aunts have been mercy-poisoning old, lonely bachelors and burying them down in the basement. Oh, ok then. He doesn’t handle that so well, and his reactions are pretty great.
When Mortimer’s brother Johnathan returns home after years of estrangement, he has designs to do the same, unaware that his aunts have been engaged in exactly the same criminal activities.
What follows is mad-cappery as only the early 40’s could provide. Which means you will either find all this goofy nonsense and shouting charming or it will annoy the hell out of you. I’m somewhere in between. I enjoy a good classic, but the board comedy on display and Gary Grant’s over-the-top performance can be a bit much at times. Rumor has it all of this was to be toned down in the editing, but Capra reported for assignment in WWII, and his changes went with him. There’s another thing you can blame on Hitler.
There’s a lot to love here, though. There’s a ton of great one-liners, subtle verbal quips galore, and for the most part, Cary Grant is really quite funny.
Peter Lorre is his usual unnerving and enjoyable self as Johnathan’s personal plastic surgeon, who has given John the ghastly appearance of Boris Karloff – the original actor who portrayed Jonathan in the stage production. Warner could not get Karloff on loan, as the production was still running and the theater company feared losing its big-name draw. This becomes sort of a running gag throughout the film, as Karloff is referenced several times.
Stepping into Boris’ scars is his Old Dark House chum Raymond Massey, who does a wonderful job underplaying his villainous Johnathan amidst the buffoonery surrounding him.
One great sequence involves Mortimer’s critique of a scene he recently saw performed on stage where a purportedly intelligent character foolishly allows himself to be bound and gagged despite knowing full well he was in danger. At the same time, this exact scenario is taking place in front of us, with the act being perpetrated against Mortimer. It’s a great piece of comic staging that works perfectly.
Then there’s the matter of the Brewster home’s exterior, which contains a great family graveyard, covered in whirling autumn leaves and spooky ambience perfectly befitting the holiday.
There are a few small references to Halloween, and a quick scene of children arriving at the house for some holiday treats, but otherwise this is simply a dark comedy of murder and coercion that carves out its own little niche on the 31st of October.
If you’re in the mood for something old that isn’t the tried-and-true Universal mainstays, but also includes a tinge of the season, Arsenic and Old Lace is a good bet. That is assuming of course the whole affair doesn’t just irate the fun right out of you.
I give it 1 jack-o-lantern up, because what? I’m sorry, did people use to just hand out jack-o-lanterns to trick-or-treaters on Halloween? Cause that’s awesome.