It’s Not a Wonderful Film

25 Sep 2013: Arsenic and Old Lace (DVD, 1944, Frank Capra)

Cary Grant may be doing his best, acting ape-wild and befuddled in this cornball screwball, but I found myself basically irritated more than amused at the overblown overplayed dramatics and untimely unlikelihoods. People are forced to be cartoons but with the restricted spatial and narrative continuity of human beings, making them behave in ways too outsized for their capabilities – the insane son who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt and runs upstairs regularly screaming “Charge,” the prim aunts who think vigilante euthanasia is perfectly mundane, the moody and sadistic estranged nephew. These things seem like sitcom standbys or even sketch comedy subjects, and watching them pretend to be full-blooded characters in a feature film is grating and tiresome. Many clever lines in the script (e.g. “Insanity runs in my family. It practically gallops.”) and earnest performances – far too earnest, probably, a problem with Frank Capra in general perhaps (this is how Lady for a Day felt) – are appreciated, but in themselves insufficient to elevate the story, the aesthetic or the overall resonance beyond a mild mechanical satisfaction. The humor is not the liberating humor of truth and recognition, but the mugging humor of improbability and humiliation; the screwball tomfoolery, rather than allowing for letting loose, instead tautens and agitates in its hyperbolic tensions without corresponding relief.

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