Arsenic and Old Lace
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Arsenic and Old Lace

ter a summer of enduring a near constant bombardment of blockbuster movies driven more by special effects that the emotional connect emanating from heartfelt performances, I find myself roaming the classic section of my film library. Like Ismail in the iconic opening paragraph of Herman Melville’s ‘Moby Dick,' I seek to address my cinematic restlessness by immersing myself in something greater. In this case, I find solace in the older films of my catalog, ones that have withstood the test of time by helping to define the means of artistic expression referred to as cinema. I was drawn to a personal favorite genre, the dark comedy. The ability of this type of story to elicit laughter in defiance of the serious, somber themes that encompass hardship, defeat, and death is among the most difficult types of category for a storyteller to master but when achieved the product of such a fertile imagination is a genius. Officially defined as "a comic style that makes light of subject matter that is considered taboo," its very nature mak3s it difficult to present to a general audience. It is certain to undermine some sense of moral integrity, The film that caught my eye and engaged my brain remains a personal favorite and is cited frequently as a significant influence in introducing this genre to mainstream entertainment, ‘Arsenic and Old Lace.' Hat its core is a story about a pair of unremorseful serial killers that dispatch men devoid of emotional ties. The plot device of having the murderers be senior women living in a respectable neighborhood in Brooklyn only appears to intensive the heinous nature of the acts routinely performed. The effect sustained by the story is humorous. Despite the amoral connotations instilled in the premise. Released during the height of the human tragedy permeating life through the global horror of World War II, it would seem the absolute most insensitive time to feature such a topic. The contemporary proved to be overwhelmingly positive permitting the film to embrace its historical place in film history.

The story is concerned with a well-established and respected Brooklyn family, the Brewsters. Since their arrival on the Mayflower, they have retained the status as the epitome of White, Anglo-Saxon Protestants proud of their lineage demonstrated by the images of past generations adorning the walls of the family home. The family member currently in the public eye is Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) who has written many several books denouncing marriage as an antiquated superstition. He finds himself in a hypocritical position when he falls in love. The object of his romantic attention is the literal manifestation of one of the oldest stereotypes of a romantic tale, the girl next door, Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane). They married on October 31st, Halloween day, and before going off for they honeymoon Mortimer wants to stop at the family home to tell his elderly aunts, Abby (Josephine Hull) and Martha (Jean Adair). Mortimer’s uncle John (John Alexander) resides there. If the Brewster family were devoid of the financial and social standing they enjoy, John would be considered insane, but such a position in society permits John seen as ‘eccentric.' He believes that he is Theodore Roosevelt. As a manifestation of this delusion, he tends to yell "Charge" as he runs up the stairs imitating Roosevelt's famous charge up San Juan Hill. The construction of the fundamental elements of a dark comedy is especially crucial due to the fine line between humorous and bad taste. The craftsmanship exhibited in this story set the bar at such a high level that those choosing to follow in this genre would encounter an exceedingly arduous time even approaching the artistry displayed here. Considering the newspapers and radio broadcasts of the time were overwhelmed with the growing tragedy, the prelude to a second global war. This was not an emotional atmosphere conducive to a humorous consideration of death.

Mortimer was already experiencing a significant paradigm shift in his publicly known disdain for marriage, his new father-in-law, Reverend Harper (Grant Mitchell), was obviously an enthusiastic supporter of the institution. Returning to his quaint family home to visit his loving elderly aunts held expectations of glad tidings. Much to his shock, he discovers that Martha and Abby held such relationships so vital to continued happiness that when they encountered a bachelor devoid of familiar support they felt the most human action was to ease them out of their isolation with the fatal combination of arsenic and sweet wine. They leveraged Teddy’s delusional persona to their best advantage. He dug down there convinced that he was digging the Panama Canal in the basement. He was providing the final resting place for the corporal remains of his aunt’s victims. Advertising a spare room for rent was a common practice and guaranteed to attract the demographic, or perhaps more accurately, victim profile, they desired.

When audiences think about serial killers the image that comes to mind typically is one of a seriously antisocial man, obviously overwhelmed by a plethora of mental problems. The pair of elderly spinster sisters presents the epitome of harmless eccentricity. Most families had examples of such people with many also embracing a harmlessly delusional relative like ‘Teddy.' Back then such benign psychological afflictions were not addressed by institutionalization but directly by the family, the appreciation of these circumstances by modern audiences may be hindered through their belief in the currently approved methods of intervention, but for a long time, the circumstances found in this stately Brooklyn home was commonplace and very relatable.

The moment that ignites the main motivator plunging Mortimer into the thick of his insane circumstances occurred when he found a dead body in the downstairs window seat. Mr. Grant built his considerable reputation performing in roles of distinction. The usual roles he undertook were debonair, controlled and in charge. The considerable scope of his talents was often best showcased playing against type such as the bewildered executive in Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘North by Northwest’ of a comic part like this. A man that exudes control set in such bizarre, surrealistic circumstances grabs the attention of the audience. An actor of such extraordinary skill as Carey Grant a movie that might have easily spired into ruination became one of the cinema’s genre-defining gems. It does help considering that the setting is kept simple. The story unfolds in the familiar surroundings as a parlor among beloved family members. This was made possible by the origins of the story. Before its translation, to the silver screen, it was a highly popular Broadway play. A stage play is favorable to such an intimate feeling. The stage by nature, is simplistic, each detail in place for a specific purpose. When a setting is stripped of extraneous elements, the focus is shifted to the characters more than usual. It enhances the ability for the filmmaker to go to some extremes in the various plot devices. Without this, the ensuing craziness would be unsustainable. Mortimer concisely describes the situation with the memorable quote, "Insanity runs in my family, practically gallops." There is a kinetic component that imbues a slapstick feel that helps to offset the morbid plot points. The police are called in ostensibly in pursuit of Mortimer’s brother Johnathan (Raymond Massey). He is a psychopathic criminal accompanied by his alcoholic accomplice, plastic surgeon Dr. Herman Einstein (Peter Lorre). Johnathan is a murdered currently bordered with the problem of disposing of the body of his latest victim. This is a film that must be seen by anyone with a serious infatuation of films. Not only did it help define a genre it is undoubtedly one of the most clever comedies made

Posted             10/03/2017

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