AFED #12: Arsenic and Old Lace (US, 1944); Dir. Frank Capra

So Day 12 and probably not for the last time I'm struggling to know exactly what to say about a film. Are these the first signs of ennui? Is my resolve beginning to crack after less than a fortnight? Stay tuned to find out.

After all today's choice Arsenic and Old Lace is an an undisputed classic, isn't it? Many years ago I picked up a book by Christopher Tookey called The Critics Guide to Film. I must have spent hours perusing it, but perhaps the most notable feature a chart of the 200 highest rated movies according to film writers. The top honours in fact went to another Cary Grant vehicle, His Girl Friday, but this one was well placed.

Like His Girl Friday, Arsenic and Old Lace is sometimes labelled as a screwball comedy, but although it shares the high tempo pacing, the romance element is far less significant. Grant plays a newlywed who visits the family home with his bride only to discover his elderly aunts have developed a penchant for murdering old men as an act of "charity".

Whilst Grant's hatching a plan to have both them and his brother Ted (who's convinced he's Theodore Roosevelt) taken into care, another brother with homicidal tendencies of his own (Raymond Massey) turns up with the intention of disposing of another dead body. And so events unfold with... ahem... hilarious consequences.

Now there's nothing wrong with the cast. Cary Grant is sometimes too smooth for my tastes but he's firmly in self parody mode here. Whilst the story isn't the usual one would associate with Capra his direction makes the most of the script, which is closely adapted from the successful stage play.

Why then did it leave me so indifferent? Arsenic and Old Lace is basically a domestic farce, albeit one with the comparative novelty (for the early 1940's) of also being a black comedy. Although a variation of this style has been assimilated in the form of sitcoms the more exaggerated and affected farce we see here is largely extinct. What once seemed clever (for example the switch of the dead bodies in the window seat) is now just contrived.

Comedy more than any other genre is dependent upon context. A joke which might seem hilarious within one cultural paradigm can be unfunny if not meaningless in another. Different countries, languages and time periods have their own idioms and I don't subscribe to the notion that anything but the broadest and most basic comedy is universal.

Would Chaplin or Keaton be such huge stars today? I'm not convinced; which is not to say contemporary humour is superior - in many respects it's good deal more crude and cynical - but it resonates more readily with the time in which we're living.

By extension it also depends on how you're watching it. As an adaptation of a stage play, then as a film for theatrical performance, it was intended to be enjoyed as a communal experience. We can be confident the makers never anticipated it being watched on a laptop by a guy by himself, simultaneously keeping an eye on his washing machine to make sure it didn't vibrate too much and upset the people downstairs.

So maybe I've only myself to blame. Or maybe it's really not all that.


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  2. Interestingly I think the some of the true screwballs have stood up very well. 'Bringing Up Baby' still works for me and 'His Girl Friday' has a dark and subversive undertone. Been toying with writing my own screwball variant as a radio play for a couple of years now.

    I guess when we're younger we're less worldly and more receptive to that broader comedy. Shall definitely try and fit in some L&H before I'm through.


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