A Fine Romance Friday: Arsenic and Old Lace

It was difficult for me to pick the right film for today. It’s Fine Romance Friday, yes, but it’s also Halloween. I dislike scary movies intensely. I’m not sure I’ll ever recover from the time I watched the first 10 minutes of The Silence of the Lambs. Plus, scary movies don’t usually have romance–something about serial killers not being romantic.

I considered several Hitchcock films, but they didn’t seem particularly related to the holiday. “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” has Linus and Lucy in the pumpkin patch. But then it came to me: Frank Capra’s 1944 screwball comedy Arsenic and Old Lace. Sold!

Starring Cary Grant, Priscilla Lane, and pretty much every character actor in mid-1940s Hollywood, it’s the simple tale of a writer who has made a career decrying love and marriage…that is, until he falls for the girl-next-door. They have a quickie ceremony on Halloween at City Hall, but before they can escape on their honeymoon, they run home to tell their families. Hijinks ensue.

The plot of this film is batty even by the standards of a screwball comedy. It involves sweet old ladies committing murder, sibling rivalry, delusional relatives (literally), criminality, plastic surgery, jokes about publishing, and a meditation on Teddy Roosevelt and masculinity. Oh and Cary Grant plays a guy named Mortimer. It’s delightful.

Pauline Kael famously wrote that the screwball comedy “turned love and marriage into vaudeville acts and changed the movie heroine from sweet clinging vine into vaudeville partner.” Arsenic and Old Lace isn’t the most successful example because it’s a bit light on the romance. I want to know how Priscilla Lane got Cary Grant to propose in the first place and I want her to be a more equal partner than she is; she’s forced to be the damsel in distress a lot. If anything, the film substitutes Grant/Mortimer’s aunts for character development of the romantic lead. They are the main feminine presence in the film, though they are totally charming. Additionally for all the trappings of humor, it’s a dark film and can be legitimately scary. So I don’t think it’s a pure screwball comedy. But it strikes a compelling balance between a few spine tingles, a wonderfully witty script, and several sequences of laugh-out-loud physical comedy.

If you’re looking for a light Halloween film with a bit of romance, I commend Arsenic and Old Lace to you. It would pair nicely with some elderberry wine–though hold the arsenic.

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4 thoughts on “A Fine Romance Friday: Arsenic and Old Lace

  1. One of Miss B.’s favourite movies! I so totally agree that the “main feminine presence” are the aunties, who are delightful … and add a piquancy of mortality and suffering to their lethal panacea that raises this a cut above for me. Also what Cary Grant widens those eyes in shock … and Bela Lugosi. LOVE IT.

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