Arsenic and old lace (1944, USA)

I kept watching Frank Capra‘s Arsenic and old lace as an original situational comedy, but kept getting disturbed by some of the deeper in themes in it. On the surface the comedy is built around three items with built-in comic elements. First the good-spirited aging aunts, who everybody loves and thought of as the pillars of the community, are quietly serial killers. Second, the man in their house is a harmless, albeit not always quiet, crazy person. Third, in this twisted word drops their freshly married cousin, who earlier finished a book about the folly of marriage. He, played by Cary Grant, is supposed to bring the normal outside world into the old house, where everyone is genetically predisposed to madness. There are two other characters worthy of mention, the returning lost cousin, who looks like a crossover between Frankenstein and Boris Karloff and appropriately enough also a serial killer. And his wimp friend, a failed drunkard, doctor who did the plastic surgery on him.

Watching the dynamic movie as one situation and clever play with words led from one funny disaster to the other was fun. However I am convinced that the choices for two of the characters’ name was more than intentional. The crazy uncle thought of himself as Teddy Roosevelt and everyone went along with it, thinking that it is better for him this way. Considering that the movie was made when the other Roosevelt was the president (1944) the jokes might have been on him in an indirect way. My knowledge of history is not sharp enough to decipher all the jokes they had put in this cousin’s mouth, who was literally depicted as a raving lunatic, but I did get the sense that they had strong and direct references and criticism to current events (for the time) I missed.

Second, the complacent, unmanly, alcoholic doctor was named Einstein. He shaped a man’s face to the ugliest the public could imagine or associate with. I was wondering whether this operation referred to only one person or the whole of humankind. By his theory of relativity the original Einstein made our world more complex, harder to comprehend. I imagine an early reaction to Giordano Bruno’s heliocentric view was similar, although it eventually led to his execution. The movie’s Einstein is discarded as weak character, no matter how significant change he brought. In logics that would be an ad hominem attack. In a comedy though it just serves as a butt of jokes.

There is no acknowledgement or direct reference to the fact that the movie was made during wartime. On the other hand at least a major and a minor solution for the problems of the world are shown. I think they are intended answers or more like coping mechanisms to any and all crisis. The major way is escaping to madness. Mental illnesses were thought of the time as running away from seemingly unsolvable issues. Here, we see the development of even the sanest character developing signs of madness both voluntary and involuntary. War is social madness, but he opts for personal madness to come out alive from the evolving family and legal situation. This is a main theme in the movie.

More interesting for me was the idea of stopping or even resetting time. Every time the crazy cousin slams the door the arms of the standing grandfather clock needs to be readjusted. Instead of making sure it shows the correct time though, the various people tending time always set it back to the same place. Don’t forget this was happening in a quaint old house. In many ways they wished to stop time and were successful for decades. This wish of avoiding progress and the passage of time is another way of not dealing with the presence. On the long term, i.e. by the end of the movie, it proved to be just as pointless as the other method.

Despite prompting these substantial thoughts it is perfectly possible to watch Arsenic and old lace as a simple yet great comedy, because it is. Either way I recommend it.

This is a top 1000 movie.


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