July 22, 2008

Of homicidal aunts and murderous brothers

Lynn and I went to the HBO Summer film festival at Bryant Park last night. They were screening Frank Capra's Arsenic and Old Lace. It was a fun evening. People cheered when The Dark Knight trailer was shown; a Bugs Bunny cartoon was the pre-show. People stood up and actually danced as the HBO credits rolled! Folks were cheering for the weirdest things...like for the Brooklyn Bridge onscreen. And once Cary Grant showed up, womenfolk went crazy.

I had never seen the movie before. It's based on the black comedy play about a commitment-phobic drama critic (Grant as Mortimer Brewster) who finds out on his wedding day that his sweet old aunts are actually "charitable" serial killers. They rent out rooms to lonely old bachelors then ply them with elderberry wine laced with arsenic, cyanide and strychnine. He has a brother who thinks he's Teddy Roosevelt and buries the unfortunate victims in the cellar of their Brooklyn home, as he builds the "Panama Canal". Another criminally insane brother, Jonathan, shows up with the delightful Peter Lorre (an alcoholic Dr. Einstein who performs surgery on Johnny to change his appearance after his crimes. Funny how the Bugs Bunny cartoon which preceded the film had a Peter Lorre-like character). But don't tell Johnny he looks like Boris Karloff (who originated the part in the play); you wouldn't like him when he's angry.

Poor Mortimer tries to fix things and this is where Mr. Grant shines. He is so watchable, with his leading man good looks, comedic timing, delivery and physicality. He got too energetic at times, though. The movie could have used some editing as well. But overall, the film is funny, odd, zany, macabre, if a bit illogical. It could only have led up to its screwball conclusion.


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