Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Reeling backward: "Arsenic and Old Lace"

Cary Grant was such a controlled performer. He was the Barack Obama of his time -- Mr. Cool, whose feathers never got ruffled. He tended to work with small gestures and modest changes of facial expression. He played it close to the vest.

That's why it was such a shock to see him mugging and doing pratfalls and double-takes and other big, theatrical tricks in "Arsenic and Old Lace." Frank Capra directed it based on the classic stage play by Joseph Kesselring, and I'm guessing he instructed Grant and the rest of his actors to "go big." Stage acting is very different from film acting, of course, because as they say you have to be bold enough so the people in the back seat of the theater can react.

It's an amusing farce, with lots of slamming doors and people overhearing each other and so forth. Grant plays a drama critic who learns his kindly old aunts have been poisoning elderly gentlemen to put them out of their misery. This discovery happens, of course, on his wedding day. And the same day his criminally insane brother Jonathan returns home after 20 years. And his other brother is a nutcase who thinks he's Teddy Roosevelt.

There are plenty of close-ups of Grant reacting to all the shenanigans, something I'd never seen from him before. Grant did plenty of comedies, of course, but never played so directly to the audience.

One moment I just absolutely loved. Peter Lorre plays a plastic surgeon who is Jonathan's partner in crime, and keeps rearranging his face to keep the cops off their trail. (His most recent effort makes Jonathan a dead ringer for Boris Karloff, which sends him into a murderous rage whenever someone comments on the resemblance.) Anyway, Jonathan has been caught be a trio of cops, and the police captain is on the phone reading aloud a description of the wanted suspects just as the good doctor is trying to slink unnoticed out the front door.

The description goes something like this: "About 40 years old, 5-foot-3, 140 pounds, speaks with a German accent, pop eyes..." Right when they get to the "pop eyes" part, Lorre -- whose signature feature, of course, was those big, googly eyes -- sags noticeably, like a man who's already heaving a bad day when his hat blows into a sewer.

I tend to love little non-dialogue comedic moments like that. Laughed so hard I had to stop the video.

"Arsenic" is somewhat dated, of course, but was still a hoot. I've never seen it staged live; after watching this movie, I'll have to check our local theaters in case somebody stages it.

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