Frank Capra’s Arsenic and the Old Lace: The Arduous Leap From Stage to Screen
I have a friend who refuses to watch old movies. It has nothing to do with black and white cinematography, or notions of archaic screenwriting. It’s the acting. Following the collapse of the silent film empire in the late twenties, actresses and actors, unable to adapt to new technologies, exaggerated their every movement, delivered perfect, unnatural enunciations, and projected their voices as if to a theater crowd. The fifties and sixties would see a tumultuous shift in filmmaking techniques, including acting, as Brando rolled through town, waving the flag of Strasberg behind him, but in early Hollywood, a storytelling tug-of-war was taking place, between the well-worn mold of traditional theater and the new, purely cinematic form.
Nowhere is this shift better illustrated than in Frank Capra’s film adaptation of Arsenic and the Old Lace. Based on Joseph Kesselring’s play of the same name, Capra’s film constantly struggles to escape the shadow of the widely successful Broadway production, and define itself on its own, cinematic terms. The film’s setting is given a few perfunctory expansions, accounting for a largely useless opening sequence at a baseball game, but like the play, the movie is almost entirely confined to the Brewster house, giving the rising action a familiar, stagey quality that has no place on the silver screen.
Rather, it is director of photography Sol Polito who breathes life into Arsenic and the Old Lace’s film incarnation, simultaneously paying homage to the shadowy cinematography of Universal horror and utilizing the camera as a precise comedic tool. Note the scene in which Officer O’Hara (Jack Carson) is introduced to the mentally unstable “Teddy” Brewster (John Alexander). Polito frames Teddy with a medium shot, emphasizing Teddy’s oddity, in his introduction to O’Hara. After a particularly awkward reaction shot from the officer, in which he shares the frame with Edward McNamara’s Sgt. Brophy, the camera, instead of completing the exchange by returning to Teddy, cuts to Aunt Abby Brewster (Josephine Hull). Not only is the unexpected editing choice funny, but Polito’s medium shot of Abby connects her peculiarities to Teddy’s, and acts as a visual foreshadowing of their murderous, but well-meaning, collusions. These are jokes and subtleties impossible to portray in a live theatre atmosphere. In a movie, however, they work wonders.
Similarly, in the film’s climax, Polito caps a “running joke” of Teddy charging up the staircase with a downward tilt of the camera to reveal Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) holding the hands of an ancient clock in place. Those few extra beats the camera takes to arrive at the punch-line make all the difference between seeing an event on screen, and seeing it in real time. Shortly after, the camera catches Priscilla Lane’s Elaine, staring wide-eyed through the window with a zoom that, inserted between two comic reaction shots, can only be described as “zany.”
Meanwhile, Cary Grant threatens to keep the adaptation trapped squarely under its theatrical wing with his hammy indulgences. Despite an already promising career of brilliant performances, dramatic and comedic, Grant chooses to go “Full Stooges” in Arsenic, the steam practically shooting from his collar with each exaggerated grunt and squee. Fine for a stage performance, when the goal is to project the comedy to the folks in the nosebleed seats, but film is another beast entirely, and alongside the hilarious supporting players, with a special nod to an on-point Peter Lorre as a gangster surgeon, Grant’s slapstick style is jarring, and worse, it’s often flat.
It takes twice as much work to create a great movie from a great stage adaptation. The story, the setting, the pieces are already in place, but those pieces have to be a blueprint, not a dogma. If Mortimer Brewster is a theater critic for the play, why hasn’t his occupation been changed to film critic for the movie? Certainly the self-referential jokes could have been transferred accordingly. Are the Karloff gags as funny without Karloff? Maybe, but play to screen is never a simple A to B transference. It just won’t work. Capra and Polito do their damnedest to elevate the source material with a unique visual style and clever editing, but Grant is off somewhere on his own Vaudeville shtick, trapped in another time, and mugging desperately for jokes that never land.