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As a whole “Arsenic and Old Lace,” the Warner picture which came to the Strand yesterday, is good macabre fun. That it is not one of the top ranking pictures of the year is attributable to two or three outstanding faults, any one of which could wreck a less sturdy vehicle. Frank Capra has put into the picture all of the riotous farce, gentle naivete and broad melodrama that Messrs. Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse put originally into the Joseph Kesselring stage play.
That Mr. Capra wasn’t satisfied with the stage product and insisted on adding a few camera capers of his own doesn’t do the picture any good. Fact is it does the picture some harm because it not only pads out an already padded play but it also adds length to a picture which was built for speed rather than heavy hauling.
As an example, the picture opens on a now fairly tiresome note about strange and unpredictable Brooklyn, and nurses the laugh along with a riot scene at Ebbets Field, a scene which has no apparent reason for being in the picture at all. From there it switches to a high octane schmaltz sequence in the marriage license bureau, where, above all things, people are getting marriage licenses, Cary Grant and Priscilla Lane among them. Then there is another sequence of fancy chasing and necking in a Brooklyn cemetery, and, finally, guess what, the story of “Arsenic and Old Lace.”
Mr. Grant, as usual, turns in a creditable performance although his energy is likely to wear down, eventually, the stoutest spectator. As a hyper vitaminized drama critic, he bounds, bellows, howls and muggs through practically two hours and that, combined with the inevitable mugging of Jack Carson, makes those two hours long ones indeed. To offset this, practically all the efforts of Josephine Hull and Jean Adair, as the two gentle poison cup artists, are required to keep the show on an even keel. They’re delightful in their roles.
The picture serves to welcome back Raymond Massey after an extended leave. While it is a little breath taking to hear “Honest Abe” shambling around sounding like Lincoln but looking like Boris Karloff, that’s the condition that prevails. John Alexander doesn’t seem to wring the full flavor from his Teddy Roosevelt Brewster role, and, speaking of Roosevelt, the numerous political gag lines which went over so well in the stage play seem to fall more or less flat with the picture audience.
As it stands, “Arsenic and Old Lace” offers a large number of laughs and some genuine melodramatic thrills along with some cut rate hokum. If you can be comfortable through the latter, the former will furnish a fair to middling reward.
ARSENIC AND OLD LACE; screen play by Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein; based on the play by Joseph Kesselring; directed by Frank Capra for Warner Brothers. At the Strand.