Movie Review - Arsenic and Old Lace

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Frank Capra
Warner Bros. Pictures
Not Rated

Ordinarily, Mortimer is a dramatic critic, with a nice little sideline in anti-marriage propaganda. On this particular Halloween, however, he gets married to the minister’s daughter, decides to burn all his bachelor books, and accidentally discovers that his two sweet, old maiden aunts have been poisoning old men as a little sideline of their own. The only thing that keeps Mortimer from losing his reputation, going crazy or taking his new bride to Niagara Falls, is the chance of pinning the murders on his mentally-deranged brother (the one who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt), and getting him committed to a sanitarium before anyone finds the bodies. The only thing keeping him from accomplishing that is the unexpected arrival of his other mentally-deranged brother (the one who looks like Frankenstein’s monster), with a timid but creepy sidekick. And the only thing keeping these unwelcome visitors from being persuaded to get a hotel room instead, is the fact that both sides of this family reunion have dead bodies to hide from the police.
Happy Halloween, Mortimer.

So here’s what happens: Arsenic and Old Lace starts out very cute. There’s Mortimer with his fiancée at the marriage bureau, trying to hide from the reporters because he’s stood against this old-fashioned matrimony stuff for so long. There’s Aunt Abby and Aunt Martha giving the policemen old toys to fix up for poor children, and Teddy Roosevelt charging up San Juan Hill on the staircase.
At this point, the movie is only supposed to be mildly humorous.
May I point out kind of an odd thing about Arsenic and Old Lace, though? The point in the movie when everyone’s supposed to start finding it very humorous is the moment when Mortimer finds the dead body in the window seat. Yes, I know that’s the whole idea behind “black comedy”—“black” meaning “somebody’s dead” and “comedy” meaning “supposed to be funny”—but have you ever stopped to think how weird that really is?

In the movie, Aunt Abby and Aunt Martha feel so sorry for the twelve lonely old gentlemen who come to rent a room in their house—men who have no family or friends in the world—that they deliberately poison them, to help them find peace. Then they have Teddy Roosevelt bury the poor gentlemen in the Panama Canal (that is, the cellar) as yellow fever victims. The aunts not only don’t seem to realize that this sort of thing is wrong, they consider it one of their charities, and are really quite dismayed when Mortimer doesn’t approve.

Here’s where fiction and reality… well, fact is, when you put reality and Arsenic and Old Lace in a room together, they collide with a significant bang. Why? Because, when you ask yourself whether you’d still find all this so terribly amusing if you discovered that your own, real-life aunts had been killing people, the answer would definitely be no (at least… I really hope it would). Arsenic and Old Lace would be out, without a question, if it didn’t have the benefit of being fiction.
I think everyone understands that applying “black comedy” to real life would be bad. I don’t think anyone plans to do that in the near future. Here’s the thing about the comedy in Arsenic and Old Lace, though: it doesn’t work out too well in fiction, either. Why? Because, the only things keeping all those deaths from offending a moral audience, are the demographic of the victims and the method of killing them. Change just those two details—one of them, even—and the story suddenly becomes unacceptable, even with all the charm of the two sweet, old maiden aunts.

“Once upon a time, there were two sweet, old maiden aunts shooting old men in an alley somewhere—all for the sake of helping them find peace…”
“Once upon a time, there were two sweet, old maiden aunts poisoning lonely, abandoned children—all for the sake of helping them find peace…”
“Once upon a time, there were two sweet, old maiden aunts working as nurses at a hospital in Florida in 2005, removing the feeding tubes of young, female patients in a persistent vegetative state—always, for the sake of helping them find peace.”

The thing all those different hypothetical movie plots have in common with the original story of Arsenic and Old Lace is this: people die.
Imagine a movie about any of those scenarios. A comedy movie. Now imagine yourself deciding whether or not those movies would be acceptable.

You know what? It’s only the second-best way to decide whether a movie is acceptable or not, to try to shake off the desensitization by comparing the film with reality or an alternate plotline. The best way is to compare it with the Bible.
The Word of God… well, it doesn’t tend to find death amusing. Especially not the deaths of God’s saints—which, as “Baptists” and “Methodists”, we would hope the aunts’ lonely old gentlemen were. The Bible tends to take a pretty high view of human life. Arsenic and Old Lace does not. We know it doesn’t because we’re not supposed to feel horrified that Aunt Abby and Aunt Martha were engaging in euthanasia. We’re supposed to find it funny. We’re not supposed to want them to be brought to justice—just the opposite, in fact. We’re supposed to be glad when the police don’t believe the aunts’ story about there being all those bodies buried in the cellar.

Arsenic and Old Lace is very cute in some places, moderately cute in some places, and moderately to extremely morbid in almost all places. We’re supposed to laugh at the cute points, which is only natural, but the thing is, we’re also supposed to laugh when we find out that Aunt Abby and Aunt Martha committed homicide on eleven occasions—and are rather proud of it. Reacting positively to those parts of the movie is, frankly, kind of weird. Kind of inappropriate, in fact (and yes, I did used to like this movie, so all this goes for me, too). When you add in the other interesting fact we discovered, that comical euthanasia is unbiblical (and should be oxymoronic), it’s three-strikes-you’re-out for Arsenic and Old Lace.
A biblical view of human life is important. Agreed? Watching Arsenic and Old Lace really isn’t. Are we still agreed? If you could watch this cute, creepy little movie and still enjoy it without being even slightly tickled by the morbidity, then I wouldn’t have any problem with people continuing to watch it. But… I don’t think you can. I give it a Not Worth Watching.

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