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Is Arsenic and Old Lace a true-crime story?

Is Arsenic and Old Lace a true-crime story?
A moment from Arsenic and Old Lace (Photo by Warner Bros.)

The crime // At the turn of the last century, serial poisoner, elder abuser, and estate fraudster Amy Archer-Gilligan killed dozens at her Connecticut “care home.”

The story // I didn’t know until reading Harold Schechter’s Ripped From The Headlines that Arsenic and Old Lace had its origins in a true story…and having slogged through (spoiler on my review, I guess?)

Frank Capra’s 1944 film version of a smash stage farce, which features many of the same players who originated the roles on Broadway, I…still don’t know that, tbh.

No lie detected! (Warner Bros.)

Yes, lonely seniors without close family got poisoned. Yes, it happened in the eastern time zone. Here endeth the similarities, as far as I can see.

And that’s okay! For one thing, Amy Archer-Gilligan’s murderous reign of digestive terror is not per se all that compelling. Monstrous people taking the ultimate advantage of the old and infirm for their money is, alas, not a new story, even if it’s a woman committing the monstrosities and/or doing it half a hundred times. A scripted version has to take a different angle on it, or you wind up with a list-y recitation of horrors, so an almost complete departure from the facts in evidence isn’t the worst idea.

Jean Adair, Josephine Hull, and Cary Grant. (Warner Bros.)

Slapstick is perhaps not the first angle I’d think of, granted, but at least it’s a point of view, and black comedy has its uses in the genre.

Some of the best, sharpest moments of Zodiac come out of highlighting the absurdities in the investigation; in Arsenic and Old Lace, the farcical sequences often comment acidly on the incompetence of the police and other representatives of “officialdom.”

Hell, the first scene in the movie is a “judge” of sorts, an umpire at a Dodgers game, getting clocked in the jaw, then choosing to let the melee continue above him while he lounges on the ground. Not necessarily what you expect tonally from the tale of two maiden ladies angel-of-mercying boarders with elderberry wine, but that too could work in the film’s favor.

It doesn’t. It’s not that the historical case is unrecognizable, from location to motives to resolution; it’s not that the farce structure is inappropriate; it’s that this script and edit of the story move way too slowly.

Capra’s way of letting scenes and line readings “rest,” in the way of a good cut of meat, is not for everyone, and I don’t mind it, but I don’t think it’s right for this story — and it does feel here as though everyone on the set is timing the lines for a live/theater audience. Punchlines that should get “jumped” have airless spaces after them, as though that’s where a laugh went in the matinée.

The timeline of filming, which overlapped with the stage run, suggests that’s exactly the issue, and sometimes I did laugh!

It’s not unwatchably slow, and the acting is extra-large from everyone — Peter Lorre seems to have been doing a Peter Lorre imitation? and not a very good one? it’s weird — but that feels appropriate, and it’s well done.

Cary Grant is utterly charming, and seeing future visions of Dean Martin and Jon Hamm flickering along his face in certain moments is a lot of fun. But Arsenic is a beat behind itself the whole time, and consequently 20 minutes too long.

Peter Lorre, Adair, and Hull hope for sprightlier direction. (Warner Bros.)

Arsenic and Old Lace is a perfectly cromulent TCM background-noise, nap/craft-in-front-of-it choice for a quiet weekend afternoon; it does a handful of things well, you’ll have a few chuckles (I’m still laughing at “I’m Woodrow Wilson, go to bed!”), and it’s Grant at his Grant-est.

But anything it has to tell us is about the pitfalls of stage-to-screen adaptations. As open as I am to the idea of a Capran meditation on a real case, this isn’t that; Arsenic and Old Lace isn’t really true crime.

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Monday 22nd of January 2024

I watched Capra's Platinum Blonde recently, which is even further from true crime but does have a hard-boiled Serious Journalist doing lots of ink-stained wretch stuff, I wondered if it could be updated to the modern era - is journalism still disreputable enough that an artisocrat would try to shape up her reprobate husband to give it up?

Sarah D Bunting

Tuesday 23rd of January 2024

@Margaret, an old bf of mine kept wanting to do a series at IFC screening all those journo-noir movies of the midcentury. Hope he does it one day! ...One wonders what Frank Capra's Mr. Cooper Goes To Portland might have looked like.