Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 25, 2022)
After a stunning run of success in the 1930s – which included two Oscar Best Picture winners and three Best Director awards – Frank Capra produced many fewer features during the 1940s.
Why? World War II, an event that caused Capra to work on documentaries intended to help with the Allied cause.
Capra did produce one feature between 1941’s Meet John Doe and 1946’s It’s A Wonderful Life: 1944’s Arsenic and Old Lace.
Well, sort of.
As it happens, Capra shot Lace before the US entered WWII at the end of 1941. However, the movie adapted Joseph Kesselring’s hit stage play and the studio couldn’t release their version until the Broadway show closed.
Which meant the finished film sat on the shelf for three years.
This didn’t seem to harm it, though, as it became a hit. Lace introduces us to author and journalist Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant).
Best-known for his anti-marriage diatribes, Mortimer makes a surprising leap when he weds Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane). After the ceremony at City Hall, Mortimer visits his beloved spinster aunts Abby (Josephine Hull) and Martha (Jean Adair) to break the news.
While there, he learns his aunts share a macabre “hobby”: they murder lonely, hopeless men as an “act of charity”. Confronted with this shocking news, Mortimer tries to deal with the consequences.
And that’s a comedy, folks! Lace seems like an oddly dark topic to embrace in that time period, as one wouldn’t think wartime audiences would take much interest in a movie that takes on morbid domains when soldiers came home in coffins.
This seems like awkward territory for Capra, generally known as a sentimental director. Wonderful Life involved some fairly dark material at its core – since it revolved around George Bailey’s potential suicide – but Capra treated it in a pretty warm ‘n’ fuzzy manner most of the time.
Lace involves much more macabre subject matter, though it plays everything for laughs. That really becomes its potential appeal: the sight of two kindly odd ladies who slaughter strangers.
My biggest problem with Lace stems from my feeling that it never finds a lot to sustain the viewer beyond its wacky premise. Although a variety of antics ensue, these tend to feel less than engaging.
Really, Lace finds it hard to get much of anywhere past that nutty concept. The movie lacks a real plot and shifts character focus too abruptly to come together neatly.
While the first act concentrates on Mortimer’s discovery and his attempts to deal with his aunts’ actions, the second chapter mainly involves Mortimer’s psychotic estranged brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey) and his personal cosmetic surgeon, Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre).
This thread emerges in an apparent attempt to add action and tension to the proceedings, but it just feels extraneous. I think a version of Lace that solely deals with Mortimer’s new wife and his crazy aunts would work well enough.
The entire Jonathan thread never really goes anywhere and lacks real purpose. While the first act offers some madcap fun, the second meanders too much and the movie never quite recovers.
Capra also just feels like the wrong person for this kind of crazed comedy. Lace needs someone more able to depict the wildness of the tale, but Capra lacks the inherent looseness and manic energy to make it work.
The actors manage to churn some amusement out of the material, but in the end, Lace feels too disjointed and too long. A 90-minute version would feel more satisfying, but at nearly two hours, Lace drags and ends up as a bit of a chore to watch.