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Frank Capra
Cary Grant, Priscilla Lane, Peter Lorre
Writing Credits:
Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein

On his wedding day, Mortimer Brewster learns his sweet old aunts are serial killers.

Rated NR.

Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
English LPCM Monaural
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 118 min.
Price: $39.95
Release Date: 10/17/2022

• Audio Commentary with Film Historian Charles Dennis
• 1952 Radio Version
• Trailer
• Booklet


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Arsenic and Old Lace: Criterion Collection [Blu-Ray] (1944)

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.

The Disc Grades: Picture B+/ Audio C+/ Bonus B-

Arsenic and Old Lace appears in an aspect ratio of 1.37:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. The film looked quite good.

In general, sharpness satisfied, as the movie usually appeared well-defined. Some softness popped up for the occasional shot, but the majority of the flick boasted nice delineation.

Shimmering and jaggies remained absent, and edge haloes also failed to appear. The movie’s grain structure felt natural, and print flaws didn’t mar the proceedings.

Blacks appeared deep and dark, and contrast came across well. Shadows held up nicely as well. The movie still gave us a positive presentation.

Though erratic, the LPCM monaural soundtrack of Lace, as held up acceptably well over the decades. Speech could seem a bit thin and some edginess occasionally emerged, but lines were intelligible and concise enough.

Music and effects displayed the expected restricted dynamic range, but they showed acceptable clarity. Louder effects did show some distortion, such as when Teddy “charged” up the stairs. Still, this became a perfectly acceptable mix for a movie shot more than 80 years ago.

A few extras flesh out the set, and we find an audio commentary from film historian Charles Dennis. He offers a running, screen-specific look at the original play and its inspirations/creation, adaptation for the screen and development, cast and crew, and production domains.

On the negative side, Dennis goes MIA too often, so expect more than a few dead spots. However, Dennis compensates with tons of great information, so in spite of the gaps, this becomes a satisfying discussion.

In addition to the film’s trailer, the disc ends with a 1952 Radio Broadcast of Lace that runs 59 minutes, 21 seconds. This casts Boris Karloff as Jonathan, the role he played on Broadway 11 years earlier, and it uses a few other veteran cast members as well like Jean Adair.

This production replicates the stage version of the story, not the film, so expect a mix of differences. It becomes an enjoyable archival piece.

The package finishes with a booklet. It features credits, art and an essay from critic David Cairns. The booklet winds up matters well.

Given the talent involved, I expected great things from Arsenic and Old Lace. However, Frank Capra depicts the wild story at such a sluggish pace that it drags and fails to engage. The Blu-ray comes with very good picture, adequate audio and a few bonus materials. Lace comes to life at times but never quite clicks.

Viewer Film Ratings: 2.3333 Stars Number of Votes: 3
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