Awhile back, reading Jane Mayer’s excellent non-fiction book of the U.S. reaction to 9/11, The Dark Side, it inspired a need to wax on two of my favorite films by an Italian-born American film director, producer and writer. Darkness easily seductive in a number of ways.
The two films in question lay on either side of a calamitous chasm for one of the revered filmmakers of the 40s, Frank Capra.
Ironically, they were released within two years of each other. At first glance, they are quite disparate. Still, each share a couple similar traits, beyond their great direction, cast and notable screenplay. It’s my belief central shadowy elements drive, as well as haunt, both Arsenic and Old Lace and It’s a Wonderful Life.
The former released in the 1944 though Arsenic and Old Lace was initially filmed in 1941. Right before Capra went to work making movies for the WWII War Department. For family movie night on a final weekend in November a few years ago, my wife suggested this particular movie because she didn’t want to get into any Christmas movie, which our kids were clamoring for, before December arrived.
My family’s reaction to this comedic darling caused the itch this piece intends to scratch.
Adapted from the Joseph Kesselring stage play, Arsenic and Old Lace is a black comedy that has well stood the test of time. The film adaptation starred a young Cary Grant performing some of the best double-takes in cinema history1, in my opinion. The nephew to a jolly pair of kindly old aunts who just so happen to have a lethal calling, and who’ve kept a shadowy secret from most. Especially their dearest relation.
As Mortimer Brewster, Cary’s character is forced one Halloween in Brooklyn to confront the rampant insanity of his relatives. Seemingly peaking on this one autumn night. All of them complicit, even renowned, in the way of murder. Here and abroad. It remains one creepy original story taken to a comedic and entertaining extreme. Coinciding on Mortimer’s wedding day also serves as a surprising counterpoint.
The offbeat plot so darkly sharp-witted, the character dialogue among the best there is as the lead’s description of his familial plight portends:
“Look I probably should have told you this before but you see… well… insanity runs in my family… It practically gallops.”
For such a funny film, Frank Capra framed a good amount of Arsenic and Old Lace in shadow, care of Sol Polito‘s stellar black & white camera work, which is used to imply the spectre of death close by.
When our comedic hero is captured by his psychotic brother, played with villainous glee by Raymond Massey (with nervous henchman Peter Lorre assisting), the director didn’t soft-pedal his peril or the scene’s starkness. The lack of light in this sequence in the film is key. Made a conscious impression on me when I first saw this on TV as a young teen when a bound Mortimer is given a verbal prelude of his slow, torturous demise by his sibling.
It was at this point my then nine-year old daughter chirped, “This is supposed to be a comedy?!?” Couldn’t help but smile as I’d the same reaction decades ago. To that point, no other film sequence, save for Bela Lugosi’s grisly promise to the bound Boris Karloff2 at the climatic point in The Black Cat (1934), ever disturbed me as much. Still, it’s the mix of hilarity and potential painful death that somehow made this movie so diverting. A pitch-black one, for sure.
The comedy highs balanced beautifully by their negative…the analog threat of tragedy.
Which segues us to the latter film. Not only one for the ages, but an annual yuletide celebration for many. Interestingly over the weekend, my son mentioned wanting to see it again. Thinking his first and only time with it as a pre-teen, he didn’t appreciate it. So we’ve scheduled the 1946 It’s a Wonderful Life once more. Simply Frank Capra’s finest film3. Even it’s headliner, James Stewart, admitted that it’s his, too, years later.
For the elation audiences reach by the film’s end, it’s essentially a noirish-themed movie4. Stewart’s George Bailey character is by accounts a good man wronged. Life in all her wisdom’s laid him low, paraphrasing Michael Franks. Kept in place by circumstances beyond his control. The Bedford Falls native’s boyhood dreams of travel and adventure seemingly crushed by a life of familial obligation.
Having lived in his own world of self-sacrifice toward family, and the small close-knit community around him, seemingly buying George Bailey nothing.
“You’ve been given a great gift, George. A chance to see what the world would be like without you.”
The quote is It’s a Wonderful Life in a nutshell. Its story-line one that touches, at times wrenchingly, life’s inequities and what-if’s. And though it has many moments of sheer joy within the film, Frank Capra counterbalanced it with some pretty gloomy situations. Most of which nightmarish in nature, and recognizable by all who sit and watch it.
But again, like Arsenic and Old Lace, it’s the film’s dark undertone that brought out its best parts. No doubt by this time, after the war, Capra’s outlook as a filmmaker, as someone who seen the carnage such things bring about firsthand, had shifted somewhat. It’s a Wonderful Life bestowed a heavenly sense through its use of a little Hell. In other words, you’re not going to have a silver lining without that dark cloud to show it off.
The only film in history to originate from a greetings card. ~ IMDB
Ask yourself this, “Would Ebenezer Scrooge’s heart have been opened without being shown the spectres of Want and Ignorance?” I say no. He wouldn’t have. I say It’s a Wonderful Life has more substance than many give it credit. Why it stands up to repeated viewings so well. Capra’s adaptation of Philip Van Doren Stern story more than the sum of its parts, with a meaning that changes over time. Or its umpteenth showing.
Compared to those screening it for the first time, or in their youth, to those of a certain (ahem) age and you’ll have undoubtably a very different take.
Little wonder N.Y. Times film critic A.O. Scott showcased it in his Critics Picks awhile aback (see it here). Frank Capra was a gifted filmmaker who knew how to use the qualities of light and dark to make his movies register that much more. Darkness playing a distinct part in two of his most influential and warmly funny movies. Intriguingly, if you remove Capra’s war-time films, these commercial works bracket World War II5.
That conflict’s notable affect upon the director is most obvious when it comes to the latter film. Yet, imagine how different would Arsenic and Old Lace have developed had it been taken on by Frank Capra only after the war ended? Or if It’s a Wonderful Life had gone before the camera prior to that? How much darker, or lighter, would each have been then? I for one wouldn’t change a thing, though it’s food for thought.
Lastly, did you spot the other theme that runs through both films? It’s family, which for many of us is its own heaven and hell, darkness and light, right there. 😉
- Cary Grant considered his acting in this film to be horribly over the top and often called it his least favorite of all his movies. ~ IMDB ↩
- Boris Karloff played the monstrous Jonathan Brewster on stage. Raymond Massey’s film character, with eerie-looking screen makeup resembled Karloff, which was a running gag throughout the picture. Karloff was still appearing in the Broadway play during the film’s production so he was unable to do the picture. ↩
- This was the first and last time that Frank Capra produced, financed, directed and co-wrote one of his films. ↩
- The term film noir, French for “black film”. ↩
- Initially Capra envisioned Cary Grant for the role, Lionel Barrymore eventually convinced James Stewart to take on George Bailey, despite his misgivings it too soon after his stint in World War II. ↩