One has only to browse through comedies on Netflix with Cary Grant to see how overused is the term “screwball comedy.” (It seems that there, every film must fit into at least three genres.) While a legitimate sub-genre in which many said Grant comedies comfortably fit, a film like Arsenic and Old Lace is one of many that is more than just screwball, though it may contain some of its elements. Genres aside, though, every film deserves the chance to be examined beyond how it fits into larger categories. This one begins with a sequence in Ebbets Field in Brooklyn during a Dodgers game. The game quickly erupts into a fistfight between players and umpires, the sort of scene that is far too outrageous to happen with any kind of regularity in normal life, but which is presented in the film as another day in the life in Brooklyn (read: America). The film cuts to the other side of the river to one of the most serene little neighborhoods in the country where, we are told, two of the sweetest souls ever to grace the earth live.
This introduction sets the film up for an ironic correlation between both sides of the river. We are to believe at the outset that one side features daily chaos and the other is a world of peaceful goodwill. The fact that the latter world is in fact a strange perversion of peaceful goodwill places the whole status of Brooklyn and the Americana that it represents in a questionable state. Why “Americana”? The use of baseball as a starting point for the film places the film in the realm of national identity, baseball having already been determined the “national pastime” of the United States. The game’s location is an urban context, across the river from a domestic one where the film’s main narrative takes place. The urban in all of its newness makes an appearance, then the domestic and its echoes of the historical past. Frank Capra, the film’s director, was an outspoken patriot and critic of the United States. His wartime propaganda films superficially reflect extreme, blind patriotism; but popular films like It’s A Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington are as quick to critique the American status quo as they are to embrace them. In Arsenic and Old Lace, Capra appears simultaneously to celebrate and condemn the American condition in the early 1940s. His use of Gothic imagery and themes, so uncommonly associated with comedy in this period of American film, turn conventional audience expectations on their heads.
The setting of the house in the film is a precursor to the Bates house in Psycho nearly twenty years later. Most of the cinematic action in the house is seen on the main floor, representative of the ego, the social self. Upstairs is the realm of the superego, the ideal (for Bates, where he cares for his mother as a loving son; for Teddy, where he is President Theodore Roosevelt), and the basement is the realm of the id, the ugly other repressed within (for Bates, where he is his mother; for the ladies in Arsenic where they bury a dozen bodies of men they have “mercifully” killed). For as Freudian as this architecture is, it is unsurprising that one of the most interesting takes on Arsenic and Old Lace has been a distinctly Freudian reading on the use of the Gothic and homosexuality in the film: “A Secret Proclamation: Queering the Gothic Parody of Arsenic and Old Lace,” Jason Haslam in Gothic Studies, Nov. 1, 2005.
Looking carefully at a number of the changes Capra made to the source material of the film – the play of the same name – Haslam observes a homoerotic subtext in the film that translates into the film, both through and despite the changes. First, the character of Mortimer (Cary Grant) makes an even more desperate display of heterosexual desire in the film than he does in the play, even as the story begins with him making an about-face following years of disavowing the institution of marriage to the point of writing books praising the virtues of bachelorhood. The shift Mortimer makes is curious and causes one to wonder just what would have prompted it. A number of hints at homosexuality in other characters, Haslam argues, reveals Mortimer’s quick engagement and subsequent marriage as a flee toward the symbolic order in response to various challenges to that order in the lives of those around him. Haslam wisely avoids any assumptions about the two aunts and focuses more heavily on Jonathan (Mortimer’s long-lost, evil brother) and his partner-in-crime Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre). The casting of Lorre in the role of Einstein would already sound the bell to the film’s original audience of a homosexual deviant, having made such a splash with a character of that nature in The Maltese Falcon. Further, though Haslam doesn’t mention it, one of Lorre’s most famous roles prior to his entrance into Hollywood was in Fritz Lang’s M, in which he played a child molester; certainly someone associated with sexual deviance. Haslam points out that in this era of the Hays Production Code, audiences were more adept at discerning subtextual meanings that weren’t permitted to be overtly stated.
Further, Haslam makes a rather convincing argument for the association of homosexuality with the fact that Jonathan is constantly being told he looks like Boris Karloff. Karloff, famous for playing Frankenstein’s monster in the Frankenstein series, actually played the role of Jonathan in the stage play and would have played him in Capra’s film had he not been an investor in the play and thus unable to withdraw from production to star in the film. Karloff has always been associated with Frankenstein’s monster and all things horrific, and Dr. Einstein’s admission that he surgically altered Jonathan to resemble Karloff following a drunken viewing of a film (presumably Frankenstein) reveals Einstein’s affinity for the film and the character. Haslam offers evidence that Mary Shelley’s story, so often adapted, contains numerous homosexual elements, which are being exploited for their subtextual association in Arsenic and Old Lace. The premise of Frankenstein is a violation of the symbolic order, bringing back to life what once was dead. In the same way, homosexuality is considered contrary to heteronormativity, a position that would not only have been taken for granted by the film’s audience but which, arguably, the film encourages in most of its narrative. Further still, the murders that the aunts commit are obvious violations of the symbolic order, as is Mortimer’s earlier attempt to live life outside of the bounds of marriage. Mortimer’s eventual flight to a woman and the institution of marriage indicate his attempt to rid himself of the violations to the order being committed by his family and not only into marriage with a woman, but with a woman who is the daughter of a minister, a traditional keeper of the symbolic, heteronormative order.
Interestingly, Haslam points out that a key scene toward the film’s end in fact challenges the heteronormative order by positioning the viewer with the character of Dr. Einstein more than with anyone else; even Mortimer. As Mortimer continually puts off his consummation with Elaine (certainly showing his true, non-normative colors), he becomes more and more defined by the same kind of lack that defines his brother Teddy. Thinking his is Theodore Roosevelt, Teddy repeatedly runs up the stairs in the film yelling, “Chaaaaaaaarge!!!” and wielding an invisible sword. The non-sword he unsheathes and holds before him connotes his lack of a phallus, and so when Mortimer is driven to the point of performing the same act, he finally associates himself with the lack of both power and sense of identity that define Teddy. Mortimer’s constant efforts to put Teddy, Jonathan, and his two aunts in the care of Happy Dale Sanitarium exemplify his desire to put things back into their right place, to highlight boundaries that are being repeatedly and horrifically violated. Toward the film’s end, Einstein and Jonathan have a conversation in which Jonathan is seen only in his profile shadow on the wall. In so doing, the film identifies the viewer with the face of Einstein, fearful of Jonathan’s sadomasochistic desires for Einstein, Mortimer, and a host of others. Jonathan’s deviance is of a different kind and degree as Einstein’s, and so when the film moves toward its conclusion and Einstein is comedically set free despite having been described by a police officer, the audience is positioned mentally and emotionally with the exhausted Einstein. What is fascinating about this identification is that it ends up “queering” viewer engagement with Einstein rather than with Mortimer, who is heteronormalized against the grain of the film’s setting and other main characters. Mortimer continues to force the symbolic order by kissing Elaine in order to keep her from telling the police about the bodies she has discovered in the basement. Mortimer’s heterosexual desire has never been more apparent than it is in this scene, and it is a desire that serves ends rather than simply satisfying true love. Having been revealed to be unrelated by blood to all the deviants in his “family,” Mortimer wants nothing more than finally to consummate his marriage and escape from the suburban space of perversion.
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Regarding Einstein’s botched surgery on Jonathan–remember the Latin saying “In vino, veritas.” (In wine, there is truth.) Jonathan is a sociopath. It’s not that he is or is not homosexual, it’s that he derives pleasure from inflicting pain on others. While under the influence, Einstein surgically altered Jonathan’s face to resemble that of Frankenstein’s monster. Could it be because Jonathan IS a monster, and the truth is made apparent through Einstein?
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