Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

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Released 2-May-2001

Cover Art

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Comedy Listing-Cast & Crew
Theatrical Trailer-1.33:1, not 16x9, Dolby Digital 1.0 (2:44)
Rating Rated PG
Year Of Production 1944
Running Time 113:13
RSDL / Flipper No/No Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 2,4 Directed By Frank Capra
Studio
Distributor

Warner Home Video
Starring Cary Grant
Raymond Massey
Jack Carson
Peter Lorre
Priscilla Lane
Edward Everett Horton
James Gleason
Josephine Hull
Jean Adair
John Alexander
Case Amaray-Transparent
RPI $36.95 Music Max Steiner


Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame Full Frame English Dolby Digital 1.0 (192Kb/s)
Italian Dolby Digital 1.0 (192Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio None
16x9 Enhancement No
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.33:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English
French
Italian
Dutch
Arabic
Spanish
Portuguese
German
Romanian
Bulgarian
English for the Hearing Impaired
Italian for the Hearing Impaired
Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

    One of the big differences between the range of DVDs available in Region 1 and the range available in Region 4 has been the comparative lack of back catalogue titles in Region 4. Now whilst in relative terms this is an arguable case, there is certainly no doubt that an extensive collection of back catalogue classics has not yet been built up in Region 4. The single biggest complaint I hear about Region 4 is funnily enough the lack of a decent back catalogue, and in broad terms it is my own complaint. Now by back catalogue I do not mean successions of B-grade flicks (or worse) from the 1980s and 1990s, but rather classics from the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Whilst there have been a few notable examples of Region 4 DVDs from these eras, it is a sad indictment of the state of Region 4 that there is a fairly extensive catalogue of the generally deplorable films of that noted non-actor Jean-Claude Van Damme, yet few if any films from the ilk of Laurence Olivier, Alec Guinness, Cary Grant and even Humphrey Bogart (perhaps the best represented of all the great actors from the pre-1970 era).

    2001 has thus far seen some redressing of the situation with the release of films such as Lawrence Of Arabia and The Sound Of Music, amongst others. Warner Home Video have now done the cause of back catalogue titles a great service through the release of a few true classics: Strangers On A Train, North By Northwest and Arsenic And Old Lace. In issuing the latter, we not only see another truly classic film but also the very belated appearance of Frank Capra on the Region 4 release sheets. It is of course profoundly disturbing that we have had to endure so many Jean-Claude Van Damme and even Dennis Rodman films before we get to see films of one of the true greats amongst directors. Currently ranked at Number 145 in the Top 250 films of all time on the Internet Movie Database, Arsenic And Old Lace is but one of the truly memorable films from the master. Hopefully, we will be seeing that string of gems in Region 4 before much longer, but for now we have his first film released after the hiatus of World War 2 which saw him making films for the War Department in the United States between 1939 and 1945. It should be noted that the film was actually made in 1941 but was not released until 1944 (after the play upon which it was based had ceased its run), so really predates the enforced hiatus. When one considers the string of gems prior to the war, it is interesting to speculate how many more we would have had should World War Two never have taken place.

    Even fifty-seven years on, this remains one of Frank Capra's best comedies. Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) is a dramatic critic and a confirmed bachelor, having written on the subject of marriage in the negative. So what exactly is he doing at a marriage license bureau with the attractive Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane)? Returning home after their marriage, Mortimer and his new bride have one hour to get packed and head off on their honeymoon to Niagara Falls (watch the film and you will understand what is so significant about the destination). There he breaks the news of his nuptials to his doting and dotty aunts Abby (Josephine Hull) and Martha (Jean Adair) and the celebrations are about to begin. Except for what he finds innocently stuffed into the window box seat! Things start to unravel in a most absurd manner as Mortimer tries to find a solution that will deflect suspicion away from his aunts and to his rather insane Uncle Teddy (John Alexander) who thinks he is President Teddy Roosevelt, and at the same time try and return some sanity to his own life! That might have been an easy enough task were it not for the sudden reappearance of his long-forgotten brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey) with his personal plastic surgeon Dr Einstein (Peter Lorre).

    Arsenic And Old Lace is a beautifully-handled story that is highlighted by the wonderful characterizations from what is an excellent cast. Sure Cary Grant is a little over-the-top in his facial expressions but that only adds to the absurdity of the comedy at times. He produces a great characterization of a normal man thrown into increasingly absurd situations in order to protect his favourite aunts. Jean Adair and Josephine Hull are absolutely terrific as the two dotty aunts (reprising their Broadway roles in the play), a highly amusing pair that have these characters down to an absolute T. The high point of their performances are the little subtle things, like the the little jumpy run they have, superbly indicative of something a little bit different from what they seem. Raymond Massey has a fair grasp of the other slightly insane member of the family and adds enormously to the absurdity, but to be honest is outshone by the brilliant Peter Lorre as his sidekick of sorts. Whilst he plays a role that is pretty familiar to him, since this is the sort of role that he was often asked to play, he never fails to add a sufficiently different veneer to his performance every time. Basically he seemed incapable of producing a bad performance. The role of Uncle Teddy required a really whacky portrayal and that is precisely what John Alexander provided. Superbly directed by Frank Capra, there is barely any fault in the composition of any scene in the film.

    All-in-all this is a superb film and a terrific testimonial to the art of Frank Capra. There is really little to complain about here and some of the absurd comedy is as good as you are ever going to see - and a demonstration of an art that really has to a large extent disappeared. Whilst by no means the best film he ever made, it is certainly one of the best half dozen he made and for any genuine fan of film is an essential addition to the collection. Thankfully, Warners have given it the sort of video treatment that it deserves.

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Transfer Quality

Video

    Yes, it is fifty-seven years old, but it wears the years lightly. Sure, it is not the best black-and-white transfer I have seen but there really is not much wrong with it and is probably as good as the film has looked in years.

    Since it predates general widescreen use by a number of years, the transfer is presented in a Full Frame format that closely approximates the 1.37:1 Academy ratio in which the film was originally presented. Obviously it is not 16x9 enhanced.

    Whilst I could imagine a better black and white transfer, I seriously doubt that I will see it that often or that soon. This would rank amongst the better ones I have seen, especially for a film of its age, and you really cannot expect much better than that. Apart from a couple of lapses, some of which are the usual soft focus shots of the female lead, this is about as sharp and detailed a transfer as I could desire. There is certainly nothing here that tends to be oversharp and the result is an eminently watchable transfer. There are a few minor quibbles with the shadow detail at times, most notably the scene shot in the house without lighting other than light seeping in from other rooms, but this is not entirely unexpected in a film of this age and overall I really have no serious complaints here. The general quality of the detail is very good. The transfer is generally quite clear but like many a film of this age demonstrates just the odd hint of grain in the backgrounds that perhaps could have been reduced by using a dual layer DVD. There is just the odd hint of noise in some of the larger backgrounds in the transfer, but again nothing that I find too objectionable.

    The black and white tones here are very good indeed, with a very nice depth to the blacks in particular. Whilst it would have been too much to expect greater white tones, the overall colour is distinctive and has a lovely balance across the scales, without ever descending really into those murky grey tones that I hate. In its own way it is quite a vibrant transfer. There is nothing in the way of diffuseness of the tones and no bleed is evident.

    There did not appear to be any MPEG artefacts in the transfer. There were a couple of instances of aliasing in the transfer, with the most notable being at 9:02, but that would be the extent of the film-to-video artefacts. For a film of its age this is a very clean transfer and film artefacts are hardly any impediment to the film at all.

Video Ratings Summary
Sharpness
Shadow Detail
Colour
Grain/Pixelization
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts
Overall

Audio

    There are two soundtracks on offer on the DVD, being an English Dolby Digital 1.0 soundtrack and an Italian Dolby Digital 1.0 soundtrack. Not willing to make the review session any more difficult, I stuck to listening to the English soundtrack only.

    The dialogue comes up very well in the soundtrack, clear and easy to understand. There did not appear to be any audio sync problems in the transfer.

    The original musical score comes from one of the true greats of the genre in Max Steiner. Whilst this is not one of the truly great soundtracks from the man, it is still an excellent score that does a great job of supporting the film. Probably not deserving of an isolated music score, but better than many a soundtrack from lesser men.

   There is really not much to say about the soundtrack. Obviously lacking anything in the way of surround and bass channel use, the whole soundtrack is very frontal as is expected. In this instance, it suits the film well as it is entirely dialogue-driven - and the dialogue does not require any distraction at all. Despite its years, there is nothing here that is a distraction in the way of hiss, crackles or other distortions. Nothing truly spectacular but definitely more than adequate for the task required here.

Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

    Well, the packaging indicates that there is nothing on the DVD, but in actuality there are a couple of things. Not much of a package I admit but then again the single layer DVD would not have allowed much more to be included in any case.

Menu

    Reasonably themed if nothing else.

Theatrical Trailer (2:44)

    This is almost a priceless gem in its own right and a terrific, albeit dated, piece of promotion for the film. Presented in the same Full Frame format as the feature with the same Dolby Digital 1.0 sound, this naturally is less pleasing to look at than the feature. It is a little darker and more prone to film artefacts, but probably better looking overall than expected.

Listing - Cast and Crew

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    As far as the available, reliable online reviews indicate, the Region 1 release contains nothing more than the film. Given that they too indicate a general excellence in the transfer, it would appear that Region 4 is the region of choice with the minimal extras we have to add to PAL formatting.

Summary

    Arsenic And Old Lace is a terrific film that despite the over-the-top performance from Cary Grant succeeds as a sublime piece of comedy. You will rarely see absurd comedy of this quality and I have absolutely no hesitation in recommending this as an essential inclusion in any representative collection of films of the last century. You will not see it looking better than here and there is no real complaint with any aspect of the DVD. Just buy it.

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Ian Morris (Biological imperfection run amok)
Wednesday, May 23, 2001
Review Equipment
DVDPioneer DV-515, using S-Video output
DisplaySony Trinitron Wega (80cm). Calibrated with Video Essentials. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Video Essentials.
AmplificationYamaha RXV-795
SpeakersEnergy Speakers: centre EXLC; left and right C-2; rears EXLR; and subwoofer ES-12XL

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