Video Review: Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
by Karl Bowman

In this day and age, director Frank Capra is best known for his enduring Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life, but he was the Steven Spielberg of the 1930’s and 40’s, producing a string of box office hits that inspired the masses.  After the groundbreaking screwball comedy, It Happened One Night, and the haunting adventure, Lost Horizon, came Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can’t Take It with You, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Meet John Doe.  Ever unafraid to explore the depths of goodness while uplifting his audiences, Capra’s films earned the label “Capra-corn,” but America loved him for it.  Somewhere amongst his more socially-minded classics is a much crazier, but fantastic, Halloween movie:  Arsenic and Old Lace.  

Famed theatrical critic, Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant), is an avowed New York bachelor. After writing several diatribes against marriage, he has met the girl of his dreams and is engaged to be married.  When he goes to break the happy news to his family, he learns that his elderly aunts (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair) have been poisoning lonely old men with elderberry wine. Before Mortimer can solve this crisis, his shady, long-lost brother, Jonathan (Raymond Massey), determines to use his aunts’ old mansion as a base of operations for his evil deeds.  Mortimer is forced to deal with all the skeletons in his family closet before he can embark on his honeymoon.

Joseph Kesselring’s original stageplay is a hilarious farce from beginning to end.  In translating the tale to celluloid, screenwriters Julius and Philip Epstein successfully set up the madcap tone with a title card: “This is a Halloween tale of Brooklyn, where anything can happen– and it usually does.”  The movie cuts to a brawl at Ebbets Field between the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers.  Meanwhile, back in the “United States proper,” Mortimer Brewster tries to apply for a marriage license without revealing his identity.  The film then establishes the old Brewster mansion in Brooklyn (adjacent to a creepy cemetery) and another title card warns the audience: “From here in you’re on your own.”  

Josephine Hull and Jean Adair as the batty old aunts and John Alexander as Mortimer’s eccentric brother, Theodore, reprise the roles they perfected on Broadway in this film version. Hull and Adair are hilarious as “two of the dearest, sweetest, kindest old ladies that ever walked the earth.”  This conceit is what makes their wicked habit all the more insane.  Mortimer tries to explain the seriousness of their situation: “It’s not only against the law.  It’s wrong!”  But they are convinced that they are not harming anyone.  On the contrary, they are helping miserable men find peace–just in the next life.

Theodore Brewster is a more verifiable crackpot, insisting that he is Teddy Roosevelt and sporadically charging up the stairs as if he were attacking San Juan Hill.  But the farce doesn’t stop there.  The aunts perform Christian burials for their charity cases in the basement and the way they enlist Teddy’s help is by telling him that instead of graves, he is actually digging locks for the Panama Canal.  The dead men he buries are unlucky “victims of yellow fever!”

Agitating this dangerous mix is Jonathan Brewster –another live wire.  After many long years engaged in faraway crimes, the sinister killer drops in on his aunts to dispose of a body in the trunk of his car.  He is played by Raymond Massey, but looks remarkably like Boris Karloff, the famous actor who portrayed Frankenstein and originated the role of Jonathan on stage. Apparently Karloff wasn’t released to do the film and Capra and his screenwriters turn this fact into a big inside joke.  Jonathan has had several plastic surgeries to escape the law and everyone who sees him remarks that he looks just like Boris Karloff.  This always makes Jonathan really, really mad.  Peter Lorre, another superb character actor, plays Jonathan’s mousy traveling companion and plastic surgeon, Doctor Einstein.

If these reasons aren’t enough to inspire you, watch the movie for Cary Grant.  He has played many comic roles, but in Arsenic and Old Lace he pulls out all the stops.  His asides, double takes, pratfalls, and facial contortions are way over the top, but you won’t be able to look away. Of all the luminaries in the Hollywood firmament, Grant may be the quintessential “star.” Whether playing serious drama or madcap farce, his debonair looks, confidence, and endless charisma holds audiences captive.  

One humorous scene has Mortimer attempting to explain to his sweetheart (Priscilla Lane) the truth about his family:

Mortimer: Darling, I love you so much I can’t go through with our marriage.

Elaine: (drawing back) Have you suddenly gone crazy?

Mortimer: No, no, I don’t think so. It’s only a matter of time. Look, look darling. You wouldn’t want to have children with three heads, would you? I mean, you wouldn’t want to set up housekeeping in a padded cell. Oh, it would be bad.

Elaine: What are you talking about?

Mortimer: Well, I don’t quite know, Elaine. Look, I probably should have told you this before, but you see, well, Insanity runs in my family. It practically gallops.

With Arsenic and Old Lace, Frank Capra takes us on a silly romp through the darker side of humanity.  If you’re in the mood to escape the world for a few moments of pure entertainment, this is the movie for you.



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