Thursday, September 18, 2014

#1,494. Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

Directed By: Frank Capra

Starring: Cary Grant, Priscilla Lane, Raymond Massey

Tag line: "She's just discovered his favorite aunts have poisoned their 13th gentleman friend !"

Trivia: Capra actually filmed the movie in 1941 because of star Cary Grant's availability, but it was not released until 1944, after the original stage version had finished its run on Broadway

Arsenic and Old Lace, Frank Capra’s 1944 dark comedy, introduces us to, among others, a pair of elderly sisters who aren’t nearly as sweet as they appear.

Despite having written several books condemning the institution of marriage, drama critic Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) secretly weds Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane), the girl who lives next door to his Aunts Abby (Josephine Hull) and Martha (Jean Adair). 

While delivering the good news to his aunts, Mortimer makes a startling discovery: there's a dead body hidden inside a window seat in their house! Adding to the confusion is the fact that Abby and Martha already know about the deceased... because they’re the ones who put him there! To Mortimer’s horror, Aunts Abby and Martha are serial killers, murdering elderly men who respond to a classified ad they've placed in the paper. 

Toss into the mix Mortimer’s brother, Teddy (John Alexander), who thinks he’s Theodore Roosevelt, and his other brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey), a dangerous lunatic who claims to have killed a few people himself, and you have a time bomb just waiting to explode.

The Brewsters sure are a crazy bunch, and Capra and company do a fine job bringing their insanity to the big screen (the story is based on a 1939 stage play written by Joseph Kesselring). Cary Grant is in his element as Mortimer, the most "sensible" of the Brewsters, rattling off his lines at a fever pitch as he tries to make sense of what’s going on around him. Along with his penchant for snappy dialogue, Grant also proves himself a master of physical comedy, contorting his face and gesturing wildly with each new development. Late in the film, Mortimer is gagged and tied to a chair, yet even here Grant manages to make us chuckle with his facial expressions. 

As for the rest of the Brewster brood, they’re quite a collection of characters. John Alexander generates some laughs as Teddy, the brother who is convinced he’s Theodore Roosevelt. Shouting “Charge!” whenever he runs up the stairs (as if he was storming San Juan Hill), Teddy also annoys the neighbors when he blows his bugle in the middle of the night (which usually brings the police around). 

At first glance, Mortimer’s two aunts, Abby and Martha, are kindly old gals, serving tea to the local minister (Grant Mitchell) and donating toys for the area’s underprivileged children. Their pleasant nature never wavers, not even when discussing the 12 murders they’ve committed. As far as Abby and Martha are concerned, there’s no reason to be ashamed of what they have done. All of their victims were old and alone, with no family to look after them. Using a blend of poisons (“I take one teaspoon full of arsenic, then add half a teaspoon full of strychnine, and then just a pinch of cyanide”, Martha tells a befuddled Mortimer), they send the gentlemen off to the great beyond, then have Teddy dig a grave in the basement (by convincing him he’s actually working on the Panama Canal) and hold a service to lay the deceased to rest.

In spite of their sometimes alarming behavior, Teddy and the two aunts come across as likable characters, and we laugh at their hijinks. The same cannot be said for Jonathan, Mortimer’s long lost brother who abruptly returns home with both a new face (many comment that he now looks like Boris Karloff, something of an in-joke seeing as, in the stage production, this character was actually played by Karloff) and a nervous companion, Dr. Einstein, superbly portrayed by the great Peter Lorre. An obvious psychotic, Jonathan talks of the people he’s killed. When he discovers his Aunts have murdered 12 men, Jonathan proudly fires back that he’s taken out 13. “You can’t count the one in South Bend”, Dr. Einstein says to Jonathan, “He died of pneumonia”, to which Jonathan proudly points out, “He wouldn't have died of pneumonia if I hadn't shot him!”. With his icy demeanor and determined gaze, Massey brings a real menace to the role of Jonathan, making him the lone Brewster we don’t like being around.

Jonathan’s behavior aside, Arsenic and Old Lace is a laugh-riot, a comedy full of charm and wit that, like a fine wine or a classic car, only gets better with age.


Unknown said...

A lot of fun, one of my favourite films and a wonderful example of an unusual genre, the horror-comedy, quite popular in the 1940s with films such as Bob Hope's "The Ghostbreakers", Olsen and Johnson's "Ghost Catchers" and "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein". Of course, the horror-comedy has had several comebacks over the years, including "Ghostbusters" and more recently the Simon Pegg & Nick Frost films and even "This is the End", but it's unlikely the genre will ever be as big as it was in the 40's.

A great pick (and a great pic), Dave!

Kandy Kay Scaramuzzo said...

Love this movie.