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 a couple of elderly ladies who aren’t nearly as sweet as they appear.
Despite having written several books condemning the institution of marriage, drama critic Mortimer Brewster (Cry Grant) secretly weds Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane), the girl who lives next door to his Aunts Abby (Josephine Hull) and Martha (Jean Adair). While giving his aunts the good news, Mortimer makes a startling discovery in the form of a dead body hidden inside their window seat. Adding to the confusion is the fact that his Aunts already know about the deceased, mostly 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 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 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 lines at a fever pitch as he tries to make sense of all that’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 finds himself gagged and tied to a chair, yet even here Grant manages to make us chuckle with his exasperated facial expressions). As for the rest of the brood, they’re quite a collection of characters. John Alexander gets his share of laughs as Teddy, the brother who’s 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 whenever he blows his bugle in the middle of the night (which usually brings the police running). 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’ve 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 to the great beyond, then have Teddy dig a grave in the basement (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 a new face (many comment that he looks like Boris Karloff, something of an in-joke seeing as, in the stage production, the 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 men he’s killed (when he discovers his Aunts murdered 12 men, Jonathan 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”. But as 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 enjoy being around.
Jonathan’s behavior aside, Arsenic and Old Lace is a riot, a comedy full of charm and wit that, like a fine wine or a classic car, only gets better with age.