Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

Film Title: Arsenic and Old Laceaaol

Year: 1944

Studio: Warner Brothers

Silent or Talkie: Talkie

Genre: Comedy

Starring:

  • Cary Grant
  • Priscilla Lane
  • Raymond Massey
  • Peter Lorre
  • Josephine Hull
  • Jean Adair

Review

Typically, the day that a man is married is a carefree day. He celebrates life with his new bride and everything looks fantastic. That is, unless you happen to be Mortimer Brewster. In 1944, a film emerged that danced along the borderline of marital bliss and family insanity. Assembling a cast that included Cary Grant, Peter Lorre, Raymond Massey and Jack Carson, director Frank Capra set a classic film into motion. He presented us with a dose of Arsenic…and Old Lace.

Cary Grant is Mortimer Brewster, a dramatic critic who marries and decides to visit his aunts Abby and Martha (played by Josephine Hull and Jean Adair) before taking a honeymoon. This is no ordinary family visit. Brewster’s two innocent looking aunts have a secret, they’ve been killing different men and burying them in the cellar. They don’t, however, find anything wrong with it! They believe they’re doing the men a “service” by putting them out of their misery. Naturally, they decide who’s miserable and who isn’t. As if this isn’t enough to drive a man out of his wits, Brewster’s delusional brother lives at the house as well. Uncle “Teddy” (played by John Alexander) is convinced that he is actually President Theodore Roosevelt, and belts out a thunderous “chhhaaarrrgggeeeee!!!!!” every time he runs up the living room stairs. Brewster decides that his special brother needs to be put away, somewhere that will keep him from interacting with ordinary society. While trying to maintain his own sanity, Brewster juggles back and forth between concealing his aunts’ dirty deeds and dealing with Uncle Teddy. Little does he know that his troubles will soon escalate. Brewster has another brother, Jonathan (played by Raymond Massey), that no one has seen in quite some time. Jonathan shows up at the aunts’ house with his nervous sidekick Dr. Einstein (played by Peter Lorre). Jonathan is a career criminal, and has actually bumped off a few people of his own! He uses Dr. Einstein’s services to change his facial appearance, to go undetected among the policeman looking for him. The trouble, however, is that Jonathan’s latest “face” strongly resembles Boris Karloff. With a famous look, it will not be easy to blend in, and he knows it. Mortimer is dead center in this circus of insanity. He and his brother Jonathan do not seem to like each other; nevertheless, Jonathan vows to carry out his latest crime regardless of Mortimer’s attempt to stop him. Meanwhile, the aunts have not changed their minds about the mercy killings, and actually seem to enjoy it. Neighborhood policeman Patrick O’Hara (played by Jack Carson) is completely aloof. He drops in to visit a few times, and despite the obvious mayhem going on, he is more concerned with pitching his own writing ideas to Mortimer for criticism. Brewster now finds himself among three homocidal lunatics, a deranged Teddy Roosevelt wannabe, a shaky mad scientist of a doctor and an oblivious, bumbling idiot cop. All he wanted to do was drop in to say hello!

Arsenic and Old Lace has found its way into the annals of film history. From its synopsis alone, one might assume that they are about to witness a suspense thriller, or even a horror movie. To the contrary, its sheer absurdity is what has made it a comedy classic. Cary Grant is the “every man” in this film. He has a playboy mentality, and has no plans on settling down until he finds a woman who changes his mind. He has a suave cool about him. To the outside world, he is almost unable to shake or frighten. Classic Hollywood was full of that rugged tough-as-nails demeanor. The idea that two little old ladies could jostle one of these “men of steel” is nothing short of ridiculous. Yet, we see it happen very quickly. Grant has top billing but the co-stars are what really made this film take off. Peter Lorre, a career character actor, provided the uncertainty needed to keep us wondering. He starts out as a loyal counterpart to Raymond Massey’s character. As the movie progresses, we start to wonder if Lorre will change sides, or simply just run away. His paranoia is too much for him to handle and his whole existence is a look over his own shoulder. Jack Carson is another fantastic ingredient. He seems to play characters that never get what they want. Here, he dreams of writing but can’t find someone to take his dreams seriously. He is more of a laughing stock than he is a visionary. His place in life as a policeman has been set, though it’s obvious that law enforcement takes a backseat to his passion. A year later in Mildred Pierce, he plays Wally Fay, a guy who bends over backwards for Joan Crawford’s character, and is always rejected by her. This is a personality that Carson perfected, a perpetual 2nd place, a back burner man. Raymond Massey as Grant’s psychotic brother Jonathan is spectacular. He plays one of those rare characters that leave the viewer on their seat’s edge. Everything triggers his rage, and nothing is taken lightly. He is an egomaniac with self-confidence issues. This is evident when he argues that he has more murders to his credit than his aunts have. When Lorre disagrees with him, he becomes desperate to prove his numbers.

On Video

Arsenic and Old Lace was released on DVD in 2000 by Turner Home Entertainment. There are no bonus features on the disc, but the video transfer is crisp and the audio is more than adequate. Overall this is a beautiful presentation that can be enjoyed for years to come.

Conclusion

Frank Capra made this film in 1941, but it wasn’t released until 1944. The performances were over the top, most likely to compensate for the country’s depression during World War II. It is a dark comedy best suited for a rainy night with the smell of popcorn floating around the room. With Grant, Lorre, Massey and Carson on board, not much can go wrong. This movie is proof that people are not always how they appear. For all fans of true classic film, this one gets the green light, the stamp of approval and the go ahead!

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