Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

“This is developing into a very bad habit!”

Arsenic and Old Lace Poster

Synopsis:
On a windy Halloween night in Brooklyn, newly married drama critic Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) visits his kind spinster aunts (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair), only to discover that they’ve gone batty and are killing off elderly gentlemen. While he’s deciding what to do about the twelve bodies buried in the basement, Brewster’s psychotic brother (Raymond Massey) shows up with an accomplice (Peter Lorre) and a corpse of his own.

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Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary’s response to this “super screwy black comedy” — directed by Frank Capra from an adaptation of Joseph Kesselring’s hit Broadway play — is lackluster at best. He lambastes Grant’s performance — calling him “out of control” and “truly annoying” — and, rather than citing any of the film’s strengths, simply notes that the “worst part [is how] so much humor comes from characters being frustrated when trying to get information or give information.” What Peary’s review neglects to mention, however, is how uniformly funny and zany Arsenic is, with many wonderfully comedic performances, countless memorable lines, and an endless series of madcap situations.

While this is perhaps Frank Capra’s least “Capra-esque” film, he does a fine job opening up the play for the big screen, making good use of the windy environs surrounding the Brewster house, and applying dramatic cinematography to great effect. He directs a powerhouse cast, with Hull and Adair especially notable; their interactions together (notice their smiles!) are truly priceless. The supporting players do a fine job as well: I love the interactions between Massey and Lorre (especially while arguing over how many bodies Massey has killed), and the good-natured oblivion of John Alexander (playing Grant’s insane uncle, who believes he’s Teddy Roosevelt). Finally, while many reviewers (including Peary) have argued that Grant overplays his part (and he apparently hated his own performance here), he serves as a suitable foil for the craziness surrounding him; indeed, it’s hard to imagine Arsenic and Old Lace without him.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Josephine Hull and Jean Adair as the kind yet murderous maiden aunts
    Arsenic Old Lace Hull Adair
  • Raymond Massey as Jonathan Brewster, a.k.a. “Boris Karloff”
  • Peter Lorre as Jonathan’s accomplice, “Dr. Einstein”
  • Jack Carson as aspiring playwright Officer O’Hara
  • Priscilla Lane as Mortimer’s frustrated new wife
  • John Alexander as “Teddy Roosevelt”, charging up the stairs with bugle in hand
  • The director of Happydale Sanitorium (C. Everett Horton) informing Grant that they unfortunately already “have too many Roosevelts”
  • Effective use of shadows and atmospheric sets

Must See?
Yes. Arsenic and Old Lace remains a classic black comedy, and shouldn’t be missed.

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One Response to “Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)”

  1. Definitely not a must.

    I don’t recall liking it the first time I saw it years ago – and seeing it again hasn’t changed my opinion.

    There’s a preciousness that permeates ‘AAOL’. Once the novelty of the conceit wears off (very early on), it’s a long, repetitive haul to the end.

    It’s difficult to find strengths here when the whole thing is so one-note. But Massey manages a nuanced performance (he pretty much steals the pic) and, surprisingly, there is one memorable scene: Grant is describing a scene from a bad play to Lorre – about how someone is in danger – unaware that what he’s describing is being mirrored behind him by Massey. (Special mention does go to Massey and Lorre’s body count breakdown.)

    Grant’s forced performance is, unfortunately, irritating; it’s an act of desperation (for the wrong reason).

    ‘AAOL’ doesn’t seem to have the smallest amount of Capra flavor – it seems somewhat similar to his ‘You Can’t Take It With You’. I recall the distinction of “least Capra-esque” probably falling to ‘The Bitter Tea of General Yen’ – my personal Capra fave. I know he’s a major American director but Capra isn’t near the top of my list – I tend to be selective about which of his films are must-sees.

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