The Scoop: 1944 NR, directed by Frank Capra and starring Cary Grant, Raymond Massey, Peter Lorre, Josephine Hull, and Jean Adair.
Tagline: She Passed Out On Cary! No Wonder . . . She’s just discovered his favorite aunts have poisoned their 13th gentleman friend!
Summary Capsule: Cary Grant has a real long day dealing with his crazy family and some corpses. Wacky!
Eunice’s Rating: This is my costume. I’m a homicidal maniac- they look just like everyone else.
Eunice’s Review: Play critic Mortimer Brewster has just gotten married to the girl next door and they’re about to set off on their honeymoon. It’s all very sweet until he goes to tell the only family he really has left, the two aunts that raised him and his harmlessly crazy brother Teddy. That’s when Mortimer discovers a dead body in the window seat of his aunts’ dining room. The aunts tell him not to worry, it’s just one of their “gentlemen.” They rent out a room to old single men and then kill them with poisoned wine. There’s twelve more down in the cellar.
The day is further complicated when his other, and violently crazy, brother Jonathan shows up with accomplice/hostage Dr. Einstein in tow. After escaping from prison he went on a killing spree, stacking up his own thirteen bodies while on the lam.
I’m actually not a big fan of the “zany” “wacky” comedies in the ’40s like Fireball or The Philadelphia Story. Go ahead classic movie fans, break out your pitchforks and torches, but, for me, they are just way too silly. So I’ve always found it odd how much I love this movie. Revisiting my Top 10 Comedies list, Arsenic and Old Lace may not be as high as it was when I was younger, but out of the current list it has managed to be there the longest and will probably never fall off.
Based on a play, the story happens over the course of one day, Halloween, and mostly in one room. Mortimer runs around trying to figure out a way to save his aunts from going to jail but stop them from killing people, make sure Jonathan does go to jail to stop him from killing people, get Teddy somewhere where he’ll be safe and happy, and keep his girl from getting hurt. Cary Grant does a great job playing not just the only sane guy in the room, but the only one who can even see the insanity.
Peter Lorre as the drunk and nervous surgeon and escapee Dr. Einstein, someone who might have once been sane but has been driven mad by his time with Jonathan, is probably my favorite character. John Alexander plays Teddy, who is convinced he’s Theodore Roosevelt, that the house is different places in Roosevelt’s life, and that the bodies he keeps burying for his aunts are yellow fever victims in Panama. But the real stars here are Josephine Hull and Jean Adair as aunts Abby and Martha as the sweetest darlingest serial killers ever. Add to that a bunch of funny smaller characters played by some of the best charactor actors at the time and the chemistry is just right.
A great cast, clever dialogue and slapstick, wacky and straight faced comedy, murder and torture, all ending with a plot twist. Arsenic is the oldest example of a dark comedy I’ve found, and I think it’s this morbidness that keep it from tilting the silly scales too far for me.
- Archie Leach, Cary Grant’s real name, is on one of the gravestones.
- Arsenic and Old Lace is based on Joseph Kesselring’s play of the same name. Aside from some minor dialogue and plot point changes, mostly for the censors, it’s pretty close to the original material. Johnathan looking like “that man in the horror picture” is a running gag that comes from the role being originally played on stage by Boris Karloff and was one of the funniest parts of the play. The movie was filmed in 1941, the same year the play opened. While Josephine Hull, Jean Adair, and John Alexander took leave to reprise their roles from the play, Karloff was unable to be in the movie because he was committed to the play.
Mortimer: Look I probably should have told you this before but you see… well… insanity runs in my family. It practically gallops.
Teddy: Charge! Charge the blockhouse!
Mortimer: Look, you can’t do things like that! Now, I don’t know how I can explain this to you, but it’s not only against the law, it’s wrong!
Aunt Martha: Oh, piffle.
Mortimer: It’s not a nice thing to do. People wouldn’t understand, he wouldn’t understand. What I mean is… Well… This is developing into a very bad habit!
Dr. Einstein: You cannot count the one in South Bend, he died of pneumonia.
Jonathan: He wouldn’t have died of pneumonia if I hadn’t shot him!
Dr. Einstein: No, no, Johnny. You cannot count him. You got twelve, they got twelve. The old ladies is just as good as you are!
Mortimer: Hello… Operator? Can you hear my voice? You can? Are you sure? Well, then I must be here.
If You Liked This Movie Try These:
- The Ladykillers (1955)
- The Shop Around the Corner
- You Can’t Take It with You