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Friday Film Review: Arsenic and Old Lace

Arsenic and Old Lace (made 1942, released 1944)
Genre: Screwball Comedy
Grade: B

“This is developing into a very bad habit!” – Mortimer Brewster

I had always heard great things about “Arsenic and Old Lace,” but the first time I sat down and tried to watch this film years ago my reaction was a rip roaring “meh.” After that, I raised an “yeah, right” eyebrow whenever I saw people gushing about how fabulous and wonderful it is. But if nothing else, doing these movie reviews has gotten me to (re) watch a whole lot of movies I never thought I would and searching for this year’s Halloween entry coincided with a broadcast of the film on TCM. With nothing, including even an Netflix rental fee, to lose I set my DVD-R then finally discovered why people love it so much.

Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) and Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane) have just gotten married and stopped off at their respective houses – which are just across an old cemetery from each other – to pick up some things before heading to their honeymoon at Niagara Falls. Mortimer has been raised by his two eccentric aunts Abby (Josephine Hull) and Martha (Jean Adair) along with their brother (John Alexander) who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt, blows a trumpet and charges up the staircase like it’s San Juan Hill.

To his horror, Mortimer discovers that there’s a dead body in the window seat and assumes that delusional Teddy has killed someone. But Mortimer is flabbergasted when Abby and Martha calmly tell him that they killed the gentleman as well as eleven other older men. They see it as a charity to end what they see as the suffering of lonely old bachelors and use elderberry wine spiked with arsenic, strychnine and “just a pinch of cyanide.” A stunned Mortimer muses that the wine probably tastes pretty good. Teddy always buries the bodies in the basement assuming that they are yellow fever victims from the building of the Panama Canal.

Frantic to save Teddy from any charges, Mortimer tries to get the papers that will get him committed to a sanitarium in the care of Mr. Witherspoon (Edward Everett Horton) and fobs off an increasingly irate Elaine as to when they’ll leave for their honeymoon. But wait, things are about to get worse.

Mortimer’s psychotic brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey) then shows up with his alcoholic plastic surgeon sidekick Dr. Herman Einstein (Peter Lorre) looking for a hideout until Einstein can finish altering Jonathan’s face so he no longer resembles Boris Karloff. Oh, and also dispose of Jonathan’s latest victim, a Mr. Spenalzo.

Can Mortimer get Teddy committed – the neighbors are complaining about the trumpet blowing, keep his aunts from killing any more nice, old men and out of jail, get Jonathon and Einstein out of the house, keep Elaine from getting a divorce before the wedding night and keep the police from finding out everything?

The main reason I didn’t like the movie the first time is Grant’s OTT performance. Since then, I’ve come to appreciate screwball comedies in general and the fact that sane Mortimer is the one going crazy while his crazy relatives are calm and collected. While everyone else acts like there’s nothing wrong, it’s an increasingly frantic Mortimer who has to juggle all these plot threads and keep the movie from spinning out of control. I still think he’s slightly crazed at times but that’s the nature of the film.

Hull and Adair are darling as the doting, dotty but lethal ladies of the Brewster family. I love Aunt Abby’s feather ruffled outrage at Mr. Spenalzo (a foreigner!”) in her window seat as well as how mad she and Martha are when Einstein puts Spenalzo in the same grave with good Methodist Mr. Hoskins. Raymond Massey is menacing as brother Jonathan with his black bag full of gulp inducing instruments. Lorre is hilarious as the schnapps swilling doctor who tries to keep Jonathan from killing his own family (“No! Not the Melbourne method, please! Two hours!”) I don’t care as much for Lane as Elaine. She looks too much like Ginger Rogers and I keep expecting to see Rogers in her place. But she’s adequate in the role.

There are several wonderful actors in secondary roles including Horton doing his usual slightly prissy routine, James Gleason as the harried police lieutenant dealing with beat cop Jack Carson. I can’t recall ever seeing Alexander before but he does a great T.R. impersonation. Also watch for the long suffering taxi driver played by Garry Owen.

Director Frank Capra manages to present the story without showing any dead bodies or much violence. Instead he uses shadows, noise, music, Jonathan’s awful looking instruments and Peter Lorre’s actions and reactions to instill apprehension and infer the fight scene without having to be graphic. With the Hays Code in effect I did wonder at the aunts actually getting away with murder but they do end up in a position where they won’t be able to continue their charitable work and, after all, Jonathan’s crimes are so much worse.

When watching the scenes of unsuspecting Mortimer, and later the police officer, talking about danger while all the while the danger their describing perfectly mirrors the actual danger sneaking up behind them, remember that this started out as a Broadway play and this would probably have played especially well on stage. Boris Karloff was also playing Jonathan in the play hence the jokes about Jonathan looking “kind of like Boris Karloff.”

I am an “Arsenic and Old Lace” convert now. I will anticipate the sequence of Einstein and Jonathan bringing Mr. Spenalzo through the window (“Wait a minute, Johnny. You lost a leg somewhere.”) As well, the hilarious “contest” between the Aunts and Jonathan as to who has killed more people. (“No, no, Johnny. You cannot count him. You got twelve, they got twelve. The old ladies is just as good as you are!’) But most of all, I will enjoy it for the things Capra managed – tension mixed with laughs and murders without ever seeing more than the shadow of a dead body. B

“Oh, don’t worry about Halloween. The pixies won’t be out till after midnight.” – Mortimer Brewster

~Jayne

Another long time reader who read romance novels in her teens, then took a long break before started back again about 15 years ago. She enjoys historical romance/fiction best, likes contemporaries, action- adventure and mysteries, will read suspense if there's no TSTL characters and is currently reading very few paranormals.

39 Comments

  1. Kerry
    Oct 28, 2011 @ 04:19:37

    I watched this recently, too, and I’m still “meh.” I might have liked it more with a different male lead, actually. I adore Cary Grant, but more subtle comedy (wit rather than spit takes) suits him better. This particular performance seemed self-conscious and forced. I could practically see him walking off the set after every take muttering about firing his agent.

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  2. Marguerite Kaye
    Oct 28, 2011 @ 04:35:56

    I love this film. I know Cary Grant is totally OTT, and I know it’s corny and cute and a bit cringy in places, but I don’t care, I love it (and I love It’s a Wonderful Life too, and I don’t care who knows it!).

    Another film done without the cute and OTT in a very similar vein is Kind Hearts and Coronets, which is an Ealing Comedy and genuinely subversive, with various members of an aristocratic family played by Alec Guinness being killed off by Dennis Price.

    I love these Friday reviews generally, though I haven’t said before, I’m always wondering where you’re going to go with them, so please keep them coming.

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  3. Bronte
    Oct 28, 2011 @ 04:44:48

    This is probably my favourite Cary Grant film. I prefer his comedic performances to his dramas. I saw this movie as a child and some of the inferences went over my head then but I feel it gets better with each rewatch. It is very over the top but I just love it.

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  4. Evangeline
    Oct 28, 2011 @ 04:47:59

    Heh heh heh…Cary Grant would agree with your reaction to Mortimer Brewster. I love Arsenic and Old Lace, but I think it can cross the line into unfunny zaniness because of its stage roots (plus, Boris Karloff’s unavailability dampens the jokes thrown Massey’s way). It would have been interesting to see Bob Hope, whom Capra wanted for Mortimer, play the role–he had a slyness to his mugging that would have kept the tongue firmly in cheek. And yes on Priscilla Lane! Ginger would have definitely been a good fit; her Elaine would have had more chutzpah instead of being a colorless 40s heroine.

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  5. Jayne
    Oct 28, 2011 @ 06:29:02

    @Evangeline: Oooh, yes Bob Hope would have been great in this role.

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  6. Jayne
    Oct 28, 2011 @ 06:30:26

    @Bronte: I can’t think of a single dramatic Cary Grant role that I like. Not that I can think of that many anyway…

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  7. Jayne
    Oct 28, 2011 @ 06:31:23

    @Kerry: It took me several attempts and watching bits and pieces over the years and still not getting it til now.

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  8. Jayne
    Oct 28, 2011 @ 06:34:16

    @Marguerite Kaye: Several people have mentioned “Kind Hearts” especially Cate. I have it recorded and do need to pull it out and finally watch it.

    I try and mix up the movies so there’s a variety from one week to the next and am always open to suggestions depending on if I can get my hands on the film.

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  9. DS
    Oct 28, 2011 @ 06:57:24

    This was a television favorite when I was a kid. Although my brother and I didn’t understand all of it the first few times we saw it, we did like the idea of yelling “charge!” before running up the stairs and would have given our collective eye teeth for a bugle.

    I also second Kind Hearts and Coronets although I didn’t get to see it until I was in college. Somehow our local television stations never showed it.

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  10. joanne
    Oct 28, 2011 @ 07:08:32

    I overlook a great deal, including over the top performances, when watching a movie that was made during WWII. Capra knew what the movie-going world wanted: a pretty girl, a handsome boy, a romance and a few laughs. Just a little escapism with no real message.

    Just thinking about Grant’s/Mortimer’s reaction when he first opens the top of the window seat can make me smile.

    Happy Halloween Jayne. (don’t drink any homemade wine!)

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  11. Jayne
    Oct 28, 2011 @ 07:13:24

    @DS: If you live in a place with stairs, I dare you! ;)

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  12. Jayne
    Oct 28, 2011 @ 07:14:44

    @joanne: That is a great look on his face. I won’t drink any wine but I do think I’m going to run up the stairs yelling, “charge!”

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  13. Darlene Marshall
    Oct 28, 2011 @ 07:58:03

    A true classic. I’ve always felt Peter Lorre was a vastly underrated actor. Of course he got cast in strange supporting character roles that defined him, but I’ve also seen him in the “Mr. Moto” mysteries and there’s something to be said for “Peter Lorre, Action Hero!” as well. Not to mention his performance in “M” in Germany.

    Thanks for reminding me of why classic screwball comedies are such fun! It was the wit of the writing and the acting, not a dependence on bad language,body functions or nudity. Yes, I’m an old curmudgeon when it comes to film. I freely admit it.[g]

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  14. KA Mitchell
    Oct 28, 2011 @ 08:37:43

    So glad you converted, Jayne. I teach this every year and the play and the movie still hook disaffected teens with the black humor and satire. The play is, of course, much darker, since they didn’t have the Hays Code to deal with. As I understand the history, it was fashionable for famous New Yorkers to participate in the curtain call when twelve dusty old men came out of the basement to bow.

    I’ve also read that Cary Grant hated how OTT Capra kept pushing him to go and that it was a role he could never watch. I use it to illustrate the theme of appearance vs. reality. Mortimer, the only sane Brewster, is in appearance the craziest.

    I’ve taught it for 22 years and I’m still not tired of it. And my students say I do a great Peter Lorre imitation.

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  15. dri
    Oct 28, 2011 @ 08:40:37

    Omg, I just rented it this out myself last week and loved it all over again. So delighted by this serendipidity! *squee*

    I totally agree about Cary’s OTT performance but god, he has so much fun with it and I totally get what you mean about the contrast with the others. I would have loved to see Karloff in the film too!

    The odd thing is this and East Of Eden were the only roles I saw Raymond Massey in for decades so I’ve been genuinely terrified of the man for just as long. God, I hated him so much in East Of Eden. But now, because of my newfound Leslie Howard love, I’ve seen him in the 49th Parallel and The Scarlet Pimpernel … and now watching him in Arsenic And Old Lace gave me a whole new perspective on the subtle fun he has with that role.

    *sigh* I love Edward Everett Horton in anything he does. Quite seriously.

    And hahaha, yes, I keep wishing I lived in a house with a staircase. It looks like so much fun to be able to do that. Hee hee hee.

    Elaine: “Oh, Mortimer.”

    Cabbie: “Oh, Mortimer.” Hee hee hee, so deliciously gay.

    *cough* Might be worth mentioning that this is the different phase of Capra’s films, the ones that don’t beat you over the head with parochial American rah-rah-ism and nauseating sentimentality. *breathes in deep* I have a seriously love/hate relationship with Capra. I love his cynicism and his extremely smart women — not in this, obviously — but my god, his nationalism gets up my nose, especially when he combines it with religiosity in the final scene of Meet John Doe. It gets me so livid I had to coin a term for it. CapraRAGE. :p

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  16. Jayne
    Oct 28, 2011 @ 08:40:42

    @Darlene Marshall:

    Thanks for reminding me of why classic screwball comedies are such fun! It was the wit of the writing and the acting, not a dependence on bad language,body functions or nudity. Yes, I’m an old curmudgeon when it comes to film.

    Recently I was watching a 3 disc series called something like “The History of Comedy” that went all the way from silent films to current ones to TV shows and included clips showing all different aspects of funny. Some of the best ones were still the old Sid Ceasar show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, I Love Lucy, Laurel and Hardy, etc. As you say, great writing, great acting and no body functions.

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  17. Jayne
    Oct 28, 2011 @ 08:44:44

    @dri: Edward Everett Horton is wonderful. Love him in Trouble in Paradise.

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  18. Amy Kathryn
    Oct 28, 2011 @ 09:24:00

    My mom used this movie as a “gateway drug” for getting my brother and I to love watching classic movies with her when we were children/teens. I think we were the only kids in our school who were more excited about watching AMC than Disney at the time!

    It also sucked in the sense that my movie star crushes were all dying about the time I discovered them (or were quite wrinkly and bloated in current pics). Oh, the humanity!

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  19. Marguerite Kaye
    Oct 28, 2011 @ 10:56:55

    @Darlene Marshall: Peter Lorre is brilliant in one of my other favourite films from one of my very favourite directors, The Maltese Falcon. He’s sort of slimy but gay, not an easy thing to pull off!

    As to Cary Grant in drama, does To Catch a Thief count?

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  20. Kate Pearce
    Oct 28, 2011 @ 12:53:21

    I saw it described as Cary Grant doing so many double takes he almost gets whiplash. I love this movie and sat down to watch it recently and all my teenagers and older ended up watching it too and loved it. A classic and so totally over the top.

    And Kind Hearts and Coronets is also awesome with Alec Guinness playing all the parts.

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  21. Estara
    Oct 28, 2011 @ 13:36:11

    @Jayne: Not even in Charade? Although that is also often playing for comedy.

    RE: Arsenic and Old Lace – it’s a favourite Cary Grant film of mine – I always thought Peter Lorre that much more scary than anyone else actually.

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  22. Kathryn
    Oct 28, 2011 @ 14:38:56

    I think my favorite Cary Grant’s dramatic performances are mostly in Hitchcock films–Notorious (my absolute favorite Grant dramatic performance and my favorite Hitchcock), North by Northwest, and Suspicion. But except for Notorious, most of my absolutely favorite Grant performances are from his romantic comedies (e.g., The Philadelphia Story, Bringing up Baby, Holiday).

    Arsenic and Old Lace is one of those films that I like the idea of, but find at times the execution way too overdone. Yet I really, really love Bringing up Baby, which has another OTT performance by Grant as a sane person who increasingly appears crazy.

    And I second the adoration of Edward Everett Horton!

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  23. Laura Florand
    Oct 28, 2011 @ 16:48:25

    I love Cary Grant when he does screwball! Much better than most of his dramatic roles. This is a well-loved film for me. But I have to agree with Kathryn that Bringing Up Baby is a better film, one of my all-time favorites. I think one of the things that makes it better (for me) is that it really is so much more romantic and focused on the crazy couple.

    Philadelphia Story, where he’s so much subtler and, well, sweeter, is another top favorite, although it’s not screwball at all. I always wished there were an infinite number of Hepburn/Grant films. I always preferred them as a movie couple to Hepburn/Tracy.

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  24. Kristen A.
    Oct 28, 2011 @ 16:49:43

    This is one of those movies that I think I’d like more except that I saw the stage version first. Slapstick and screwball just work so much better for me live.

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  25. Laura Florand
    Oct 28, 2011 @ 16:51:49

    Can I just say that I hate the latest DVD cover for it? It so completely does not fit the film or its era.

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  26. Jayne
    Oct 28, 2011 @ 18:15:56

    @Marguerite Kaye: @Estara: I view Charade and To Catch a Thief as more comedy or enough of a mix that they work for me.

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  27. Keziah Hill
    Oct 28, 2011 @ 20:00:26

    This is one of my all time favourites. I love Josephine Hull in this. She’s great in Harvey too with Jimmy Stewart.

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  28. dri
    Oct 29, 2011 @ 01:11:18

    @Laura Florand:

    I always wished there were an infinite number of Hepburn/Grant films. I always preferred them as a movie couple to Hepburn/Tracy.

    Omg, finally! Someone else who feels like I do! I thought I was the only one! Him and Kate in Holiday …. oh god, my heart.

    @Jayne: Oooh, I haven’t seen that! *adds it immediately to the list*

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  29. Marguerite Kaye
    Oct 29, 2011 @ 04:53:42

    The Philadelphia Story! Oh how I love that film, so much, much more than the remake, even if True Love is one of my fave maudlin songs! I have Katherine Hepburn from this as my current heroine in my WIP, she’s so fiercely elegant, and Jimmy Stewart is a god, IMHO. Perfect for a wet and wild day, which it is here, may have to look it out and forget all about my target word count.

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  30. Jayne
    Oct 29, 2011 @ 06:47:43

    @dri: It’s a pre-code comedy with Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins as two thieves falling in love in Paris. I did a review of it here last year.

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  31. dri
    Oct 30, 2011 @ 01:58:59

    @Marguerite Kaye: Omg, I would totally read that!

    I’m pretty sure every heroine I ever write is Kate. Be good if one day I could write one who wasn’t!

    *sigh* When I grow up, I want to be her. :p

    @Jayne: Oh, awesome! Thanks, Jayne! Will go look for your review. So loving those preCode films at the moment.

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  32. Jayne
    Oct 30, 2011 @ 07:33:46

    @dri: I’m throwing out a name here for you. Have you seen any movies with Wendy Hiller? The roles I’ve seen her in make me think of Katherine Hepburn – strong, intelligent, and confident.

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  33. Marguerite Kaye
    Oct 30, 2011 @ 10:32:58

    Wendy Hiller played Eliza in Pygmallion, which was much darker and funnier than the saccharine but pretty musical version. She does have that same smoky voice that Katherine Hepburn has too. And she was also in a little-known tv series called Clochmerle, which was a precursor to ‘Allo ‘Allo – and also much funnier.

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  34. Lynne Connolly
    Oct 30, 2011 @ 18:57:34

    I can’t believe that nobody has mentioned “His Girl Friday.” I love that film and Grant is totally brilliant in it.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wCbJs34LuZ4&feature=related
    It’s “The Front Page” with Rosalind Russell playing a female Hildy Johnson. Much as I love the Lemmon/Matthau version, I think this one just beats it for me.

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  35. dri
    Oct 30, 2011 @ 23:03:21

    @Jayne and @Marguerite Kaye: I’ve just discovered Wendy Hiller! In, yes, Pygmalion, and omigoodness yes, I love her for exactly what you say, the strength and vulnerability of her. My god, that last scene when she comes into her own and she towers over him … “When I think of myself, crawling … when all I had to do was lift my finger to be as good as you.” Oh man, gives me happy shivers just to think about it. I adore that movie so much it’s completely obliterated the musical in my mind. And I rather love musicals, too. :p

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  36. dri
    Oct 30, 2011 @ 23:06:25

    @Lynne Connolly: Love it, love it! And the little injokes Cary makes about the Mock Turtle and poor ole Archie Leach and “looks like Ralph Bellamy.”

    I totally agree about it being so much better than the Matthau/Lemmon version — as much as I adore them both and Billy Wilder — even though that’s more faithful to the original, I theenk. That’s so much more of a farce than the good solid comedy of the Hawks version, I reckon. Maybe because of the romantic tension and the curious tension of Hildy against herself. Such a fascinating film.

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  37. Evangeline
    Oct 31, 2011 @ 01:23:20

    @dri: I’ll make a third person with this opinion. The Tracy/Hepburn pairing was too cerebrally battle-of-the-sexes, whereas Grant/Hepburn was a meeting of two like-minded outsiders.

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  38. Jayne
    Oct 31, 2011 @ 08:19:51

    @dri: Another good Hiller movie to try is “I Know Where I’m Going” which was the second movie I reviewed here. She thinks she knows where she’s going and whom she’s going to marry but finds out otherwise!

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  39. dri
    Nov 04, 2011 @ 09:42:00

    @Evangeline: Such a great way to put it, I never thought of them that way but you are soooo right. And that’s never more apparent than in Holiday, isn’t it?

    @Jayne: Ooh, awesome! I shall put that on my evergrowing list, too. As of today, I’ve ordered three Leslie Howard films so no doubt Wendy won’t be far behind. I’m very curious about her “Handdddbagggg” performance in The Importance of Being Earnest. I suspect I might have seen her as Lady Bracknell but I cannot summon any image other than Maggie Smith for some reason. :p

    Thanks for the recs, yay!

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