My definition of a perfectly spooky good time involves an October evening with a crisp Autumn atmosphere with the leaves rustling in yard as I cuddle up to my favorite classic films. My favorite October classic is Frank Capra’s ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (1944). This film is a dark-as-ebony comedy replete with a perfectly cast of hilariously eccentric characters.
Our story begins with Mortimer Brewster (portrayed by hunky Cary Grant), the drama critic and infamous bachelor who is doing his best to indiscreetly ‘get hitched’ to Elaine Harper (portrayed by cutie Priscilla Lane.) After successfully alluding the press (who would find the die-hard bachelor getting married to be quite the juicy scoop), the newlyweds head back to Elaine’s home to pack for Niagra Falls. Only adorable Elaine Harper is charming and sweet enough to capture the love of loyalty of Mortimer Brewster, formerly known for his pessimistic views on love and is now a puddle of goo whenever in her embrace. Elaine is the daughter of Reverend Harper (played by Grant Mitchell) and they live in a very old and quaint neighborhood in Brooklyn, right next door and just across the cemetery from Mortimer’s aunts, Abby and Martha Brewster (portrayed by Josephine Hull and Jean Adair). It’s Halloween eve.
While Elaine merrily goes to the Harper home to pack her belongings for the honeymoon, the cabbie waits outside and Mortimer visits with his aunts next door. Abby and Martha are introduced as the sweetest old-fashioned ladies who are well-known for their unlimited generosity and kindness. We are also introduced to another Brewster home resident, ‘Teddy Roosevelt’ Brewster. Teddy truly believes he is the U.S. 26th President. He often addresses people in the room as members of his cabinet and yells “CHARGE!!” as he rushes upstairs (aka San Juan hill). The local policemen find the aunts to be utterly sweet and innocent as candy. The local officer on the beat, Brophy (portrayed by Edward McNamara) introduces the new policeman O’Hara (portrayed wonderfully by Jack Carson with great facial exaggerations) and explains to O’Hara that Teddy is harmless but presents a bit of an issue in the neighborhood when he trumpets his bugle in the middle of the night.
Soon, Mortimer is alone in the Brewster main room when he makes a grisly discovery. He finds a dead body in the hope chest under the window seat. He tries to gently break the news of his bizarre finding to his aunts (thinking perhaps crazy Teddy was to blame) but is gravely shocked when they explain the dead body is their doing. They reveal that there are even more bodies buried in the basement; a dozen more bodies of lonely men that have each come to them to sublet rooms. Teddy has been helping by burying them in what he believes are victims of yellow fever in the Panama Canal. They naively describe their ‘good’ intentions as aiding these men that are all alone in the world by serving each such lonely tenant a very special homemade mix of elderberry wine.
Aunt Martha: “For a gallon of elderberry wine, I take one teaspoon full of arsenic, then add half a teaspoon full of strychnine, and then just a pinch of cyanide.”
Mortimer Brewster: “Hmm. Should have quite a kick.”
Meanwhile, Elaine keeps trying to get Mortimer’s attention to alert him that she’s ready to go off to their honeymoon with their agreed upon signal of her whistling the wedding “here comes the bride…” tune.
The crazy pace picks up speed when Mortimer realizes his only way to resolve this big problem is to use Teddy as a scapegoat and get him committed to “Happy Dale Sanatorium.” But it’s the unexpected arrival of Mortimer’s long-lost and completely sociopathic brother, Jonathan Brewster (portrayed by Raymond Massey) and his criminal sidekick, Dr. Einstein (portrayed by Peter Lorre) that throws everything into a tailspin. Jonathon enters the scene looking like a hideously scarred cross between Frankenstein’s monster and Boris Karloff, thanks to Dr. Einstein’s shoddy and drunken plastic surgery attempts. Jonathan makes it clear from the very beginning that anyone who makes reference to him looking like Boris Karloff are sure to suffer a deadly fate by his hands.
Interesting side note: ARSENIC and OLD LACE (1943) was a popular Broadway play first. It ran from January 1941-June 1944. This film was produced and completed filming in the Fall of 1941 but not released nationwide until September 1944 so the stage production could run without competing with the film, per their Warner Bros. contract. But when it came to casting the film production, several of the stage actors were cast in the same roles. The key actor who was not allowed out of his Broadway contract for the film production because he was too vital to the play’s success was Boris Karloff, who played Jonathon. So every reference to Boris Karloff in the film packed an insider’s punch.
Jonathan and Dr. Einstein force their stay on the aunts at the Brewster house. They need a place to lay low to reconstruct Jonathon’s face yet again (they’re on the lam from the law) and they have a dead body of their own they need to dispose. Meanwhile, Elaine continues to attempt grabbing Mortimer’s attention but runs into Jonathon and Dr. Einstein first, who almost make her another victim of the basement graveyard. Mortimer is going batty trying to juggle the manic insanity of it all while trying his best to get proper paperwork to commit Teddy to Happy Dale and also to get rid of Jonathon and Dr. Einstein while not revealing his aunts’ crimes. The pace is fast, the lines are rapid-fire as characters come and go with every moment being close call encounters.
The best scene of close calls comes when Mortimer explains just how dopey a fella can be in a play when he explains how a character who was so naive to not see a murderer sneaking up on him, then he precedes to get tied up by Jonathon and Dr. Einstein’s for their sinister agenda. In the nick of time, officer O’Hara interrupts the kidnapping to tell Mortimer about the play he’s writing. But despite Mortimer being bound and gagged to a chair, clueless O’Hara presses on in sharing his play ideas, blissful to have a captivated audience. A hilarious fight ensues as more police join in and Jonathan is captured because his ‘Boris Karloff-like’ face finally became his undoing.
In the end, the aunts join Teddy at Happy Dale and Mortimer discovers the family secret that reveals that he’s not so crazy as he originally feared. Mortimer (to Elaine): “Insanity runs in my family… practically gallops.” But insanity certainly gallops throughout ARSENIC and OLD LACE (1944). The entire film is constant mad-cap and hilariously morbid comedy.
Cary Grant didn’t enjoy his performance, stating he thought it required too much ‘over-acting.’ Frankly, I disagree. No one does screwball comedy with so much physicality and comedic timing genius as Cary Grant. I think his early acrobatic training prior to his film career helped in this regard. And perhaps after filming his heart was taking on a more serious note than the ‘over-acting’ required from such a screwball romp. Towards the end of filming of ARSENIC and OLD LACE, Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941… FDR: “a day which will live in infamy.” As a result, director Frank Capra enlisted in the U.S. Army and was given another month extension to finish editing before reporting for active duty. Cary Grant was also a passionate supporter of American war efforts during this time and he generously donated his entire salary, $100,000, to the U.S. War Relief Fund.
So, while Cary Grant referred to this film as one of his least favorites, something tells me his heart was simply not into it for much heavier reasons. But knowing this makes me love this film and Grant’s performance all the more. What a consummate professionals he and Capra truly were to produce such an enduring comedy classic despite their heavy hearts. For me, this will always remain a Halloween-time favorite classic film.
9 thoughts on “Arsenic and Old Lace”
Great write up, Kellee. You can tell you love that movie. I enjoy how manic it is. The fast pace, the timing and quick banter. It's one of those movies you can watch over and over. My favorite characters are Jonathan and Dr. Einstein. So creepy and funny.
I disagree with Cary, too! ARSENIC AND OLD LACE is delirious delight peppered with pitch-perfect performances. However, it's the oddity that appeals most to me–such as the ruse the sisters use to gain Teddy's assistance with burying corpses in the basement.
Thanks, Gary! Ya know it's an all-time fave for me!
I know, right?! Its morbidity mixed with humor is the best. Thanks, Rick!!
GET OUT! I did not know the Boris Karloff connection!
I also did not know that Cary Grant considered this one of his least favourite roles.
See all these wonderful things I learn from your blog?
Like so many in our community, I'm here simply as a community service servant to all of us fellow “classic movie weirdos” who yearn to learn more about our fave films and movie stars, right?? lol. Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it!
Actually I have to admit last time I saw A&OL I was stunned by how OTT Cary's performance was. I loved this movie in my teens and was not expecting that reaction, but on revisiting, I found his bizarre over-acting a complete turn off. Yes he was brilliant at screwball comedy. But this was like screwball on speed. So, I have to agree with him. Which saddens me. I still adore the movie, but I just wish there was a dial I could turn down whenever CG starts mugging and double-taking 🙂
A great treat for Halloween (but Cary is a treat 365 days).