Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

I’ve been re-watching a few mystery themed films in the last couple of weeks, so decided to share my thoughts on one of them. This was a film I loved the first time round, but weirdly my second experience was more lacklustre. I’m not sure why, maybe I wasn’t in the right sort of mood or perhaps it is better enjoyed without knowing how the story will end.  For those who haven’t seen this film before here is a quick synopsis:

‘Cary Grant and a stellar cast romp through this classic farce based on Joseph Kesselring’s 1941 Broadway hit and breezily directed by Frank Capra. Frazzled drama critic Mortimer Brewster (Grant) has two aunts (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair) who ply lonely geezers with poisoned libations, one sociopathic brother (Raymond Massey) who looks like Boris Karloff, one bonkers brother (John Alexander) who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt, one impatient new bride (Priscilla Lane) – and only one night to make it turn out all right.’

As you can see from this outline, Arsenic and Old Lace, has somewhat of a zany plot. Yet surprisingly it has an eerily conventional opening. We are initially told it is Halloween and the credit graphics ensure this is not too much of a surprise to the audience. However, the film proper opens with an everyday scene in Brooklyn, followed by a registry office in New York. The first few minutes of the film reside much more in the romantic/social comedy genre, as Mortimer tries to hide the fact he is getting married from the press. Even after that, the next location change takes us to suburban Brooklyn, to an old house near a churchyard, lived in by Mortimer’s two respectable aunts. The only hint we get of the mayhem which will unfold is the final on screen text: ‘From here in Image result for arsenic and old lace filmyou’re on your own.’

Nevertheless the bombshell which hits Mortimer, that his two aunts are serial killers, is still a shock to the audience and it is shocking because these two old ladies think they’re doing a good thing and don’t see anything wrong with their behaviour. Though in fact what makes this scene so effective is Mortimer, who is playing the straight man. Grant’s performance is paramount to the success of the film and in these moments of the film he is brilliant, with his changing reactions to the situation, moving from incredulity to horror and incomprehension, as his aunts perceive him as the mad one. It also means the audience quickly sympathises with him as he is the only sane character who is in possession of the knowledge of what is going on and the pressure of this situation is an interesting one to watch unfold. Of course he desperately tries to hide the truth from those outside of the family, which in turn cranks up the tension and pressure for him.

But just as you get your head around this situation, the plot deviates in another direction, with the arrival of Jonathan Brewster, who definitely gives the film a Halloween/Frankenstein feel and the table turning that this character causes works well. A running joke is that his drunken plastic surgeon has given him a new face which makes him look like Boris Karloff and ironically Karloff played the role in the Broadway production.

Yes the plot is excessive, but it remarkably gets away with it and is almost fitting in a way, with its increasing sense of madness. Social comedy bookends the film, (with a nice nod to Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest,) but in between times it is an intriguing mixture of dark and light, horror and comedy, so much so that the plot sits on a knife edge at points, as the audience can’t decide which way things will work out.

So I’m not sure what my final verdict of this film is. I can see all of its good points, yet my second viewing was not as good as I anticipated it to be. Maybe some time in the future I will watch it one more time and see which side I land on. The best of three.

11 comments

  1. The “social comedy” that bookends the movie is, of course, NOT in the play, which centers around the household for its entirety. But this was a Cary Grant movie, first and foremost, so more screwball shenanigans, none of them necessary, were added. To me, it drags the film down. They did the same thing for Grant in the film version of The Philadelphia Story, where they combined his character with the role of the brother (a role I played on stage, btw, but which had to be cut from the film to accommodate Grant’s enlarged role). Fortunately, it didn’t have the same effect; TPS is a brilliant film.

    I’m hoping that none of the kids or parents involved are reading this, but AaOL was perhaps the worst play experience I had as a high school director. My leading ladies never remembered their lines, and a stage mom convinced me to hire her friend to design the set, with expensively disastrous results. The only two good things were that the props mom made this amazing cake from a period recipe that she found online to serve at the fatal teas, and I had the inspiration to cast Dr. Einstein as a woman (in the vein of Natasha Fatale from the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon.) That young lady was hilarious, but it wasn’t enough to keep me from hiding in the dressing room each night until the show was over. With my little old serial killers mixing up the dialogue, you never knew what you were going to watch or how long it would take before the end!!!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Oh no! Well at least it gave the performance the element of surprise lol
      I never knew about the differences between the film and stage play, but the ones you bring up make sense. It’s interesting to consider Arsenic and Old Lace without its lighter/social comedy moments. Definitely give it a different tone.

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  2. ‘Arsenic And Old Lace’ always seemed to me to be a milestone in the murder-farce subgenre that was popular in that era (1930s-1950s). It fits right in with books by — to name just a few — Phoebe Atwood Taylor, Craig Rice, Stuart Palmer, and of course the writer blogged about yesterday — Kelley Roos.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This movie has its fans but I could not get into it. The humor was just too over the top. Cary Grant is a good actor but he seemed to be hamming it up in this movie. the acting and the story are just too over the top.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I read a Cary Grant bio that claimed he regretted making this film—nothing against the film per se, but he thought he was miscast. If I recall correctly, when he was honored by the Motion Picture Academy or some such institution, it was the one film he requested they omit from the montage.

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