Arsenic and Old Lace, 1944, Warner Bros. Pictures. Starring Cary Grant, Priscilla Lane, Josephine Hull, Jean Adair. Directed by Frank Capra. B&W, 118 minutes.
A dark comedy with a pair of innocent-minded serial killer aunts and their bewildered yet loving nephew is funny, fast-paced and full of surprises, with a chain of events that maintains suspense and unfolds into a Halloween tale like no other.
Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) has just married the girl next door, Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane), and before the two leave on their honeymoon, they stop to give the news to their respective families. For their part, the Brewster sisters, Abby & Martha (Josephine Hull, Jean Adair, reprising their Broadway roles), who raised Mortimer, are thrilled he’s finally settling down with the lovely Elaine.
But during his visit, Mortimer discovers his kindly aunts have taken on a new cause, that of releasing lonely elderly gentlemen from their earthly pain with a sip of poisoned elderberry wine, and burying the bodies in the basement. The morbid work of burial is done by deluded Uncle Teddy (John Alexander), who believes he’s Theodore Roosevelt digging the Panama Canal.
About the time the full impact of his aunts “very bad habit” has begun to sink in on him, another blow is dealt to Mortimer — the return of his long-lost brother, Johnathan (Raymond Massey) along with Johnathan’s plastic-surgeon friend, Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre). The two have their own body in tow, that of one late Dr. Spenalzo.
Johnathan isn’t from the same benevolent branch of the family tree as Mortimer and the aunts, and he plans to do the rest of them in, one way or the other.
While this film features Cary Grant in one of his most over-the-top comedic performances, the strength of the dialogue is often in its dry and understated style.
It’s a continued contrast of extremes throughout the film that keeps the humor fresh. There’s a lot going on in this macabre combination of screwball comedy/horror film, yet somehow, the story is cohesive and, despite the numerous plot twists, never contrived beyond the nature of whatever genre this film might actually fall into.
The rest of the cast includes such strong, scene-stealing character actors as Edward Everett Horton and James Gleason. After a point, the whole show just lets loose, and it’s Mortimer himself whose surrender to the situation best sums up the whole zany scenario.
The movie was was originally filmed in 1941, in part because of Grant’s availability at that time, with the agreement it wouldn’t be released domestically until the Broadway run of the play was complete. It has been said to have been shown to serviceman overseas before its 1944 release, but no official record of that exists today.
Frank Capra chose this project because it took him away from the “feel good” films he’d become known for and into a wacky plot with no particular redeeming value, save its dark humor and non-stop antics. It’s not a film fans of either Capra or Grant point to as pivotal parts of their careers, yet it remains immensely popular and a part of pop culture today.