I Was a Male War Bride

Marian Marshall, Cary Grant, Ann Sherida in I Was a Male War Bride

I Was a Male War Bride, 1949, 20th Century Fox. Starring Cary Grant, Ann Sheridan. Directed by Howard Hawks. B&W, 105 minutes.

In post-WWII Germany, French Army Captain Henri Rochard (Cary Grant) is given the assignment of tracking down a German lens maker in nearby Bad Nauheim. Assisting him in his travels is American Army Lieutenant Catherine Gates (Ann Sheridan), whom Henri has met before under apparently less than desirable circumstances. Despite protests from both Henri and Catherine, their assignments stand, and they head off together to the German town.

The two encounter one obstacle after another, until, to their surprise, a bond develops. They arrive back from their journey engaged to be married, but new complications arise. Catherine is now assigned stateside, and for Henri to follow her back, he must qualify as a war bride — or rather, the “Alien Spouse of Female Military Personnel Enroute to the United States Under Public Law 271 of the Congress.”

Ann Sheridan, Cary Grant in I Was a Male War Bride
Ann Sheridan, Cary Grant

This is a slower paced comedy than many of director Howard Hawks’ earlier works, such as His Girl Friday or Bringing Up Baby, but it works. Hawks said in later interviews he wasn’t interested in “female impersonation” as a comedy tool, but he found Grant’s portrayal of a war bride acceptable because “he was so masculine.” Indeed, the most comic element of Henri dressed as a woman is the ludicrous nature of trying to turn Cary Grant into someone ladylike.

While he may not have looked to female impersonation for comedy, role reversal was a common element in many of Hawks’ films. In His Girl Friday, he changed the entire tone of the film by making the lead character a woman, instead of a man as originally written, and introducing romance to the plot. In To Have and Have Not, he presented Lauren Bacall as the more powerful of the two lead characters, although arguably it is difficult to see Humphrey Bogart as weak in any way.

Hawks also spoke to the challenge of bringing out the humor in some of the scenes. “We had a scene where Cary had to answer all kinds of ridiculous questions, such as “you ever had female trouble? We looked forward to making that scene, but when we did, it wasn’t funny at all. We got the idea that maybe a man like that would be amused at the sergeant having to ask him these silly questions. ‘Female trouble? Nothing but.'” With that switch in attitude, the scene worked.

Ann Sheridan Cary Grant in I Was a Male War Bride
Ann Sheridan, Cary Grant

Ann Sheridan, an often underrated actress, is thoroughly delightful as the “military personnel” who, in addition to the difficulty of getting her new husband home, is frustrated by the difficulty of spending so much as a single night alone with him. The sexual tension in this film is played for all it’s worth right from the beginning, despite the Production Code restrictions in place. It is indicative of the loosening of Code standards, which was starting to unravel at this time.

Like Cary Grant, this film is charming and disarming, and the humor holds up today. It is based on one man’s true life story of being a “male war bride,” and for the most part, the situations don’t bend the limits of reality too far beyond belief. Grant as a woman may be the notable exception, but that’s also one of the funniest parts of the movie, so it’s easy to overlook.

 

As of July 24, 2017, “I Was a Male War Bride” is scheduled to air on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) on Sunday, August 20, at 4:00 p.m. ET/3:00 p.m. CT. Scheduling is subject to change; check TCM’s schedule for the latest information.

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Bringing Up Baby

cary-grant-baby-katharine-hepburn in bringing up baby

Bringing Up Baby, 1938, RKO Radio Pictures. Starring Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant. Directed by Howard Hawks. B&W, 102 minutes.

Respectable, steadfast scientist Dr. David Huxley (Cary Grant) is engrossed in his latest project, completing the skeletal frame of a brontosaurus. He sets out to convince one Mr. Peabody of the worthiness of his endeavor, worthy, that is, of a million dollar donation from Peabody’s client, Mrs. Random (May Robson).

He’s rebuffed by Peabody while the two are playing golf, and the outing goes from bad to worse. In the middle of the game he discovers his ball has been appropriated by Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn), who goes on to drive off in his car. Susan can’t be convinced she’s wrong, and the scatterbrained young woman proceeds to lead Huxley on a chase for, among other things, his peace of mind.

Susan has just received a gift from her brother, a leopard with the unlikely name of Baby. She’s oblivious to the outrageous nature of this gift, as she is to much of the chaos that ensues wherever she goes. It turns out the leopard is intended for her aunt, Mrs. Random, the woman Dr. Huxley is hoping will donate to his paleontological project. Susan convinces Huxley to help her transport Baby to her home in Connecticut.

Cary Grant Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby
Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn

Bringing Up Baby did not do well at the time of its release, with critics calling it derivative and predictable. Today, however, it’s considered by many to be one of the top screwball comedies of the era.

Even director Howard Hawks was critical of the film. Years later he said in an interview, “I think the film had a great fault and I learned an awful lot from it. There were no normal people in it. Everyone you met was a screwball.” But he also expressed a fondness for the film in other interviews, saying once, “the most fun you can have is making fun of people…you get a doctor and get laughs out of him, like a psychiatrist, where you drive a psychiatrist crazy like in Bringing Up Baby.” That, it would seem, is a classic element of screwball comedy.

There has been much discussion over Grant’s meaning when, confronted about wearing a woman’s feathered silk robe, Huxley testily responds, “because I just went gay all of a sudden” (leaping in the air on the word “gay”). Many deem that the first time the word was used in a movie in its modern-day sense of “homosexual” rather than “happy,” while etymologists debate how common the term was, including its popularity in Grant’s circles. While the meaning may seem “obvious” to us today, and certainly the amount of innuendo in this film makes that belief laudable, it never was made clear by the director or actors what Grant intended. What does seem certain is the line was ad-libbed, which will forever leave its meaning open to speculation.

cary-grant-may-robson
Cary Grant, May Robson

The film created a great backlash of ill will for Hepburn, who was labeled “box office poison” after its release and relative failure. That never stopped this phenomenal actress, who two years later turned her luck around with The Philadelphia Story. Playing a ditzy heiress was not her best role; she did well in later roles playing privileged young women who were somewhat oblivious, but was a little irritating as one who is totally harebrained.

Definitive screwball comedy, Bringing Up  Baby is fast-paced, madcap and improbable. It is not Hepburn’s or Hawk’s finest work, but it is fun, and time has proven its worth.

 

 

 

The Bishop’s Wife

cary-grant-loretta-young-in-the-bishops-wife

The Bishop’s Wife, 1947, RKO Radio Pictures. Starring Cary Grant, Loretta Young, David Niven. Directed by Henry Koster. B&W, 108 minutes.

Staid Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) has neglected his wife and family in his quest for a new cathedral, and is on the verge of giving in to a value system of greed and selfishness held by certain wealthy parishioners who aren’t afraid to make full use of their influence. He prays for guidance, and to his shock, the answer comes in the form of a debonair angel, Dudley (Cary Grant).

The Bishop’s skepticism of Dudley’s claims of divine guidance is soon overcome by frustration with the angel’s growing relationship with his wife, Julia (Loretta Young). Dudley brings back a spark to Julia’s demeanor that has been missing for many years, as the Bishop has become more engrossed in his work and less attentive to his marriage.

Adding to Dudley’s work is a friend of the Brougham’s, the disillusioned Professor Wutheridge (Monty Woolley), who has stalled in his life’s work of writing a complete Roman history. The Professor had given Julia a good luck token, a Roman coin he believed was worthless, that later turns around to bring him fortune in his work.

cary-grant-loretta-young-monty-woolley-in-the-bishops-wife
Cary Grant, Loretta Young, Monty Woolley

Cary Grant was originally slated to play the Bishop, and David Niven the angel, until Grant looked closely at the role of Dudley and felt the movie would be better if he played that part. As one of the most popular actors of his time, Grant had sway in the final decision.

Unhappy with the work of the director he originally hired, producer Samuel Goldwyn replaced him with Henry Koster. Famed writing team Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder were brought in to help with the script, although they were not given formal credit for their work.

The film met with strong reviews, including the New York Times, whose film critic wrote, “it comes very close to being the most enchanting picture of the year.” Audiences, however, were not as certain, and many stayed away, believing it was a religious movie. It was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, and won for Best Sound.

david-niven-loretta-young-in-the-bishops-wife
David Niven, Loretta Young

What is never revealed is the actual worth of the Roman coin, which the professor returns to the Bishop, and whether or not it could provide the means to build the cathedral. (It is noted to be a museum piece, which perhaps was intended to mean it had no market value, but one wonders…)

This is a sweet story that moves at a leisurely pace, and perhaps is a little long in the telling. However, it is a holiday classic for a reason. It is the timeless tale of hope for a marriage in need of a boost, and a man’s search for success leading him to value what is truly important. Add to that the element of faith, summed up in a moving Christmas sermon at the end of the film, and you have a movie that can be watched over and over again without getting stale.

 

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House

myrna-loy-cary-grant-in-mr-blandings-builds-his-dream-house

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, 1948, RKO Radio Pictures. Starring Cary Grant, Myrna Loy, Melvyn Douglas. Directed by H. C. Potter. B&W, 93 minutes.

Tired of life in their crowded Manhattan apartment, Jim Blandings (Cary Grant) and his wife Muriel (Myrna Loy) have decided to move to the country. Their tour of properties leads them to a dilapidated home the realtor convinces them is a gem in the making, and their troubles begin.

The home, it turns out, needs to be torn down, and the Blandings set out to build their new dream house. It isn’t long before the first setback occurs, and trouble after trouble follows, slowly but surely increasing the cost of their humble — but increasingly customized — home to astronomical proportions.

Steadily advising them, with sardonic wit and a skeptical view, is their closest friend, Bill Cole (Melvyn Douglas).

melvyn-douglas-myrna-loy-cary-grant-in-mr-blandings-builds-his-dream-house
Melvyn Douglas, Myrna Loy, Cary Grant

Produced at a time of prosperity, when millions of Americans were building homes, this movie remains funny and relevant today. The foils and fobbles of new construction are familiar to anyone who’s faced the drama surrounding the bringing of that particular dream to life.

Grant and Loy are perfectly cast as the upwardly mobile couple seeking a tranquil life in the country. This was the third of three films they made together, the other two being The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer and Wings in the Dark. They worked well together, so well it’s regrettable they didn’t star together in more movies.

Douglas brings a dry wit to the story, both in his character and in the narration of the story. It was his notable brand of humor, and it served this movie well.

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Cary Grant, Myrna Loy

The studio built an actual home for the set, and later that building served as an office for Malibu Creek State Park. In addition to this home, 73 homes were built across the United States as part of a promotion for the film. Some of these homes were raffled off, and several still stand today.

The movie was based on the popular book of the same name by Eric Hodgins. In real life, the budgeted cost of his home of $11,000 was overtaken by final costs of $56,000. Hodgins was forced to sell the house two years later, but ultimately his sorrows paid off by the money made from his tale.

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House is fun fare, particularly for fans of Grant and Loy. It is light viewing with sharp humor that has stood the test of time.

 

The Awful Truth

Irene Dunne Cary Grant The Awful Truth

The Awful Truth, 1937, Columbia Pictures. Starring Irene Dunne, Cary Grant, Ralph Bellamy. Directed by Leo McCarey.  B&W, 90 minutes.

Rapid-fire conversations, a sophisticated script and a cast to match make this one of the definitive screwball comedies of all time.

After a week away on vacation without his wife Lucy (Irene Dunne), Jerry Warriner (Cary Grant) returns home to find she spent the night before with her music instructor after their car, uh, broke down. His indignation is not given great weight by Lucy, however, when she learns he not only didn’t spend the week in Florida as he claimed, but went to great lengths to provide evidence he was there. Evidence that betrays him in the end.

The couple begin divorce proceedings, and each enters into relationships with other suitors. Lucy takes up with the reliable, predictable Dan Leeson (Ralph Bellamy), and Jerry sees first a flighty showgirl and later a snooty society heiress. Despite their seeming desire to leave the past behind them, they are flustered by their frequent and often inconvenient run-ins. Whether it’s their ability to push each other’s buttons, jealousy over the other romances or perhaps even true love, it soon becomes evident neither is looking forward to a finalized divorce.

Ralph Bellamy, Cary Grant, Irene Dunne
Ralph Bellamy, Cary Grant, Irene Dunne

Dunne, who’d made a number of films by the mid-30s, had created a splash in the previous year’s comedy, Theodora Goes Wild, and was in demand for comedic roles. She proved her skills were no fluke with her performance in The Awful Truth, with her balance of sophistication and screwball genius a complementary match for Grant’s style.

This film, in particular Leo McCarey’s directing methods, is credited with establishing the comic persona Grant became known for in his illustrious career. McCarey and Grant famously didn’t get along during production, in fact, Grant tried at one point to buy his way out of the film. It’s said his off-screen unease led to the slightly nervous performance, a quality he brought to most of his future comic roles.

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Cary Grant, Irene Dunne

McCarey’s directing style gave him quite a bit of control in the final look of the film, but didn’t always make his stars particularly happy. His reliance on improvisation and the lack of a finished script required Grant, Dunne, Bellamy and the rest of the cast to learn to go with the day’s agenda — or lack thereof — and trust in their director’s vision for the finished product.

It worked, however, and McCarey won the Academy Award for Best Director. Other nominations included Best Picture, Best Actress for Dunne, and Best Supporting Actor for Bellamy.

Cary Grant Irene Dunne The Awful Truth
Cary Grant, Irene Dunne

Today, The Awful Truth is regarded as one of the best screwball comedies in film history. It is a smart, sassy movie, with witty dialogue and clever twists.

The pairing of Grant and Dunne proved popular, and they went on to make two more films together, including My Favorite Wife, which also was to have been directed by McCarey until he was seriously injured in a car accident. If you’ve seen both, you’ll notice the two films have virtually identical endings. Overall, The Awful Truth is the superior film, but don’t let that stop you from seeing My Favorite Wife.

The Philadelphia Story

Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart The Philadelphia Story

The Philadelphia Story, 1940, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart. Directed by George Cukor. B&W, 112 minutes.

Fiery, fiesty Philadelphia socialite Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) is ready to marry again, two years after her divorce from C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant). Much to her chagrin, Dexter, a former newspaperman, shows up the day before the wedding with two tabloid reporters he tries passing off as friends of Tracy’s brother: writer Macauley (Mike) Connor (James Stewart) and photographer Elizabeth Imbrey (Ruth Hussey). Tracy isn’t fooled, but agrees to let them stay when Dexter tells her by covering the wedding he’s keeping the paper from a tell-all story about her father and his indiscretions.

Tracy quickly is becoming intrigued by Mike, and the two find themselves together perhaps a bit more often than a proper engaged woman should allow. That doesn’t stop Dexter from keeping a close watch for opportune moments to step in and take back Tracy’s heart.

The story line has taken a turn in that the rivalry is primarily between Dexter and Mike, with the fiancé virtually becoming a non-entity. Yet despite the battle for Tracy’s affection, the two remain gentlemanly toward each other. They are perhaps a little less kind to George, the fiancé, however.

Cary Grant, James Stewart The Philadelphia Story
Cary Grant. James Stewart

Katharine Hepburn first starred on Broadway in the stage version of The Philadelphia Story, and, as a gift from Howard Hughes, owned the film rights. She sold those rights to MGM for the paltry sum of $250,000 in exchange for decision-making power in the selection of producer, director, co-stars and screenwriter.

Her first choices for the male stars were Clark Gable as C.K. Dexter Haven and Spencer Tracy as Mike Connor, but neither were available. Hepburn had not met either man at that point; of course a few short years later she and Tracy would meet on the set of Woman of the Year and begin a life-long affair.

Reviews of the film were overwhelmingly positive. “Terribly funny, terribly upper class,” was how the Time magazine movie critic described it. The New York Times critic wrote: “this (film)… has just about everything that a blue-chip comedy should have—a witty, romantic script; ….the flavor of high-society elegance, in which the patrons invariably luxuriate, and a splendid cast of performers.” Audiences loved it as well, and flocked to see it, breaking a box-office record at Radio City Music Hall.

The Philadelphia Story was nominated for six Academy Awards and won two: Best Actor for James Stewart and Best Adapted Screenplay (based on the 1939 play of same name). Stewart was not expecting to win, admitting in his acceptance speech he’d voted for Henry Fonda. Many believed the award was given to him as compensation for not receiving it a year earlier for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Stewart, Grant, Hepburn
James Stewart, Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn

Ruth Hussey gives a compelling performance as the patient, level-headed photographer in love with Mike Connor, despite his apparent oblivion to her affection. Both female characters in this film are strong and independent, qualities not undermined by their love for their men.

Two years after being declared “box office poison” by the Independent Theater Owners of America, Katharine Hepburn proved she was as powerful a leading lady as ever in her role in The Philadelphia Story. Never one to doubt her own worth, she set out to make a movie that proved her star power, and she succeeded.

My Favorite Wife

Gail Patrick, Cary Grant, Irene Dunne, Randolph Scott in My Favorite Wife

My Favorite Wife, 1940, RKO Radio Pictures. Starring Cary Grant, Irene Dunne. Directed by Garson Kanin. B&W, 88 minutes.

Nick Arden (Cary Grant) has been grieving the loss of his wife, Ellen (Irene Dunne), believed dead in a plane crash, for seven years. He’s ready to get married again to the lovely Bianca (Gail Patrick) and has gone to court both to have Ellen declared legally dead and marry Bianca.

In the meantime, Ellen has been miraculously rescued from the desert island she’s been living on this whole time, and is returning home just as Nick and Bianca are saying “I do.” She learns of their nuptials and subsequent plans for a honeymoon, and heads out to keep things from getting any more complicated.

Cary Grant
Cary Grant

Impossible to keep things from becoming tangled up in a situation like this, however, especially when you add in one Stephen Burkett (Randolph Scott), who, it turns out, spent the entire missing seven years on the island with Ellen. And Stephen is no slouch.

Let’s not forget Nick and Ellen have two children together, a boy and a girl who were mere babies at the time their mother went missing.

This is a fun film, one you will hear referred to in popular culture from time to time, and a strong showcase for the talents of Grant and Dunne. Gail Patrick was in top form as the unfortunate Bianca; a challenging comedic character to play if there ever was one. Patrick maintained the fine balance that allowed the audience to feel sympathy for Bianca while still routing for Ellen.

Leo McCarey, who had directed Grant and Dunne in The Awful Truth, was set to direct My Favorite Wife when he was in a critical car accident that nearly cost him his life. Garson Kanin stepped in and took over as director, with McCarey giving input once he was able.

Cary Grant, Irene Dunne, Gail Patrick My Favorite Wife
Cary Grant, Irene Dunne, Gail Patrick

Kanin and McCarey, along with Sam and Bella Spewack, developed the screenplay, based on the Lord Tennyson poem, “Enoch Arden.” McCarey originally had Jean Arthur in mind for the role of Ellen, but she was unavailable once filming began. Coincidentally, Arthur starred in the film Too Many Husbands, also based on the Tennyson poem, released that same year.

My Favorite Wife was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Story, Best Score and Best Art Direction. It was remade in 1963 in the equally engaging Move Over, Darling with Doris Day, James Garner and Polly Bergen.

 

 

The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer

cary-grant-shirley-temple in the bachelor and the bobby soxer

The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, 1947, RKO Radio Pictures.  Starring Myrna Loy, Cary Grant, Shirley Temple.  Directed by Irving Reis.  B&W, 95 minutes

A delightful movie with an all-star cast, The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer charms from beginning to end. It’s the story of a precocious teenager who easily gets lost in her dreams of romance; her older sister & guardian, who happens to be a judge; and an artist with (excuse the pun) a sketchy reputation with women.

Margaret Turner (Myrna Loy) has her hands full at home with her teenage sister, Susan (Shirley Temple), who pictures herself to be a bit more sophisticated than she really is. Margaret’s work in the courtroom produces a daily barrage of challenges, including, one morning, artist Richard Nugent (Cary Grant). With some trepidation, the judge releases Nugent after determining he was not the sole factor in a fight between two women in a nightclub.

Shirley Temple and Cary Grant
Shirley Temple, Cary Grant

Nugent is scheduled to lecture on American art at the local high school, and it’s there Susan falls in love at first sight. That evening she sneaks into the artist’s apartment while he’s out to dinner. Just as he discovers her, Margaret and her asst. district attorney boyfriend (Rudy Vallee) appear, leaving Nugent at a loss as to how to explain his dilemma.

The ADA agrees he’ll drop charges if Nugent dates Susan until she loses her schoolgirl interest in the older man. The antics ensue, and they don’t stop until the final credits roll.

The Academy-award winning screenplay, by prolific writer Sidney Sheldon, is frequently noted for its sharp one-liners and overall deft use of dialogue. Those words would mean nothing if not delivered by this exceptional cast. Grant, of course, never failed in his comedic roles, nor did Loy. That’s a given.

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Shirley Temple, Myrna Loy, Ray Collins

The surprise for some may be Temple, who turned out to be just as delightful a performer as a young adult as she was when a child. (However, audiences at the time didn’t see it that way, and she began a new chapter in her life shortly after this film was released.)

The supporting roles were held by equally accomplished actors, including Rudy Vallee, Ray Collins and Johnny Sands. With this high-power talent bringing out the best of the fine script, what could have been a frothy throw-away film instead became a classic treasure.

Cary Grant, Myrna Loy the Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer
Cary Grant, Myrna Loy

 

 

 

 

His Girl Friday

Cary Grant, Ralph Bellamy, Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday

His Girl Friday, 1940, Columbia Pictures. Starring Rosalind Russell, Cary Grant, Ralph Bellamy. Directed by Howard Hawks. B&W, 92 minutes.

This classic comedy reigns with its sharp banter, sophisticated stars and satirical plot.

Ace reporter Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell), returns to the newsroom to inform her ex-husband — and fellow newsman — Walter Burns (Cary Grant) she’s quitting and getting married again, this time to safe, secure insurance agent Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy).

It’s not long before we see mild-mannered Bruce is all wrong for the fiery Hildy, and the witty and sly repartee between Walter & Hildy makes you wonder what tore them apart.

Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday
Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell

The why’s and wherefore’s of Hildy’s decision to leave Walter and her choice of Bruce are quickly revealed, but it’s no surprise when the impending execution of a possibly innocent man overtakes her reporter’s instincts. She puts the wedding on hold while pursuing the story, and all the while Walter is working on winning her back with some less-than-honorable methods.

Those not familiar with Grant’s comedic skills may be surprised at his adeptness with the art. His timing, subtlety — and lack of it when necessary — made him one of the great romantic comedy actors of his day. Yes, he’s suave and handsome, but that’s only part of his charm.

Russell is his match in every way, and the two definitely have chemistry. As Hildy, wrapped in the quick pace of both the conversation and the plot, she gives a fine portrayal of a woman in a man’s world, long before that became much of a reality.

Rosalind Russell
Rosalind Russell

Poor Ralph Bellamy. His performance as the milquetoast and enamored fiancé is perfect, but as such, Grant and Russell outshine him.

The mockery of the world of news reporting and the hijinks that surround a dramatic case are, we trust, exaggerated. The remaining cast, keeping up with its stars but never overpowering a scene, support the satirical spirit of the story. It is, however, the interaction between Grant & Russell that make up the best parts of the movie.

This is a great rainy Saturday afternoon film, but don’t wait for a downpour to watch it.

Arsenic and Old Lace

Josephine Hull, Jean Adair, Cary Grant in Arsenic and Old Lace

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.

Priscilla Lane, Cary Grant, Arsenic and Old Lace
Priscilla Lane, Cary Grant

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. The morbid work of burying the bodies in the basement 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.

Jean Adair, Josephine Hull Arsenic and Old Lace.png
Jean Adair, Josephine Hull

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.