Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

Fellow blogger and Cary Grant fan Sabrina Mathew’s sometime-ago link to this stunning slideshow of the actor made me take a silent vow to do a Grant post soon. It’s taken a while, mainly because I wasn’t able to make up my mind whether I wanted to review Arsenic and Old Lace, Charade, or Operation Petticoat—all classic Grant comedies—but the wait’s finally over. I’ll do Operation Petticoat and Charade later; for now it’s this hilarious, sometimes slapstick, dark comedy directed by Frank Capra, that I remember as being the first Cary Grant film I ever saw. It also remains one of my favourites—across time, genres, actors, everything.

Cary Grant in Arsenic and Old Lace

After a somewhat pointless scene of a baseball game brawl, the film starts off in earnest with a scene outside the Marriage License bureau. Here, dramatic critic cum writer cum zealous anti-matrimony crusader Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) is in the queue with his sweetheart Elaine Harper (the lovely Priscilla Lane—she looks so angelically sweet!) for a licence. Considering Mortimer’s past fervour as an opponent of marriage, this is surprising, and attracts a pair of reporters looking for a scoop. Eventually, however, Mortimer decides enough’s enough and he’s getting married to Elaine. So that’s that.

Mortimer and Elaine at the Marriage License Bureau

The action now shifts to the real scene, a windy cemetery and its neighbouring houses in Brooklyn. Two policemen are sauntering along the pavement; the younger one, Officer O’Hara (Jack Carson) is going to be taking over from his older colleague as the cop on this beat. O’Hara notices a ‘Room for Rent’ sign outside one of the houses, and is told about the inhabitants of the house: the sweet and saintly Brewster sisters, aunts to Mortimer. They’re always helping the poor, the sick and the lonely; they always have a kind word for anybody who comes by; they’re always welcoming and generous.

O'Hara learns about the sweet Brewster sisters

O’Hara gets a taste of this generosity when he and his colleague enter the Brewster home to pick up some toys which the sisters had promised for a policemen’s charity. Abby (Josephine Hull) and Martha (Jean Adair) are introduced to O’Hara, who soon warms to them. They’re charming and sweet little ladies who insist on giving a large can of beef broth for the older policeman’s ill wife. How kind.

...and gets to meet them too

O’Hara, however, is put a little off his stride by Teddy (John Alexander), Mortimer’s brother, who stays with the two ladies and is firmly convinced he’s Theodore Roosevelt. Although everybody humours him in this delusion (O’Hara’s colleague instructs O’Hara to salute the `President’), Mortimer has already begun proceedings to have Teddy shifted to the Happydale Sanitarium when Abby and Martha are no more. For the time being, Teddy is just happy charging up staircases, blowing his bugle, and pretending to be Prez.

Mortimer's brother, the `President', Teddy

Abby and Martha see the two policemen off, and then show out their neighbour Revd Harper, Elaine’s father, who’s also come to visit. Revd Harper doesn’t think much of Mortimer and is worried that Elaine, who’s been going to the theatre every night with Mortimer, may be headed the wrong way. Mortimer’s aunts do their best to soothe him…

Abby and Martha try to placate Revd Harper

…and once he’s gone, exult over a little secret of their own. Abby has some wonderful news to share with Martha, but before we get to know what that is, Mortimer arrives in a taxi with Elaine. They’re married! Yippee! We’re treated to some good old-fashioned Bollywood style romance (read running around a tree—literally) and lots of kissing, before Elaine goes off to her home to finish packing. Mortimer tells her to whistle when she’s ready (they’re off to Niagara Falls for their honeymoon), and then he heads in to tell his aunts the good news.

Elaine and Mortimer get back after their wedding

Abby and Martha are, as would be expected, overjoyed. They’re fluttery and exultant and set about getting a celebration ready—preparing a cake, getting out the tea things, laying the table.
Mortimer, meanwhile, potters about the drawing room, looking at this and that. He comes across a childhood photo of his brother Jonathan, who “used to cut worms in two with his teeth” and was obviously not a very nice person. He’s probably in jail or dead by now, says Mortimer.

Jonathan as a little boy

Abby goes off to help Martha in the kitchen, and Mortimer—still pottering around—happens to open the window seat and look in. What he finds there gives him such a shock that he’s still reeling when his two old aunts bustle in and begin laying the table. Mortimer tells them about his discovery: there’s a corpse in the window seat.
You’d expect (well, I did, and so does Mortimer) Abby and Martha to be horrified, mortified, perhaps hysterical, but they take it in their stride and are delightfully complacent about it all.

Mortimer makes a gruesome discovery

In fact, when Mortimer says they’ve got to get Teddy to Happydale immediately, since he’s now begun murdering people, they correct him: Mr Hoskins—the man in the window seat—is one of their gentlemen. Huh?
Baffled, Mortimer does a bit of gentle probing, and unearths the truth. It transpires that Mr Hoskins was a lonely old soul who’d come by and Abby administered him a hefty dose of poison in a glass of elderberry wine.

Elderberry wine, spiked with strychnine, arsenic and cyanide... potent!

Mortimer’s having trouble digesting this when a chance remark alerts him to the fact that Mr Hoskins isn’t alone: he’s the eleventh (according to Martha) or the twelfth (according to Abby) in a long line of sad and lonely men who have been relieved of their miserable lives by the Brewster sisters. The first one in this long saga was an elderly gent who tipped over, dead from a heart attack, with such a peaceful look on his face that the two sisters decided to make it their mission in life to bring that same peace to as many others as they possibly could.

Mortimer trying to make sense of his discoveries

Teddy, meanwhile, has been informed by his aunts that there’s been another yellow fever victim, and that he should go down to the Panama Canal and dig a lock—in other words, dig a grave for Mr Hoskins in the cellar, alongside the graves of all the other gentlemen. The two old biddies are besides themselves with glee in anticipation of the fine funeral they’ll give Mr Hoskins; they assure Mortimer they’ll be able to dig up an extra hymnal for him.

While they bustle off to make preparations, Elaine—who’s got tired of whistling for her new husband—arrives, eager to take Mortimer off on their honeymoon. Our hero by now is close to cracking up, and loses his shirt. He doesn’t want Elaine to know anything of what his nearest and dearest have been up to, so after kissing her and telling her to come back later, he boots her out while he tries to figure out what to do next.

Elaine turns up, looking for Mortimer

Mortimer realises, of course, that Abby and Martha are completely oblivious of the ethical ramifications of helping all these gentlemen find peace. They are, simply put, as nutty as Teddy. He can’t possibly hand them over to the police.
There’s only one solution: Teddy, whom everybody around knows is mad as a hatter, must be sent off to Happydale pronto. If ever those graves in the cellar are discovered, they can be attributed to Teddy. So Mortimer phones Mr Witherspoon (Edward Everett Horton) at Happydale to find out how to proceed.

Mr Witherspoon agrees to have Teddy come to Happydale ASAP

Mr Witherspoon is initially reluctant but finally agrees, provided Mortimer gets an affidavit from a judge, with signatures by a doctor and Teddy. Mortimer runs off to visit a judge; but before he leaves, he instructs his aunts to not let anyone in—he’s certain they’ll poison whoever turns up next and makes the mistake of saying he’s lonely.

The aunts have barely turned off the lights when somebody does turn up: Mortimer’s long-lost brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey), now a ruthless criminal who looks like Boris Karloff on a bad day. He’s accompanied by a jittery renegade plastic surgeon called Dr Einstein (Peter Lorre), the man responsible for giving Jonathan brand new faces that help him evade the police of various countries. Jonathan’s in a hurry for Dr Einstein to give him a new face, since his current one is well-known to the police. What’s more, the duo are lugging around the corpse of a Mr Spenalzo, currently residing in the back of Jonathan’s car.

Jonathan arrives with Dr Einstein

Jonathan decides his childhood home (not one for which he has any fondness) is the perfect place to spend the night while Dr Einstein operates on him. He’s busy intimidating his aunts when Teddy puts in an appearance and expresses an eagerness to take Dr Einstein down to Panama and show him the newly dug lock. Dr Einstein acquiesces, and excitedly shares his discovery with Jonathan—there’s a grave-sized pit down in the cellar, perfect for disposing off Mr Spenalzo.

Dr Einstein goes to Panama with the President - and makes a discovery

Jonathan quickly takes command. Abby and Martha are hustled off to their beds, and Jonathan accompanies Dr Einstein up to one of the rooms to see where the operation can be performed. While the coast is clear, Teddy nips down, pulls Mr Hoskins out of the window seat and takes him down into the cellar.

Jonathan has by now figured out a plan of action: he’ll drive the car around, and push Spenalzo in through the window. Einstein can pull and together they’ll take Spenalzo down into the cellar.

But the best laid plans of mice and men being what they are, there’s a knocking at the door just as Spenalzo is changing hands. In the flurry, Einstein shoves Spenalzo into the now-empty window seat, Jonathan climbs into the room, and they open the door to Elaine, who’s annoyed at being stood up so by her husband.

Elaine meets Jonathan

Said husband, of course, by now being really in the soup. Poor Mortimer spends the rest of the evening playing hide-and-seek with Jonathan, Mr Spenalzo’s corpse, and a dim-witted policeman, while making arrangements to have Teddy carted off to Happydale. And while trying to pacify a huffy bride, without letting her know what’s going on.

The perfect setup for a superb farce, and Frank Capra et al pull it off brilliantly. This is dark comedy at its unbeatable best. Awesome!

What I liked about this film:
Where do I start? The story, with its rapid-fire twists and turns, is awesome; the dialogue is witty (“Insanity runs in my family. In fact, it practically gallops”); and the characters are a hoot. Jean Adair and Josephine Hull, especially, are fabulous as the batty aunts whose wide-eyed innocence and supreme sweetness are as genuine as their desire to despatch lonely old men to the happy hunting grounds.

And yes, how could I forget? Cary Grant. He’s so, so beautiful. His flair for comedy shows through here too; his scenes at the window seat with its changing occupants are laugh out loud funny. Marvellous, and this for a role that Grant himself said was his least favourite. I beg to differ; I think he’s great as the much-harassed Mortimer Brewster.

What I didn’t like:
Actually, a couple of Grant’s scenes are too slapstick and contrived to be funny. The one that comes most forcibly to mind is when he pokes Jonathan’s leg with a fork and doesn’t get a reaction. There are others too—in fact, Grant’s acting is pretty over the top all through (not that it bothered me; the entire tenor of Arsenic and Old Lace is over the top, so it fits)—but a couple of scenes are irritating.

There are some plot elements that don’t fit into the larger picture. For example, Mortimer’s not being the marrying type, and Revd Harper’s disapproval of him, don’t have very much to do with the main plot of the film and could really rather have been done away with.

But I’ll forgive these minor transgressions: this film is just too delightful to allow that to rankle!

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14 thoughts on “Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

  1. We all love this film in our household! Nothing irritates me as the whole story is so way OTT, theatrical in the best possible way.

    The scene I love is when Cary Grant opens the window seat: and the series of faces he pulls (such a handsome face too!).

    I think we chatted about this film Madhulika, and you said you had to re-watch it so I am happy you did. I am a Carry Grant fan in any case, so I shall look forward to more reviews :)

  2. Yes bawa, I remember us talking about this when you were in Delhi – such a lovely, totally mad film. And I simply adore the faces he makes when he first discovers Mr Hoskins. Priceless! (Another of my favourite scenes is when both he and Jonathan run to sit down on the window seat to prevent the two aunts from opening it and discovering Spenalzo… the look on Grant’s face as he turns and looks at Raymond Massey – and enlightenment dawns – is brilliant).

    Yes, more Grant coming up, definitely. He made some very likable films, though I wish he’d done more stuff along the lines of Arsenic and Old Lace: it’s in a class by itself.

  3. Despite a massive love of Cary Grant, this is actually very low on my list of his films. I first saw this story in a very bad local community theater production, and I think by the time I got to the much better-done film, I was exhausted by how wrong this can go in clumsy hands. I’ve seen the movie twice and just don’t find it that funny. I also don’t tend to go in for things of this general nature, which I usually call “wackadoodle;” I guess all the frantic running around leaves me cold and tired, even though rationally I can appreciate how much work it is to put together something like that, especially if you can do it without all the seams showing and there are no accidental pauses. In the Bolly world, Bhagam Bhag is the worst example of this I’ve encountered.

    But: Cary Grant zindabad! :)

  4. Ah, well: I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree. I suppose in my case at least this film is one of those childhood favourites that simply got carried over into adulthood – I saw it as a kid, loved it, and have continued to love it even though I can now notice things that detract from the general hilarity of the film. Still, I don’t mind the frantic running around, because it just seems to tie in so well with the over the top flavour of the film.

    Bhaagam Bhaag isn’t one I’ve seen (Govinda is not a favourite of mine), but I thought Maalamaal Weekly also had a touch of the wackadoodle! – and I loved that. Also, interestingly enough, centred round a corpse.

    But all said and done: yes, Cary Grant definitely zindabad. Love that guy.

  5. This was your introduction to Cary Grant?!!! I think I saw An Affair To Remember first, but this was the film where I decided that I needed to see as much Cary Grant as possible! This and Bringing Up Baby have to be my favorite screwball comedies of his. He did lead me to the horrid I Am No Angel, but inspite of that its Cary Grant zindabad for me all the time. :-D

  6. Yup, this was my introduction to Cary Grant! This was in the good old days when you didn’t get too many good English films in India; my sister went to the UK on a student exchange programme, and among the things she bought was a VHS tape of Arsenic and Old Lace… and the rest is history. We fell in love with him right then and there. ;-)

  7. A great movie!
    I just love it.
    Full time pass!
    Maybe it has a deeper meaning or something, but it went past me!
    I watched it the first time on DD as a late night movie in the late 80s, where the also you used to show Hitchcock classics like Rebecca!
    haven’t seen this for a long time!
    Should touch somebody for the DVD or video or whatever!
    Thanks for reminding us of the film!

  8. Yes, this is definitely worth watching again and again – I love the madcap nonsensical hilarity of the film. And if there’s a deeper meaning to it (huh? I never even thought there could be!) it certainly escapes me.

  9. Okay, our tastes do match entirely – or so it seems! Besides Shammi, dev and Rafi, I discovered that we have this in common. This is my all time fave movie! :) before I discover any more common likes, let me state some of my other favourites: maybe we have that in common as well?

    Nutan is my favourite actress – yes I admit, post 1965, she seemed to star in melodramas….. Still she is my favourite. Besides Mhd Rafi, i adore Asha Bhosle! i prefer Asha to Lata ( one of a rare tribe, I know) :)

    • I will raise a voice of dissent on one point – I don’t have a single favourite for anything or anyone – directors, movies, actors/actresses, singers. But I do have a few favourites (Shammi Kapoor being one of those who’s a ‘favourite’ favourite!)

      As far as actresses go, Nutan is certainly one of my favourites – but so are Sadhana, Waheeda Rehman, Madhubala and Asha Parekh. And Meena Kumari, in her not-so-weepy roles (Sahib Biwi aur Ghulam is an exception). As for Asha Bhonsle… yes. I too am a member of that rare tribe that prefers Asha to Lata. I think she’s more versatile. There are some songs of Lata’s that I think are sublime, but Asha has a far wider range – and some of my favourite songs are in Asha’s voice, not Lata’s. That simply awesome Aage bhi jaane na tu, for instance. Mmmm.

  10. My favourite Frank Capra film. Regarding the OTT scenes, reportedly Grant himself did not rate his performance very highly because he felt he hammed too much in certain scenes. I for one don’t mind that stuff in this film.

    One weakness about it, I think, is that Priscilla Lane’s character is entirely unnecessary. In fact, the whole marriage subplot is. Would anything be lost if the whole marriage angle had been ditched entirely from the final script? The way I look at it, not much.

    • Yes, not that you point it out, the entire marriage subplot is pretty much superfluous. As for the OTT scenes, I don’t mind them either, really. They are fun in a madcap sort of way that isn’t irritating. Not to me, at least.

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