Movie still from 1944's "Arsenic and Old Lace."

Arsenic and Old Lace April 25, 2017        

Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) shouldn’t have a reason to suspect that there’s anything unusual about his family.  He should, in fact, think of them as special: the Brewsters are the descendants of upper-crust Anglo-Saxon Protestants who first made their names known en route to America on the Mayflower.


But in 1944’s Arsenic and Old Lace, Mortimer discovers a sinister secret.  While visiting the kindly women who raised him, aunts Abby and Martha (Josephine Hull and Jean Adair), to inform them of his recent elopement to literal girl-next-door Elaine (a lovable Priscilla Lane), he mindlessly opens one of the home’s window seats and finds a freshly murdered corpse.  


At first, he believes this might indicate the return of his brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey), a killer who’s currently being cooped up at the local sanitarium.  But his aunts, so seemingly merry and bright, giddily tell him that such isn’t so.  They were the ones who placed the dead body in the seat.


Not because of some weird coincidence.  But because of something far more disturbing. As it turns out, Abby and Martha are serial murderers.  For decades, they’ve continuously undergone a simple practice: any time a middle-aged bachelor visits their home, they serve him elderberry wine laced with strychnine, arsenic, and a “pinch” of cyanide if he so much as indicates that there’s something unhappy going on in his life.  They’re not killers, per se. They see themselves as good samaritans, generous sorts merely putting sad men out of their misery.


This revelation, predictably, knocks the wind out of Mortimer.  But before he can so much as phone the police to inform them of the situation, things somehow manage to take a turn for the worse when Jonathan, along with his alcohol-dependent, plastic surgeon accomplice (Peter Lorre), actually returns and intends to both find a hiding spot for his latest victim and kill Mortimer.  Elaine waits impatiently next door, thinking Mortimer will only be a few minutes and that they’ll be heading on their honeymoon relatively shortly.


But as Arsenic and Old Lace’s 118-minute-long running time reveals, nothing is ever as easy as anyone would like it to be.  This is a film comprised of screwball entanglements, batshit characters, and unapologetically black humor, and not a moment runs by in which this tangle isn’t scurrying about with the frantic energy of a rat king.  It’s among the best comedies of the 1940s, partly because it is so wickedly funny but also because it’s so irregularly dark in comparison to its more conservative peers.


The film is based on the 1941 stage production and finds most of its principal actors – including Hull, Adair, and John Alexander (who plays a Brewster who thinks he’s Theodore Roosevelt) – returning to the roles they originated on Broadway.  The cinematic adaptation, like a lot of other features of the era which found source material on the stage, does sometimes struggle in overcoming its roots, something especially noticeable given that it’s nearly two hours and never changes location.


But I find it similar to 1941’s The Man Who Came to Dinner – as long as the company’s fine, theatrical artifice isn’t all too big a problem.  And here, you can’t beat the ensemble. Grant is incredibly funny as Mortimer, honing the comedic chops previously seen in 1938’s Bringing Up Baby and 1940’s His Girl Friday.  But in Arsenic and Old Lace, the supporting cast makes the utmost impact, particularly Hull and Adair (delicious as sweethearts who are actually monsters) and Alexander, who’s so broad we can only react with a guffaw every time he bulldozes upstairs in an attempt to recreate Roosevelt’s charge up the San Juan Hill.


Within director Frank Capra’s extensive filmography, perhaps Arsenic and Old Lace feels slight: he’s better when recreating the art of the emotional stir a la Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).  But Arsenic and Old Lace is a delectation all the same – you can’t top comedic chaos this perfectly concocted.  A-