Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

You may remember my brief mention of this in my Top 5 Play Adapations. Now here it is in all its glory! I got to see it in both English (thanks to Netflix Instant) and German (thanks to the local theater's classic film series) in one day, meaning it was a pretty great day. Based on the play by Joseph Kesselring, Arsenic and Old Lace stars Cary Grant as well-known drama critic Mortimer Brewster, a notorious bachelor who tries to inconspicuously marry childhood next-door neighbor Elaine (Priscilla Lane). On their way to a Niagara Falls honeymoon, they drive to Brooklyn, so Elaine can tell her disapproving pastor father about the marriage, and Mortimer can tell his aunts Abby (Josephine Hull) and Martha (Jean Adair).

Unfortunately his happy news is undercut with a shocking discovery: his dear, sweet aunts- who raised him as child- have murdered 13 men and buried them in the basement with the help of his brother (John Alexander), who believes himself to be Teddy Roosevelt. It is quite a revelation, especially when the women seem so gleeful about it. They truly believe they're bringing peace to lonely old men by poisoning them. Mortimer is worried that they'll be found out, so he goes about getting the papers ready to have Teddy committed, hoping to blame him for the murders in case anything ever comes to light.

The sudden arrival of his long-estranged, escaped convict brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey) with his sidekick and personal plastic surgeon Dr Einstein (Peter Lorre), puts a major damper on things, as they have a body of their own to dispose of, not to mention Jonathan's intense, fratricidal hatred of Mortimer. Through all of these crazy antics, poor Elaine is stranded next door unable to understand why her new husband brushes her off distractedly whenever she tries to remind him that they're totally married and have a honeymoon to get to. Not only is he caught between murderous aunts who are trying to hold a funeral for their most recent victim and attempting to force his brother out of the house before he is found by the police/discovers the bodies in the basement, but Mortimer is also slowly realizing that mental illness must run in his family, meaning it's only a matter of time before he cracks.

This movie is pretty darned hilarious, thanks in large part to the delightful performances of all involved. Cary Grant is naturally the stand out, playing it over-the-top but inherently likable. He's got these great mumbly side comments and incredible bewildered facial expressions- just very silly and fun. The aunts are adorable, approaching everything with the same illusory innocence underscored by a sometimes-surfacing keen awareness. Josephine Hull is especially enjoyable, though she's been always dear to my heart for her part in Harvey. Raymond Massey does his best Boris Karloff impression (who wasn't available for the film due to his role in the still-ongoing stage production), and Peter Lorre is spineless and self-deprecating (in a good way). Besides Grant, my favorite performance is John Alexander as the Teddy Roosevelt-wannabe brother. He completely owns the role, "bullly"-ing everything he can and storming up the stairs as if in battle. He steals each scene he's in, but is cleverly used sparingly, as his character would likely become annoying or repetitive after too much screen time.

The biggest issue I have with this film is poor Elaine's role in the story. She is a very flat character, blindly devoted to Mortimer despite his publicly stated opinions on love and marriage and initial desire to marry secretly to protect his image. He later treats her pretty badly, shooing her away at every turn and refusing to even think about her while he has everything else on his mind. She gets sort of angry but forgives him very quickly after a brief apology and little explanation. I know it was written in 1939 but that doesn't stop it from bothering me. I also find Priscilla Lane very likable, and thought it too bad that she didn't have more to do. I haven't seen her in anything else except The Roaring Twenties with James Cagney. For some reason she retired quite early (no clear answer from imdb, but possibly to "follow her Air Force husband around the world from base to base"). I will probably check her out in Hitchcock's Saboteur though.

Elaine's characterization aside, this movie is totally rad. The script is engaging, with fast pacing and excellent dialogue. It feels very stage-like, but I don't think that's a detriment in this case. It balances very well the hyperbolic comedy with more sinister themes, creating a more interesting and impactful story than many lighter comedies of the era. Jonathan is honestly a scary, intimidating character, and at various parts the aunts and Mortimer seem to be in real danger. I like that element of uncertainty and tension- it really gives the film a different feel. I always forget that this is directed by Frank Capra, since I first saw it before I was familiar with him. It stands apart from the other Capra films I've seen, with less emphasis on the "basic human decency" or "at-odds love story" themes, but was still handled very well by the influential director.

Unrelated comment: I like the German poster better than the American one.



  1. Just finished watching this movie again a few minutes ago...hilarious! Cary Grant is brilliant, and those aunts....Capra definitely succeeded in his adaptation. Dial M for Murder was also a great stage to film adaptation.

  2. I've always wondered if the Elaine Role was larger in the play because Priscilla, as you point out, has little to do. But then, in a tornado-of-a-tale like this, I'm not sure how many more swirling elements can be absorbed.

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