Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #602


Number of Views: Two
Release Date: September 1, 1944
Sub-Genre: Black Comedy
Country of Origin: United States
Budget: $1,120,175
Running Time: 118 minutes
Director: Frank Capra
Producers: Frank Capra, Jack L. Warner
Screenplay: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein
Based on Arsenic and Old Lace by Joseph Kesselring
Cinematography: Sol Polito
Score: Max Steiner
Editing: Daniel Mandell
Studio/Distributor: Warner Bros.
Stars: Cary Grant, Josephine Hull, Jean Adair, Raymond Massey, Peter Lorre, Priscilla Lane, John Alexander, Jack Carson, John Ridgely, Edward McNamara, James Gleason, Edward Everett Horton, Grant Mitchell, Vaughan Glaser, Chester Clute


Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫

[1] Frédéric Chopin “Funeral March”
[2] Max Steiner “Soundtrack Suite”


Have I ever told you about my illogical fear of any movie made before the year of my birth, 1974? Undisputed classics such as William Friedkin’s The Exorcist and Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now are exempt from this particular phobia as they manage to get in just before deadline, but once you cast your eye across the sixties, it becomes woefully slim pickings all the way unfortunately. It’s not the fact that the percentage of films released before I was born were presented in monochrome; although I openly admit to being something of a color whore. What niggles me more is the sense of another time that I can’t fully relate to; from delivery right down to the dialogue actors were required to recite. Something doesn’t sit right and it is only recently that I have begun to conquer this lifetime fear.


Last summer it was suggested that I take a look into the back catalogue of a certain Marilyn Monroe and I was initially circumspect about such a laborious undertaking. That is until I viewed The Seven Year Itch, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How To Marry A Millionaire pretty much back-to-back and was left dazzled by a fifties sex symbol who was so much more than the “dumb blonde” she was so often portrayed as. Feeling utterly buoyant, I braved all 212 minutes of William Wyler’s epic Ben Hur soon afterwards and can only hang my head in shame for taking over forty years to offer one of the most epic motion pictures in cinematic history my time. Let’s not twist the Trilby here, I’m far from cured and there are leagues of vintage classics just begging for my immediate attention and unlikely to ever be granted it. But I’m getting there, one archaic masterpiece at a time.


“Where did you get that face? Hollywood?”

Which brings me rather conveniently onto the late, great Cary Grant. Generally regarded as the second most remarkable male leading man of Golden Age Hollywood cinema, trailing only Humphrey Bogart in the popularity stakes, this British-American actor pretty much had it all with regards to looking the part. Dashing, suave and debonair in equal measures, he was also widely respected for his jovial approach to his chosen craft and self-deprecating nature. While more than aware of Grant’s silver screen prowess, what I hadn’t figured on was his almost telepathic sense of comic timing when it came to knowing precisely what audiences would find wildly amusing and exploiting the living hell out of it. Many of his roles required him to play it straight down the middle, but on rare occasion, that playful twinkle in his eye took centre stage and he larked about with the very best of them.


Based on Joseph Kesselring’s 1939 play of the same title, prolific filmmaker Frank Capra’s Arsenic and Old Lace provided him just the lofty platform he needed to reach for those funny bones. Written for screen by twins Julius J. & Philip G. Epstein, the film was actually completed in 1941 and sat on the dusty studio shelves for three years while its stage cousin finished its highly profitable Broadway run. Traditionally, any film which takes that long to see the light of day offers fair indication of poor quality, but not this one. Astonishingly, Grant wasn’t at all at-ease with giving the broad comedic turn that was asked of him and relations were strained with Capra as he repeatedly pleaded for his character’s “eccentricities” to be toned down. All I can say is I’m damn glad his director cocked a deaf ‘un as his may well be my all-time favorite comical performance.


New York City drama critic Mortimer Brewster (our man of the hour) may have written books about his opposition to marriage, but that hasn’t stopped him hastily exchanging nuptials with Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane), a blonde bombshell who grew up around the way. The happy couple decides to head on over to his old family home and pop in on the two endearingly dotty aunts responsible for raising him, Abby (Josephine Hull) and Martha (Jean Adair). Upon their arrival, it doesn’t take a long hand rotation of his wristwatch for Mortimer to suss out that not quite all the chicks are in the nest so to speak, and if in any doubt, then his deeply delusional brother Teddy (John Alexander), who alas never quite flew the roost, makes it totally crystallized.


“Look I probably should have told you this before but you see… well… insanity runs in my family… It practically gallops”

You see, Teddy swears blind that he is 26th President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, and spends his considerable down time bounding up the stairs enthusiastically yelling “Charge!” regardless of audience. While Mortimer seems to be taking such resident kookiness in his lanky stride, a sinister discovery soon knocks the stupid dumb grin from his face (fret not as it’s a brief hiatus).


You’d expect the window seat of two sweet old dears like Abby and Martha to contain knitting patterns and perhaps an old Benny Goodman 33 for when feeling particularly flighty. A stone cold cadaver stuffed inside, on the other hand, is something you simply wouldn’t see coming and his initial reaction, other than sheer flabbergast, is to suspect Teddy of any wrongdoing. After all, how could two frail, sweet-natured ladies in lavender like Aunts Abby and Martha mastermind something so utterly despicable? Right?


“They’re two of the dearest, sweetest, kindest, old ladies that ever walked the earth. They’re out of this world. They’re like, they’re like pressed rose leaves”

‘Fraid so Morty as it turns out that’s precisely what has transpired and they explain both their technique and motives (with glorious innocence I might add) to their mystified nephew. After serving their victims elderberry wine laced with a deadly concoction of arsenic, strychnine and “just a pinch of cyanide”, the bodies are then dragged down to the cellar by Teddy. The reason he is a most willing accomplice is that Teddy genuinely believes them to be casualties of the dreaded yellow fever. Nevertheless, it would appear that the Brewsters are right up to their necks in both fresh stiffs that need disposing, and of course, trouble with a capital T. Seems like the ideal moment for some divine intervention, either that or the next fast train away from this nuthouse.


“Just the thought of Jonathan frightens me. Do you remember how he used to cut worms in two with his teeth?”

Going back to the whole trouble with an upper case T deal, the sudden and unannounced arrival of Mortimer’s brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey) and his inebriated accomplice Dr. Herman Einstein (Peter Lorre) spells it out in the boldest of capitals. Stern faced Jonathan cannily resembles the face of horror himself, Boris Karloff (who actually played the role on Broadway, preventing him from participating), while his hunched associate has a distinct feel of Igor about him, making for quite the alarming double act. To add yet more arsenic to the elderberry, brother dearest is wanted by the police for murder and has his own disposal issues to deal with. Is it just me or can anyone else smell a vague feces tornado brewing beyond yonder hill?


“When I come back, I expect to find you gone. Wait for me!”

With all players now cooped up together in the cluck house, Arsenic and Old Lace then throws the kitchen sink and all accompanying cutlery into the mix, introducing a gaggle of men of uniform and other unwelcome visitors as Mortimer attempts to keep a lid on the escalating scandal and his posterior firmly planted on the now vaguely whiffy window seat. I’ve seen some dysfunctional families in my time but the Brewsters give the word fresh meaning and the kicker is that our animated lead is the ringleader of this circus. For as wonderful as the whole cast is, it’s Mortimer we’re transfixed with, this long-legged lunk causing our eyeballs to dry so. And boy oh boy, does he hit a sixer.


I was comically raised on the films of Steve Martin and the thing that made him so frightfully moreish was the fact that he threw his entire body into forcing us to succumb. Standing tall at 6 ft 1½ inches, Grant uses every last nerve ending to express himself, at times almost appearing ape-like as his entire upper framework drops and gives us twenty. I shit you not, if you can make it through 118 minutes of being dared not to bust a gut without at the very least needing stitches, then you’re a better person than me, and in the self-same moment, actually not. Hilarity ensues at every conceivable juncture and I found myself gasping for breath by the time the downright barmy closing act was upon me. Pure comedy plutonium!


If you were being pernickety, then you could argue that Arsenic and Old Lace is a tad “stagey” given that almost the entirety of our time is spent within a solitary location. No shit Sherlock and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Looking at this dazzling little diamond of a movie, it becomes clear where Mel Brooks drew at least some of his inspiration for Young Frankenstein and my sole regret is that I didn’t discover the Brewster nuthouse many years prior. That said, I’ve always been one for upsides and take immense comfort knowing that, in the words of Mortimer Brewster – “there is a Happydale, far, far away”.


Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 10/10

Read From Beyond The Grave Appraisal
Read Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Appraisal
Read The People Under the Stairs Appraisal
Read L.A. Story Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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  1. Cary Grant is an absolute favorite of mine. He excels at screwball comedies. My favorite is The Awful Truth with Irene Dunne. As you so skillfully pointed out, Rich, Mr. Grant is a master of physical comedy. This could stem from his training as an acrobat while in his youth. There are so many gems of Cary’s out there. I urge you to see as many as you can. Superb review!

    1. Thank you so much Susan. Sorry it has taken so long to reply, have been sick for the past week so wel behind. I actually just watched North By Northwest for the first time and that was stunning. I’m ashamed to have left that one so long. So much catching up to do, I plan to get my Grant fixes whenever and wherever possible.

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