Saturday, October 31, 2015

Arsenic and Old Lace

Premiered September 23, 1944

"Look, I probably should have told you this before but you see ... well ... insanity runs in my family. ... It practically gallops." - Mortimer Brewster

It's Halloween in Brooklyn, and well-known author and theatre critic Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) weds his neighbor, minister's daughter Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane).  They're planning to run off to Niagara Falls for a honeymoon.

But before they depart, they stop to visit Mortimer's aunts Abby (Josephine Hull) and Martha (Jean Adair), who live with his brother Teddy (John Alexander).

Mortimer opens a window seat and is shocked when he finds -- a dead body!
He believes it's the work of Teddy, who thinks he's President Theodore Roosevelt.  (Teddy is a bit touched in the head.)

Mortimer tries to break this news to his aunts gently, but to his chagrin, is told they know all about it! In fact, they killed the man.  It turns out that Aunt Abby and Aunt Martha have been taking in lonely old man boarders who have no family for years and poisoning them with arsenic-laced wine.  The aunts consider their work to be merciful rather than murderous since all the old gentlemen were alone in life.

Mortimer is utterly beside himself -- how can his sweet old aunties,  beloved in the neighborhood for their charitable deeds and kindness be responsible for more than a dozen cold blooded murders?   And how have they been disposing of the bodies?

The Aunts explain that they get Teddy to help them by sending him to the basement to dig locks for the "Panama Canal" (he does think he's TR, remember)  Then they tell him their poisoning victims fell prey to "yellow fever" and need to be buried quickly  (in the "locks").   They make sure each gentleman receives a proper burial with hymn singing and everything.

Mortimer decides the only thing to be done is to  blame the murders on Teddy's mental state.    To do this, he must convince a judge to commit his brother to the Happy Dale Sanatorium.

Things become further complicated when Mortimer's OTHER brother Jonathan (Raymond Massey) shows up unexpectedly.   He has been leading a life of crime and is responsible for more than a few homicides himself.  Jonathan is accompanied by a man called Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre) who plans to perform plastic surgery to disguise Jonathan's identity ... and ANOTHER dead body!

Meanwhile, new bride Elaine wonders why her recently minted husband Mortimer suddenly seems to be avoiding her!

Will Moritmer and Elaine make it to Niagara Falls?  How many people will wind up at Happy Dale? (or in prison?)  Will more bodies pile up in the Brewsters' basement?
Watch out for elderberry wine!

RigbyMel says:

I discovered this deliciously dark comedy when I was in high school.   The premise is insane and the insanity builds to ridiculous screwball levels as the movie progresses.

Cary Grant does an amazing job as poor, put upon Mortimer.   His gifts for physical comedy are fully evident in this film.

Josephine Hull and Jean Adair are charmingly homicidal as the Aunties.   (Yes, I realize that  calling murderers charming is odd,  just roll with it.) They are utterly and completely uncomprehending of whatever could be upsetting Mortimer so much.  In fact, they put it down to his being a newlywed!

There is also a rather brilliant running gag involving psychotic brother Jonathan -- Dr. Einstein apparently botched the last plastic surgery procedure and everyone keeps telling Jonathan he resembles Boris Karloff.    This sends Jonathan into paroxysms of rage, and is also an inside joke as Karloff actually played Jonathan in  Arsenic and Old Lace's original run on Broadway!

The ensemble as a whole is very funny from a long-suffering taxi driver (Garry Owen) waiting to take Moritmer & Elaine to Niagara, to the dim bulb beat cop (Jack Carson) who wants to share his unpublished play, since Mortimer is a famous drama critic.

"CHAAARRRGE!" (the staircase is always San Juan Hill!)
John Alexander's commitment to Teddy's obsession with Teddy Roosevelt is incredible. It's great that they kept the same actor from the original play in this role so the performance is preserved.

You can definitely tell that this is pretty much a filmed version of the play with just a few little "opening out" scenes like the line for the marriage license and some business in the graveyard between the Aunties' house and Elaine's.   But that doesn't take away from the gruesome glee of the story.

This film would be a wonderful addition to any Halloween festivities.   You'll die laughing.  *rim shot*

RigbyMel's rating:

4 jack o'lanterns

J.A. Morris says:

Unlike RigbyMel, I hadn't seen this until recently, but I saw the play years ago.  The film's dialogue feels fresher in some ways than other 1940s films, perhaps due to its origin as a stage play.

Halloween is not exactly central to the plot here.  But we do get a scene that features an early version of trick or treating.

 And the opening credits feature traditional Halloween symbols like witches, owls and black cats.

But the creepy, macabre atmosphere certainly adds to the Halloween sensibility.

I'm a big fan of Cary Grant's movies and Arsenic and Old Lace features some of his best acting.  He's constantly running around, shrieking and making crazy faces.

Priscilla Lane isn't remember very well today, but she was a star in the 1930s and 40s.  Lane was often cast in "girl next door" roles, in this film, she literally plays the girl next door and does a fine job playing off Grant.

And I agree with everything my co-blogger said about the supporting cast.

Arsenic and Old Lace was directed by Frank Capra.  Today, he is best known for directing another holiday film, It's a Wonderful Life.  His films tend to be sentimental.  On the surface, the Brewster sisters seem to fit a "sweet little old lady" stereotype that could have fit into any other Capra picture. However, this story turns that image on its head.  Capra deserves credit for honoring the source material and retaining its morbid humor.

Halloween is not exactly central to the plot here.  But we do get a scene that features an early version of trick or treating and the opening credits feature traditional Halloween symbols like witches, owls and black cats.

Arsenic and Old Lace is a classic adaptation that makes for great Halloween viewing.

J.A. Morris' rating:

4 jack o'lanterns!

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